TBT: Tax hike not about budget woes

ALPENA — The City of Alpena will in November ask voters to approve a property tax hike to ensure Dial-a-Ride Transportation, also known as DART, services continue without an increase in fares.

If approved, the millage would climb from 0.65 mills, which has been in place since 2005, to 1 mill, for the next four years. A 1-mill property tax costs the owner of a $100,000 house about $50 a year.

Dial-a-Ride is operated by the Thunder Bay Transportation Authority, which also provides contract and prearranged transportation services in Alpena, Alcona and Montmorency counties.

TBTA General Manager Andrew Sundin said the proposed increase is not related to any financial issues with the authority, but because of rising expenses. He said the previous amount it received from the city’s millage covered about 25% of the total cost of the DART expenses, but because expenses have climbed, it only covers 15%.

Sundin said the additional money from the increase to 1 mill would bump it back to 25%.

“It puts us back in line with where we have been, historically,” he said. “We would much prefer to raise millage than fares. If you raise fares, you are directly impacting the people using the service and ones who are more vulnerable to economic situations where they won’t be able to afford the increase.”

In the city, the current rate for a senior, student or someone who has a disability is 75 cents. Regular adult fare is $1.50. Rides that go a bit into Alpena Township from the city cause the fee to double.

TBTA has a fleet of 23 buses, but, at most times, eight or fewer are responding to calls for rides.

Sundin said many people in the community don’t understand that DART and TBTA are two different entities. He said DART provides dial-a-ride services and TBTA offers transportation, which usually requires a minimum of 24 hours’ notice. The majority of TBTA’s funding comes from contracted services.

Over the last several years, TBTA has lost a pair of its largest contracts, Alpena- Montmorency-Alcona Educational Service District and Alpena Public Schools, over a dispute over how well TBTA staff responded to a bus aide who sexually abused students. The schools now use the Lansing-based Dean Transportation for services.

TBTA has $500,000 a year with those two contracts gone. TBTA’s total annual budget is $1.4 million.

Earlier this year, TBTA also settled a lawsuit related to the bus assaults, but has not disclosed how much was paid.

Sundin said hours of operation changes have helped save money and cross-training employees has helped reduce costs. He said the budget is tighter than before, and it will be difficult to replace the lost revenue, but the authority is on solid ground.

“I can say with confidence that we are not close to going under,” Sundin said.

TROLLEYS PARKED

TBTA is also in charge of the trolley routes in the city and portions of Alpena Township. Sundin said people have noticed the trollies are not operating this year . He said TBTA kept the trolleys in the garage because of the high cost of running them.

Sundin said the trollies were made for TBTA through a federal grant and are part of a research program for public transportation. He said that, as much as everyone involved tried to make the project work, it became too expensive to do so.

He said each of the trollies are different from one another because they are experimental prototypes. When one breaks down, there are only two places in the nation that are able to service them or provide needed parts. Sundin said battery life was also an issue, one of the main reasons routes that included stops at Walmart and Meijer needed to be scrapped.

He said that, when the electric vehicles were delivered, TBTA was told each would get between eight to 10 hours of battery life. He said the reality was they only got four to six hours, and that was if the driver was going slower than 25 miles an hour.

“That is why we had to pull the plug on some of the areas where there was more traffic and higher speeds,” Sundin said. “We had to redo the route to include the downtown areas and some of the parks and beaches.”

Another reason ridership never really caught on was because people would have to walk to one of the pick-up and drop-off points from their house, a store, visits such as doctors appointment. Sundin said it was simply more convenient for most riders to spend the extra quarter to have Dial-a-Ride pick them up at home and drop them off right at their desired destination. He said that was especially the case in the winter.

“This type of thing would likely work in places like Orlando or Los Angeles, where there is a higher population and more tourism,” Sundin said. “But here we were competing against ourselves with the Dial-a-Rides, and it just began to get to expensive.”

Sundin said the trollies will be out and about for certain conferences, where they have obligations already in place, and for things like the Christmas light tours during the holidays. As far as when they could be back on their routes, Sundin said he couldn’t answer that.

“We are looking into a lot of things, but, right now, I would have to say they are out of commission indefinitely,” he said.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.