TBTA working on routes for trolleys

ALPENA – The Thunder Bay Transportation Authority is continuing to refine proposed routes that will be served by colorful hybrid trolley buses sometime this summer.

But the task isn’t as easy as drawing colored lines on a map, board members learned at their meeting Monday at the TBTA offices.

Instead, the most ideal route must be built up in layers, with consideration given to everything from federal funding delays, cash flow and refueling stops to angry phone calls from motorists and passengers, who could complain the buses stop too often or not enough.

“There’s a lot to the formula,” board member Tony Suszek said.

According to the present design, the board is looking at two interconnecting loops – the proposed blue/green route and the interlinking red/yellow route. But there is still a lot of tweaking to do, TBTA General Manager Billi Edmonds said.

Two buses will travel each loop – one circling clockwise, the other counter-clockwise, to make the system as efficient as possible for passengers.

The routes must avoid streets where there are a lot of stop signs, and minimize the number of left turns drivers make across incoming traffic. They also must avoid making stops in high-traffic areas, which could cause backups.

The buses need to deliver and pick up passengers at Perch’s, Michigan Works, Neiman’s Family Market and Big Lots, as well as clinics, care facilities, social service agencies, credit unions, schools and other urban features.

With the city creating the new bus route system from scratch, all decisions will be written up as policies, Edmond said. The authority also has to work out what it will cost to provide bus benches or shelters at stops so passengers can be protected from weather while they wait.

Another layer of the plan is to get public input, Edmonds said, so the authority will hold five to six public hearings later this month at voting precincts.

Testing is another layer, and a lot of the planning will pick up pace when the first trolley is delivered some time in May, she said. The new buses will run the routes to refine timing, refueling, turnarounds and other issues. The trolley buses must be programmed for the periods when they will run on fuel to recharge their battery systems, for maximum efficiency. Drivers also must be trained.

“The next calculation will be how much fares will be and how much revenue the buses will generate,” Edmonds said.

One issue is that federal funds occasionally are delayed, so good cash flow is essential. The fare structure also has to mesh with rates charged for Dial-a-Ride bus passengers.

“Fares could be raised, but that step must be approved by city council,” said authority chairman Greg Sundin, who doubles as Alpena City Manager.

In other business the authority will issue a request for qualifications to architectural and engineering firms this week to design a new transit facility north of the city. Design proposals from short-listed firms are due May 1, with interviews to be held May 15.

The board will make its selection May 19, and forward the information to the Michigan Department of Transportation for its OK, Edmonds said.

The winning firm will have six months to complete the design, with construction bids going out January 2015, in hopes the building can begin later that spring.

The board also determined the salary and benefits, including health insurance and sick days, they will provide to the person who is selected to be executive director of the growing transit system.

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at blehndorff@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.