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Jim Lively: Jumping Through Bureaucratic Hoops to Get on the Grand Vision BusPrint

Thriving Communities | March 11, 2008 | By Jim Lively

The next Grand Vision workshops on March 20th at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center are all about regional transportation solutions for the future. At all of the previous workshops we have heard lots of ideas about improved transit service for commuters, so it seemed like a great idea to use existing county bus systems to bring people from outlying counties to the workshops in Traverse City. This would not only get lots of people on the bus for the first time, but it would also help promote discussions about creating a truly regional transit system.

Use public transportation to bring people to a public workshop about transportation. Seems like a simple idea, right?

Regional planner Matt McCauley of the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments convened a meeting of the transit agencies attended by Antrim County Transportation (ACT), the Benzie Bus, Cadillac Wexford Transit Authority (CWTA), and BATA (serving Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties), as well as a representative from Michigan Department of Transportation who oversees the funding of these bus systems. Matt floated the idea of getting some good public relations for the bus services, and helping bring in the crowds from the outlying counties. All of the bus providers thought it was a great idea.

Not so fast, said the MDOT bureaucrat. These bus systems are funded with federal transportation dollars, so they have to follow federal rules. Concerns about county transit buses competing with private charter buses create restrictions on public providers making any changes to their hours or service for a special event. The Grand Vision workshop was scheduled to end at 9:30 p.m. – after the normal operating hours of all the county transit agencies. The only way they could bring people home from Traverse City after the meeting would be to permanently change their operating hours to at least 11 p.m., and begin to offer late night service to Traverse City every night. There’s no way these agencies could justify the cost of offering that service, so it looked like this idea was derailed. Sorry, said the bureaucrat, but it would a lot easier if the workshop was being held during the day.

This is the moment in meetings like this when the participants will typically shrug their shoulders and go home muttering about stupid bureaucratic rules that squelch local creativity. I’ve been in too many of those meetings in the past, and was prepared for it to happen again.

But there’s something going on with the Grand Vision that didn’t allow that to happen this time. Why not hold a second workshop during the daytime hours, suggested McCauley? We might even be able to expand our audience by appealing to folks who don’t want to stay out until 11 p.m. on a week night. The MDOT bureaucrat agreed that, as long as the agencies provided only their regular service, this would work.

With less than a month to go before the workshop, the consultant team agreed to host a second workshop.

This story is significant because for the first time in the Grand Traverse region, we have begun thinking about providing regional transit service. Mostly we have learned about the incredible bureaucratic barriers to getting it done. But more importantly, we have begun to demonstrate that there are ways to get around those barriers.

For the Grand Vision to truly succeed in its goal of creating a regional growth strategy that preserves the character of our region in the face of rapid growth, there will be lots of bureaucratic barriers. It’s nice to see that we’re getting some early practice at overcoming them.

See you on the bus!