Bolstering West Michigan commuter transit would aid talent attraction, officials say

BY Sunday, July 07, 2019 07:00pm

Officials studying commuter transit options between Grand Rapids and Holland are hoping to make West Michigan more competitive when it comes to talent attraction.

The city of Hudsonville and a task force made up of economic development and transit experts are spearheading efforts to test what they’re calling the West Michigan Express, a bus and rail system that would aid commuters along Chicago Drive, the most heavily traveled work commute corridor in the region. 

Backers say the potential three-year pilot is gaining support from companies and communities along the route. Their goal is to launch the service by fall of 2020. 

“It’s designed around what we think people want, what the next-generation workforce wants,” said Hudsonville City Manager Patrick Waterman. “It’s also a way to get away from our dependency on the automobile and this constant discussion of roads and repairing roads. If you can be more efficient with how you move people, you’re going to solve a lot of those problems.”

In particular, the transit option could help employers along the length of Chicago Drive who are struggling to fill open positions, said Waterman, noting that The Rapid in metro Grand Rapids and Holland-based Macatawa Area Express (MAX) do not reach Hudsonville. Without the transit service, companies are limited in their ability to attract workers from across the region, he said. 

The transit concept is bolstered by a 2018 survey from the Frost Research Center at Hope College, which found 38 percent of workers along the corridor would use a service like the West Michigan Express on a daily basis if it existed.

Some 27,000 people use the Chicago Drive corridor to commute on a daily basis, according to a 2018 study conducted by Muncie, Indiana-based consultant Mp2planning. As well, the firm determined that 29.6 percent of all workers living in Ottawa County commute to Kent County for jobs, while around 7 percent of Kent County workers commute to jobs in Muskegon or Ottawa counties.

Waterman currently is enlisting local units of government, business groups and economic development agencies to approve resolutions of support for the West Michigan Express pilot. 

The city of Holland was the first municipality to back a resolution in support of the project.

“From a talent perspective, from the number of people that are commuting, the number of people who are interested in maybe not owning multiple cars or doing their transportation in cars but look to a more future-oriented mode of transportation, this just makes a ton of sense as something to experiment with,” said Holland City Manager Keith Van Beek.

Waterman hopes by September to ask the City of Grand Rapids to support the resolution. 

Transit dead zone

The idea for a commuter transit option originated in Hudsonville, a city that sits between multiple public transit systems but lacks its own options.

“We’re kind of in this bubble, in no man’s land, without any access to public transit, because The Rapid stops at Grandville, and the MAX stops at Zeeland,” Waterman said. “To really be part of the region, we really need to come up with ways to be more connected.”

Waterman helped gather a task force of about 30 people who met to research and share ideas about the potential three-year pilot program, which would begin with over-the-road coaches with amenities like bathrooms and Wi-Fi. The task force currently is in talks with The Rapid, which could operate the buses, he said. 

People are most excited about the possibility of rail transit, but that option remains cost-prohibitive at this point, Waterman said.

“Starting this service as an express bus type service, like (the task force) has proposed, will allow them to test it and make adjustments if necessary before considering making the much larger investment it would take to implement a rail service,” Laurel Joseph, transportation planner for the regional Grand Valley Metro Council, said in an email to MiBiz.

The GVMC is also a member of the task force.

The 2018 Mp2planning study determined it would cost $8 million to $28 million to implement a commuter rail system, as well as another $1.5 million to $4 million each year to operate it. An express bus service would cost a fraction of that, about $420,000 to buy three buses and about $500,000 each year in operational costs, according to the study.

Waterman and the task force are hoping the system would be privately funded. The group has no plan to seek a millage to pay for the pilot program. 

Finding solutions

The West Michigan Express service would operate similarly to the former interurban rail line that existed in the 1900s and ran passenger trains between Holland and Grand Rapids before cars replaced it. 

Given that most workers commute along the corridor in personal vehicles, the task force has identified transportation to work — or a lack thereof — as a major barrier for companies to find and keep workers in West Michigan. 

“It’s a problem the private sector is facing, but one that we think the public sector is more capable of solving,” Waterman said. “Our goal is to get a solution and go to them and say, ‘Here is the solution. There is a return on investment for you as a business to help support this.’”

Private investors, employers, community foundations, the state and the Michigan Economic Development Corp. could be possible funding sources because the service would directly benefit economic development and employment in West Michigan, Waterman said.

The Right Place Inc. has helped connect members of the task force to the West Michigan business community. Tim Mroz, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place, said employers are receptive to supporting the West Michigan Express because it could be a smarter investment than expanding lanes for more car traffic flow within the corridor.

Along with improving the mobility of workers, a commuter-based transportation service could drive other socioeconomic changes, like affordable housing and increased density and walkable environments near transit stops, according to Waterman.

“It would really put (West Michigan) on the map in terms of giving us a competitive advantage of where to live, because a lot of young people are looking for these types of mobility options now, and there’s not a lot of places in the state where you can find them,” he said. 

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