Should county’s public transit be consolidated?Published 7:05am Friday, July 25, 2014
Berrien County’s public transportation system is in need of a complete overhaul according to representatives of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.
Kim Gallagher, of SWMPC, is recommending that Berrien County Commissioners scrap the county’s current public transportation system, which includes four independent transit agencies, in favor of a single countywide agency.
“We have a patchwork system that truly can’t move people through the county because there are different fares, different service hours, different service areas and there is very little or no connectivity,” she said in a presentation to the county commissioners Thursday morning.
Her recommendation is based on the results of an extensive two-and-a-half year study of the county’s transit system performed by a third party company, the KFH Group, of Bethesda, Maryland.
Berrien County is the only county in the state with four independent transit systems: Berrien Bus, Twin Cities Area Transit Authority, Buchanan Dial-A-Ride and Niles Dial-A-Ride.
Dan Fette, of the county’s Community Development Department, said the basic problem with having four agencies is that each is independently funded and regulated, making it difficult for one agency to coordinate with another to move a person from point A to point B across each agency’s territory.
“Having a consolidated single system eliminates those regulatory boundaries and a new authority could be running routes without having to concern itself as to whether it is going from urban to rural to urban,” he said.
To highlight a portion of the problem, Gallagher said that it would cost a person traveling from St. Joseph to Royalton $6, while a person traveling from Niles to Royalton would pay $5, despite the Niles trip being approximately 10 miles farther.
“We need to improve services and make the fares more equitable,” she said.
During public comment, three users of the current transit system spoke in favor of consolidation.
Joanne Johnson, of Disability Network Southwest Michigan, said the current system makes it especially difficult for people with disabilities to travel throughout the county because there are multiple systems and multiple fares. She said in some instances it could take a full day to travel from St. Joseph to Niles and back again using the current transit system.
“It is truly a maze that we’ve set up in Berrien County,” she said.
County Commissioner Chairman Jon Hinkelman agreed that some type of change is needed, citing statistics provided in Gallagher’s presentation showing that the four combined agencies transport people at a rate of nearly $4 per mile.
“It certainly can be streamlined,” he said.
Gallagher asked the commissioners to read the 100-plus-page study and develop a plan for moving forward if they so choose.
“It will be a long process,” she said.