Commission narrowly approves federal funding to expand Michigan Flyer


Michigan Flyer will add four new routes from the Lansing area to the Ann Arbor after a local governmental board signed off on delivering a federal grant for the expanded service.

The Tri-County Regional Planning Commission on Wednesday, June 26, 2013, approved awarding $595,680 in federal funds to the busing company by a 10-9 vote. The 19-member board’s deciding vote came from Ingham County Commissioner Brian McGrain, who was absent at last month’s meeting when the commission deadlocked 9-9.

“The cases on both sides of this issue have been carefully laid out,” McGrain said, noting he heard more from his constituents on this matter than any other ever. Last month, he told MLive he likely would have voted against awarding the funding to the busing company, but he was compelled by the people he represents to change his stance.

“I have been asked overwhelmingly by my constituents” to vote yes, McGrain said.

Wednesday’s vote ends a bitter battle between Michigan Flyer, a subsidiary of Owosso-based Indian Trails, and the Capital Region International Airport, which vehemently opposed the federal grant on the grounds it will harm its business by diverting would-be passengers along the bus route to Detroit Metro Airport.

More than a dozen spoke during public comment at the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission’s meeting Wednesday night, which was held at 3135 Pine Tree Road in Delhi Township. Speakers were divided much like the board: almost right down the middle.

“The students at Michigan State use the Flyer on a daily basis,” said Alasdair Whitney, of the Associated Students of Michigan State University, the university’s student government. He added Michigan Flyer provides “affordable” and “reliable” transportation for college students and is an “easy option to go home on the weekend or visit friends.

“The Lansing airport often is not a feasible option for our travel plans [due to prices], so Michigan Flyer to Michigan State students is a necessity.”

Richard Rasmussen, a Bath Township resident, asked the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission to vote against federal funding for the Michigan Flyer as it is “porkbarrel spending” to “subsidize a private company,” and ultimately harms the Lansing-area economy.

“The Capital Region International Airport…is an economic powerhouse…and an absolute prerequisite for attracting and retaining business in our community,” he said, adding that a federal grant allowing the Flyer to expand its service to the Detroit Metro Airport is “not playing on a level playing field.”

Michigan Flyer plans to increase the frequency of its service from the Lansing area to Ann Arbor with the grant. Company officials say they’ll use the funds to offset operating costs for the new route; they’ll also contribute the required 20 percent local match, and purchase a new motorcoach, with company funds.

The company will increase the number of trips between East Lansing and Ann Arbor from eight to 12 times daily, a move supported by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

Chris Holman, publisher of the Greater Lansing Business Monthly, said he supports small business, but asked the commission to vote against Michigan Flyer’s funding for the sake of the regional economy.

“It will injure the airport, it will take passengers out of here — there is no doubt about it,” he said.

Local resident Jim Wallington said the way the airport has conducted its campaign against Michigan Flyer has convinced him and many others to never give it their business again.

“You are driving a stake in your own heart,” he said.

Officials from both the busing company and the airport also spoke during public comment.

Michigan Flyer Vice President Ody Norkin asked the commission to remember the 400-plus letters submitted to it by Flyer passengers recommending expanded bus service. But Bob Selig, executive director of the Capital Region Airport Authority, asked the board to support the airport and, by extension, the regional economy.

“We’re more than happy to compete with non-subsidized (bus service)…but adding four (Michigan Flyer routes) will only compound the revenue drain,” Selig said.

Michigan Flyer’s current eight routes from the Lansing area to the Ann Arbor area take $2.2 million away from the airport annually, according to Capital Region Airport Authority CFO Dale Feldpausch. He told the commission an additional four routes will take another $1 million-plus in revenue away from the airport.

Feldpausch said the airport brings $69 million in Ingham County, $27 million to Eaton County and $18.5 million to Clinton County, as well.

Commissioner John Veenstra, in motioning to approve the federal funding for Michigan Flyer, dismissed much of Feldpausch’s statistics. Veenstra, of Meridian Township, said the airport’s numbers assumed all Flyer passengers would patronize the airport if the bus service weren’t expanded, which he said is “absolutely absurd, no intelligent person in this room would believe that.”

Feldpausch had previously said those statistics were “real numbers, not fake numbers,” but Veenstra disagreed.

“That’s sheer nonsense…in fact they were fake numbers.”

Commissioners discussed the measure for about a half-hour before voting on it, with many of them weighing in.

“The fact is this type of activity makes the airport suffer,” said Darrell Tennis, a commissioner from Eaton County. It “sends a signal to [airline] carriers that, ‘Woah…why do we want to put more planes in there?’

“I truly believe if we approve this grant we are doing harm to this region. We have to have a viable airport. You show me anywhere in the country where a growing economic area doesn’t have a viable airport.”

Lansing Township Supervisor Shirley Rodgers, an at-large commissioner, expressed reservations but ultimately voted in favor of funding Michigan Flyer after pausing for several seconds when she was called on during the roll call vote.

“I just think that we have a regional transportation plan that talks about many modes of transportation and how we encourage that in our region,” she said.

“Do I like this? Absolutely not. However, it does meet the criteria this commission approved in its regional transportation plan.”

Commissioner Adam Stacey, of Clinton County, suggested “doing no harm” by voting against the funding, a plan several other commissioners agreed with, including Stacey’s colleague from Clinton County, David Pohl.

“When we start to pull a pin of support from the airport, I guess I feel we’re writing off our region, in a small sense, each time,” Pohl said.

Veenstra reaffirmed his belief in Michigan Flyer, citing environmental advantages.