Local officials say it’s tough to tell in one year whether a major public transportation project in Grand Rapids constitutes a full-on success.
However, they remain optimistic that the Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit route has made public busing attractive to new riders.
Situated around downtown Grand Rapids and south along Division Avenue to Gaines Township, Wyoming and Kentwood, the Silver Line already has attracted new kinds of bus riders opting against their cars, officials say, which will pay off in the long term in helping to solve parking shortages and fill in development along the corridor.
“The Silver Line is definitely attracting new riders,” said Jennifer Kalczuk, spokesperson for The Rapid. “It’s not that the same people who were riding have just transitioned.”
The Silver Line, which celebrated its one-year anniversary this summer, runs along the same route on Division as The Rapid’s Route 1. Kalczuk said the agency has seen a 40-percent increase in weekday ridership when totaling the traffic on Route 1 and the Silver Line compared to when the Silver Line didn’t exist.
According to the latest report from September, despite an overall ridership decline for The Rapid as a whole over the past year, the Silver Line was the “highest ridership route every month since March and has continued to increase in ridership compared to our other routes over that time.”
And the Interurban Transit Partnership — the transit authority that operates the regional public bus system known as The Rapid — is not stopping with the Silver Line. It’s in the design and engineering stages of a 13.3-mile, $64.2 million bus rapid transit (BRT) route connecting downtown with Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus. Officials hope that route, known as the Laker Line, will be operational by late 2017 or early 2018.
LANSING TURNS TO BRT
Similarly, transportation officials in Lansing are turning to BRT — which features more efficient travel times and dedicated pick-up stations compared to traditional fixed routes — as the next chapter in its regional bus system.
The Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) is looking to spend $155 million for the route that connects downtown Lansing and East Lansing via the busy Michigan Avenue corridor.
The two cities have turned to BRT as a cost-effective alternative to light rail, which is more likely to be built in denser-populated areas. The goal is to make regional commutes faster and more attractive to those who might otherwise opt for a car than a bus.
“There are so many elements to it that are beneficial,” said Debra Alexander, manager for Lansing’s BRT project and assistant executive director of CATA. “The overarching goal is: How can we as a region facilitate continued growth of housing, economic development, transit utilization and automobile utilization in a fixed environment?”
A MODEL FOR THE MIDWEST?
Nick Monoyios, a long-term planner for the Interurban Transit Partnership and project manager for the Laker Line, said The Rapid took a deliberate approach to make BRT stations look appealing. Other amenities like precision docking, Wi-Fi on the buses and multiple doors for entering and exiting the bus contribute to BRT’s appeal compared to traditional routes, he said.
“These stations are psychologically more dignified places to wait,” Monoyios said. “You’re not waiting in the snow bank on the side of the street next to a pole. It’s a very attractive facility, particularly for choice riders who have a car but are choosing to park and ride.”
The Rapid’s Silver Line BRT and the planned Laker Line have already garnered the attention of municipal officials in other Midwest cities. For example, economic developers in Des Moines, Iowa told MiBiz they visited Grand Rapids in September to study the Silver Line as a model for a potential BRT route they hope to build.
Monoyios said officials from Madison, Wisc. also plan to visit within the next two weeks.
Still, the Silver Line has its critics. The Kent County Taxpayers’ Alliance in particular has questioned whether the route is simply displacing riders from other overlapping routes and whether it will lead to development on vacant corridors.
Kalczuk responded that, compared to Route 1, the Silver Line serves a different purpose for riders because it has fewer stops and, therefore, longer distances between each one. Kalczuk added that the Silver Line has a 96-percent fare compliance rate, addressing concerns in the first year over riders who would hop on but not pay the fare.
Monoyios is also unconcerned about The Rapid’s overall decline in ridership in the past year, attributing that “primarily based on gas prices lowering.”
STILL SEEKING FUNDING
In Lansing, CATA is in the environmental assessment and design phases of where a BRT route would go between the capital and East Lansing.
