As ridership soars, Benzie Bus unveils new daily service
HONOR – People are flocking to the new Benzie Bus system. Since Jan. 1, more than 14,000 people have taken the fledgling bus service to destinations throughout Benzie County, with ridership already soaring past state projections. And the bus agency expects its business to boom even more in early August when it launches daily service to downtown Traverse City.
“We’re very pleased by the strong response from the public so far,” said Sue Miller, who directs the Benzie Bus system and previously ran the buses for Traverse City area and Benzie Central schools. “This is a service that truly everyone can benefit from, no matter your age or circumstance, especially with gas prices so high.”
Local leaders and state transportation officials had projected the Benzie Bus system would carry about 22,000 people in its first year. Ridership, however, has zoomed to nearly two-thirds that total in just half a year, even though the bus system has yet to roll out its regional service. The most common bus trips in Benzie County so far include people going to work, a medical appointment, the bank, grocery store, private home, and even summer camp.
“Ridership is surpassing our expectations and is the sign of a well planned and well promoted system,” said Jean Ruestman, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s transit supervisor for its North Unit. “The right steps were taken to ensure that the service was truly needed in the county and that people would actually ride if the service were offered. It's an exciting trend to watch!”
The Benzie Bus agency is hosting an Open House on Wednesday, Aug. 1, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., at its headquarters at 12762 U.S. 31, just west of Pioneer Road, in Honor, to introduce the public to its staff, facility, new buses, and planned regional service. Local officials are expected to attend, as well as representatives from the Bay Area Transportation Authority (BATA) in Traverse City. Bus staff will serve hot dogs, drinks, and dessert.
Benzonia resident Sara Piersma plans to attend the Open House and to praise the bus system, which she said has transformed her life. Ms. Piersma, who campaigned for starting the bus system, has Down syndrome, does not drive, and has lived recently in adult foster care. But emboldened by the money she had saved from working at Shop N Save, she decided to use the bus system’s start as the final piece in her plan to live independently, and bought her first home last January. “I’m loving it. It’s a new chapter in my life,” Ms. Piersma said. “I feel really blessed. I even have my own cat.”
Starting Aug. 6, the Benzie Bus system will begin offering three daily round trips to Traverse City, in the early morning, mid-day, and early evening. Buses will stop at Munson Medical Center and then proceed directly to BATA’s downtown bus station. From there, passengers can walk, ride their bicycle, carpool, or transfer to BATA’s bus system, which serves all of Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. The state just awarded Benzie Bus a $28,000 grant to purchase (HOW MANY?) racks that will carry up to three bicycles on the front of each bus; BATA’s buses already have bike carriers.
The Traverse City route’s likely boarding points in Benzie County are Glen’s Markets in Frankfort, Shop N Save in Benzonia, the Betsie Valley Trail depot building in Beulah, the Gathering Place (near Honor Family Market) in Honor, and Lake Ann Village Park (IS THIS THE PROPER NAME OF THE PARK?). People can take a dial-a-ride bus to any of these locations, if necessary, and then transfer to the Traverse City bus.
Jim Dulzo, who lives in Beulah but works in Traverse City for the Michigan Land Use Institute, can hardly wait for the regional buses to roll. “There are five us traveling from Benzie to Traverse City every day now, and we are quite literally counting the days until we can start using the bus to get there,” Mr. Dulzo said. “It will give us a great deal more flexibility and really reduce the wear and tear on our cars.”
During the initial startup of the Traverse City route, people must make a reservation well in advance to secure a seat on one of the 15-passenger buses. Direct bus service to any medical facility within the city limits of Traverse City also will continue on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday of each month by reservation. for regular dial-a-ride service throughout Benzie County, the bus agency requests that riders call 24 hours in advance, if possible. To schedule any ride, call (231) 325-3000 or toll free (866) 325-3380. Information is also available on the Internet at http://www.benziebus.com/.
One-way trips within Benzie County cost $2, with the fare reduced to $1 for seniors, people with disabilities, and children ages 6-12. One-way trips to Traverse City will cost $5. Packages of discounted bus passes are available. In the summer, buses run 6 a.m. – 10 a.m., Monday to Friday, and 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday. The bus system runs 12 buses and three vans, all accessible to people with disabilities.
On Aug. 8, 2006, Benzie County residents voted 58-42 in favor of a 0.50 mil property tax to create and operate a Benzie Bus system, with dial-a-ride service throughout the county and links to Traverse City and Manistee, as well, which will gain limited service in coming months. State and federal matching funds pay for about half the cost to run the buses and the entire cost to buy them.
The bus campaign enjoyed strong support from Benzie County’s business, faith, social services, medical, and environmental communities and was several years in the making. The election marked the first time in Michigan that a campaign succeeded in its first attempt to pass a millage to form a new bus system, according to Clark Harder at the Michigan Public Transit Association in Lansing.
“For a brand new start-up system to be created with the passage of a first millage is, in fact, a new and remarkable accomplishment,” said Mr. Harder, who foresees more growth as the Benzie Bus system branches out. “It takes a good regional magnet community to be successful and, certainly, Benzie service into Traverse City would seem to have the markings of a popular service.”
Matt McCauley, a planner with the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments in Traverse City, agreed. He pointed to Benzie County’s skyrocketing population growth – the second fastest rate in Michigan since 1990 – and striking commuting pattern as evidence of need for regional bus service. “According to the 2000 Census, approximately 35 percent of Benzie County workers are employed in Grand Traverse County,” said Mr. McCauley. “Public transportation is quickly becoming a central figure in all transportation planning endeavors, even in the rural areas of Northwest Michigan.”
And a central figure in people’s lives and hearts in Benzie County.
“I used to paint houses in the summer and every time I go by one of them I feel proud, proud that I made the world a little bit better by painting that house,” Tom Stobie, chairman of the Benzie Bus agency’s board of directors and superintendent of Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools. “Today, each time I see a Benzie Bus on the road I have that same feeling. All of us who took on this monumental task of passing the millage, setting up the operation and now seeing it serve our customers so well should feel proud. We have truly made Benzie County a better place to live!”
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