DART, Cass Transit exploring merger
Cass County Transit Authority Wednesday considers seeking a countywide millage vote in November.
If that request succeeds, CCTA and Dowagiac Dial-A-Ride Transit (DART) will consolidate and the city transfers its equipment to the county.
Existing on-demand DART service would continue with no less than the same service hours, plus there would be a one-year test of expanding hours to include Saturday morning and evening service.
A five-year interlocal agreement City Council signed off on Monday night is necessary because both CCTA, of 400 E. State St., Cassopolis, and DART find themselves in the same sinking boat.
Revenues from state and federal sources have declined while fuel operating costs soar.
Both the county and city transit systems established fund balances that allow operations to continue, but the “trend is clear,” City Manager Kevin Anderson said. “Operating as is will not be an option long-term. Countywide millage, we’re looking at somewhere around .28 or .29, which is less than the city pays currently.”
Over the past year, the CCTA, which Mayor Don Lyons has helped manage for 16 years, and DART have been meeting to discuss multiple scenarios to operate in the future.
“The best solution is consolidation and establishment of one transit system that will serve the entire county that would, in part, be funded by a proposed countywide millage,” Anderson said. “The proposed agreement before council has been negotiated to insure city residents that the level of service will be maintained in the city during terms of the agreement.”
According to Assistant City Manager Rozanne Scherr, Dowagiac’s transit coordinator, state and federal grant dollars to cover a portion of operating costs continue to erode. Operating funding has declined from 59.25 percent to 35.09 percent while gas prices and maintenance costs skyrocketed.
“Given the majority of ridership is senior and/or disabled, fares cannot be raised to a level that balances the deficit between revenues and expenses,” Scherr said.
Municipalities are required to provide Michigan on an annual basis a list of consolidation efforts to qualify for the full amount of state-provided revenue sharing. Duplication of services is discouraged as an unwarranted expenditure of tax dollars.
There is also the desire to control our destiny. Legislators discussed implementing a 10-percent penalty in funding to each transit agency if more than one operates within a county.
“A penalty in funding would seriously affect our ability to continue the current level of service,” Scherr said. “Additionally, CCTA and DART have been forced to utilize funding reserves to balance budget deficits. A proactive approach to eliminate this drain on reserves must be taken to preserve transit service.”
Should the proposed millage pass, Dowagiac’s .55-mill transit millage would roll back to zero. The agreement, as written, also provides for expanded services to city passengers. For example, there have been many requests for rides to Four Winds Casino, which is outside DART’s service area.
Functions transferred from the city to the county would include:
• Five days per week (Monday-Friday) demand-response dial-a-ride service within the city service area between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. each day. There shall be at least two DART buses available for service on those days and at those times.
• CCTA will provide at least three hours of dial-a-ride service within the city on Saturday mornings between 9 a.m. and noon.
• CCTA will provide additional weekday dial-a-ride service within the city from 4 to 6 p.m. each day. Notwithstanding the stated term of this agreement, these services shall operate for a one-year trial period, then continue or terminate upon mutual agreement of the city and CCTA.
Vehicles shall continue to display signage identifying them as Dowagiac Dial-A-Ride buses.
“This is something we’ve been watching carefully for some number of years,” Lyons said. “Probably five or six years ago, our operation swung from being consistently in the black to being consistently in the red. We have a pretty good understanding that trends in Lansing and Washington are not favorable. Simply put, we cannot continue being in the transportation business without a fundamental change in the way we do business.”