County offers bus system, but is that enough?

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Ridership of public transit buses in six mid-Michigan counties. (Graphic: Monica Reida)

Ridership of public transit buses in six Michigan counties. (Graphic: Monica Reida)

By Monica Reida, Staff Writer

Dana Conley is presiding over a bingo game in the Bath Township Senior Center. The round tables in the hall have filled seats, each person eagerly awaiting the next letter and number to be called out.

According to Conley, Food Service Manager for the Senior Center, only two seniors who use the center utilize the Clinton Transit bus. Conley said she is looking to see if there’s a demand for more seniors to take the bus from senior citizen communities in the Bath Township area.

But Dawn Benson, General Manager for Clinton Transit, said that if anything there are people who don’t know the bus service will pick up adults and able-bodied individuals.

As the population of southern Clinton County ages, Clinton Transit has to know if the bus can continue to attract the senior residents while struggling to attract the general population of Clinton County.

Clinton Transit, also known as “The Blue Bus,” started in 2001 to serve all residents of Clinton County. The bus travels anywhere in Clinton County, including the Capital Region International Airport, as long as residents schedule a time and place for the bus to pick them up and drop them off. Unlike the Capital Area Transit Authority, there are no fixed bus stops for a person to board and embark.

Conley said there are two people who come to the senior center on the bus. One of them arrives at 10 a.m. and helps set up events that occur that day and then leaves at 1 p.m. Both of the senior center patrons who take the bus live in two different senior citizen communities in Bath Township.

Conley said she wants to work with Clinton Transit to have the bus go to communities in Bath Township where senior citizens live. These communities include Dutch Hills, Hawk’s Ridge, Somerset Park and King Arthur’s Court.

In a six county area of Michigan, Clinton Transit has the second lowest percent of seniors riding the bus. CATA has the lowest percentage of senior citizens riding the bus system, but CATA also serves a larger population and ridership.

“Seniors generally like public transportation because of its affordability,” said Steve Schlickman, Executive Director of the Urban Transportation Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“My professional judgement is that senior citizens as they become retired and their income becomes limited [they] become more dependent on transit,” Schlickman said.

Empty seats on a Clinton Transit bus. 5.7 percent of Clinton Transit riders are seniors. (Photo: Monica Reida)

Empty seats on a Clinton Transit bus. 5.7 percent of Clinton Transit riders are seniors. (Photo: Monica Reida)

“They’re a targeted population for all of public transit,” said Benson.

Schlickman said there is a problem with the availability of transit in rural areas.

Clinton Transit operates buses on certain routes and times. For example, if a rider arrives at the Bath Township Senior Center at 1 p.m., the earliest they can leave is at 4 p.m.. The weekly Friday bingo game ends at 3 p.m., meaning a rider would have to wait one hour.

Fares for riding Clinton Transit are also higher than riding CATA. The standard CATA bus fare is $1.25, $0.60 for senior citizens and students for any one-way trip. For Clinton Transit, a trip that is less than 11 miles in length is $3 one-way, $1.50 for senior citizens and those with disabilities. The cost of fares increases for a longer trip.

“If you compare our fares to other rural services, we’re more comparable to more rural systems with no fixed route,” Benson said.

The Eaton County transit system, Eatran, charges $2 for a one-way trip regardless of length, $1 for senior citizens and those with disabilities. Eatran does not have a fixed route.

Bingo game in progress at the Bath Township Senior Center. (Photo: Monica Reida)

Bingo game in progress at the Bath Township Senior Center. (Photo: Monica Reida)

Benson said Clinton Transit offers a program where if the bus picks up more than one person at any location and drops them off together, only one person pays the full fare and all subsequent passengers pay 50 cents.

Conley said she is looking into “subsidizing” the fare for the first person so everyone only has to pay 50 cents. She said if this happens it would be paid for through funds raised by the senior center rather than taxpayer money.

In neighboring Shiawassee County the Shiawassee Area Transit Agency allows all seniors to take the bus for free from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Lawrence Alpert, Executive Director for SATA, said this occurs through the fare for senior citizens being subsidized by Shiawassee Council on Aging.

Alpert said the agency was started in 2000 and the reason to create SATA was to help those who have no options or few options for getting around, including seniors.

SATA served 87,231 riders in 2011 and had $945,358 in expenses. Clinton Transit had $1.3 million in expenses during the 2011 fiscal year and served 55,259.

The Michigan Department of Transportation provides funds through its Five-Year Program to help keep current transit systems operating. MDOT’s Five-Year Plan says, “Through this assistance, over 80 percent of Michigan’s population is provided some form of local transit service.”

Barbara Hicks of MDOT said Eatran has received funding from the Five-Year Plan. Hicks said MDOT also has state operating funds and capital funds the state and federal government gives to transportation agencies every year after those agencies have applied for the funds.

The 2013 Fiscal Year application for these funds from MDOT has a program where funds from the federal government helps supplement operating expenses for non-urban transit systems, but recipients of the funds must replace buses with the funds.

Benson did not return phone calls to answer questions on whether Clinton Transit has considered applying for these funds to reduce the cost of senior citizen rides. It is also unknown if Clinton Transit has any methods of advertising the bus directly to senior citizens.

The U.S. Census Bureau shows that 10 percent of DeWitt’s population is between 50 and 54-years old, creating the largest percentage of residents in an age group in the city. Although they are not yet senior citizens, the population will age to a point where public transit might seem more appealing.

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