The transportation authority drives toward major projects and milestones
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 12, 2022
New property, new buses, and a continuing commitment to serve Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. That’s what is happening at BATA, the Bay Area Transportation Authority. According to Executive Director Kelly Dunham, that means continuously exploring ways to add or modify routes, improve the buses’ efficacy, and serve more people, all while keeping the bottom line in mind.
One area in which those objectives can be met is updating the buses. “We see a lot of emphasis on the electrification of the fleet,” says Dunham. “Now we have greater access to funding [from state and federal sources] and manufacturing of electric as we green our fleet.”
The trend toward lower-emission buses has been underway for several years, initially pushing BATA away from gasoline and diesel toward propane. Currently, just over half BATA’s buses are propane-fueled. Dunham says by 2025 she anticipates over 90 percent of the buses will be low or no emission: 84 propane and seven or more electric.
Dunham says both economic and environmental factors are driving the switch. Federal and state grants are increasingly geared toward supporting low-emission vehicles. In addition, electric vehicles are forecast to need far less maintenance, though that also comes with additional training for the new engines.
The range electric vehicles can travel continues to increase, and the change to electric has other benefits.
“The technology has really come a long way in the last 10 or 15 years. They’re quieter, more comfortable rides, which makes for a better transit experience,” Dunham says. “We hope to introduce three to five electric vehicles in the next year. Initially, we’ll keep them in the urban area, the center of Traverse City, where we have easier access for charging. Once we understand their capability, we hope to use them in all of Grand Traverse and in Leelanau County.”
“We want to be good community stewards,” adds Eric Lingaur, director of communications and development for BATA. “We put a lot of miles on the roads.” (Indeed, BATA services some 900 square miles in Grand Traverse and Leelanau County.) “We’re making sure to be environmentally focused.”
That’s part of the thinking behind BATA’s project with the Traverse City Housing Commission. Earlier this year, the two organizations purchased 50-plus acres of property near the intersection of LaFranier and Hammond roads. The plan is to build both a transit center and housing on the site. Sitework is set to begin next year, with phase one completed in 2024 and the entire project completed in 2026.
Having housing and a transportation hub next to one another will provide those living at the site with greater access to BATA’s services. Up to 20 percent of a low-income family’s annual household budgets goes toward transportation, according to statistics for ALICE households: those that are Asset-Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. This will be one of the first rural transit-oriented development projects in the Midwest, establishing a national model for other communities to follow.
The 87,000-square-foot facility will include space for administration and operations, maintenance and service, and a bus garage with parking for up to 100 vehicles indoors, with room for future expansion. The housing component will include five multifamily buildings with more than 200 units and 15 single-family Habitat for Humanity homes. There will also be a childcare facility onsite, and 20 acres of wetlands will be protected through easements granted to the Grand Traverse Land Conservancy, resulting in a walkable nature preserve.
A bonus is that the project will create more employment opportunities, with the expectation to employ more than 75 primary construction workers throughout the construction phases and generate more than $15 million in short-term local spending. In the longer term, it will create 50 new full-time positions in childcare, retail, and housing, as well as public transit.
BATA’s portion of the project is estimated to cost $28 million, and it has already secured $16 million in federal funding while looking to acquire additional federal and state support.
BATA also relies on a public millage assessment for funding—though that’s for regular operations rather than new projects or buses. The 0.4788 mill renewal approved by voters Nov. 8 provides up to 40 percent of BATA’s total funding. “It’s critical,” says Dunham. “It’s the foundation…of our budget. If there was no local millage, we don’t have a way to bridge the funding gap.”
BATA and the other public transit companies serving the region have always faced the challenge of serving a rural area, as opposed to the services that operate in cities. “A lot of Grand Traverse and Leelanau are rural,” says Lingaur.
That doesn’t make the transportation service any less critical for those who use it. Plus, there are new residents who come from urban areas where public transit was both a necessity and heavily used who continue to rely on that mode of travel. “We have to meet their needs. We are having more people that had expectations of public transport where they came from,” Lingaur explains.
Some of those who use BATA can no longer drive, others choose not to, and for others still the expense of a car and gas is beyond their means. “A large percentage are seniors, some 80 and up,” says Dunham. “It’s a lifeline to groceries, medical appointments, employment.” She adds that, “Socio-economic disadvantaged [individuals] have to live in a rural area but can’t afford transportation expenses.”
With those needs in mind, Dunham says working with the other transportation organizations is crucial, and she believes the working relationships among the region’s various bus services have improved. Better partnerships with Benzie Bus, the WexExpress, and Kalkaska Public Transit will find more people using the systems in the future.
“We want to be better partners with the neighboring transit agencies,” she says, noting people don’t live, work, and travel based on county lines. “There were over 3,000 workers going from Benzie to Grand Traverse daily pre-COVID.”
As with other industries and services, the pandemic greatly impacted BATA. People who had previously been using public transit suddenly were not comfortable doing so. In 2019, there were 600,000 annual rides, and in early 2020, there was a 20 to 30 percent increase…until COVID hit. Ridership has again steadily increased as people have become more comfortable gathering near others. Now the problem is being able to serve all those who want to use BATA.
“Ridership demand is high. The number one challenge is staffing,” says Lingaur, estimating the service is only able to deliver about 80 percent of demand.
Dunham says the Great Resignation, the economic trend in which employees left their jobs in the wake of the pandemic, impacted BATA, and the organization could use as many as a dozen new workers. To address the shortfall in staffing, BATA is offering a $10,000 hiring/recruiting/retention incentive. It’s designed to both attract new workers and reward those who choose to remain with the company, as the incentive requires a three-year commitment.
With their new goals—and, they hope, more staff—BATA is poised to continue to grow and serve the area. “We want to keep Traverse City flowing,” says Lingaur, pointing not only to BATA’s expansion but continued work with everyone from the Downtown Development Authority to TART Trails to outlying villages, from Empire to Interlochen. “We want to do a better job talking, keeping each other informed.”