The cost of that project has dropped from $194 million to $155 million since it was first proposed in 2009, Alexander said. It will essentially replace CATA’s high-demand Route 1, taking it from 10-minute stop frequencies to six minutes during peak hours.
Lansing’s project is one of several moving parts to how regional planners there seek to transform what’s known as the Michigan Avenue corridor, the main artery connecting the region’s two population centers.
“Part of that is looking at things like housing, employment and land-use issues of which the BRT is a catalyst for implementing those land-use changes,” Alexander said.
She said the agency is still looking for dedicated funding for the project. Of the total, $106 million is already fiscally constrained or “likely to be received,” she said. An upfront $49 million is still needed, but the budget may be revised as the project is refined. The current schedule calls for construction to start in late 2017.
Unlike the Silver Line, Lansing’s project calls for dedicated lanes for buses instead of sharing lanes with cars for most hours, which also explains why that project is much more expensive, Alexander said.
The long-term strategy of planning BRT routes focuses on stimulating economic development along corridors. Officials say it’s too soon to tell whether the Silver Line is doing so, but that is the hope with all three projects.
“We have over a half-billion dollars of planned or existing construction for economic development in the corridor since the BRT went into development,” Alexander said of Lansing. “Some of those developers are coming to the region saying, ‘We know you have a BRT in the process and we want to be where the stations are.’
“We know that having a BRT in the region is a catalyst for economic development,” she added.
In Grand Rapids, officials say time will tell whether the Silver Line will spur new development along Division Avenue.
But the Laker Line will come through downtown from the west and move north and south along Monroe Avenue, a route that at least one developer questions as the best spot for pushing new development.
“I think it’d be a lot more beneficial to be on the west side of the river to do the south-north jog,” said Joel Kamstra of Grand Rapids-based Cherry Street Capital LLC. His firm has a reported $12.9 million residential development planned just west of the David D. Hunting YMCA.
Monroe Avenue is “really fully developed and is not an area that needs an extra route there,” Kamstra said, pointing at areas ripe for development along Seward, Lexington, Winter and Summer avenues in the city’s west side neighborhood.
“All that stuff is positioned for development,” Kamstra said. “Putting a line up that way would spur that or create more confidence there.”
Monoyios said the decision to route the Laker Line via Monroe “was made based on a thorough evaluation of routing alternatives in the summer/fall of 2014. Factors of this determination included stronger employment, residential and commercial densities to warrant BRT.
“However, we completely recognize the development occurring on the west side of the river and are working on some possible fixed route alternatives.”
Liz Treutel, who specializes in transportation policy with the Lansing-based Michigan Environmental Council, said growth typically occurs if the BRT is connecting two or more nodes where development is happening.
“The room for development comes in those areas in between,” she said. “That’s where that argument is strong. For any kind of rapid transit system to be successful, you have to have a base to start with.”
Treutel said that’s “definitely the case” in Lansing, where the planned BRT line would connect downtown Lansing with East Lansing and Michigan State University’s campus.
ATTRACTING NEW RIDERS
As for Grand Rapids, Kamstra said bus routes “can be pretty impactful in development of those neighborhood services that help boost the whole area. … We’re excited about all of these conversations happening with mass transit.”
Another primary goal of a BRT line is attracting “choice” riders — those who have a car but who would choose BRT for efficiency and price.
Treutel said the MEC is looking at how to better connect employers with transportation agencies to incentivize employees to ride the bus.
“A lot of times, there isn’t a lot of connection between those two entities,” Treutel said. “Having that as an incentive can really open up that interest or that access to a system (employees) may not otherwise consider.”
Treutel echoed Monoyios on BRT making riding the bus attractive to those choice riders — if it’s done right — through off-board ticketing and station platforms.
“Little things like that make a big difference in ridership,” she said. “It really raises the quality of the trip.”