Traverse City Record-Eagle


November 1, 2011

BATA millage on upcoming ballot

TRAVERSE CITY — Claudia Brown, bags of groceries in hand, chatted with friends as she waited for a Bay Area Transportation Authority bus for a ride to her rural East Bay Township home.

Brown, who isn't supposed to drive — and can't afford a car, anyway — uses BATA to get groceries, for trips to the doctor and to visit friends and family.

"It's my lifeline. I use it for everything," Brown said. "I'd have to sell my house and rent a room in town if voters took the buses away."

Voters will be asked on Nov. 8 to renew BATA's 0.3454 mill property tax levy for five years. The measure would raise about $2.3 million annually to fund operations and would cost the owner of a home with a $75,000 taxable value about $26 a year.

Dixie Stephen, who lives on Oak Street in Traverse City, said BATA has a down side: It's caused some of her neighbors to talk about selling their homes, since BATA's express bus route to the malls on South Airport Road travels along Oak Street 26 times a day.

"Big buses, not those little nondescript ones, go by my house every half-hour, and there's a minuscule number of people on those buses," Stephen said. "I believe in public transportation but I think BATA needs to be more responsive to the neighborhood, especially when it's as ineffective as it is on Oak Street."

Running an Express bus on a side street instead of nearby Division Street prompted Stephen and some of her neighbors to question the overall management of BATA's fixed routes within the city.

"Their ridership is marginal," Stephen said.

Tom Menzel, BATA's executive director, said the agency needs a new business model and he's ready to take one to his board in November. The new plan will expand hours, create more park-and-ride runs from outlying villages to Traverse City and shift more of its business to fixed routes as opposed to its dial-a-ride service.

"We want a system that attracts broader demographics so a young urban mother can hop on a bus and ride down to the Open Space," Menzel said. "We'll have more rides, more frequent stops."

Menzel said BATA wasn't ready for the change when he took the director's wheel three years ago. The agency was $375,000 in the red and inefficient. He's since hired new management, created new policies and an organizational chart that put the agency in the black.

"We've put a lot of efficiencies in place and cut our cost from $50 an operating hour to $44 an operating hour, so that's pretty substantial because we have a lot of operating hours," Menzel said.

That's allowed BATA to eschew the common practice of obtaining a small tax increase by asking voters to approve the original voted millage amount of 0.35 mills instead of the rolled back rate of 0.3454 mills. The smaller millage request and stagnant property values will bring in slightly less tax revenue in 2013 than BATA collects now, the agency estimates.

Even public transportation opponents such as Grand Traverse County Commissioner Jason Gillman, a member of the tea party, praises the BATA board and Menzel for turning around the organization and cutting costs.

"I won't vote for it — I don't believe in public transportation — but I'm not going to campaign against it," Gillman said.

Stephen, the Oak Street resident, acknowledged she'll probably vote in favor of the millage. Her support won't come because BATA promises to improve routes and move the buses off her street, but because people are struggling financially and need public transportation, she said.

Angel Ance-Berry uses BATA to get from her Leelanau County home to classes at Northwestern Michigan College four times a week.

"There's a lot of young people right now using it to get to school and jobs," Ance-Berry said. "If the millage doesn't pass it would be a real loss because a lot of people depend on it right now, especially in this economy."

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