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Benzie Bus, Economic Bright SpotPrint

Thriving Communities | March 31, 2010 | By Shauna Fite

Shovelers at last week’s groundbreaking for the new Benzie Bus facility, east of Honor, Mich., included Andy Brush of the Michigan Department of Transportation and Benzie Bus Board of Directors Co-chairs Ingemar Johannson and Kelly Thayer, who played crucial roles in the successful 2005 county millage campaign to launch the agency.

Anyone looking for a bright economic spot to celebrate in our sorely tried region of the state should have attended last week’s groundbreaking for the new Benzie Bus headquarters.

The new facility-a garage, maintenance facility, and offices-will rise along U.S. 31, smack dab in the middle of Benzie County. The joy around the ceremony was a shining example of what happens when a community looks beyond all the obstacles and instead sees the potential and possibilities.

Dynamic Benzie Bus Executive Director Susan Miller kicked off the ceremony by singing a beautiful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. She set the tone for the rest of the afternoon, which was filled with a sense of pride for what this organization has accomplished in such a short time and for the communal effort it took to get there.

There was no shortage of impressive stats, such as Benzie Bus’ delivery of 7,000 passenger rides each month-in a county of around 16,000 people-or the 38 new jobs the agency created there, all in just three short years of operation.

A combination of state and federal funds, including American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (so-called “stimulus”) dollars, will pay for the much-needed expansion, including eight new buses, which will replace about half of the current fleet and improve overall gas mileage by about 50 percent. With gas prices already creeping up again, it’s difficult to estimate the future cost savings of this efficiency upgrade, but they’ll surely be impressive.

In all, the state and federal funds will inject over $3 million dollars into Benzie’s economy. The county will soon have a new facility that’s completely paid for-an almost unheard-of statement during the toughest economy most of us have ever endured.

How did this happen?

It’s simple, really: Benzie County residents had a vision. They saw how a reliable public transportation system could provide independence and mobility in a very spread-out, rural county where many folks cannot afford a car, others cannot drive, and still others would rather just take the bus.

One woman who spoke at the ceremony, who cannot drive because she has a disability, told the crowd that, by providing her with door-to-door mobility, Benzie Bus allows her to live on her own and even become a homeowner. Others testified to the economic benefits Benzie Bus provides to employers because their employees can now get to work on time. Still others pointed to the learning and recreational opportunities that good bus service presents to students living in a rural community.

Ingemar Johannson, co-chair of the Benzie Bus Board of Directors and chief operating officer of Manistee-Benzie Community Mental Health, began championing a bus system for the county more than 13 years ago. He and many others advocated for a reliable public transit system because they saw the long-term benefits such an asset could provide for a community.

“Public transportation is the future,” Mr. Johannson said, “and we are just getting started.  This is an exciting day, and Benzie County should be proud because they made this happen.”

Shauna Fite is a Michigan Land Use Institute policy specialist. Reach her at shauna@mlui.org.