Students looking for a solution to the gas price crunch need look no farther than their wallets. Northern Michigan University has been contracting with the Marquette Transit Authority (Marq-Tran) to provide students with free transportation on- and off-campus since last fall.
Most students are already familiar with the Wildcat Shuttles; the buses that provide free transportation for students to and from the Jacobetti Center and the Physical Education Instructional Facility (PEIF). In addition to the Wildcat Shuttles, Marq-Tran provides transportation free of charge to NMU students, faculty and staff on all of its fixed routes throughout Marquette County. The buses make daily trips to the Gwinn area, including Sawyer Village and Skandia; to Negaunee and Ishpeming; and to the various shopping centers and malls in Marquette.
The contract this year between NMU and Marq-Tran cost the university $133,700, said Darwin P. Gager, deputy director of Public Safety and Police Services. The majority of the funding comes from the Parking and Traffic budget with a smaller portion coming from the NMU general fund, according to Michael J. Bath, assistant director of safety and training at Public Safety. Bath said Public Safety encourages students to utilize this service.
“It provides the NMU community with a means of transportation on and off-campus,” said Bath.
The service was suggested to NMU by Brian Lantto, an off-campus representative with the Associated Students of NMU (ASNMU) who served on the Parking and Traffic Committee in the spring of 2007.
The Parking and Traffic Committee handles all complaints, suggestions and recommendations concerning traffic and parking matters, reviews traffic flow and parking needs and makes recommendations to the President’s Council for action. It is made up of Public Safety officials, faculty, staff, community and student representatives.
Lantto said he was inspired partly by the parking conditions on campus and also by a presentation given in one of his Public Administration classes by Robert Niemi, a retired Marq-Tran executive director. Niemi spoke about public transportation and its benefits to the community and the environment. With students complaining about parking conditions, Lantto said he decided the time was right to expand the initial contract that covered the on-campus buses.
“I brought it up at the ASNMU General Assembly, and they were all for it,” said Lantto. “Everyone was fed up with the parking situation.”
Over 1,700 students took advantage of the off-campus bus routes last fall, according to the Dec. 12, 2007 meeting minutes of the Parking and Traffic Committee. Marq-Tran driver Karyn Johnson, who handed out bus schedules and answered questions at Fall Fest, on Aug. 25, said students seem to be more aware of the free services this year.
“There seems to be more students on the buses this year,” said Johnson. “It’s a little hard to tell how many students will take advantage of it right now. The weather is still nice. When the weather gets bad, that’s when we’ll see an increase in students on the buses.”
The service this year also includes free bus services for faculty and staff. Johnson said the service will continue to evolve as more students seek alternative means of transportation to cope with rising gas costs.
“We’re currently trying to adjust the routes to accommodate students’ needs,” Johnson said. “If a student gets on at the PEIF and needs to go to Jamrich for a class, that’s our priority. We’ll adjust the run so that person makes it to class on time and someone who is going to the dorms will be let off after we get students to class.”
The earliest buses depart from Gwinn and Ishpeming at 6:20 a.m. and can get students to campus by 8 a.m. To get to campus from most buses requires at least one transfer, but drivers are helpful and students can always ask for help if they don’t understand the schedules, Johnson said.
In fact, she encouraged students to get to know the bus drivers. The drivers are there to help and can even radio ahead to other buses so students don’t have to wait in bad weather, she said.
However there is one drawback to using this service.
“You can’t use it for evening classes,” Johnson said. “The last buses out of Marquette to Gwinn and Ishpeming leave at 6 p.m. Students have to keep that in mind so they don’t get stranded.”
Even if you can’t take the bus to evening classes, taking the buses is still a great way to save some cash. Students who ride the bus also wind up with at least a half an hour of down time, Johnson said.
They could use that time for studying, finishing homework or just relaxing with their favorite tunes, according to Johnson, who sees students using their laptops and iPods every day on the bus.
Not having to drive in inclement weather is another benefit to students who choose to take advantage of the buses. Through most winter weather, the buses run on time, sticking to the Marq-Tran schedules as closely as possible, said Johnson. If weather is severe, though, students should check with the Marq-Tran dispatchers at 225-1112 to see if the buses are running on time. If NMU cancels classes due to weather, all Marq-Tran routes will most likely be canceled as well, Johnson said.
Johnson also had some advice for students: “You’re riding for free. If you have an hour to spare, grab your I.D., hop on a bus, and see where it goes,” she said. “For students who don’t have a vehicle or can’t afford the gas, it’s a great way to get around.”