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All buses under one roof

The expanded Barry County Transit building is 14,200 square feet and can fit all 16 vehicles in the fleet.

Taylor Owens

Staff Writer

A $1.1 million project to renovate and expand the Barry County Transit offices and garage wrapped up this month.

Manager and Transportation Coordinator Bill Voigt said the eight-month-long construction went almost to the day of the ribbon cutting Nov. 20.

Voigt said discussions to update the offices have been ongoing at least since he started six years ago. The office, which was built in the late 1980s, was aging and a tight fit for the employees. Transit employs 35 people, seven of which are full time.

The expansion added 4,800 square feet of garage space, and 1,500 square feet of existing garage space was renovated into new office area. The existing office area also was renovated. The total size of the building is now 14,200 square feet, and can fit all 16 vehicles in the fleet.

The transit tries to use grant funds as much as possible to replace its vehicles, but Voigt said the grants may stipulate that the transit has to keep the vehicles for a decade or more. With as much wear and tear as the vehicles receive while they are in service, Voigt said it is extremely important to keep the vehicles out of the weather as much as possible.

“It's not just the space, but it's having people where they want to be to do their jobs,” Voigt said. “We have a lot fewer distractions, and the dispatchers are able to do a better job in terms of customer service.”

“It's easier to work here, and it's more efficient.”

Although the staff had to spend a couple of months working in the garage during the construction, it was worth it when the renovations were finished and the staff were able to divide the offices into different departments, he said.

Voigt pointed out that demand for the transit has grown about 30 percent in the last five years. Although he doesn't expect the demand to increase quite so fast in the coming years, he said, he does expect the increase to continue.

“We're very well-prepared for future growth,” Voigt said.

The transit provides around 100,000 individual rides each year, and around 20,000 of those are for students. The transit contracts with Hastings Area Schools System and the Commission on Aging.

“Even though our association with community mental health is less formal these days, we still transport mental health clients,” Voigt said.

But perhaps the most frequent destination is Spectrum Health Pennock and local doctors' offices, Voigt said.

Over the years, there has been increased emphasis on non-emergency medical transports, which include taking patients to receive medical care inside and out of Barry County. A grant from the Area Agency on Aging pays for trips outside the county for seniors who are unable to afford it.

“It can be demanding, but we love providing it,” Voigt said. “We allow people to live where they want to live and still have access to things that they need for quality of life.”

In a separate but related update, the transit also is upgrading its technology. New software will help with planning routes, and also allow dispatchers to work their phones through their computer monitor so they won't have to go back and forth between the computer and phone.

Voigt acknowledged it was a long and, at times, complex process to decide how the renovations would be done.

“It was an interesting process because there were a lot of our community stakeholders and officials that had reservations when we began to talk about this,” Voigt said.

There were discussions about the new appearance of the building, funding and the county property the building is on, which may require space for a new jail.

“We were sensitive to those things and, really, we were just trying to make sure that the transit was in good shape for the future, without aversely affecting the site or future possibilities for expansion that might be advantageous to anybody.”

Voigt said the transit has been saving for years to pay for the renovations without asking for additional funds through a millage. Up to 60 percent of the $1.1 million cost of the project is eligible for reimbursement through state and federal subsidies over the next 30 years.

Although Voigt said the future of state funding was in doubt earlier in the year, as the state Legislature put together its budget for the next year, there was chance transit funding would be cut.

“That was a really big deal,” Voigt said. “It's a vital part of our overall revenue and funding.”

Voigt said State Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, was at the transit offices that week to discuss the budget and, ultimately, the funding was not cut.

“We were on pins and needles for a month.”

Voigt said the transit looked at other locations for the building, but there were a number of requirements for a new property, such as having a traffic light at the driveway, that made finding a new property difficult.

“Really, at the end of the day, the smartest thing to do was just renovate here on site,” Voigt said.

The plans for the additions were altered to only expand the footprint of the building where it was necessary to accommodate future use of the property.

More information on Barry County Transit, including how to arrange a ride and a schedule of the Holly Trolley, is available at barrycountytransit.com.

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