Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Calhoun County series.
Public transportation is an economic driver that young people in particular take into consideration when deciding where they want to live and work, says Mallory Avis, Public Transit Director for the City of Battle Creek
. And this is among her talking points in discussions that have been had with residents and elected officials in Calhoun County as she advocates for a Transit Authority of Calhoun County.
“Battle Creek Unlimited
is on board,” she says. “A lot of economic development-focused organizations and individuals understand the important role transportation plays in attracting and retaining talent. Housing, transportation, and childcare are three key areas in attracting and retaining individuals.”
A lack of reliable, affordable public transportation is hindering the ability of some County residents to get to doctor’s appointments, work, shops, or classes at Kellogg Community College, she says.
“Transportation throughout the county is pretty restrictive. Everyone is in siloed or restrictive service areas,” Avis says. “Battle Creek Transit (BCT) serves the city of Battle Creek and a small area outside of that. Marshall has Dial-A-Ride and there’s the Albion/Marshall Connector and Community Action Agency which is restricted to serving seniors and individuals with disabilities. Most of these transportation providers are restricted to their clientele, funding source, or a third-party provider.”
Mallory Avis, MBA is the Director of Public Transit for the City of Battle Creek.
After more than five years of discussion about the unmet needs of the county’s public transportation system, leadership with the city and the county floated the idea of creating a Countywide Transportation Authority. The TACC would be governed by its own board. The 1.2 mills that would be sought to fund an improved public transportation system would cost the owner of a $100,000 home $120 per year based on the assumption that it would be a countywide service providing a robust level of service, Avis says, adding that the average annual cost of owning and operating a personal vehicle in Michigan is about $10,000 annually, according to AAA
While the County’s more urban municipalities including the cities of Albion, Battle Creek, Marshall and Springfield, and Pennfield Township are on board with the creation of the TACC, the more rural areas aren’t. Leadership in these municipalities — the townships of Albion, Lee, Springfield, and Tekonsha — say they don’t want to pay additional taxes for a service they don’t think their residents want or need.
“For our township, we’re not in favor of it,” says Brad Shrontz, Lee Township Supervisor. “Nobody out here is going to use it. A lot of our people don’t use other services offered to them now. We have a Senior Services shuttle that isn’t utilized.”
He describes the township of 1,000 residents as leaning older in terms of age and says it is rural with a focus on agriculture.
“Nobody on our Board is in favor of it. Most of our residents have their own transportation. We’re right up against Eaton County,” Shrontz says. “My parents will go to Charlotte as much as they’ll go to Marshall. What they’re wanting to do and the cost, it just doesn’t make sense.”
He says the Township, which has an annual budget of about $200,000, and its residents have no appetite for the approval of another millage request which comes on the heels of millage requests for Senior Services, county parks, and the County’s 911 dispatch service
which was approved by voters in 2022.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
Avis says her message to elected officials and residents during presentations she’s been making to municipalities is that “The creation of the TACC doesn’t automatically impose a tax. Your residents still have the opportunity to vote down a millage request. But, if you opt out before a vote takes place, they won’t have the option to vote yes or no.”
As she has been making a case for the formation of the TACC and the advantages to residents of having access to a more wide-ranging public transportation option, Avis says she has been “shocked” by the reactions of some elected officials and residents and the misinformation that has found its way into these discussions.
“There’s this myth that we are doing this for the Ford mega site in Marshall
which is absolutely not the case. Some people have also said that businesses should pay for the enhanced service to attract employees. The reality is that business properties are already taxed just like homeowners,” Avis says.
While questioning the motives driving a potential millage request, she also is navigating disbelief in the data supporting the need from residents and elected officials.
A recent meeting with Emmett Township was described as contentious by, Deb Belles, Emmett Township Supervisor, who says the township is about 75 percent rural with a “good mix” of large subdivisions and open space.
Brian Scott of BC Transit talks with a customer after taking her to work.
Belles says she remains undecided about whether or not to support the proposed TACC unlike township board members and audience members who were “pretty vocal” in their opposition during the meeting.
“They did not want another millage or tax and felt that the majority of residents don’t use public transportation and didn’t see how a TACC would benefit them.”
