Livingston County residents are in an enviable position with an unemployment rate that has dipped a few times below 4 percent this year. Problem is, so few residents are out of work that local businesses are having trouble filling about 800 jobs.
Back in May, Bridge Magazine wrote about a promising new program that looked to solve this problem. It connected Livingston County businesses that needed workers with people in Flint who needed jobs but didn’t have reliable transportation to get there.
Since the Bridge story ran, the number of people boarding buses from Flint to Livingston County has doubled to about 300 workers a week, Livingston officials say. The program is being watched closely around the state as several regions, from Detroit to Traverse City, struggle to connect (mostly low-income) workers with available, but often distant, job openings. Transportation issues are among the chief impediments to upward job mobility in areas with limited public transit.
In Livingston County, more businesses are now in talks to join the worker program, according to the Mass Transportation Authority in Flint. The bus service has led to the hiring of about 170 new workers since May with hopes that busing will help fill hundreds more job openings, officials said.
“In the short-term, we’re developing a service for 1,000 workers,” said Edgar Benning, CEO of MTA Flint.
To sustain and expand the service, more money is needed for more buses, he said. The MTA, with help from state officials, is looking for grant funding from state, federal and philanthropic sources. Currently, the program is funded by MTA, the Livingston employers, and workers. MTA sends buses from its fleet to the Livingston job sites and employers pay for monthly bus passes upfront for workers.
“We’re looking for any and all funding opportunities,” Benning said. “In the long-term, we want this to be a sustainable service that pays for itself. This could stretch beyond Flint. The momentum is there. We’re not going to let barriers stand in the way.”
In Flint, about 10,000 residents are unemployed or about 5.1 percent of the workforce. The busing partnership includes MTA, local businesses, workforce development programs and the Howell Chamber of Commerce.
The partnership is taking root just north of one of Michigan’s most ambitious transit proposals in decades. The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan is seeking $4.7 billion from taxpayers in November to connect four counties in Southeast Michigan using regional rail and bus rapid transit -- Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.
Advocates for more connected transportation systems say they are critical to the state’s future.
“A lack of adequate financial resources to address the state’s transportation challenges” is a threat to the state’s economic recovery, according to a 2015 study by TRIP, a nonprofit in Washington DC. In focusing on the state’s poor roadways and bridges, the study found that Michigan needs more public transit from rapid bus to railways, including arteries to connect transit facilities in densely populated areas such as Troy/Birmingham, Grand Rapids, Dearborn, East Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit.
In metro Detroit, the RTA is looking to expand public transit largely because 92 percent of jobs cannot be reached within a 60-minute public transit trip.
Livingston and Flint are not part of the RTA proposal, which may explain why Livingston leaders are conceiving their own plan to connect more distant workers to jobs.
Pat Convery, president of the Howell Chamber of Commerce, said local firms that employ workers who must drive themselves 40 miles from Genesee County typically experience a huge turnover. Reliable busing helps participating companies stabilize their workforce and hire more workers, she said.
In addition to factory jobs, three hospitals are expanding in Livingston and retail help wanted signs are plentiful, Convery said. In recent weeks, the Tanger Outlets mall in Howell as well as nearby education and healthcare facilities have contacted the Chamber to inquire about the partnership to fill posted job vacancies and decrease worker turnover, Convery said.
This summer, the MTA started bus services from Flint to Thai Summit America and Key Plastics, L.L.C., auto suppliers with factories in Howell, doubling the number of workers MTA transports to Howell-area companies.
“We’ve gotten people’s attention,” Convery said.
In the Detroit metropolitan area, voters will decide in November whether to approve a 1.2 mill, 20-year tax to fund a transit plan that will cost the average homeowner $95 a year. The plan will bring bus rapid transit lines that connect Detroit to its suburbs along Woodward Avenue north into Oakland County, Gratiot Ave. northeast into Macomb County, and Michigan Avenue west into Washtenaw County along with express service to the airport and a commuter rail that will connect Detroit to Ann Arbor.
The MTA Flint-to-Howell partnership is not nearly on that scale, but the partners hope that more funding yields more buses. Ideally, the effort would lead to a brick-and-mortar hub where buses would drop off passengers and the local Livingston dial-a-ride bus service would take them to a variety of local job sites, Benning said.
Mission Flint, a special team that Gov. Rick Snyder sent to Flint to help solve problems in the wake of the water crisis, is helping move the partnership along. Mission Flint has a goal of creating 1,000 new jobs in Flint by the end of 2016.
Mike Dehner, human resources coordinator for Mission Flint, said the next obstacle for the busing partnership is sustaining service once the new school year begins. When school begins, demand for busing increases which means the partnership is scrambling to figure out how to find funding to put five more buses on the road to keep the partnership going and growing. Five new buses would cost about $500,000; used ones would be cheaper, he said.
This year, 2,000 Flint residents applied for jobs helping pass out free bottled water to residents, a stark reminder that Flint residents need and want work, he said.
Those same people would likely relish the opportunity to fill hundreds of $10 to $13 per hour jobs in Livingston with the help of reliable transportation, he said.
“The clock is ticking,” Dehner said. “The potential is huge for success. Unfortunately, realizing that potential is looking very challenging right now.”