ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County is set to expand its public transportation program, following a unanimous May 23 vote by the Board of Commissioners to begin a two-year pilot project to reach more riders.
Community Development Director Dan Fette said they want to have buses on the new routes by Jan. 1, 2020.
Commissioners chose an intermediate option over a more expensive plan that would have consolidated existing bus systems, including Berrien Bus and Niles and Buchanan Dial a Ride services.
Chairman Mac Elliott said he learned from former commissioner Ken Wendzel to ask two questions when spending taxpayers’ dollars: “Is it something you need? And, can you afford it?”
“There is a need” for additional public transportation, Elliott acknowledged.
He said how much the county can afford to spend down the road will be a major consideration over the next two years.
The plan recommended by the county’s transportation coordinator would include routes from Benton Harbor to Niles and to New Buffalo; New Buffalo to Niles; and from Benton Harbor to Coloma-Watervliet. It also would offer ondemand service four days a week, and would continue contract service with such entities as Berrien RESA. It expects to carry 40,000 riders annually.
The resolution commits the county to spending an additional $100,000 a year for the duration of the pilot project, plus money from the Berrien Bus fund balance. It also creates a transportation advisory committee.
Without increasing ridership, Berrien Bus will be broke in less than three years, commissioners were told.
The Connect Berrien plan to consolidate transportation operations would have required an additional $1.6 million in funding, likely from a tax millage.
Commissioner Jon Hinkelman wanted to be clear that going with the pilot project doesn’t commit the county to jumping into the more expensive recommendation in two years.
Hinkelman said the pilot plan is “a worthwhile endeavor,” but he didn’t think the burden for funding transportation should fall solely on property owners.
Elliott clarified that going forward should not create the impression that seeking countywide tax millage is a foregone conclusion for the future.
Fette said that the Connect Berrien projections were based on population density, and only estimated ridership and expenses.
The pilot project will provide exact numbers on demand and ridership and will provide a better picture of how to go ahead, he said.
“This allows us to collect information and narrow down the options on how to fund the system,” Fette said. “We’re not talking about going from a pilot project to a full service plan in 24 months.”
Evan Smith, the county’s transportation coordinator, said the Connect Berrien plan was based on a high level of service, and the expansion with the $1.6 million price tag is only one option.
The Connect Berrien plan envisioned reaching all areas of the county, with routes extending to South Bend and Michigan City.
Commissioner Teri Freehling noted that 54 percent of Berrien Bus riders are elderly or disabled and can’t drive, and have no other transportation options. Having transportation options could also help attract a younger work force, she added.
Freehling said that she also has reservations about where the plan takes the county for the next phase.
“I want transportation for all who need it,” said Commissioner Mamie Yarbrough. “I want other communities involved.”
Yarbrough said that Washtenaw County has a transportation system based in Ann Arbor, which charges surrounding communities for service.
Benton Township resident Jerry Sirk cautioned that if they started charging municipalities for service, the ones that can’t afford it will be the ones that need it most.
Mark Johnson, a member of the committee that put together the Connect Berrien plan, said he believed that his fellow committee members would support the county going forward.
Fette said his office has already been working on the details of the transportation plan, and still has a lot of work to do to meet the beginning of the year deadline. A big piece will be marketing and letting people know that the new service is available, he said.