But, she recognizes that there are township residents in the Post Addition who would likely use the service to get to downtown Battle Creek or Harper Village on Beckley Road.
Avis says Emmett Township residents account for 20 percent of total ridership on city buses with city residents making up about 60 percent of all BCT users. The remaining 20 percent are from other areas of the county.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
During the meeting, she again heard residents say that they thought the TACC was being created to support the Ford mega site and rides to Firekeepers Casino. The township doesn’t contribute any funding for the current services provided to it by BCT.
“They said if Firekeepers wants it, they’re the ones that need to pay for it,” Avis says. “One thing I made sure they understood is that the township has major employers and businesses that are not part of our current service areas, among these Wal Mart, Menards, and Firekeepers. They felt like they were being blackmailed in a way. I tried to explain that we’re not going to take away the current services we provide if they opt out of the TACC. I can share facts all day long and I’m met with ‘I don’t believe those numbers. I can give exact business addresses and places people visit in their communities.”
Driven by data
Avis says she also has collected data showing that in 2022 there were 30,000 requests for rides throughout the County with 19,000 of those requests that could be fulfilled through BCGo Calhoun County
, a pilot public transportation service funded through a three-year $1.1 million grant from the Michigan Department Transportation. BCGo, operating as a revamped version of one that initially began in 2019, was launched in March 2021, allowing residents to book a ride in as little as 30 minutes via a smartphone app or a telephone call. The re-designed version maintained the service area that had been expanded from 78 square miles to 718 square miles under the first model.
The three-year MDOT grant, which runs out at the end of 2023, covered the cost of purchasing and operating two minivans for the program which is managed by BCT. Avis says the program has been “wildly successful," but unable to meet increasing requests for rides.
Shannon Wedl, Operations Supervisor, left and Mallory Avis check the schedule of vehicles and rides at BC Transit.
“In the first 28 months of operation we have had 85,000 requests for rides and were only able to fill 21,000 of those because of limited physical and financial resources,” she says. The minivans cost a combined total of $250,000 annually to operate with BCT drivers who are typically older and seeking less physically-demanding jobs within the department. In addition to their salaries, there are costs associated with dispatch and ongoing maintenance and repair of the vehicles.
The initial iteration of BCGo, also established as a pilot program, came about after the County secured a grant from MDOT that was used to do a study of the current public transportation situation
. That study confirmed the need for greater transportation options while city officials had already estimated that there were 19,000 unmet trips per year not filled by current transportation sources or that people would be taking if they had transportation. As this information was being presented, the city’s only cab company announced that it was closing because of increasing costs to insure its vehicles.
“Everybody looked to the city to fix that problem,” Avis says.
Using a $400,000 grant from MDOT, BCT worked in collaboration with other transportation providers to launch the 12-month countywide pilot program which was “our version of Uber, a taxi or Lyft,” Avis says. “It was somewhat successful in that people called and wanted it, but the pricing and hours of operation didn’t fit with how it needed to be operated.”
The second MDOT grant enabled BCT to demonstrate what a successful model could look like.
A vehicle in the fleet operated by BC Transit.
“We were one of the first areas in Michigan to demonstrate micro-transit. In rural areas nobody was really trying it,” Avis says. “We launched it and it worked out. MDOT was intrigued to see how it played out.”
With the funds set to run out, Avis says BCT doesn’t have the funding capacity in its $5 million budget to support the ongoing operation of BCGo.
“The best way to do this,” she says “is through the creation of a TACC which gives us a jurisdictional map of what areas are interested in doing that. The authority becomes its own governing body with its own Board, but to get to that point, the County has to file the articles of incorporation.”
The County’s Board of Commissioners is expected to vote on a resolution to legally file those articles of incorporation to create a TACC during their September 7 meeting. If the resolution is approved, jurisdictions will have 30 days to opt out of being included in that service area and wouldn’t have a millage proposed to them to pay for the service.
If the resolution is not approved, Avis says there will be residents throughout the county who will face significant challenges in getting to medical appointments, shops, service providers and the list goes on.
“If we lose the ability to connect regionally, as we max out the housing stock in the city we get suburban sprawl and we have no way to connect people to services. We don’t have a way to get them into the city for business-related visits and will have challenges attracting people to our area to live, work and enjoy a good quality of life.”