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Sunday, 31 May 2015 14:20

Mackinac Policy Conference panel: Focus on improving mass transit systems as well as roads

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(From L-R) Paul Hillegonds, Peter Varga, Carlos Monje and Michael Ford at the MPC Transit Panel. (From L-R) Paul Hillegonds, Peter Varga, Carlos Monje and Michael Ford at the MPC Transit Panel. PHOTO: NICK MANES

As attendees of this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference focused on transportation themes, it’s clear that improving public mass transit is just as important as working to repair roads, according to a panel of experts who spoke at the event.

And just like roads, there is no quick and easy solution for mass transit, although some areas of the state do better at it than others.

“We have seen how our service works, and it’s not working well,” said Michael Ford, CEO of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, the point agency tasked with linking the metropolitan Detroit area’s various transit operations. “Our coordination efforts are to streamline, enhance and provide efficiencies. We don’t want swiss-cheese transit. We need transit that works effectively.”

While the Detroit area works to link its various systems better — as well as to construct the Woodward Avenue (M1) streetcar line — there is opportunity for the area to look at Grand Rapids as one model for collaboration.

The Rapid, the Grand Rapids-area transit authority, remains the only system in the state to build a bus rapid transit (BRT) line. Dubbed the Silver Line and running south along Division Avenue from downtown Grand Rapids, the BRT system is intended to offer both faster and more efficient methods of transportation, as well as spur economic development along the corridor, said Peter Varga, the CEO of the The Rapid.

Varga was a panelist for a discussion that included Ford and Assistant U.S. Secretary of Transportation Carlos Monje and was moderated by former state legislator Paul Hillegonds, now the CEO of the Michigan Health Endowment Fund at the Kresge Foundation.

The Rapid is also in the planning and funding stages for its second BRT line, called the Laker Line, that will run between downtown Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University’s main campus in Allendale. Development of the project could start over the next couple months, although the authority still lacks all the necessary federal funds, Varga told MiBiz.

“Our vision was really to create a network of BRT,” Varga said on the panel.

The BRT systems The Rapid is constructing are not unlike the streetcar line being constructed in Detroit, at least in terms of operations. Both have similar stations, a designated lane and level boarding for riders in wheelchairs and they offer real-time information to riders about schedules.

But there are key differences in the two models, most notably in their cost, Varga noted.

Since the BRT is purely a bus-based system, it’s about 10 times cheaper to build and maintain than a streetcar or light rail, he said.

However, the differences don’t end with cost, Varga said, adding that the ways in which the two models spur development are also notable.

“Streetcars lead to ribbon development,” Varga said, referring to a transit trend where homes are constructed near a transit line. “You’ll see that ribbon development will occur in the Woodward (M1) Corridor. That’s probably the right thing.”

The activity along M1 contrasts with how development is expected to occur along Division Avenue or Lake Michigan Drive with BRT lines in Grand Rapids. Because of the length of the corridors as well as the population and demographic changes along the route, the BRT is expected to drive development over a lengthier timeframe and on a smaller scale.

“For (the Silver Line) to convert to light rail, you’d have to double the density and the population base,” Varga said. “We don’t have that in Grand Rapids.”

Since launching last summer, Silver Line ridership has increased about 40 percent, Varga added.

By comparison, development in the area where the M1 system is being built is already burgeoning, and the various stakeholders are only increasing their stock in the corridor, sources said. The Silver Line is more meant to spur development over a long period of time and a much lengthier distance.

“There is a lot of potential for economic development and that’s what we are counting on,” Varga said. “We are starting to see the seeds of that with new housing and retail development. It takes about eight years before you see that concentration. … BRT is not only good for getting people to work, it’s good for business and it’s good for economic development.”

Read 3074 times Last modified on Sunday, 07 June 2015 23:27

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