The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent widespread shift to remote working has stalled plans for a commuter transit system that would connect Grand Rapids and Holland.
The West Michigan Express initiative launched in 2017 to provide transportation for commuters along the Chicago Drive corridor. Before the pandemic, plans were in motion to pilot a bus route starting in the fall of 2020 that would make stops in Grand Rapids, Grandville, Hudsonville, Zeeland and Holland.
Municipalities along the proposed route were in talks to partner with the Interurban Transit Partnership, commonly known as The Rapid, to extend a bus route and link the communities. The initiative called for eventually evolving into a rail system.
“Conversations are definitely still happening, but we want to reaffirm all of our assumptions for ridership in a post-COVID-19 environment,” Hudsonville City Manager Patrick Waterman told MiBiz. “We do assume with the manufacturing and health care industries we have that there probably won’t be too much in the way of changes, and those were planned to be our primary riders.”
The Rapid is updating its transit master plan in 2022 and plans to incorporate the West Michigan Express concept into the process. However, the commuter transit plan is on hold until that master planning process is completed, Waterman said.
“We still feel very good about expectations, but we want The Rapid to do the study before we proceed,” Waterman said.
The Rapid’s master plan will look at potential regional routes, including along the Chicago Drive corridor, said Bill Kirk, The Rapid’s business affairs specialist. The proposed West Michigan Express route has a “head start” because of prior public feedback and studies that can be updated and incorporated into the master planning process, Kirk said.
“It’s a shame because there was some good momentum around the project. But because everything could be so different after the pandemic, it’s good too to take another look at it,” Kirk said. “It’s a project we remain interested in.”
Changing commuter habits
Even as workers return to physical offices, Kirk and other planners are keeping an open mind about potential shifts in long-term commuting habits because of the pandemic.
“When we do study this and try to understand how demand has changed, we’ll look at all of that stuff and if there is still a good level of demand and that a service like this could work, then we will be pursuing it,” Kirk said. “As we try to understand the ‘new normal,’ we want to make sure we give people another option on the transportation side.”
Aligning with national trends, The Rapid’s ridership on existing routes has dropped significantly, Kirk said. Ridership at the beginning of the pandemic decreased 90 percent compared to previous years, and today is about 60-percent lower than typical years, he said. The initial steep decline was also related to buses running at lower capacity under COVID-19 safety precautions.
“It’s slowly coming back, and we’ll see if things start to pick up more as restrictions lift,” Kirk said.
Despite the ridership trends caused by the pandemic, The Rapid remains in a “pretty financially sound position” with revenues continuing to flow from local property tax millages in the six cities it services and federal relief funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, Kirk said.
The transit master planning process will likely start in the second half of 2022 and could take around a year to complete. Even if the project is still feasible, it remains unclear how the operating structure might work.
“That remains to be determined, because one of the things we were looking at before the pandemic was The Rapid being the operator and providing vehicles and labor,” Kirk said. “But another option was to contract that out to another operator.”
Tim Mroz, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place Inc., is optimistic about workers returning to office spaces more broadly after the July 4 holiday.
“The parking structures downtown are starting to fill up again, and I think people are missing that in-person interaction,” Mroz said. “We are getting there.”
Meanwhile, local officials have long touted the potential commuter project as a talent retention and attraction measure, particularly for areas between Holland and Grand Rapids that aren’t currently served by transit agencies. A 2018 survey by Hope College researchers found 38 percent of workers along the Chicago Drive corridor would use a service like the West Michigan Express on a daily basis if it existed. A separate pre-pandemic study showed that roughly 27,000 people use the corridor to commute daily.
Mroz noted that every municipality along the corridor publicly supported the project before the pandemic hit, and that additional federal funding could be available with a federal infrastructure package being debated by lawmakers and the Biden administration.
“Depending on what this infrastructure bill ultimately looks like, we could have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen,” Mroz said.