Faced with decreased ridership and an operating deficit of about $400,000 last year, Muskegon Area Transit System (MATS) is looking at significantly changing its operations—including potentially cutting its number of full-time employees, reducing fixed bus route coverage, decreasing fixed bus route hours, and launching a “microtransit” program that would run akin to something like Lyft or Uber.
A consultant working with MATS—Muskegon County’s mass transportation system that operates public buses throughout the region—will present a series of proposed changes to MATS at two upcoming meetings on Wednesday, Feb. 19. Both meetings are open to the public; the first will be an open house format from 11am to 2pm at the Herman Ivory Terminal, located at 351 Morris Ave. in downtown Muskegon. The second meeting, also on Wednesday, Feb. 19, will be a formal presentation of the potential changes and will take place from 6pm to 7pm at Muskegon Community College’s Sturrus Technology, located at 388 W. Clay Ave. in downtown Muskegon.
The potential changes are recommendations from Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning, a Maryland-based transportation firm that Muskegon County contracted with beginning in May 2019. Since then, the firm has studied MATS’ operations and solicited input from a wide variety of stakeholders, from bus riders and general members of the public to government officials and nonprofit leaders, among others, in order to publish its final set of recommendations.
To see the full report outlining the proposed changes, please click here.
“I would encourage people to come and hear about this first-hand,” MATS System Manager Jim Koens said. “All told, the items in [Foursquare’s] report are intended to provide better service in the community and do so at a reasonable cost.”
The possible changes—none of which are definite and still have a number of hurdles to jump before possibly being implemented, such as public hearings and approval by Muskegon County commissioners—include decreasing the number of fixed bus routes from 10 to seven, a reduction in fixed-route service hours to 7am to 6pm, and offering a “microtransit” program to address gaps in coverage and ultimately expand the number of hours individuals can access public transportation. The microtransit program—which would be provided through a third-party contractor—would, for example, offer service until midnight on weekdays and offer rides on both Saturdays and Sundays.
As part of the proposal, MATS staff would be reduced by 11.75 full-time employees, from 43.25 full-time positions to 31.5. The proposed cuts include eight operators being cut and three supervisors/administrators/other staff being cut. The 0.75 cut would come from dispatch. The consultant noted in its report that the third-party contractor proposed to operate the microtransit program could end up hiring individuals whose positions were eliminated at MATS.
“MATS should seek to achieve these reductions through attrition to the greatest extent possible,” the Foursquare report states. “It is also recommended that severance packages and/or adjustments to benefits (such as making employees nearing key milestone employment dates fully vested in their retirement plans) be considered to minimize the negative impact these changes will have on current MATS staff.”
Rider fares would not increase under the current proposal.
Koens noted that the report proposing these changes was inspired by feedback from Muskegon County communities.
“By and large, our system was formed 45 years ago, and we’ve had very few changes over time,” Koens said. “As we looked at the financial situation and reached out to our funding partner communities, asking them to come up with additional money, they said they wanted us to look at system improvements before they came up with the funding. [These proposed changes] were precipitated by the funding need and desire from funding partners.”
Currently, MATS receives funding through the Muskegon County communities that partner with it and the transit organization then uses that funding to secure federal and state grants. Fixed-route service is currently provided primarily in Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, and Roosevelt Park, as well as portions of Norton Shores, Muskegon Township, Montague, Whitehall, and Dalton Township.
In recent years, MATS—along with public transportation systems across the United States—has faced decreasing ridership and increased costs, both of which are the driving force behind the proposed changes. Ridership peaked at a little more than 700,000 rides in 2011, when Muskegon County faced a 10 percent unemployment rate and more people were turning to public transportation in order to save money. With the Great Recession behind us, more people are driving their own vehicles instead of riding the bus; consequently, MATS ridership dropped to a bit under 550,000 rides in 2017.
“In 2008, 2009, the economy was struggling: we were paying close to $4 a gallon for fuel, people were struggling to afford vehicles, struggling to have employment; there were a lot of social service agencies assisting people with transportation either for job searching or basic needs, so there were agencies buying [bus] passes for people,” Koens said.
“As the economy improved, agency support started to drop off, people start to afford vehicles, fuel becomes affordable again,” Koens continued. “When the economy was poor, we expanded hours and other things; our program grew.”
Too, the decreased ridership is rooted in “an increase in teleworking, online shopping and home delivery, as well as the emergence of new technologies such as app-based ride-hailing services,” Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning said in its final report.
As Muskegon continues to grow, and with an increase of people moving to core urban areas, such as downtown Muskegon, Koens said MATS expects ridership could again increase.
“We expect ridership can grow, but public transportation has, to some degree, be more flexible than it’s been in the past and offer different styles of service that better meet what people expect,” Koens said.
The changes that will be outlined on Wednesday also come as MATS faces increasing costs; in 2019, MATS had a deficit of approximately $400,000. With the proposed changes, the consulting firm said MATS would likely need about $385,400 from its local community partners, or other revenue sources, in 2020 to operate the recommended program—about $700,000 less than the status quo. That amount is expected to increase to about $464,500 by 2024.
To address the decreased ridership and increasing costs, Foursquare Integrated Transportation Planning is proposing the following:
- Decreasing the number of fixed-routes from 10 routes to seven routes; proposed fixed routes are based on providing service to high ridership areas.
- Reducing service coverage by fixed routes. For example, fixed routes would no longer service much of the city of Muskegon’s western area, including Pere Marquette Beach, the Lakeside neighborhood, and the Beachwood-Bluffton neighborhood. It would also no longer provide coverage along a portion of Seminole Road in Norton Shores. [You can compare coverage maps by clicking here and going to page 11 for the proposed map and page 13 for a map of the current coverage.] Areas that would no longer be serviced by fixed routes would be covered by the proposed microtransit initiative.
- Launching a microtransit program, which would be an app-based, demand-response service that would operate something like Lyft or Uber. Foursquare said the program would have a maximum 30-minute wait time from the trip request to pick-up, and coverage would be provided in every community that partners with MATS. Weekday service would be offered from 5am to midnight, and weekend service would include both Saturdays and Sundays.
- Reducing service hours on the fixed routes to 7am to 6pm; early morning hours (5am to 7am), 6pm to midnight, and weekend hours would be covered by microtransit. Currently, MATS provides service from 6:30am to 10:40pm during the week and 9:45am to 5:15pm on Saturdays.
- Reducing full-time MATS staff by 11.75 employees; the number of full-time staff at MATS would go from 43.25 positions to 31.5. Cuts would include eight operators.
- Simplifying the MATS network by offering bi-directional service on every route—meaning passengers would be able to travel the same route to and from their destination. Currently, one-way service is a prominent feature of the MATS network. For example, Roosevelt Park is currently served only with a large counter-clockwise loop, and apartment complexes near Barclay Street and Hackley Avenue are served only in the southbound direction.
- Providing direct service from the Herman Ivory Terminal in downtown Muskegon to the Lakes Mall area.
- Restructuring routes so most riders would not have to transfer buses in order to get to major destinations, including hospitals, schools and grocery stores.
- Maintaining GoBus, MATS’ on-demand paratransit option, within three-quarters of a mile from the fixed routes, as the federal Americans with Disabilities Act mandates. GoBus service would be provided only to individuals with “verified disabilities.”
- Building new northbound and southbound bus shelters on Baker Street in Muskegon Heights.
- Building five new shelters per year for the next five years, most of which would serve high-ridership stops. MATS would also take into consideration building shelters at stops that serve riders with disabilities or high proportions of senior citizens.
To read the full report on the proposed changes, please click here.