Federal dollars help U.P. bus systems fare better

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Rural transit services, including several in the Upper Peninsula, will soon receive a hefty chunk of bus fare from a federal grant to update their fleets.
The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) announced that 62 counties will share $12.4 million in stimulus grants. Those counties rely primarily on rural transit services and inter-city routes.
“The rules of the grant are that it must be used for non-urban areas, which means they must be less than 50,000 in population,” said Janet Foran of the MDOT Office of Communications. “The transit services helped us identify their capital needs. The items that were most needed were vehicles, such as hybrid vehicles, and facility upgrades such as green technologies.
“We sat down with the transit agencies and the rural agencies and gave them an opportunity to prioritize their needs,” she said. “We came up with a rather impressive list.”
According to Foran, in addition to new vehicles, there is also a high need for communication technology and safety and security equipment at terminals and on buses.
“The bus fleet in the state, overall, is considered to be in poor condition,” she said, “so it’s very important that we use this funding.”
The Marquette County Transit Authority, better known as Marq-Tran, is the largest U.P. system to benefit from the grants.
Delynn Klein, executive director of Marq-Tran, said that the authority will receive about $1.37 million to pay for three large buses, security cameras and other improvements.
Other U.P. systems receiving grants are the ALTRAN transit authority in Alger County with $186,000; the Eastern Upper Peninsula Transit Authority in Chippewa County with $12,000; Gogebic County Transit with $11,000; the cities of Houghton and Hancock with $28,000; Ontonagon County with $16,000 and Schoolcraft County with $53,000.
“Our services are in tough shape at this point,” Klein said. “In our garage we need more energy-efficient lighting. There is also a small amount for operating funding that could go towards many things,” such as drivers’ wages.
“Every bit helps,” she said.
Klein said that Marq-Tran buses wear out much more quickly than those in other rural services because of their long routes.
“The large buses have a 10-year life span, so they’re 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “But it also goes by mileage. We have a large county area-wise and we’ve put many hundreds of thousands of miles on these buses. One has close to 500,000 miles.
Marq-Tran’s inter-city buses serve communities outside of Marquette, such as Gwinn, Ishpeming and Negaunee, and offer regular trips to the airport at Sawyer.
Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association in East Lansing, said that two major problems face transit services in the state.
“The number-one problem is that almost one-quarter of the vehicles in the rural systems are at the point when they should be replaced, or well beyond it,” he said.
“The number-two problem for all of the agencies is the dwindling state operating support,” he added. “That has dropped dramatically in the last decade.
“Ten years ago we were at 42 percent of expenses reimbursed by the state. Now we’re down to less than 30 percent,” he said.
Harder said funding transit services is essential to bolster Michigan’s struggling economy.
“Funding buses and transit projects is a job creator,” he said. “We have the largest seating manufacturer in the world located in Grand Rapids. Most of the bus engines are built by companies that are either based in Michigan or have a very healthy investment in Michigan’s economy.
“If we’re selling buses in Michigan, or anywhere for that matter, money spent on transit is going to find its way into the local economy,” he said.
MDOT’s Foran said it’s important to maintain the quality of the fleets because many people rely on them.
“Rural transit systems are critical transportation lifelines,” she said. “I’ve heard people say that this is their only means of transportation. Especially if you live in a rural community and don’t have a car, that bus becomes your lifeline to your job. It’s not a luxury.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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