2018-08-17 / Top News

City Resumes Plans for Transportation Authority

By Stephanie Fortino

At left: The map illustrating the city’s claims to bottomlands at the end of Astor Street and under the Coal Dock, which is included in the council’s application to the Department of Environmental Quality. At left: The map illustrating the city’s claims to bottomlands at the end of Astor Street and under the Coal Dock, which is included in the council’s application to the Department of Environmental Quality. The Mackinac Island City Council is considering establishing a transportation authority, which could oversee freight, airplane, and ferryboat traffic to the Island. Such an organization would allow the city to apply for a variety of grants, the council confirmed at a special meeting Wednesday, August 15. Included could be funds to purchase the Coal Dock, which the council is trying to acquire. Petoskey attorney Jim Dunn, who specializes in transportation law, explained to the council how a transportation authority could work with broad or limited oversight.

Mr. Dunn encouraged the city council to study the establishment of a transportation authority and define it purpose and function. Once the articles of the authority are established, Mr. Dunn suggested the authority write a transportation plan with the help of a consultant to guide transportation development here, much like a master plan.

Public Transportation Authority Act 196 of 1986 allows municipalities in Michigan to establish such governing bodies. Transportation authorities are useful and successful, Mr. Dunn said, noting he could not think of a municipality that had eliminated an authority once it was established. Such transit authorities are very popular in urban areas to provide bus service, such as in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs.

A board of appointed members would govern the transportation authority, and it would have its own, separate budget. While the authority would be able to make its own decisions, it would ultimately answer to the city council. Some municipalities or county governments review and approve transportation authority budgets, especially in places where more oversight is required because of poor management or mismanagement.

Transportation authorities can have a broad range of responsibilities. Mr. Dunn gave examples of how the transportation authority on Beaver Island functions as a passthrough organization for grant money, which is awarded to the private boat operator. The Eastern Upper Peninsula Transportation Authority provides ferry passenger service to the islands in the St. Marys River area, including Neebish Island, where a private ferry company went out of business and stopped serving residents.

At Mackinac Island, an authority would likely want to retain the competitive summer ferry passenger service, Mr. Dunn said, noting government interference in ferry operations is controversial.

The city council members had varying ideas about how a Mackinac Island transportation authority would function. Mayor Margaret Doud asked many questions about the Beaver Island operation, which Mr. Dunn helped establish. He has much experience in transportation law, he told the Town Crier, and even worked on creating the state’s transportation authority statutes.

One of the recurring goals articulated by council members was for a transportation authority to purchase, operate, and maintain the Coal Dock, assuming the city is successful in its current legal pursuit to buy it. Transportation authorities can own property or vessels, Mr. Dunn said, and can lease out such assets to private service providers.

If the city were to purchase the Coal Dock, an authority could lease the dock to any ferry company that wanted to use it. The authority could hire its own staff to run the dock, or it could contract with a private business to oversee dock scheduling and other matters.

Mayor Doud was also interested in including the airport and airplane service in a transit plan. Primarily, she asked whether a transportation authority could apply for state or federal grants to use as a subsidy to lower ticket rates for Island residents.

Flights during the winter, when air service is the only way off the Island, are expensive, she said, and Island residents bear the brunt of the operational cost. A private airline offers service from St. Ignace to the Island. The state park owns the Island airport, and Mackinac County owns the airport in St. Ignace.

“That’s an interesting question,” Mr. Dunn said, promising to investigate whether such grants are available.

Ensuring year-around ferry passenger service could be another goal of an Island transportation authority. Running ferries during the winter is expensive for operators and winter boats often incur damage when operating in ice. A transportation authority could purchase a winter ferry and maintain it using federal and state grant money, Mr. Dunn said. Improvements to docks, whether for freight or passenger service, could also qualify for grants. The EUP Transportation Authority has successfully obtained money for new ferries and dock renovations, he added.

Since the city has 15 years left in its summer ferry passenger service franchise and five years on its winter service contract, city council member Anneke Myers advocated for an authority with a more limited scope when it comes to ferry service.

Authorities could be expanded to include more transportation methods in the future, if allowed in the bylaws.

Mr. Dunn said that the city council could be surprised by how much grant money is available for transportation authorities, and he noted he has been successful in guiding many municipalities through the grant writing process. He also noted there are many programs specifically for public transportation in rural communities, for which Mackinac Island would qualify. He encouraged the council to act quickly on whether it wants to establish a transit authority, especially since the upcoming gubernatorial election in November could change how much funding is available.

An authority could be established in about 30 days, he said.

Mr. Dunn talked to the city about such matters in 2012. Interest was renewed this year as the city pursued the Coal Dock. Mr. Dunn had previously provided draft bylaws and procedural rules, which he reissued to the council members. The draft bylaws are still posted on the Town Crier Web site under the General Documents tab.

At the regular city council meeting

Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Doud directed the city’s Transportation Committee to investigate the matter and develop some goals.

City attorney Tom Evashevski and Lansing attorney Michael Cavanaugh also attended both city council meetings. Following the regular council meeting, the two met in closed session with the council to discuss the ongoing litigation at the Coal Dock.

During the open session, council agreed to have Mayor Doud sign a Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) application to acquire the filled bottomlands at the end of Astor Street and beneath a portion of the Coal Dock. Mr. Evashevski noted DEQ environmental quality specialist Tom Graf had encouraged the city to submit an application for the bottomlands during a Coal Dock mediation session, saying Mr. Graf planned to act on the many conflicting Coal Dock bottomlands applications already filed. While the application was made public for the first time Wednesday night, the council had reviewed the map a couple of weeks before.

Another mediation session for the Coal Dock in planned for early October.

The DEQ bottomlands application is available on the Town Crier Web site under the General Documents tab.

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