The route to a better bus service

When considering what barriers might hold the unemployed back from getting and holding jobs, what's the first one that comes to mind? The economy? Education? Wrong.

"When I spoke to representatives at Michigan Works, they told me one of the largest barriers unemployed people face is transportation," says Michele McGowen. McGowen is the chair of Friends of Transit for Kalamazoo County, an alliance of 49 organizations and individuals who advocate for a strong public transit system.

She's one of many who are cheering on the development of a regional transit system rather than one focused mostly on urban areas only. McGowen is part of a coalition working toward that end, and she also works for the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan. Part of what that organization does is to help the disabled negotiate public transportation.

"For years, people have thought of our transit system as buses that move around the city of Kalamazoo, but the transit system covers many municipalities. We need to revamp schedules and routes to reflect that," says McGowen. "And most of us live all over the county. For instance, I live outside of the city, but I work in the city. Yesterday I bought a pair of pants in Galesburg, and I stopped in still another town for coffee."

When we consider what kind of transit system we need, McGowen points out, we need to think past our own backyards.

In enthused agreement with her is Kalamazoo City Commissioner Jack Urban. He explains how the Kalamazoo County Transportation Authority (KCTA) is working to achieve metropolitan status, meaning more efficient, more streamlined, with more routes and more frequent stops.

Admittedly, Commissioner Urban says, it can be confusing. Two entities, city and county, are working toward a goal of merging into one regionalized, countywide transit system.

"The first step is to create a new authority to replace the city authority," he says. But mergers are never smooth or easy. A leadership team of elected and appointed officials are working to create a transition plan to a transit system that voters will embrace whether they live in or outside the city.

"State law requires millage to be uniform throughout the district," Urban says. "But people don't like that. That's why the millage vote in 2008 was defeated, because out on the perimeters voters aren't using it. People in the townships don't want to pay taxes for something they don't use. That's our first roadblock."

The other roadblock, Urban says, was the then-city manager's reluctance to take on a complex project that would not benefit the city's financial picture. The project was initially delayed, then picked up steam again.

"But the issue is still the same," Urban continues. "How to devise a transit district in which the majority of voters will agree to pay an increased millage for scheduled public transportation. Too big, some voters will pay for service that may not arrive for several years. Too small, the tax rate will be steeper and the ability to expand routes will be hampered. Everyone is looking for the Goldilocks size."

It's a case of build it and they will come. Once the City Transportation Authority is dissolved, then replaced by the new, larger district transit authority, says Urban, "then the routes can be reconfigured to make the bus use more convenient for everyone in the district, not just those who live near the current hub.

"The strategy I proposed was to create a transit district composed of whole jurisdictions, and give jurisdictions the ability to opt out in whole or in part before the boundaries become final. That way, the county does the statesmanlike thing, and the townships have to take responsibility for the complications arising from precinct-by-precinct boundary lines."

Straddling the two transit authorities as they transition into one is Sean McBride. He is the executive director of KCTA and he is also director of Kalamazoo Metro Transit. McBride smiles as he acknowledges the unusual position he is in, serving in two positions. "It's because we are consolidating," he says.

"Public transportation needs to transcend borders. We are a growing city, and the density of our community is spreading along the I-94 and 131 corridors. It makes sense to fulfill those growing regional needs from a regional center."

He agrees with Commissioner Urban that "the trick is to get all the organizations and their leaders to come together. We've invited Oshtemo, Comstock, and Portage leadership to develop a shared vision. We all have our organizational, financial constraints, so we have to find ways that we can compromise. I can guarantee that we will have hurdles to jump, but I'm optimistic."

Counting metro buses and community service vans, McBride says, the transit system currently provides 3.1 million rides annually, running 20 routes in the urban area. Service vans are also available for senior centers in Vicksburg and Portage. Fares are $1.50 for adults, 75 cents for seniors and children, and $1.25 for low-income adults with a Bridge Card. Tokens and discounted monthly passes are available.

"It's an excellent public transportation system," McBride says. "Without local funding, however, we can't leverage federal or state dollars. For every dollar we spend, we receive about 33 cents from combined federal and state."

According to recent surveys, numbers of riders are steadily climbing, reflecting a nationwide trend toward using public transportation. Populations are moving back toward urban areas, McBride says, and green concerns, along with economic factors, are bringing new people to public transportation.

Seems simple enough, but for those who have never ridden a bus, figuring out routes, connections, and schedules can be daunting. A new position has been developed to help anyone who requests it. Italy Harwell is the Kalamazoo County Travel Trainer, and she is available to help people learn how to travel safely and independently, educating individuals and groups about reduced fares and other perks.

"The biggest obstacle I see is education," Harwell says. "What's available, how to use what's available, where to start with using these services. I have been doing presentations all over Kalamazoo County with individuals, but also organizations, churches, schools, senior centers, and others. I will be working with the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan to see what Metro can do for them."

"Once we have consolidated services, we won't have the structural impediments anymore," Commissioner Jack Urban adds. "Our only barrier then will be people's habits and changing how people think about public transportation. We can handle that."

"It's not an all or nothing package," says Michele McGowen. "You may be a driver whose car is in the shop and needs a ride. Or you may want to go downtown for an event and not deal with parking problems. And maybe you never do ride the bus, but consider that the nurse who cares for you does, or your elderly mom may need a bus to get around. We pay taxes for fire and police protection, but we hope we won't ever need to use them. Public transit is vital to the economic and social house of our region, no matter where our addresses fall."

A May 2013 millage passed easily, with 72 percent of the vote for passing the millage to fund transit service.

"The next millage vote will be in 2015," says Urban. "If the millage passes, it could mean about $35 over a year in taxes to a family living in a $100,000 household. We have to think of this as our community. This is how a community prospers. This is the long view."

To contact Italy Harwell for individual assistance or group travel training, call Metro Transit at 269.337.8222. Plan a trip or track a bus on its route and set up alerts to your cell phone for bus arrival time at  

Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine,The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.