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Could expansion be in NOTA's future?

January 16, 2013 - For 12 years, the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) has served riders in Oxford, Addison and Orion townships along with their respective villages.

But now, in an effort to perhaps save some money, Independence Township representatives have approached NOTA Director Lynn Gustafson about discussing the possibility of joining the local transportation system that serves senior citizens, mentally and physically disabled individuals and low-income residents.

"We're not under any pressure in any way, shape or form to go down this path," explained Ken Elwert, director of Independence Township's department of parks, recreation and seniors. "It's just one of many things we're looking at to see if it makes sense for them and us."

Elwert's department oversees Independence's six-vehicle transportation system, which also serves riders in Springfield Township and the city of Clarkston.

The NOTA board will discuss this issue at its 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 17 meeting at the Orion Township Hall (2525 Joslyn Rd.)

"Before we start any talks with Independence, I think we need to discuss this as a board and see if there's any interest on our end," said NOTA Vice Chairman Bill Dunn. "There's no use having some of us meet with some of them, then bring this to the full (NOTA) board only to have them say, 'No, we're going to pass.'"

Elwert made it very clear that nothing's been decided on his end.

"We haven't even entered into formal discussions with them or discussed it at our senior advisory board yet," he said. "We are nowhere near making any changes whatsoever."

That being said, Elwert indicated partnering with NOTA has "been a discussed possibility here for quite a while (as part of) pursuing intergovernmental partnerships to see if there's a way to make things more efficient."

"Our hope here is that we can come up with an agreement or find a scenario which is going to make NOTA more efficient and save them some money, and also, do the same for us and provide some additional (transportation) coverage to the residents here," he explained. "If we can help NOTA become more efficient, too, in some way by partnering with them – I love to do a win-win type of thing."

Last year, Independence's transportation service gave 5,698 rides to senior citizens age 55 and older and disabled individuals age 18 and older. There is a charge to riders in the form of a "requested donation" of $3 each way and $5 each way for hospital trips to Pontiac and out of the area.

"There are some people (who) are struggling that don't pay that fee when we transport them," Elwert noted.

Based on 2012 figures supplied to NOTA, Independence's transportation system brought in $100,000 in revenue from rider fees, donations and grants.

However, the cost to operate the system was $157,642, which includes $119,942 in wages and benefits for two full-time drivers.

The $57,642 difference was made up using monies from the Independence Township's general fund.

Elwert explained that Springfield and Clarkston contribute some funding in the form of SMART municipal credits and Community Development Block Grant funds.

"They get government support that they essentially pass through to us to provide them with transportation," he said, adding that Independence "hasn't even talked to" Springfield and Clarkston about the potential of partnering with NOTA.

The above figures do not include the almost $14,000 in wages for dispatch that was also spent by Independence's system. According to Elwert, those dispatch wages come from Independence's senior center budget, about half of which is derived from the township's general fund.

NOTA's budget for 2013 is $870,551, of which the three townships it serves will contribute $205,000. The rest comes from various grants and a $200,000 contribution from Training & Treatment Innovations, which serves mentally disabled individuals.

"It's an expensive thing to do no matter where you do it," Elwert said. "It's not a cheap service to take people from one place to another, when you're paying for labor, vehicles and gas."

Elwert indicated the two main reasons Independence is looking into the possibility of collaborating with NOTA are the potential to save money and the potential to expand the available hours and days of service to its ridership.

"Right now, we pretty much provide service five days a week. NOTA provides more than that and more hours than we do," he said.

But NOTA Chairman Bruce Pearson is "worried" that based on the numbers he's seen so far, "it's definitely not to our advantage."

Even though Independence's transportation service only gave 5,698 rides last year, which is relatively small compared to the 43,914 rides NOTA was responsible for in 2012, Pearson fears the potential for a dramatic increase in ridership based on population.

Right now, NOTA's three townships and three villages have a combined population of 63,359, based on a July 2012 estimate from the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).

Independence and Springfield townships, along with the city of Clarkston, have a combined population of 50,219.

"Once their people find out that we (NOTA) offer such a great service and that we go more places, their potential for ridership could be 26,000 or 28,000 rides," Pearson said. "Once those seniors over there find out they can ride this new service and it's going to go farther, they may have a whole influx of people that decide they're going to take advantage of it.

"They're going to want the same service, I'm sure, as what our residents get."

He based that potential ridership estimate on the fact that Orion Township, which has a population of 36,112 including the village, received 20,288 rides from NOTA last year.

"If we go another couple steps (by adding three more communities to NOTA), we may end up losing money," Pearson said.

Pearson's also concerned about Independence's six buses and vans, which range in age from two to nine years.

"They have a lot of older buses; there are only a couple new ones," he said. "Are we going to take over the maintenance of them? Then all of the sudden, we have (to do) maintenance on a bunch of older buses."

He noted Gustafson is in the process of gathering information and crunching numbers to present to the NOTA board.

"She's really a numbers person. She can look at this and analyze it," he said. "If it's not a good deal, we should just tell them, 'No, we'd like to stay manageable and small.'"

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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