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A Way Forward for Bus Service in Emmet Co.

September 9, 2021 | |

Want to get involved in bringing more transportation options to Emmet County? There’s a big push underway to create a new authority that would provide transit services to communities all over Emmet County.

I recently moved to northern Michigan, and I’ve often wondered why popular communities like Petoskey, Harbor Springs, and surrounding towns still lack a modern public transit system.

It turns out that of the 83 counties in Michigan, just 11 (including Emmet) do not provide countywide public transit—six in the Upper Peninsula, and five in the Lower Peninsula. In 10-county northwest lower Michigan region, only two counties, Emmet and Missaukee, are without full service.

Emmet residents have been working toward and pushing for bus service for decades, but the renewed push for a full-fledged transit system that would serve the entire county came a year ago.

In August of 2020, the county decided to terminate its existing bus services that were limited to certain areas in the region. With that service ending, the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation along with the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce convened a 14-member workgroup made up of private, nonprofit, and civic sectors. The group was tasked with researching sustainable, longterm public transit solutions for Emmet County.

The group feels that transit is necessary for the prosperity and resilience of Emmet County and that reliable transportation can be part of a solution to address the many challenges related to cost of living and quality of life. After all, Michigan is the most expensive state in which to own and maintain a vehicle, with the average cost being more than $9,000 per year. Locally, it’s estimated that Emmet County residents put 28% of their annual income toward transportation; anything above 15% is seen as a burden to households, according to U of M researchers at Poverty Solutions. Also, according to a recent Rockefeller Foundation study, about 66 percent of young people are looking for more transportation options when finding a place to live.

The workgroup spent six months meeting with transit experts, government officials, and local stakeholders. From the information gathered, the team produced a detailed proposal for the creation of an Emmet Transit Authority.

In their June presentation to the county, the group explained that a transit authority would be the ideal structure for operating a bus service, since it would create a separate entity fully devoted to transportation. 

A transit authority could also seek a transportation millage and take advantage of state and federal funding opportunities that are open to transit authorities. 

Authorities are common in Northern Michigan. More than half of the bus services in the region are managed by an authority. For example, the Traverse City area has the Bay Area Transportation Authority, the Cadillac area has WexExpress, Benzie County has Benzie Bus, Kalkaska has the Kalkaska Public Transit Authority.

The workgroup feels quite confident that a millage would pass if it were put up for a public vote. Residents time and time again have shown a willingness to support effective public services. In recent years, Emmet County residents have passed millages for North Central Michigan College operations, Char-Em ISD Regional Enhancement, Char-Em ISD Special Education, senior citizen services, and EMS services.

Transit authorities in the region have seen millages consistently renewed and even increased by voters.
·  BATA, 2017: approved increase from 0.35 mil to 0.50 mil for five years
·  Otsego, 2019: approved increase from 0.25 to 0.60 mil by a margin of 66-34%
·  Benzie, 2020: approved renewal, 80-20%
·  Wexford, 2020: approved renewal 67-33%

Public transit isn’t only for large urban areas, it’s for rural communities as well. From seniors to those with disabilities to young adults without cars, being able to access reliable transportation is essential to all of us living in northern Michigan. For many, transit options like bus services mean access to healthcare, employment, education, and everyday needs, and it can help attract and retain a stronger workforce.

Even if you already drive, supporting transit is supporting your neighbors who cannot. It’s also a way to invest in a backup plan for yourself and your family. Vehicles can unexpectedly break down and injuries can happen that make driving impossible. Life can surprise us in many ways, and it’s good to have another option available.

If you live in Emmet County please contact your county commissioner or write a letter of support to Kassia Perpich from the Petoskey-Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation ([email protected]). She will pass your message along to the commissioners. If you want to learn more, the transit workgroup put together a great one-pager about the initiative. 

Carolyn Ulstad, Transportation Program Manager

Carolyn Ulstad is Transportation Program Manager at Groundwork. [email protected]

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