Residents raise concerns at forum about the state of public transportation
Published 10:51 am Monday, April 15, 2019
ST. JOSEPH — Kathy Kennedy, of St. Joseph, does not typically mind waiting for the bus, so long as it is not more than an hour.
For Kennedy, who is disabled, public transit is her resource for getting to the grocery store and computer classes and, more importantly, a key to her independence. While she likes that Dial-A-Ride picks her up and drops her off at her home, she said long wait times can be too much to bear.
One frigid winter day, Kennedy sat waiting for a bus for more than an hour and a half.
“My toes started freezing,” Kennedy said. “I said, ‘that’s it. I called Dial-A-Ride and said, ‘cancel my ride. I can’t wait anymore.’”
On Friday, a forum sought to give people who depend on transit a chance to voice their concerns. More than 50 people packed a room at the Disability Network Office in St. Joseph to take part.
The event was hosted by the Disability Network Southwest Michigan and the Self-Advocates of Michigan Board and took place at the Disability Network office, 2900 Lakeview Ave., St. Joseph. James Ivey, a SAM Board representative for the Berrien County area, initiated the forum to give those with disabilities a voice.
“I wanted to advocate for people with disabilities and let them know we care what is going on in the world,” Ivey said. “We do have a voice to speak up for ourselves.”
Leaders of the county’s multiple transportation entities, Berrien County Community Development Transportation & Planning, Berrien County Mobility Manager, Berrien Bus, Benton Harbor Dial-A-Ride (TCATA), Buchanan Dial-A-Ride and Niles DART, attended the forum to listen to feedback and provide information.
As a proposal to consolidate the county’s multiple bus systems remains in limbo, residents expressed a need to see change now. Roughly 18 people spoke during the forum, and while some shared positive feedback, the majority expressed frustrations about long wait times, and a lack of collaboration between the independent entities, which makes service limited and cross-county travel difficult.
Like Kennedy, many said long wait times for call-ahead transit were among the most significant problems with the current bus system.
Claire Gillespie, who works at the St. Joseph Library, said she often sees elderly patrons waiting for the bus for long periods. In some cases, staff members have even offered to give them a ride home.
“They wait an hour. They wait an hour and a half, and we are talking about people in their 90s,” Gillespie said. “They can’t wait that long. It’s cold. They will sit on a bench in the lobby, but that’s not comfortable when you are that old.”
She suggested implementing regular stops at the library so that they do not have to call and wait.
Others said the narrow hours of operation make getting to jobs, taking classes or getting to a doctor’s appointment difficult or impossible.
Transportation leaders listened to feedback, emphasizing that they wanted to help riders. Some also sought to provide information that they felt could make rides a little smoother.
Kim Gallagher, of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, said the TCATA offers an ADA-compliant paratransit service, which she said provides a higher level of service.
For those who find the public transit confusing to use, it was also suggested that riders use the website mywaythere.org. The site allows people to put in where they want to travel to and get a recommendation for which bus to use.
Lewis Whalen, of the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, helped to facilitate the conversation and asked transportation operators what would give them the tools to provide better transportation services.
Kim O’Haver, president of Transportation Management, said more funding could make a big difference.
“I hate to sum it up that way, but it is a financial thing,” O’Haver said. “We do what we can to the best of our ability with the resources available to us. We could do so much more. We want to serve our people. We want to make it happen.”
TJ Taylor, acting executive director of TCATA, agreed.
“It all boils down to money,” Taylor said. “If we have the money, we can provide the service.”
Connect Berrien’s proposal to consolidate transportation resources while simultaneously expanding service is not without a price tag. While the transit system spends $4.3 million annually, the new plan could cost an additional $2 million to implement.
The consolidation idea has been presented to county commissioners, and a committee formed to discuss the proposal. Some county commissioners attended to listen to feedback Friday.
O’Haver said it is imperative that those who want to see an improvement to public transit advocate for change. She encouraged those in the audience to go to city council meetings and talk with city and state leaders.
“We do the best we can with the resources we have, but the resources are clearly not enough,” O’Haver said. “Let [legislatures] know how important public transit is to you and how you depend on it. It’s not just something nice to have. It’s your quality of life that you’re talking about.”