Public transportation in Mecosta-Osceola counties improves access for many

Dial-A-Ride Transit information Service area: City of Big Rapids. Hours of operation: 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Fare: $2 for adults and $1 for children 16 and younger, senior citizens and disabled people. Children under the age of 4 accompanied by an adult ride for free. Contact: Call (231) 796-8675, or visit www.ci.big-rapids.mi.us/DART_Welcome.aspx. Mecosta-Osceola Transit Authority information Service area: Mecosta and Osceola counties. Hours of operation: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Fare: Within the city limits of Big Rapids, Reed City or Evart – $2 for adults and $1 for senior citizens, people with disabilities or children 12 and yougner. For rides across the county – $4 for adults and $2 for senior citizens, people with disabilities or children 12 and younger. Children under the age of 4 accompanied by an adult ride for free. Contact: Call (231) 796-4896 or (800) 228-8028, or visit www.motaonline.net.  
OSCEOLA COUNTY – When Shirley Barnhart and Deborah Fuller left their Parkview Village apartments to get on the Dial-A-Ride bus, driver Dave Allers already knew where the two women would want to sit. Barnhart and her caretaker, Fuller, ride the bus about six days a week to get to appointments, go grocery shopping and wherever else they need to visit around town. “I just starting riding the bus in February because I was in a nursing home and just got out,” Barnhart said. “The bus is more economical and more convenient (than a taxi), especially when I have to use the wheelchair.” Using her walker on Thursday, Barnhart took advantage of the wheelchair lift on all Dial-A-Ride buses. Fuller has been riding the bus on a regular basis for nine years. “We would have stayed at home (without the bus). If I had a car, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drive in this (snow),” she said. “The drivers are very courteous, very respectful and show concern for people.” Barnhart and Fuller are two of more than 143,000 people in Mecosta and Osceola counties who have utilized the Dial-A-Ride Transit and/or the Mecosta-Osceola Transit Authority in the past year. Public transportation is especially important in rural areas, where people cannot walk to places for services or to purchase items. The need was recognized as early as 1976, when the Country Express began providing transportation to the residents of Mecosta, Osceola, Lake and Newaygo counties – the first transportation system of its kind in the nation. The system closed a year later, but the Mecosta Rural Transit replaced it and started operations in 1978. Mecosta Rural Transit eventually changed its name to Mecosta County Area Transit, and then in 1983, became the Mecosta-Osceola County Area Transit as the system expanded its reach. In July 2005, the name was changed to Mecosta Osceola Transit Authority. The City of Big Rapids founded the Dial-A-Ride Transit to provide transportation specifically in the city limits. “There’s a lot of disabled people who depend on the bus,” said Big Rapids resident Ray Sykes, who frequently rides DART buses. “It really helps to get to Walmart, like for Christmas shopping.” Poverty also is a factor in the popularity of local public transportation. From 2007 to 2011, 23.7 percent of Mecosta County residents and 19.2 percent of Osceola County residents were living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The state average for that time was 15.7 percent of the population living in poverty. On a community survey conducted by the Mecosta-Osceola Poverty Reduction Initiative in 2011, transportation was identified as one of the most common issues people said prevented them from improving their lives; 25 percent of the survey’s 549 respondents said transportation, children and/or housing were barriers. Transportation also was the third most common reason people identified for having trouble keeping a job, according to the survey. “It’s definitely one of the biggest barriers to finding jobs in a rural area,” said Luther Lovell, acting director of Mecosta County Department of Human Services. “Even families that do have one vehicle are just one car problem away from losing that job.” DHS case workers often refer clients without a car to MOTA or DART as they’re searching for jobs. DHS also offers assistance with vehicle repairs if someone in the household is working; that resource is used on a case-by-case basis. “Our first step is to refer them to MOTA, Dial-A-Ride or 2-1-1. Their services have been very helpful,” Lovell said. “MOTA and Dial-A-Ride are particularly helpful for clients receiving cash assistance as they’re searching for jobs. Without (the bus systems), a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do that.” Both DART and MOTA reach out to the handicapped and seniors, with discounted fare, handicap-accessible buses and wheelchair lifts. Dawn Fuller has been an employee of Big Rapids’ DART for almost 25 years, spending the past five years as director. She also served 18 years as a dispatcher and more than a year as a driver. Seeing the operation from so many different angles helps Fuller understand the needs of riders. “I try to keep in touch with what everybody needs,” she said. “If somebody comes to me with a need, I see if it’s feasible and if we could offer it without a lot of extra cost. I’m usually game.” DART offers transportation within the city limits of Big Rapids, making an exception to transport people to businesses along Perry Avenue such as Walmart, Meijer and Menards. Revenue from bus fare – which totals $60,000 to $70,000 a year – makes up about 6 percent of DART’s $430,000 annual budget. About 36 percent of its budget comes from state funding and 16 percent from federal grants. The City of Big Rapids contributes $100,000 to $180,000 each year for the bus service; whatever amount it takes to balance the budget. “Funding from all levels is always a challenge. If the federal government quits funding, that’s more money the city and the state have to help with. If they don’t have the money, what are we going to do?” Fuller said. “Maintaining the buses also is a challenge with making sure they’re up to code to be on the road.” DART runs a seven-bus fleet, each with capacity to hold 19 to 20 passengers. The buses operate on a demand-response system – drivers respond to specific requests for transportation rather than have a set route or pick-up time each day. There is a 10- to 