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‘Buses Without Borders’ explores ways to expand transit connectionsPrint

Thriving Communities | February 28, 2014 | By James Russell

Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle discusses the importance of regional transit collaboration at "Buses Without Borders" on Feb. 24.
Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle discusses the importance of regional transit collaboration at "Buses Without Borders" on Feb. 24. 

Traffic congestion is one of northwest Michigan’s most contentious issues, and transportation officials continue to seek ways to alleviate congestion.

On Feb. 24, MLUI’s “Buses Without Borders” forum laid out a strategy to make public transportation part of the solution.

But a few obstacles remain before transit becomes a truly viable alternative for many workers in the region. For nearly 16,000 people who work in a different county than their home, the county lines make it difficult for them to use buses to commute.

National transportation experts and state leaders used the forum to discuss ways regional transit agencies can work together to make it easier to surmount county borders.

“No longer should we think about those lines. We should try to drop those lines and move people in between,” said Vance Edwards, director of the Cadillac/Wexford Transit Authority. “I know that in theory right now we can move people between Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Antrim counties, but it’s very clumsy and very time consuming.”

There is considerable public support for greater access to public transit in northern Michigan. The Grand Vision found that an overwhelming majority wants to see buses as part of a regional transportation system. In a 2012 random-sample survey by Northwestern Michigan College, 75% of respondents indicated they “strongly” or “somewhat” agree that future investments in transportation should include more public transportation.

At “Buses Without Borders,” Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle said the Grand Vision continues to play an important role when discussing transportation choices in the region.

“I’ve been a long, long supporter of the Grand Vision. What started with the community coming together, saying here’s how we need to deal with host of different issues—transportation being one of those key polices—is continuing to play out,” Steudle told the crowd of nearly 100. “Cooperation between transit agencies is certainly a part of that.”

To support implementation of the Grand Vision, last year the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments contracted Roger Millar, of Smart Growth America, to take a closer look at regional transportation in northwest Michigan. Millar discussed the findings of the “Grand Vision Mobility Management and Coordination Strategy.”

“Mobility management is all about moving people around. You’re in that transition right now where a lot of communities think of public transportation as something we provide as a social service for people who have no choice,” Millar said. “But it’s a transportation choice for everyone in community—regardless of income, or mobility… Having only one way to get around isn’t really a choice.”

Millar laid out a series of priorities for the region based on the study. No. 1 on the list: Improve coordination between transpiration providers.

“People don’t care who’s taking their money, they just want the rides,” he said.

A possible strategy for expanding transit connections across county borders is the creation of a “transit alliance.” Rather than creating a new organization, an alliance provides a platform for existing transit agencies to work together to increase connections, without sacrificing their individual brands and identities.

It’s a strategy that’s worked well in northwest Oregon. Jay Flint is the executive director of the Sunset Empire Transportation District, which serves Clatsop County, Ore. Over the past three years, he’s helped create the Northwest Oregon Transit Alliance with agencies in four neighboring counties.

“The idea was not to create a regional transit authority where everyone is absorbed, but a system that, from a customer’s perspective, looks integrated but in reality it’s five separate agencies running the show,” Flint explained.

The process involved regular meetings of transit directors, and an early branding effort for the connected services that could live beside the individual agencies’ identities. An extensive market analysis then determined areas where agencies could work together more effectively.

Flint shared an example in Tillamook and Lincoln counties, where buses previously met for transfers at their borders. The market analysis showed that people had to transfer at an out-of-the-way bus stop at the border to get to a shopping district in Lincoln County. The alliance made a decision to extend the route to the preferred destination, which freed up service elsewhere.

“We saw a 70 percent increase in the first year alone, and all we did was change the location of the stop,” Flint said.

One of the alliance’s primary goals, he added, is to use transportation as an element of economic development.

“Transit is seen too often as a social service, and not enough as an economic development engine,” Flint said. “If you have more dense uses in an area, in order to create larger capacity there and not increase the parking, increase public transit. So we’re working with our DOT, to say that instead of widening a road, why don’t you look at increasing funding in that corridor for public transit? That will reduce the burden on the road.”