TRAVERSE CITY — Riding a public bus is sometimes a challenge for disabled students who have jobs in Traverse City.
Some get out of work at 1 p.m., but have to wait until 4:30 p.m. to get a ride home to out-county areas, said Marlene Plane, who works at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s Career Tech Center.
“Our students are kind of used to that,” Plane said. “Some will enjoy the time, and some find it’s pretty difficult.”
Plane spoke of the bus waits at a packed meeting recently held at the Disability Network Northern Michigan offices, where riders and their advocates met with two Bay Area Transportation Authority bus officials.
BATA announced significant changes to limit waits to 15 minutes and promised to be more responsive.
“We know that we have not been easy to do business with in the past,” said Carrie Thompson, business development director. “We want to make it easier for existing riders and attract new riders.”
The buses are getting repainted with jazzy logos and new names to help riders understand the system. Dial-a-ride and zone services will be called “city link” or “village link” buses. They’ll connect to dedicated routes called “city loops” and “village loops.”
In early May, the bus system will double the frequency of village loop routes to Kingsley, Empire, Northport, Suttons Bay, Interlochen and Williamsburg to every hour. But buses will leave every two hours in mid-day when ridership is low, Thompson said.
Village loop riders generally will be able transfer to another bus without first coming to the Hall Street station. That will shorten rides, save BATA an estimated 55,000 miles annually, ease in-town bus congestion, and allow BATA to offer village loop rides on weekends. BATA will also extend weeknight hours to 9 p.m., Thompson said.
A “real” person with a cell phone has begun answering calls outside of dispatch hours, a relief to Mary Ferris, who complained the bus sometimes arrives up to 30 minutes late when she and her friend need a ride home from church.
Thompson said BATA also promised cleaner bus shelters with solar-powered lights, and route maps.
“If you have to transfer where there is no shelter, there will be one coming soon,” she said.
The website will also get a redo and “softly launch” on May 15. A website trip finder will launch in June, Thompson said.
“The end goal (in December) is to have a mobile app, so that you can scan the QR code and see where the bus is on the route while you’re waiting,” she said. “That’s where we’re headed.”
Riders and educators were excited about the changes and congratulated Thompson and Transportation Services Manager Doug Dowdy for resolving problems.
“I think it’s going to be a great improvement,” Plane said. “They did a wonderful job.”
The changes didn’t make everyone happy. Routes within Traverse City won’t change until next summer, a disappointment for Kristy Sumera, who wants to see the Central neighborhood bus stop reinstated. Thompson said she didn’t think the number of riders justified the route.
Libby Magee, a visually impaired rider, complained she had to miss a meeting after calling a day ahead for a ride and learning the bus was full.
“I had the same issue,” said Matt Moritz who uses a wheelchair. “I was trying to get to Michigan Works and I called two days in advance.”
Buses can only accommodate two or three wheelchairs at a time and can quickly fill. Thompson suggested reserving a ride up to two weeks in advance. Dowdy cut off complaints and changed the subject back to the new bus model.
Jim Moore, executive director of the Disability Network, said later that the plan sounds like a good one, but implementation will be key.
“I’m optimistic,” he said.