Not just for the city: Rural busing helps drivers leave their cars behind

When you think of busing, you probably think of metropolitan areas, with large buses covered in advertising stopping every block or two to pick up people from shelters along busy streets.

You probably don't think of small, clean, ad-free buses cruising down a rural highway, helping people save a few dollars on gasoline as they travel from one small community to another.

But that's exactly what the Benzie Bus system does for the small towns of Benzie County, located southwest of Traverse City – and they're not alone in the services they provide.

Thanks to the efforts of communities around the state, people are able to live where they want and still feel connected to the rest of their region.

In the Upper Peninsula, rural, local bus services include Altran in Alger County, MarqTran in Marquette County or the Delta Area Transit Authority's DATAbus in Delta County.

The Benzie Bus' mission statement is a vision shared by many: "Benzie Bus connects people of all ages and abilities to our community and promotes independence and prosperity through a safe and convenient public transit system."

Benzie Bus executive director Susan Miller is proud of the fast growth of her agency and how much of a difference it has already made.

"Benzie County did not have any public transportation system until we became operational in 2007," Miller says. "We don't have any major cities. We have one city (Frankfort, with a population of about 1,500) and some villages. It does give people who live in the outskirts, away from the villages, the ability to get into the stores. I think we enhance the quality of life for many, many people."

Ridership is continuing to grow, as Benzie Bus set a record of 71,590 one-way passenger trips for the first time in 2011. That's more than four trips for every resident of the county, which has a population estimated at 17,525 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About half of Benzie Bus users are commuters and customers of local businesses. Thirty percent of riders were senior citizens and 20 percent had some type of disability.

Benzie Bus has allowed people to park their cars, or give them up altogether. When gas prices rise, more people choose to ride buses as well.

"We have some folks who actually have gotten rid of their cars and use us 100 percent for our transportation," Miller says. "We have others who are making it part of their lifestyle, trying to be better to the environment. They find it's cheaper than car payments and insurance."

In its current form, the bus system mainly specializes in trips between Frankfort, Benzonia, Beulah, Honor and Thompsonville, and does most of its business in a door-to-door, on-demand form. It does offer three trips to Traverse City each day; however, those routes are indirect routes that may take an hour and 40 minutes.

A plan is in the works for the Benzie Bus to connect with Traverse City's BATA (Bay Area Transit Authority) system at Interlochen several times during peak hours of the day, allowing riders to get to the region's largest city much easier and faster.

"The goal is to collaborate regionally to deliver the kind of increased public transportation service among cities, villages, and counties that thousands of people called for during The Grand Vision," BATA Executive Director Tom Menzel said in a press release earlier this year.

The goal of the Benzie Bus system is to serve people however it can, hopefully improving their qualities of life, Miller adds. Bringing senior citizens to social events so they don't have to feel home-bound and helping parents by ferrying children to and from after-school programs are two other key areas Miller is proud of.

"Transportation is one of those industries that you can provide whatever service your equipment and your funding will permit you to do," she says. "We're trying to see what exactly it is people would like to have that we can afford to do. We have a really excellent staff keeping our professional standards high. We just [want to provide] the safest, most efficient transportation we can."

The stories are similar in Marquette County, where the Marquette County Transit Authority (Marq-Tran) is based. As with Benzie Bus, Marq-Tran offers door-to-door service as well as fixed routes.

Residents can ride the bus from as far away as Gwinn (23 miles) or Ishpeming (18 miles) to the region's largest city, Marquette. With a stop at Sawyer International Airport in between, people can easily link to air transit as well. There are separate routes that allow people to shuffle between Ishpeming and Negaunee, too.

Marq-Tran has also provided bus services for educational entities, such as Northern Michigan University and charter K-12 school North Star Academy.

Marq-Tran executive director Delynn Klein says all sorts of people choose to ride Marq-Tran for varied reasons, although ridership numbers were not available.

"It's more economical," she says. "It helps the environment. I think people need to start utilizing the public transportation that we have."

Kurt Mensching is a freelance writer and editor based out of Marquette. His columns on the Detroit Tigers appear in the Detroit News. More information about Kurt can be found at his website, KurtMensching.info.
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