GRAND RAPIDS — Political pressures in Washington, D.C. have created uncertainty for transit officials looking to fund West Michigan’s second bus rapid transit line.
Despite having announced the route between downtown Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus more than three years ago, officials with the Interurban Transit Partnership known as The Rapid say plans for the proposed Laker Line are stuck in a holding pattern.
The project was one of 10 similarly sized transit proposals from around the country to recently get recommendation from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for inclusion in President Obama’s 2017 fiscal year budget.
But until Congress passes a budget and appropriates the funds, there’s no money in the bank just yet, said Nick Monoyios, long-range planner for The Rapid and the project manager for the Laker Line.
“It’s (like) playing a chess game where you’re just moving pieces back and forth,” Monoyios said. “Nobody is making a move yet.”
Often described as a cheaper alternative to light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT) generally offers riders enhanced bus stations, dedicated lanes and other amenities intended to provide faster, more reliable service on set routes.
After a recent trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with FTA officials, Monoyios said The Rapid expects it could receive the needed funds in the coming month or the money could be split up into different years, depending on how the federal appropriations process plays out.
“We just don’t know because it’s based on the outcome of the appropriations,” Monoyios said.
Because the FTA has ranked the Laker Line as a priority, political insiders say it’s likely to get passed as part of a continuing resolution to fund the federal government.
“It could be a big positive for the community as a whole,” said Brian Patrick, communications director for the office of U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, one of two representatives whose district is included in the proposed Laker Line route.
Patrick added that any resolution would most likely come around the Sept. 30 end of the federal fiscal year budget.
A request for comment left with the office of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, was not returned as this report went to press.
With between 11,000 and 13,000 riders per day — most of them college students who get free passes from GVSU — the existing path along Lake Michigan Drive makes for one of The Rapid’s busiest routes.
To develop the Laker Line, The Rapid would buy 16 new accordion-type buses, build 11 new stations and construct a new maintenance facility on Grand Rapids’ southwest side.
For Monoyios and other stakeholders, the enhanced bus service on the city’s burgeoning west side and along Lake Michigan Drive offers opportunities to do more than just move people from one place to another.
For years, the Standale master plan has guided the build-out of properties along the section of Lake Michigan Drive in the city of Walker, where officials believe better transit options would allow for better development patterns. In particular, a bus rapid transit system like the Laker Line could help shift development away from the commonplace strip malls in favor of denser, “transit-oriented development,” according to Frank Wash, Walker’s assistant city manager and community development director.
To Wash, enhanced transit options, the infrastructure that goes along with it and the zoning allowed in the area could prove attractive to potential commercial real estate developers.
“The BRT would certainly be an enhancement for riders but also for stations,” Wash told MiBiz. “Those enhanced stations set the brand for the route, and they plug back into downtown (Grand Rapids).”
The city of Walker made transit-oriented zoning changes a number of years ago for the area along Lake Michigan Drive between Kinney and Wilson Avenues. So far, developers have not brought any concrete plans for projects to the city, but Wash said he believes building a BRT could facilitate that.
Monoyios from The Rapid agrees.
“There’s no such thing as ‘build this and all of a sudden, magically, development appears,’” Monoyios said. “There have to be special zoning considerations and (incentives) because we have to reinvest in these corridors.”
The good news for stakeholders: The money to build the Laker Line is largely in place, should Congress appropriate the funds.
According to federal documents, the FTA plans to fund 80 percent of the proposed $71 million transit line, while the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is expected to fund the remaining 20 percent.
According to Sharon Edgar, administrator for MDOT’s Office of Passenger Transportation, the agency has historically been able to make all its funding commitments, but it must also receive its fiscal year appropriation before it can confirm the funding.
Last year, MDOT director Kirk Steudle issued a letter of support for the proposed project.
The FTA’s 80 percent funding recommendation actually marks the highest commitment the federal agency gave to any of the 10 projects in the same category as the Laker Line.
The proposed Laker Line would share a number of similarities with the region’s first BRT system, the two-year-old Silver Line. That route runs along South Division Avenue connecting downtown Grand Rapids and Kentwood and offers a dedicated lane during rush hour times, as well as signal priority that allows traffic lights to change as buses approach.
However, the Silver Line and Laker Line would also have key differences. For example, the Laker Line, which is proposed to run along West Fulton Street and Lake Michigan Drive out to GVSU’s main campus in Allendale, will not offer a dedicated lane, as the route has less traffic than the Silver Line.
However, The Rapid plans to use a similar design for bus stations for the Laker Line.
“We want that uniformity,” Monoyios said. “We recognize the value of the consistency in design and aesthetic. We want to create a BRT network. Similar to how people understand highways, that’s the expressway to get places. BRT is the expressway for transit users.”
While the funding remains at the whim of national politics during a presidential election year, Monoyios remains upbeat about the prospects for the BRT route, largely because of the accolades the proposed route has already received from federal transit experts.
“Let’s put it this way: We know that the Laker Line is an eventuality,” he said.