Source: Sherman Publications

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More riders for NOTA?
Officials consider adding Independence, Clarkston

by CJ Carnacchio

November 10, 2010

Everything's still up in the air and nothing's a done deal, but there's a possibility that the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) could be expanding its service area to include another township plus a small city.

"It's the neighborly thing to do," said NOTA Director Pat Fitchena. "Everybody's telling us we should be working together."

At the Nov. 10 Oxford Township Board meeting, officials are expected to discuss a proposal for NOTA to possibly serve riders in Independence Township along with the City of the Village of Clarkston.

In exchange for providing rides to senior citizens and disabled individuals in these two communities, it's proposed NOTA would receive either $15,000 per month or $180,000 annually, plus Independence would contribute its current fleet of five buses.

This price would cover dispatch, drivers, fuel and vehicle maintenance.

"After six months, if it's not working, they or us can end the contract," Fitchena said.

Right now, NOTA only provides free rides to seniors citizens, disabled individuals and welfare-to-work program participants who reside in Oxford, Addison and Orion townships along with their respective villages.

The proposal for NOTA's potential expansion is the result of talks with Independence Township's Operations Review Task Force, a group of five volunteers who since June 2009 have been looking for ways for the township to save money.

"They feel they're paying way too much for transportation and they are for what they're transporting," Fitchena explained.

Despite the professed goal to save Independence Township money, it appears NOTA's $180,000 price is higher than what's currently being paid.

According to Susan Hendricks, finance director for Independence Township, based on the 2010 budget, the transportation system costs $167,500. This includes about $104,000 for the wages and benefits for Independence's two full-time union drivers.

Fitchena argued that Independence's transportation system isn't effectively serving its residents for the amount it's paying.

"They are way under-served," she said. "People are not using the system over there."

Last year, Independence's transportation system, which operates through the township's senior center, gave a total of 7,190 rides, according to Senior Center Coordinator Barbara Rollin.

A very small fraction of that 7,190 rides involved Springfield Township residents, who are currently served by Independence's transportation system.

According to Fitchena, it's unclear what would happen to Springfield's ridership if NOTA took over as the township's not been involved in any of the discussions thus far.

With or without Springfield's riders, it's clear the Independence transportation system's annual usage is nowhere near what NOTA's is.

"We're doing 3,500 to 3,600 rides a month now," Fitchena said.

Last year, NOTA gave a total of 35,350 rides. This year, to date, the authority's given 30,582 rides with its 16 buses and vans.

If NOTA were to take over Independence's transportation system, none of the new communities served by the authority would have a seat on its board of directors.

"They're not going to have any voting power," Fitchena said. "Oxford, Orion and Addison are the original NOTA members and they are the ones that would control what goes on there. That's my understanding."

But just because the new communities wouldn't have a vote, doesn't mean the NOTA board wouldn't listen to their input or address their concerns. "We would definitely allow them to come to meetings and speak their peace," Fitchena said.

Fitchena noted expanding NOTA to serve other communities would take the unanimous agreement of the Oxford, Addison and Orion township boards. "If any one of our three communities say no, then it's no," she said. "And you know Oxford's going to say no."

In the past, Oxford officials have been leery of expanding NOTA. Some have expressed a preference for keeping the service as local as possible.

"I don't believe bigger is always better," said Oxford Supervisor Bill Dunn, who serves on the NOTA board. "More vehicles, more riders, more miles and more liability all add up to more cost. I do believe in consolidating government services, but this isn't consolidation, it's expansion. I'm not in favor of expansion, especially with the way things are now."

But Fitchena argued expanding NOTA could help the service in a number of ways, chief among them being the infusion of extra cash.

She said it's no secret that NOTA is in a "budget crunch" because funding from the federal and state governments "doesn't come when they say it's going to come."

"We've got 2006, 2007 and 2008 monies still out there that we are attempting to collect," she explained. "We'll probably get a portion of that in December, but look how many years we've been waiting for this money?"

NOTA is currently funded by a mixture of state and federal grant monies, contributions from the three township's budgets and other donations.

Fitchena said having an extra $180,000 a year revenue from Independence could lessen the financial burden on the existing townships that fund NOTA.

"In my opinion, I think this would save the three communities some money," she said. "Oxford had a hard time this year coming up with their share and understandably so. Thank God the grants are still coming."

In addition to the financial benefits, adding Independence and Clarkston to NOTA's service area would benefit riders, according to Fitchena.

"NOTA is over there constantly," she said. "We've got all these people going to Waterford for dialysis tons of them. We could pass off these people to (buses in Independence), they could complete the run and bring them back to us."