ALPENA - For the first time since a merger with Thunder Bay Transportation Corp. in 2006, Dial-a-Ride has logged 8,000 passengers in a month, hitting the milestone in March, General Manager and CFO Billi Edmonds said. Alpena residents pay $1.50 for one-way rides that take them curb-to-curb from their homes to places where they work, learn or shop.
"We're pretty excited that the community has such faith in us," Edmonds said. "It's exciting to see our growth, but it's also frustrating, because wait times are longer."
While most passengers are picked up within 15 to 20 minutes of their call, about one percent of riders wait over an hour.
"That's 80 people a month," Edmonds said. "We've added an afternoon route, but we're pretty much maxed out on resources."
The Thunder Bay Transportation Authority will provide a sixth route when a fleet of hybrid buses are delivered to the city, but those units won't go into service until later in the year, she said.
The transportation authority also has regular bus routes throughout the city.
People riding the bus Thursday seemed to appreciate the service as TBTA employee Joe Duby got them to their destinations. He has been a bus driver 24 years and said he and four other drivers were picking up and dropping passengers off that morning.
Now in his mid-50s, Duby usually drives 80 miles a day around Alpena and has seen the community change in slow motion. That means he has over 470,000 miles worth of experience as a professional driver.
"I've seen Walmart go up, Kmart go up," he said. "I've seen schools come down. They tore down the old Lincoln School."
The job is never boring.
"It isn't the same every day," he said. "You see the seasons change. You're picking up different people."
His passengers include the disabled, people on assistance, folks who have their automobiles in the shop and those who have simply given up on driving. They call dispatch, and Duby is notified by radio that people need rides.
He also picks up what he describes as little people.
"You'll see," he said, easing his bus into a parking lot. "We're picking up a little one now."
The passenger turns out to be a four-year-old girl at a daycare center. Duby also picks up a four-year-old boy at a home, and both are securely fastened in with safety belts.
"The children usually fall asleep during the ride," he said, and indeed, after picking up and dropping off a passenger at Neiman's Family Market, he looks over his shoulder.
The little girl is drooped over, daydreaming, a white stuffed rabbit in her arms. But she perks up when Duby delivers her and the boy into the hands of a Head Start teacher.
April Fournier is a regular customer and said she uses a combination of walking and Dial-a-Ride to get around Alpena. She walks to the grocery store from her apartment on the Thunder Bay River and then has Dial-a-Ride take her and her bags home.
"You have to wait, but what can they do," Fournier said. "It's $1.50. A cab is $7."
Jean Kuznicki, 82, also rode the bus Thursday, and uses the service once in a while.
"I have a beautiful car sitting in the garage, but I can't drive it," she said, adding her car was hit in an alley a while back and now isn't working properly. "I'm pretty upset over it. I hope they can get it fixed," she said en route to a pharmacy.
Mike Taylor used the service Thursday to go from his apartment to Walmart.
"I could own a car, but I don't want one," the 67-year-old said, adding that health problems now keep him out of the driver's seat.
Car ownership also means insurance and fuel costs, he said.
"I can go a whole lot farther on a bus or cab than what it would cost for a tank of gas," he said.
Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.