30-minute wait time for pick-up. People depend on DART for a variety of reasons, ranging from doctor appointments to hospital visits, salon appointments, grocery shopping and to get to daycare or school. From 2008 to 2011, ridership increased by 30 percent, from 56,000 passengers a year to 73,000 passengers a year. The largest demographic to use the bus system is the elderly and disabled, making up 80 percent of the riders, Fuller said. Children are the next largest group, with about 80 children a day taking DART buses to school or daycare. “Ridership has increased quite a bit in the past few years,” Fuller said. “We dropped the rates a little bit for out-of-city. We used to charge double to go to Walmart and Meijer. I talked to the city commissioners because I thought it was too steep. That changed the first year I took over. ... The other part is the economy. More people can’t afford to pay for car insurance and pay for gas for their car. Plus you’ve got seniors out there who don’t like to drive.” DART’s demand-response system is a rarity in the state. “We like it when passengers call a couple hours ahead and set up a time,” Fuller said. “Most of the cities have routes or set pick-up times. There’s very few of the demand-response systems that can do it as quickly as our service system does.” Other demand-response systems Fuller has observed have wait times of more than 45 minutes because of the larger area buses must cover. Big Rapids is good-sized city for the service to operate in. Fuller would like to see additional routes and services added to DART’s offerings. A route through Ferris State University’s campus, she believes, would encourage more students to visit downtown Big Rapids. A once-a-week service where employees would help senior citizens carry groceries into their houses would allow the elderly to purchase more groceries at one time and reduce the number of trips they need to make each week. God’s Kitchen, a meal service provided by St. Mary’s Catholic Church, presents a challenge for those wanting to take the bus to the church every Tuesday when meals are served from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Fuller is considering extending the service hours for one bus that day to take people home after the meal. Another goal of Fuller’s is to better serve the apartment complexes on 14 Mile Road; MOTA currently covers that area, but its buses don’t have time to make more than one or two stops there each day. “(MOTA) covers the county and we cover the city. They do have some areas that I think (DART) could service,” Fuller said. “Public transportation is such a huge asset for anybody. I would love to put (the apartment complexes) into the demand-response we do for the rest of the city. I think there’s a lot of potential to get those students to campus.” Ron Schalow, a PRI member, has been the director of Mecosta-Osceola Transit Authority for two years after previously serving on the executive board. MOTA’s 10 buses and 15 employees serve the 24-by-48-mile area of Mecosta and Osceola counties.The bus service operates on a modified fixed route, which means the buses generally make the same stops every day, but drivers do accept requests for additional stops. Drivers also can make deliveries to homes in Marion, Evart or Big Rapids for $2 per item delivered. In the past three years, MOTA has seen a 27 percent growth in riders. In 2010, 55,000 people utilized MOTA, and more than 70,000 did in 2012. Greater awareness of the service, a growing population of elderly and disabled people in Mecosta and Osceola counties plus the economy have contributed to the increased ridership, Schalow said. “There are people who are choosing to not to drive,” he said. “They’d rather jump on the bus for less expense.” In rural areas, especially, where people cannot walk to the places they need to go, public transportation is important, Schalow said. “Your other transportation options are limited,” he said. “For those of us headed toward senior citizenship, we reach a point where we choose to stop driving or are not able to.” As the local population continues to age, Schalow predicts increased reliance on public transportation. MOTA cannot match DART’s response time because it covers a larger area, but riders depend on both services for many of the same reasons. MOTA’s $800,000 annual budget is made up of state and federal funding, contracts with local business and passenger fare.The largest source of funding, 37 percent, is from the state. Contracts with Hope Network and schools, which want to be regular stops on MOTA’s routes, make up 33 percent of the service’s budget, and the federal government’s contributions account for 17 percent. Passenger fare equates to only 7 percent of the budget. “Even a significant raise (in the cost of fare) would not create significant revenue,” Schalow said. “And it would put rides out of reach for many people.” In both 2005 and 2006, MOTA requested county residents pay a millage to support the transportation service; both millages requests were denied. The City of Big Rapids and county boards do not contribute to the service. Employees and administrators accepted pay cuts to keep the service operating. Eventually their wages were restored as the system increased ridership and became more profitable. Schalow said if county residents were more aware of the impact MOTA has on their communities, they might be more likely to support the service financially. “Many individuals who would vote for a millage may not be bus riders themselves,” he said.“They may not see there is a genuine need. As we have more and more of an aging population, we’re going to want that service.” While MOTA is solidly “in the black,” Schalow said, the financial crisis facing federal and state government calls the bus system’s continued funding into question. As the fleet ages, more money will required to repair or replace the vehicles. Many of MOTA’s drivers have worked for the company for 25 to 30 years, and Schalow worries it will be difficult to find that level of commitment and knowledge in new drives when the current drivers retire. During Project Connect, an event held in October to provide free on-site services to community members, Schalow received positive feedback from riders on MOTA’s service. “We’re meeting a major need people have,” he said. “People see our buses out there, and they’re very happy to see us in their neighborhoods... I think we’re having a signficant impact on the majority of the community.”