Editor’s note: This article was published in the Record-Eagle’s Momentum ’18 special publication. For more stories from northern Michigan’s economic engine click here to read Momentum in its entirety online.
TRAVERSE CITY — Transportation in Traverse City and surrounding areas is gaining momentum as a handful of organizations work to meet resident, business and tourism needs.
As the Bay Area Transportation Association (BATA) works to increase routes, Cherry Capital Airport is filling more planes and offering more flights.
That means more ground transportation options for those who use buses and more air options for business travelers and tourism — especially in the summer.
New players also are in town — Uber and Lyft — helping fill a gap of expectation for visitors well versed in using the service that picks up passengers after being pinged by smartphone apps.
“If you look at our commuter shed, the number of people coming in and out of Traverse City in a six-county region, no one transportation agency can handle that by itself,” said Doug Luciani, CEO of TraverseConnect, which is a partnership between the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North Funding & Development.
“It becomes a quality of life issue,” he said. “We’ve always had good quality of life, and on the transportation side, we’re doing more.”
Uber, Lyft gain traction in TC
When tourists, especially the younger generation, visit Traverse City, there’s an expectation that they’ll have car service at their fingertips, Luciani said.
“I think a lot of people were shocked when they get here to find limited taxi service,” he said. “The taxi model here is difficult. They’ve added more vehicles and they’re cleaner, but particular young talent moving here from university — they’re really comfy with Uber and Lyft.”
Both Uber and Lyft recently opened shop in Traverse City, giving those who laud the services another option for transportation.
“I have two daughters collage age, and when they were here over New Year’s Eve, they all took Uber back and forth rather than drove,” Luciani said. “When you live in a place known for beer and wine, you better have some way to move people around rather than getting in their car and driving.”
It’s not known exactly how many Uber and Lyft drivers are in the area, but Luciani expects the offerings to increase in the warmer months as college students come home and look for work. Potentially, they’ll become drivers for the company to make extra cash during summer break, he said.
“We are excited to see amenities like Uber in the community,” Luciani said.
Another taxi-like service called TransportHer has been in Traverse City for a while. It’s a Michigan-based company operated by a woman, offering taxi service aimed toward women.
But it hasn’t gained the momentum that Uber and Lyft have, as it’s a much smaller operation, said Eric Lingaur, director of communications and development for BATA.
“They’ve had a difficult time finding drivers,” he said.
Aside from smartphone-based taxi service, BATA fills a different gap for transportation in the community, Lingaur said.
BATA adds routes, expands service
A new BATA route is being launched in June called the Bay Line that will offer more transportation for east and west travelers in the city.
“There are not too many ways to get east and west,” Lingaur said, highlighting that BATA hopes to decrease that issue with the new bus service.
BATA’s buses operate every half hour, and after the association conducted several community meetings, it found that public transit passengers would more readily use the service if it ran every 15 minutes — something that soon will be implemented in the bus services.
The association also is working to expand the time it runs buses. Currently, bus services run from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., but constituents said they’d like to see that service run until midnight.
Additionally, in recent months, BATA has expanded its service in Leelanau and Benzie counties.
“We also offer, what’s consider demand response, where you call and schedule a bus to take you to your door,” Lingaur said.
BATA runs 1.7 million miles a year with its 66 vehicles and is starting to integrate a propane fleet into the mix.
“We’ve got about 10 propane buses so far, and we’re getting another eight this year,” Lingaur said.
Additionally, BATA is working to meet the needs of senior citizens.
“Seniors want to age in place. They still want to be mobile and get where they want to go,” he said. “One of the things is we are working with the senior services and doing BATA ride days to show them how it works and reduce some of the barriers of how the bus works.”
Cherry Capital Airport
Air service in Traverse City is up 36 percent since 2011, said Cherry Capital Airport Director Kevin Kline.
“When you compare us to the rest of the nation for towns our size, we’ve seen them lose air service down about 11 percent. The growth of the seats for the market, has really improved our fares. That then opens us up to more flights and more flights that are offered to more cities,” Kline said.
Cherry Capital Airport extended its runway last year, which reduced weight restrictions and allows airlines to fill more seats.
If a runway isn’t long enough, it poses a weight problem for commercial airplanes in summer months when the heat butts heads with weight restrictions. Hot air is less dense than cool air and therefore provides less lift.
When an airplane is too heavy in hot weather, it can’t safely take off on a short runway. Over the years, airlines have not been able to sell all the seats available on flights leaving Traverse City, making flights more expensive for consumers, Kline said.
“When you look at more passengers in the market, it translates to more seats and more offerings from the airlines,” he said.
On large jets, roughly 14 seats per plane went unfilled because of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) weight restrictions on short runways. Roughly three seats per small turbo prop plane were left empty.
Now that the runway is longer and those seats can be sold, filling the planes, which equates to cheaper flights.
Kline also highlighted that the three big airlines that service Traverse City — Delta, American and United — are all global airlines. That means they connect to international cities, giving Traverse City passengers a smooth way to travel internationally.
“These three carriers have global networks with their partners and their alliances,” Kline said. “We’re a one-stop connection to the world. I think it’s a great opportunity now to grow and expand that global business network, because we have the transportation system now to connect these businesses to what they need.”
Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities advocates of adding passenger rail cars to train tracks that already exist from Ann Arbor to Traverse City.
BATA partnered with Groundwork on the effort and helped fund a study through a $100,000 grant.
A Fredrick-Maryland company called Transportation Economics and Management Systems Incorporated currently is conducting the study that will help Groundwork and BATA better understand the cost associated with passenger rail.
“A team of top notch consultants are evaluating the details of what it would take to make passenger trails available again,” said Hans Voss, executive director of Groundwork. “They’re looking at the crossings, the tracks, the time and cost of service levels.”
The study should be finished by the fall, giving the community a better understanding how much the project might cost and the stops a passenger rail would make along its path.
Currently, a freight train operates on those tracks, transporting goods from city to city, Voss said. The freight company is supportive of adding passenger cars into the mix, he said.
By The Numbers
The total number of miles driven each year by BATA’s 66 vehicles.