Get On The Bus, And Get To Work: Local transit agencies receive nearly $500K to better align services with commuters

Nearly half a million dollars in state funding is fueling improvements in public transportation options for the region’s commuters. Coming soon: increased hours of operation for bus service, more dedicated/fixed routes, and more express services from point A to point B.

On Oct. 1, BATA and Benzie Bus, along with the Cadillac-Wexford Transit Authority (CWTA) and Manistee County Transportation, nabbed $443,000 in state funding to create better regional connectivity for commuters in northwest lower Michigan. The funding amount represented nearly half of the $1.1 million pot available from Michigan’s Job Access Reverse Commute (JARC) fund in 2016.

BATA had received JARC funding in the past, according to Communications Manager Eric Lingaur, but for smaller, incremental things. Benzie Bus, CWTA, and Manistee are all first time recipients.

“We believe that helping people get to work is a primary responsibility for public transportation,” said Bill Kennis, director of Benzie Bus.

Earlier in 2016, the transit organizations collaborated with Networks Northwest on a local commuter survey funded by a Rotary Charities grant. It specifically targeted people working at large Traverse City employers on the west side of town, including Munson, the Grand Traverse Pavilions and Meijer and looked at the obstacles in their using public transportation to get to and from work.

The results are now guiding the expansion of routes, better aligning schedules to meet demand and boosting hours of operation beginning this month.

According to data compiled by Benzie Bus, more than 3,000 individuals commute from Benzie County to the Grand Traverse area daily for work, many at those large employers.

Benzie Bus leadership is also working with Benzie’s largest employers – Crystal Mountain, Paul Oliver Hospital and Graceland Fruit – as it looks to build better commuter routes within the county, added Kennis.

Kennis said the increased dialogue with these major employers is helping to build momentum and get the employees engaged. He also cited the commuter benefits employers can provide their employees and receive tax credits in return.

A “commuter guide” produced by Networks Northwest established a case for employers to subsidize employee transit costs up to $255/month with the help of tax credits. Employees can also use pre-tax earnings to help offset transportation costs such as purchasing bus tickets.

Kennis said with the $61,000 in JARC funding, Benzie Bus is expanding transportation services by an additional eight hours a day, improving service on its inter-county routes and establishing specific service for employees of Crystal Mountain and Graceland Fruit. The inter-county ridership will specifically focus on the west side of Grand Traverse County – in particular, routes that assist individuals employed by Munson Medical Center and the Grand Traverse Pavilions.

“Twenty times a day Benzie residents can get into Grand Traverse County,” he added. “All of this is driven by the survey results. With this regional concept, maybe we can move the needle a little bit,” on meeting more commuters’ needs.

BATA received $52,000 in JARC funding, giving a considerable boost to its current services, according to BATA’s Linger.

“The bottom line is we are increasing transportation options for people, and modeling those options to when and where people want them,” Lingaur said. “By doing the survey we gathered feedback and we are now acting on that,” Lingaur added.
And sometimes that means crossing county lines.

“We are increasing the connections where we meet up with Benzie Bus, for instance in Lake Ann,” he explained.
BATA is also implementing more connections in Interlochen, Grawn and Green Lake Township, Lingaur noted, and experimenting with some new connections to improve service in the Williamsburg/Acme area.

Lingaur pointed out the JARC funding is “above and beyond” any state and federal funding BATA already receives for services, and no current services will be cut or otherwise affected. “It was given to us to specifically increase services,” he added. “The JARC money is an opportunity to pilot these services. If we get good results, we have the opportunity to reapply year after year as long as the bucket of money is available.”