GRAND RAPIDS — In offering increased transit service along one of West Michigan’s densest employment corridors, Grand Rapids officials hope to fulfill a goal of one of the city’s key urban planning documents.
But at the same time that the city and Spectrum Health announced their intention to partner for additional services with the Interurban Transit Partnership — commonly known as The Rapid — the Grand Rapids-based health system also is moving forward as part of the development team behind a large parking ramp along the Medical Mile.
The parking ramp development involving Grand Valley State University is the kind of project that the 2015 Michigan Street Corridor Plan advises against.
Under the terms of the transit agreement announced last week, the city and Spectrum Health each will pay $293,737 annually to The Rapid, which will cover the remaining 19 percent of the annual cost of the service, according to city documents.
The documents noted the operating costs could increase up to 5 percent annually.
The three-year pilot program will turn The Rapid’s Route 19 — spanning from Seward Avenue and Seventh Street on the west side to Oak Industrial Drive to the east — into a higher frequency route with buses stopping every 10 minutes during peak times. The new program also will offer fare-free ridership, similar to the city’s Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) bus.
Stakeholders applaud the increased service as exactly what the bustling area needs and say it aligns with the recommendations of the Michigan Street planning document. Urban planning executives also acknowledged the realities behind the need for additional parking capacity given the continued expansion of Spectrum Health and GVSU, while expressing concerns about increased traffic and the consequences that has.
“This corridor is increasingly congested,” said Andy Guy, the COO of Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and a member of The Rapid board who voted in voted in favor of the increased transit service along Michigan Street.
“If we want to maximize that investment, we need to continue to find easy ways to prioritize (transit) service,” Guy said. “It doesn’t do any good if the bus is stuck in a traffic jam.”
Executives working on the project said design details such as signal priority and dedicated lanes for buses would be explored depending on need as the service begins later this summer.
The city projects that with the expanded Route 19 service, ridership will grow from an average of just 54 daily riders to around 800.
City officials also acknowledged that adding a 1,200-space parking ramp along the Michigan Street corridor isn’t ideal. However, Spectrum Health’s involvement in the transit service marks a step toward more reliable transportation options for the region’s largest employer, they said.
Spectrum Health traditionally has used a mix of private shuttles and free transit passes for many of its employees who work in and around the Michigan Street hill, near its Butterworth Hospital campus.
“To have another institution dip their toes in the water and follow the Grand Valley model, that’s a big deal,” said Suzanne Schulz, the city’s managing director of design and development, referring to GVSU providing its students with free bus passes to move between campuses west of downtown Grand Rapids and in Allendale.
By scaling back its shuttle program and allowing The Rapid to handle transportation for more of its employees, Spectrum Health says it hopes to gain considerable operational efficiencies.
“This is cost-effective for us,” said Spectrum Health spokesperson Bruce Rossman. “Shuttling people is not one of our core competencies. The Rapid can do this much more efficiently than we can. This helps us to manage our costs.”
The new parking ramp that Spectrum Health plans to build with GVSU will help to reduce congestion along the corridor, Rossman said, adding that most people will access it on roads north of Michigan Street.
The new parking deck, set to open in 2021, also will result in a net loss of about 300 parking spaces in the immediate area. That’s because the ramp will replace an older Spectrum Health ramp south of Michigan Street and a surface parking lot owned by GVSU, according to sources familiar with the plans.
Stakeholders also note building the ramp between Michigan Street and I-196 makes for a better solution than earlier concepts that would have put the ramp on GVSU’s new campus in the Belknap neighborhood, located on the north side of the freeway.
In 2015, the Grand Rapids City Commission codified the Michigan Street Corridor Plan as part of the city’s Master Plan. The nearly 150-page document touches on myriad aspects of how to best develop the burgeoning strip that’s home to industrial uses on the eastern end, a mix of residential and commercial uses in the middle and then large medical and educational institutions along its western side.
Mobility and parking were both key elements of the document.
According to the document: “Leaders from the institutions agreed that building parking is expensive and a cost most would like to avoid to the maximum extent feasible (while remaining accessible, operational, and competitive). Those leaders acknowledge that land is valuable and demand for its active use (vs. vehicle storage) will continue to grow in the future. Increasing traffic associated with continued growth in vehicular trips … is a significant concern.”
Top executives from both GVSU and Spectrum Health were deeply involved in crafting the planning document, with outgoing Spectrum Health CEO Rick Breon serving on the steering committee. James Moyer, the recently retired associate vice president for facilities planning at GVSU, served as chair of the committee.
“We will always continue to be huge supporters of transit,” said Lisa Haynes, associate vice president of facilities for GVSU’s Grand Rapids campuses.
According to Haynes, GVSU students take nearly 3 million rides annually via The Rapid.
“We need a combination of different options available. No one thing fits every person,” she said.
In many ways, the new Spectrum Health/GVSU parking ramp and the increased Michigan Street bus service are emblematic of the change in Grand Rapids, sources said.
The city increasingly has turned away from building new parking facilities, leaving that work to the private sector, which has in turn started building thousands of new parking spaces in and around downtown Grand Rapids as new development projects move forward.
At the same time, the city and various partners are working to make transit a more viable option. The city’s Mobile GR department, for example, plans to reroute the DASH service later this year to offer more direct routes in and around the central business district.
“We’re at a point of transition,” Guy said. “We’re still a car-reliant society. At the same time, we’re trying to pivot toward transit service. Sometimes transition times are just difficult. If we get the (expanded) Route 19 service online, then we have to evaluate it to make sure it emerges as a viable option in the (Michigan Street) corridor. That’s just something we’ll have to watch as the corridor grows over time.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that Spectrum Health will scale back, but not exit, its shuttle service for employees and to note that it hopes to gain efficiences as part of the pilot project.