MUSKEGON — Facing ongoing budget constraints, the Muskegon Area Transit System (MATS) is launching a new program this week that aims to cut costs while providing the same level of service through an on-demand platform similar to Uber and Lyft.
The new Go2 “microtransit” service goes live on June 23. MATS users can download an app to hail rides within the city of Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, Norton Shores and Roosevelt Park. Fares are $4 per one-way trip, and reduced rates are available for elderly passengers or people with disabilities. MATS contracted with River North Transit LLC, a subsidiary of New York City-based Via Transportation Inc., which has deployed similar on-demand services around the world. The roughly $2.7 million contract lasts for three years, and River North will provide the technology, equipment and drivers for the turnkey program.
Four Go2 minivans are scheduled to operate from 5 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday.
“It allows us to replace some of our services that we discontinued in our route program, but it also expands service to some additional locations and to earlier mornings and later evenings,” said MATS Manager Jim Koens.
Koens expects the service to be particularly valuable for employees getting to and from jobs or for people getting to appointments.
“There’s a lot of different use cases where people could benefit,” Koens said. “The development of the ridership base will come from a lot of different angles.”
Several program details are still undetermined, including potential partnerships with more municipalities and additional offerings such as advanced bookings.
A microtransit option was among several recommendations in a 2019 study as MATS sought to reduce costs after over-expanding services about 10 years ago “when the economy was really struggling,” Koens explained.
“As the economy improved, we had fewer riders on board,” Koens said. “We determined we needed to do something with our programs to reduce its expense.”
MATS reportedly operated at a $400,000 budget deficit in 2019, drawing criticism from county officials who had threatened to defund the agency.
Meanwhile, the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC) is in the beginning stages of a study that’s exploring a potential merger with Harbor Transit, which operates in Grand Haven, Spring Lake and Ferrysburg.
Harbor Transit Transportation Director Scott Borg said he is familiar with the MATS Go2 program but that the tri-cities agency isn’t yet exploring a similar option.
“We’re certainly keeping our options open and looking at different ways to grow Harbor Transit,” Borg said.
Disability advocates’ concerns
While two of the four Go2 vehicles will be wheelchair accessible, disability advocates remain concerned about the new MATS platform, which eliminated some previous routes in favor of on-demand ride hailing.
“The concerns remain high around the changes to MATS and their new microtransit services,” Diane Fleser, CEO of Disability Network West Michigan, said in an email to MiBiz. “We’re aware of people who are anxiously awaiting to give it a try, including our team, as over 50 percent of our staff are people with disabilities, some of whom use MATS services.”
Other concerns involve whether the app will meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements and rides “only being available as a corner-to-corner service,” which won’t reach specific destinations, Fleser said.
“This causes great concern, especially for people who use mobility devices or are visually impaired,” Fleser said.
Koens said MATS will continue to provide service for those with disabilities, as is required by federal law.
“We do expect we’ll continue to make all of those services available to that group of customers,” he said. “And we’re eager to do so.”