By Pat Maurer
“We take people home who have been drinking,” Laura Taylor of Harrison said. “I don’t understand why that is such a big deal.”
Their service, officially the “Phone a Friend Bar Shuttle,” is unofficially called the “Harrison Drunk Bus.” The service has been in operation in Harrison since New Year’s Eve of 2005. They offer free rides so people won’t “drink and drive,” Laura said.
The service came to an abrupt halt last Friday, when a Michigan State Police trooper and a Motor Carrier Enforcement officer from the Michigan Department of Transportation came to their home.
“They said I asked them to come and inspect the van,” Jim Taylor said, “but I didn’t.” He said they weren’t at home when the officers came to the house. “I was at the shop working on getting our new van ready,” Jim said. “Laura was at work.”
Laura continued, “They came to where I work at a retail business in town…they said they had received a complaint that we were giving rides for gas money. I told them ‘yes we do.’ The MDOT man said, ‘That’s illegal. Didn’t you receive a packet sent out to you a week and a half ago detailing the complaint?’ I told him we hadn’t received anything.”
“They said we couldn’t take any money for gas or anything unless we have a MDOT certificate and insurance as a taxi or shuttle. They also told us that both Sheriff Wilson and Prosecutor Ambrozaitis said they both ‘knew it was wrong.’”
“Later Sheriff Wilson and Michelle Ambrozaitis both called us and said they had not even been contacted,” Laura said.
She added, “Since that time we haven’t received anything in writing from anyone and MDOT won’t return our calls. The MDOT man did say last Friday that if we continued, we could have our van taken away and Jim, who is the driver could be arrested.”
Laura said the MDOT ‘sticker’ would cost them around $2,000 and liability insurance about $2,500 a year. “We can’t afford that,” she said.
The Taylors, who don’t drink, said they started the service on New Year’s Eve 2005 with one rider. “The next year we had 80 and now we average 120 riders on New Year’s Eve,” Jim said. “We keep the Harrison area from getting DUIs on New Year’s. Now we start getting calls for the shuttle in November for New Year’s Eve rides.”
They operate the service year-round and also offer other types of transportation services – for shopping, appointments and errands. “Sometimes the Clare County Transit just won’t work for people. We fill that gap,” Laura said. They also provide transportation for area veterans to events. Laura said, “We’ve never charged for the ride, but only asked for gas money, to cover our costs. We will provide transportation to any and every bar in Harrison and then we will take the person back home safely.”
Jim added, “We will do some runs in other areas, but they have to be scheduled ahead of time.”
Laura said the service is supported by donations from area people. “We are working with the Lion’s Club about ways to raise the approximately $5,000 we need.”
They also now have two vans available now with the recent donation of a another vehicle through donations from local people and two very large donations from Todd Diederich and Ray Ragog. “A lot of people appreciate what we do and support us,” Laura said. The new van, formerly owned by an area church, is now being outfitted for service. “When they found out what we wanted to use the van for, they gave it to us for a really good price,” Laura said.
They also hold fundraisers to keep the vans running and Jim, who was a certified mechanic through Chrysler, takes care of the everyday maintenance.
Asked what they will do now that they have been told to stop accepting gas money, Laura said, “I have suckers – Blow Pops – on the bus. People can get one for a donation. That way I am not asking for gas money.” Another suggestion made to her was to have a canister for donations available on the van.
“We will find a way,” Laura said. “We don’t do this for the money. Our service is free. We do this because we want to help people – and support the community.”
A call to MDOT had not been returned at press time.