Saginaw has long been a transit town.
In 1863 , the Saginaw City Street Railway Company began operating horse drawn streetcars offering 20 minute service from the Taylor House (Fordney Hotel) to the Bancroft House (Bancroft Hotel). A three-mile East Saginaw street car line was organized a year later by· East Side civic leaders. In 1890, the East Saginaw streetcar line was electrified and Saginaw became the second city in the state to abandon horse car service in favor of electricity. Five years later, the West Side streetcar line followed suit.
In 1921, the Saginaw-Bay City Railroad declared bankruptcy and took its streetcars out of operation. The city began licensing private bus owners to provide transportation and the era of the jitney began. The jitney buses got their name from a popular slang term of the day for a “nickel” – the cost of a ride on one of Saginaw’s infamous jitneys. The jitneys were actually trucks with bus bodies mounted on their frames. Known for their unsafe, uncomfortable and unreliable service, Saginaw became known throughout the nation as “Jitneyville”. In 1923, the jitney era came to a close when owners attempted to up the fare to a dime. Jitney riders, desperate as they were for a way around town, wouldn’t stand for it.
Following the demise of the jitney, the Saginaw Transit Company began operating streetcar and bus service in Saginaw. Streetcar service was eliminated October 9, 1931 and was never to return to Saginaw. Shortly thereafter, the Saginaw Transit Company pulled out of the bus business too and Northern Michigan Utilities stepped in to keep buses rolling in Saginaw. After five years, Northern Michigan Utilities sold the bus operation to Saginaw City Lines, which operated the service until 1960. During that time, bus ridership in Saginaw hit a post war peak of 11 million. But by 1957, ridership was down, Sunday and evening service was cut and buses were in trouble in Saginaw.
In 1960, Saginaw voters saved the bus system by approving the “Jackson Plan” – an indirect method of subsidizing the bus service. Under the plan, the city leased the. buses, contracting with Saginaw City Lines to operate them. In 1962, the city signed a contract with St. John’s Transportation Company of Dayton, Ohio after Saginaw City Lines requested direct subsidization of bus service. Three years later, the Saginaw City Council approved the first direct subsidy of bus service and Saginaw became the first city to apply for Federal funds from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA). The federal money was used to purchase 14 new 35-passenger buses at a cost of $203,000.
Bus ridership continued to drop in Saginaw and throughout the nation with the proliferation of the two-car family and growth of suburbs. In May 1969 a far increase from $.25 to $.30 caused a ·1so/o decrease in Saginaw bus riders. In 1970, financial troubles forced St. John’s Transportation Company to pull out of bus operations , leaving the future of bus service in Saginaw once more in jeopardy. April 18, 1970 was announced as the final day of Saginaw bus service. But the City Council came to the system’s rescue hiring Delta Bus Company to keep buses rolling. In doing so, the council rejected 4 to 3 the idea of running the bus system by itself. Delta Bus operated the system under contract with the city until July 1, 1980, when the city hired American Transit Corporation (ATCNancom) of St. Louis to run the system. ATCNancom ran the day to day operations of the system, which was a part of the City of Saginaw’s Engineering Department. The transit administrator at the time was Mark Dorfman.
Since 1975, bus ridership had been making a comeback in Saginaw with the rising cost of gasoline. Ridership had grown from 192,700 in 1975 to 757,000 in 1980. With improvements such as new routes, expanded service hours and new, advanced-design buses, the Saginaw Transit System had hopes of reaching its goal of one million riders in 1981. In 1985, Mark Dorfman left STS for another position. – In January of 1986, Sylvester Payne came on board as the City’s acting Transit and Parking Administrator. These two positions were merged due to City budget cuts. It was Mr. Payne’s role to oversee ATC’s compliance with the agreement between the City and them. In July of 1986, ATC and the union of the drivers failed to reach a contract agreement and the union called for a strike. Fifty-nine long days later, a tentative agreement was reached.
From 1986 through 1992 Federal and State funds continued to decrease and the system began to exhaust its reserves and small service cuts began to take place. Mr. Payne worked feverishly for two years to convince the City Council that the system was going to have to be restructured so that we could ask City of Saginaw citizens for local tax dollars to keep operating. They chose to keep the system under their control. In January of 1994, the City Manager ordered Mr. Payne to cut service due to a lack of funds to operate the system status quo. After a public outcry at two public hearing, City Council reconsidered its position and allowed the system to reorganize, under Public Act 196, as a transit authority. This act allowed for a Board of Directors to ask the City residents to approve a tax levy to support the service. In April of 1994, during a special election, voters approved the measure by 51%.
In 1995, the newly formed Authority, Saginaw Transit System Authority (STSA) began to have some disagreements with ATCNancom, over their management of the system. The Board of Directors took direct control over the Authority by hiring Sylvester Payne as their first Executive Director. From 1996 through 2000, using a mixture of Federal, State and Local tax dollars, STSA continued to grow and began an aggressive vehicle replacement process. The focus then became a county-wide service. In May of 1999, STSA changed its name to STARS (Saginaw Transit Authority Regional Service). The system went through a major logo and color scheme change. It was the hope of the staff and Board of Directors to segment itself from the city. Many taxpayers still believed that the system was run by the city. Since the name change and a massive marketing campaign, STARS again went before the citizens of the City of Saginaw and asked voters to continue its support of the system. In August of 2000, voters overwhelmingly supported the measure by a 65% This is the highest margin that the system had ever seen and for the first time in its history, passed the vote on the Westside of the City.
In 2016, due to changes in their funding structure, STARS was on the brink of bankruptcy. The fleet was deteriorating, services suffered, the local community was hurt. When many local and federal levels swung into action, STARS was kept alive. Glenn Steffens became Executive Director after Sylvester Payne retired.
Since then, things have turned around and STARS has expanded services, creating 40 jobs at STARS and contributed to the local community and economy in many other ways. Some highlights include:
- Formed a public private partnership with Michigan Steel Mills to provide worker transportation, 3 shifts at 1200 rides per week – funded completely with Private Funds
- Saved over $200k for STARS in Union Contract negotiations while increasing union wages for 60 employees by over $120,000 per year due to better/smarter bargaining techniques
- Restored Saturday services (services were cut in 2012)
- Redesigned/Updated Route system and Increased Bus Routes from 7 to 9 routes
- Extended weekday operating hours from 7:20pm to 9:00pm
- Increased the budget from $5.8 million to $10.9 million in five years
- Purchased 13 refurbished buses through unconventional and creative means to overcome extreme capital replacement short falls
In June 2019, STARS launched Rides to Wellness, the first county-wide offering in the history of the agency. This non-emergency medical transportation program offers a 30-minute response time for service and door to door service. This cutting-edge service now has dozens of community partners and offers rides to the general public through Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC).
Currently STARS employs 120 people between Maintenance, Transportation and Administrative Departments and continues to grow.