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March/April 2010

BATA?  You Bet!

It makes sense today, and even more sense tomorrow

I’ve always loved riding public transportation - the buses and trains that took me to work or to conferences in big cities, the people watching, the time to read or think.  Until recently, though, it’s been my big city thing.

Now, I take the Bay Area Transportation Authority’s Empire Village Connector bus from my home near Cedar to the downtown transfer station in Traverse City, population 15,000.

So, instead of skyscrapers I see the blaze of autumn leaves.  I skip white-knuckle driving on winter roads.  And while I can’t watch people reading Chinese newspapers like I did once in New York City, I do experience something that I’ve cherished while growing up and living around small towns.

Other riders get to know my name.  They greet me when I get on.  And we ask about each other’s families and work.  Our region’s classic, small-town friendliness and sense of community also ride the BATA bus.

The reason I can do this is because our community decided that mass transportation isn’t just for big cities.  Two years ago, BATA asked voters like me to approve a renewal of 0.35 mills to continue funding bus service in Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties.  It wasn’t a tax increase, but simply a renewal of what we’d been paying BATA through taxes over the last three years.  The owner of a $100,000 home, with a taxable value of $50,000, BATA said, would continue to pay $17.50 a year - about a nickel a day.  We passed the millage request.

For those nickels we get village connector fixed-route services like the one that gets me to work on time each day and links villages to each other and to Traverse City.  We get in-town "Cherriot" fixed routes.  We get dial-a-ride services for those who need door-to-door assistance.  Many of our students ride BATA to schools.  And BATA serves community events, like the cherry festival, film festival, and Interlochen concerts.

It Takes All Sorts

I also like BATA because it helps all sorts of people in all sorts of situations - from bicyclists to young kids to elderly folks who need just a bit of help.

For example, I remember the time our bus was full with eight riders and with five bikes on the exterior racks and the Back Storage Area.  I’m one of those people who now often commutes by bicycle one way to work - 14 miles for me, partly on the Leelanau Trail - and takes the bus home.

Then there’s my friend in Suttons Bay, who confidently puts her growing-up kids on BATA if they want to head into the "big city" of TC.  And there was the day when our bus driver stopped at Tom’s West Bay market and helped an elderly woman with failing eyesight get her grocery bags on board.

In other words, BATA’s serving us all, regardless of age, physical ability, and income.

In 2003, BATA provided about 300,000 rides a year.  When we passed the millage in 2007, it provided nearly 500,000 - a little over 200,000 for people with disabilities, about 100,000 for senior citizens.  That left 300,000 for folks like me, who can drive but don’t want to, for all sorts of reasons, from getting some exercise to cutting down on traffic congestion and air pollution to saving on high fuel prices.

I’m old enough, too, to think about myself 30 years from now, when I’ll be in my 80s.  I don’t like winter driving now; believe me, you don’t want me driving on winter roads when I’m 80.  Assuming my bike riding keeps me healthy, I look forward to independent living when I’m a senior, thanks to BATA.

Some Nice Numbers

But is BATA and community mass transit worth the financial investment?  I think so.  My old farmhouse south of Cedar’s taxable value is about $50,000, which means I kept  paying that nickel a day after we renewed the millage two years ago.  My nickel a day, combined with the nickels - or pennies, dimes or quarters - that others might pay, raises about $1.8 million a year in total tax revenue for BATA. 

And that $1.8 million leverages quite a bit more than twice that amount in state and federal dollars which, with bus fares, brought the total BATA annual budget when we were voting on the millage to almost $5.2 million.  Without the millage, BATA says, the federal and state dollars would stop and BATA’s budget for services would plummet to $167,200.

BATA can’t provide its services for $167,200.  So my independent future here as a vibrant little old lady would vanish.

So, too, would BATA’s plan to invest in clean, quiet, energy efficient electric buses and a new wind turbine to make green energy electricity to charge up the those buses.

And I’d also lose the chance to have more experience like this:  One day when I got on the bus, a young woman asked me,  "Are you Diane Conners?"

Then she lifted her sunglasses.  Turns out, she’s the daughter of a friend from Manistee County; I hadn’t seen her since she was a girl; she had relocated to Maple City; and now she and her partner, Ray, were taking the bus to work in Traverse City. 

I got to meet them both on the bus which, like the coffee shop and my dining room table, is a part of my town.  Two bucks a ride and a nickel a day?  You bet.

Diane Conners is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior policy specialist in food and farming. She’s also a veteran journalist and a longtime northern Michigan resident.  Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Great Lakes Bulletin News Service and the Michigan Land Use Institute  http://www.mlui.org
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