BATA’s Future Hangs in Balance

REGION – For a number of people in the Grand Traverse region, November 8 is D-Day. Voters will decide who will fills the seats on city councils and commissions, school boards and, in Traverse City, the mayor's chair.

But there is something big on the ballots that has gotten lost in the election shuffle. Voters will also decide on the future of public transportation in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. And they probably don't even know it.

Under the proposal section on ballots, the public will be able to tick yes or no on a millage renewal for the Bay Area Transit Authority (BATA).

What's at stake?

A yes vote on the millage renewal will extend the existing .35 mills through 2017, putting an additional $2,305,190 in BATA's coffers.

According to BATA executive director Tom Menzel, that money will allow the organization to implement a wide range of improvements to services, most importantly, four new routes in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, which will decrease traffic during the crowded summer months and help get rid of the notorious empty buses seen driving around town. He also feels that they could change the way people view public transportation.

A no vote means a 65-percent cut to BATA's funding and the death of the organization as a relevant mode of public transportation for the foreseeable future, something Menzel does not want to see happen.

"We are asking for an extension of what we got in 2007. We are not asking for an increase. If the millage renewal doesn't pass, we can't continue with the improvements we've already made. If it doesn't pass, we are looking at severe cuts." Menzel told the Traverse City Business News.

Included in the new improvements would be seasonal routes that would operate during the summer months. These include a Leelanau Beach Bus running from Sutton's Bay to Glen Arbor/Sleeping Bear Point, a Resort Row route connecting Turtle Creek to downtown Traverse City, and an Old Mission winery route that would stop at all seven tasting rooms on the peninsula.

Other additions include developing more year-round routes with transfer points and park-and-ride locations in Acme, Buckley and Interlochen.

If the renewal passes, Menzel said that the new routes would take 18 months to two years to implement. If it doesn't pass, BATA will have to begin downsizing in 2013 when the current millage expires.

It is hard to speculate on whether or not the millage will be approved in the current era of slashed budgets and belt-tightening. Menzel is worried that when it comes time to vote, the public won't be aware of the operational changes made to BATA during his time in charge. If BATA is grouped with inefficient public and government agencies, the renewal proposal may be doomed.

"My concern is that people don't know how well we've done. BATA ended 2008 with a $356,000 operating loss. We ended 2009 with a $156,000 profit. And we were debt-free by the end of 2010. We also have the only fully funded pension plan in northern Michigan. But if we get put in the same box as other organizations, then I don't think this will pass."

Menzel points to some of the improvements he feels the public may not know about.

"We've really turned this organization around. I worked for $1 a month until that happened. In the past three years, we've replaced 40 buses, cut $17,000 a month from our spending through better efficiency and improved the experience for our customers," he says.

By the spring of 2012, Menzel says that 65 percent of BATA's fleet will be less than three years old and that on-board video cameras will enhance passenger safety. And beginning in December, BATA vehicles will have GPS, and customers will be able to use electronic fare boxes.

The new routes, designed to deal with the population boom during the summer months, could also benefit local businesses. Tom Owen, tasting room manager at Peninsula Cellars on the Old Mission Peninsula says a possible BATA winery route has his support.

"Anything that gets people out on the peninsula I feel is a good for business. We are always looking for ways to make it easier for people to visit our tasting room and anything that does that is exciting. A public transportation option would definitely do just that," Owen says.

Menzel hopes that a yes vote combined with BATA improvements could lead to a change in the way people view public transportation. He points to cities like Portland, New York and Chicago that have efficient and useful systems.

"With increased services, I see a young couple getting on a bus in Slabtown and taking it down to the Open Space. We really want to attract new demographics with the new routes."

November 8 might bring a whole lot more to the area than a new Traverse City mayor. If Menzel has his way, BATA will be become an integral and, more importantly, practical part of more people's lives.

"We aren't asking the public for anything more than we are currently getting. We want to implement growth and change on the same budget. If people look at that I think we win. If they don't, it's up in the air," Menzel says. BN