By Katie Winkler
Clinton County Chatter Staff Reporter
ST. JOHNS — Every Thursday, Bath resident Michele Leonard hikes along the trails at Sleepy Hollow State Park in Laingsburg, Michigan. When the weather allows, she goes for a dip in Lake Ovid, enjoying the beauty that the park offers. Other times, she will venture to St. Johns Park or Granger Meadows.
After her Pontiac Sunbird “died its last death” a few years ago, she said she has relied on Clinton Area Transit System to get her to these adventure destinations, in addition to necessities like grocery shopping and doctors appointments.
“I don’t have transportation, I don’t have family in this area. You can’t always rely on the people you know — neighbors and friends,” she said. “They are not always available — the bus is always available if you can schedule the rides in advanced. They make it possible to get around where I wouldn’t be able to.”
Bus Charters Phoenix provides bus transportation to residents in their location, similarly.
On average, 300 county residents, like Leonard, utilize the Clinton Transit, also known as the blue bus, services daily, totaling 3,286 last fiscal year.
Since Clinton County only has a little over 77,000 citizens, they operate on a needs basis, rather than fixed routes. When residents would like a ride, they call and schedule a ride.
“Clinton County does not have enough population to support a fixed route bus service,” general manager of the transit, Dawn Benson said. “The demand response is what happens in almost all of the state of Michigan except for the large, urban areas like Grand Rapids, Detroit, Flint, Lansing.”
Residents are diverse for their needs of riding, age, and geographical location within the county, Benson said. Some riders need lifts to medical appointments, jobs, school, grocery stores and malls.
Gerrie Dixon has been a bus driver with Clinton Transit for 14 years. During her shifts, she sees a variety of people that vary from grade school aged children to elderly.
“It just depends on the needs of the community and where my bus needs to be taken,” she said.
Dispatchers create routes and send them to schedulers Patrice Van Nortwick and Richard Hopkins to edit. Between the two, they make sure routes are set and that the drivers have enough time between pick-up and drop-offs.
“As far as being able to serve everybody, we can not,” Van Nortwick said. “We don’t have enough buses, we don’t have enough drivers, we can do the majority but we do turn people away.”
At the beginning of their shift, drivers grab a PCTrans Driver log, giving them the name or group, address, estimated time of pick up, appointment time if necessary and fares that the rider owes. If riders are added on or need to cancel, dispatchers will contact drivers.
Currently, Benson said they are working to purchase tablets that will automatically load the route changes. In addition, this technology will allow real-time location of the buses en route.
“There were issues previous and the drivers are seeing improvement,” Benson said. “We are changing the way we are doing things, doing things differently and trying to create more efficiencies.”
They have a total of 28 vehicles on their fleet, seven of which are minivans. The difference vehicles are used depending on the rider’s needs. When children, under the age of 9 are riding, buses are used to avoid the use of car seats. The buses are used for those with disabilities who, for example, are blind, deaf or need mobility devices like wheelchairs.
Clinton Transit is currently working with Michigan Department of Transportation to create a contract to purchase a vehicle in between, like the Ford Transit, Benson said. It will allow wider wheel chairs and up to 10 passengers.
Prior to 2001, when the county commissioner announced they would create pubic transportation, and created Clinton County Transit, volunteers were serving the seniors and disabled in the community. Since the program started focusing on these types of people, they continue to strive to serve these residents.
Retired General Motors employee and current driver, Ken Zelenka, has dealt with riders with disabilities, such as dementia and those who have had strokes. He said he would drive them to their appointments and hand them off directly to someone inside at the doctor’s office. With this service, they are able to get to their appointments without family members having to take off work.
Gale Capling created the Care A Van service, under Clinton Transit, that utilizes volunteer drivers to provide elderly and disabled passenger trips to medical appointments. This has become an issue because very few medical facilities are located within Clinton County.
“Five years ago, I noticed that there were a lot of elderly and disabled folks that needed a little bit extra attention with their transportation,” she said. “Now, they are being able to get regular routine medical care, which keeps them healthier longer.”
Grants were written to make this effort possible, in addition to having the volunteers take their passenger to the grocery store after appointments to make sure they have healthy food.
“We have some beautiful medical facilities and assisted living facilities in the community, but nobody wants to move there today,” she said. “This program allows them to stay independent.”
Benson said that 13 percent of passengers that utilize Clinton Transit are both elderly and disabled.
“A large number of folks that are zero-car households wouldn’t have a way to get to and from services,” Benson said. “A large number of disabled population is able to work and have a more meaningful life.”
In 2006, a millage proposal was passed to help support the full public transit. This allowed them to expand and support all addresses instead of a first come, first serve basis, Benson said.
Ken Boyer, economics professor at Michigan State University and expert in transportation economics, said that public transportation is essential is urban areas.
“Typically, (public transit users are) people who do not have other means of transportation,” he said. “A lot of people who have conditions that does not allow them to get a driver’s license or they can not afford a car, or there is other explanations why they can’t drive themselves.”
When running a public service like buses, Boyer said these companies always make a loss.
“It is a service that does not make a profit and never has,” he said. “Funds come from public transportation funding, which ultimately comes from the gasoline tax. The gasoline tax first goes to the states and then they send money to the transit authorities.”
Fares factor into the cost to run the vehicles and the staff members that drive it. It costs more to utilize public transportation than to drive yourself, Boyer said.
Clinton Transit is supported through federal, state and local funding. The federal government covers 18.5 percent of expenses, minus some of the costs they have already helped support such as depreciation and bus purchases’. The State of Michigan pays 35.75 percent of total expenses, while county residents, in total, produce about $200,000 from property taxes. The fares account for about 9 percent.
“The fact that the nation level, that part of the fuel tax has been devoted to funding public transportation,” Boyer said. “There is funding source as well as a demand, so they continue.”
St. Johns resident Dora Cordoba feels that this public service is worth the cost to her and other homeowners.
“It’s good for older people and younger kids that can’t get around that are just now starting to get into the swing of getting a job and getting a vehicle for them,” she said.
Compared to a mass transit, like CATA for the Lansing area, their numbers are higher and they receive more funding through local property tax (47 percent) and fares (24 percent).
“Since most people have the option to drive themselves, that limits the public that can use the services to a smaller area and those people are often not able to pay a whole lot — the fares are heavily subsidized,” Boyer said.
This is not a service that will leave Clinton County anytime soon. Dixon said that individuals would be lost without this means of transportation.
“It is extremely important to Clinton County. Without it, a lot of the individuals that we transport couldn’t get to where they needed to be,” she said. “It’s a hardship for them to get where they need to be without us there to help them out.”