It’s all in the ‘chips,’ say public transportation managers

The assignment was to write about public transportation across Midland County in terms of passenger counts, gasoline prices, and services, you know, those “normal” things which usually occupy transportation managers daily thoughts. 

Normal is changing, says Gary Rogers, Operations Manager for County Connection, when asked if the number of passengers had returned to “normal,” i.e. pre-COVID, pre 40-year inflation, pre-labor shortage times. 
County Connection's Lyn Knapp & Gary Rogers
“It is a different world out there,” says Lyn Knapp, who has been director of the county’s service from its inception 26 years ago when it began as Project Zero. She says the county has been working with others in the community to continue to provide consistent service to passengers.  

While Midland Dial-A-Ride and County Connection of Midland are miles apart in providing transportation services to residents of Midland County, they agree that words such as silicon chips, infrastructure, supply chains, and interviewing skills might be used as much as miles per gallon, maintenance and passenger counts in future managers’ conversations. 

And they are only months apart in outlining what has been their biggest challenge. Both of Midland’s highly visible transportation services have new bus requests that have been on backorder for more than 18 months, attributed to “manufacturing delays since 2020,” says Amy Bidwell, the city’s Dial-A-Ride Transportation manager.
Amy Bidwell is the Dial-A-Ride transportation manager.
Three buses are scheduled to be replaced among the 14 vehicles in the DART fleet, with the oldest order being made in October 2020. Rogers says the county is waiting for one replacement, also since early in 2021. It has 22 vehicles in its fleet and doesn’t expect its request to be answered this year. 

All said supply chain issues continue to dominate conversations among Americans, and they influence all the other issues that the two transportation services face, particularly oil costs, labor shortages and changing needs of their clients. 

Bidwell says a variety of factors are used to come up with a budget that is realistic for 2022-2023. “In terms of gas prices, we used a combination of factors to try and predict what our annual fuel expenses would be this upcoming year including pre-COVID fuel expenses,  most recent quarterly fuel expenses, current fuel prices and an estimated increase in fuel expenses,” she says. 

"We believe we may have estimated too low and will need to do a mid-year budget adjustment...Currently our fuel budget is set at $130,000 for the year beginning in July 2022-June 2023. It is a pretty drastic increase," Bidwell adds. 

Dial-A-Ride provides curb to curb service within the City limits.Rogers says the cost of a barrel of crude affects not only gasoline, but also all other aspects of keeping the buses and vans on the road, such as oil changes, tires and brakes. Specialty fluids have in some instances tripled in cost. 

Bidwell says DART vehicles are serviced by the city’s Fleet Maintenance Division with Manager Lance Hopper and is “top of the line” when it comes to taking care of buses and vans, and costs are included in Dial-A-Ride's $3.1 million budget. 

The trio, along with Karen Murphy, the city’s Public Services Director, remain optimistic. Knapp and Rogers were quick in their interview to point to a new initiative beginning across the county, called “New Freedom Program” that serves seniors and veterans, seniors with disabilities get to their non-emergency medical appointments. 

“It just has a nice ring – New Freedom,” Knapp says. The program is a unique transportation opportunity that assists seniors, veterans and people with disabilities get to their non-emergency medical appointments, at hospitals, medical facilities health clinics and doctors in the State of Michigan Monday through Friday with volunteer drivers, according to the County Connection brochure available at the Education and Training Consortium and County Connection offices on Isabella Road. “It helps loved ones get to where they need to go,” Rogers says. He first began writing grants for the program in 2018 and it kicked off in 2020. It started to gain traction recently. 

Mike Dorrien is a member of the Dial-A-Ride staff.
Bidwell says Dial-A-Ride is nearly 85 percent back to pre-pandemic levels in daily passenger counts, which were about 100,000 annually. She says the City of Midland provides Dial-A-Ride Transportation (DART), curb-to-curb transportation service within Midland's city limits, and works with surrounding transportation systems on transferring passengers if needed. 

County Connection also is curb-to-curb service beyond the city limits to the county borders, inter-county transfers and city-to-city if outside DART operating times. Differences between the two programs can be seen by going to their respective websites. Curb-to-curb bus service means that passengers must be able to meet the bus out at the curb. Drivers cannot go beyond the curb to help with passengers and cannot carry groceries or other carry-on items on or off the bus. 

Socially, the managers are seeing and reacting to changes too. Like what's occuring in human resource offices, how people are interviewed and offered jobs is changing. Nationwide, people are being offered jobs during the same appointments as the interview, Rogers notes -  a reaction to the labor shortage. Technology is also playing a part in how people need transportation. 

Bidwell is excited about an upcoming transportation survey that is set to be administered next year that will help identify specific transportation needs locally, and especially among those areas that are seeing the biggest changes. 

Rogers said people aren’t traveling as much for advanced studies because of on-line classes. He says transfers with I-Ride, Isabella County’s transportation system at Oil City,  are seeing fewer passengers going to Mid Michigan College in Mount Pleasant. 
To learn more about both services, go to the Dial-A-Ride or County Connection websites. You can also call Dial-A-Ride at 989-837-6940 or County Connection at  989-837-9540.

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Read more articles by Ralph E. Wirtz.

Ralph E. Wirtz is a native Midlander who retired from the Midland Daily News as a managing editor in 2015. He has been freelancing since then in between traveling and volunteering. He has four adult children, all who graduated from Bullock Creek High School as he did. He is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a Central Michigan University grad. He can be reached at