Grand Rapids bets $40 million on state’s first bus rapid transit system

From The Grand Rapids Press:

Drivers prepare get on a new Silver Line bus during a training exercise in Grand Rapids Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (Cory Morse |
Drivers prepare get on a new Silver Line bus during a training exercise in Grand Rapids Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. (Cory Morse |

From the second-floor of The Rapid’s headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids, Conrad Venema looks out at U.S. 131 cutting through the heart of the city.

The view offers a stark contrast of travel of old — mammoth concrete corridors designed for personal vehicles — against what transportation planners like Venema see as the future with shared rides that reduce potential gridlock and speed movement.

And just as highways helped spur the region’s growth for years, West Michigan leaders are confident this week’s launch of the $40 million Silver Line Bus Rapid Transit system — the first of its kind in Michigan — will play a central role in the next wave of economic, housing and transportation development.

The 9.6-mile line that connects the center city and the Medical Mile with its southern suburbs of Wyoming and Kentwood, supporters say, offers an efficient alternative by cutting a typical 45-minute drive to a 27-minute commute.

“We’ve designed this to attract the choice rider,” Venema said of people who can select their method of moving around the area. “We finally have a transportation mode that’s competing with the car.

“This is part of Grand Rapids growing up. It’s a bigger city, and it’s a bigger project.”

Some aren’t as optimistic and say the route isn’t nearly as transformational as advocates claim.

In fact, Jeff Steinport from the Kent County Taxpayer’s Alliance alleges the Silver Line is a spending boondoggle that duplicates public transportation routes already available through The Rapid’s traditional bus system. He also claims it is unlikely to speed traffic for those on the bus or for those still driving, particularly along Division Avenue, the main corridor of the line.

“A quarter of existing routes are faster…it’s not really that big of an improvement,” Steinport said.

The experiment starts Monday, Aug. 25, with a week’s worth of free rides to entice people to give the Silver Line a try, but the test of the system’s necessity and its ability will be over years, not months.

According to the National Transit Database, The Rapid’s passenger trips for 2012 climbed to 11.9 million, up from 10.8 million rides in 2011 and 9.7 million in 2010. Venema sees those numbers growing with Silver Line serving as an addition and complement to current service, but he admits some of those riders might choose to move within the system.

Steinport doubts Silver Line will make the splash its supporters claim.

The Rapid’s busiest Route 1 already serves Division, and ridership numbers rose by about 5 percent from September 2011 to 2012 then fell by the same amount the following year. It’s unrealistic, at best, a new bus along an existing route would add development,” Steinport said.

“It seems they’re reaching the point of saturation. You’re going to run into the limit where the route covers.”

Rapid officials insist the service eventually can serve at least 5,000 riders each weekday. According to the agency’s latest figures, April 2014 saw about 2,900 daily passengers on Route 1.


Grand Rapids’ system hopes to replicate the success the BRT has in Cleveland, which served as a model and stimulated about $5.8 billion in development since 2008. Officials are certain there will be growth because of the Silver Line, but they note the size of the boon in West Michigan remains uncertain.

“It’s a well-informed bet based off of other bus rapid transit systems across the country and the economic development that has spurred,” said Suzanne Schultz, Grand Rapids’ planning director, pointing to Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue Health Line.

“Cleveland now is a poster child…you have a high concentration of employment and education,” said Schultz, referencing similarities between the cities medical schools and hospitals. “It really serves as the anchor to draw people into the transit system.”

The Silver Line equates to roughly $3.5 million to $4 million per mile of investment, Venema said. Grand Rapids’ Downtown Market, Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Grand Rapids Community College and many more housing developments and eateries lie on the route’s northern end and the hope is that the growth spreads southward.

Jerry DeGood, vice president of the Division Avenue Business Association admits there’s more to be desired along the route outside a scattering of fast food restaurants, car lots and thrift stores. He knows the area well, having been an owner of a used car dealership on that stretch for more than 25 years.

He sees the Silver Line as a worthwhile gamble, a bet the community can afford to take.

“The perception is that they’ve done this in other communities, and the positives have outweighed the negatives,” DeGood said. “Businesses have gone up; property values went up; apartment and condos go under construction.

“History has shown in the majority of other BRT projects across the country, it’s worked. We’re just hoping it falls in line, here, and we have our turn at it.”

About $32 million sourced from the federal government — the largest piece of Silver Line funding — in October 2012 turned the project from concept in 2003 to reality more than a decade later.

That amount rests atop about $7.9 million from the state and $15.3 million generated annually from a May 2011 millage, with one-third helping to pay for Silver Line operational costs, including driver salaries and diesel fuel when the buses’ electric motors begin to switch over past 25 mph. That millage was passed by a slim 136-vote margin. At the time, critics complained the tax would be collected from property owners in six cities, but the Silver Line would pass through only three municipalities.

The Rapid CEO Peter Varga said the project’s $40 million total cost is roughly 10 percent under budget, though final calculations still are being determined.


The route begins at the system’s Central Station along Grandville Avenue, weaves its way through downtown’s main corridors of Monroe Avenue and Michigan Street before intersecting Fulton and Wealthy streets. The line will pass down Division Avenue and turn around at 60th Street.

A bus rapid transit service boils down the time of the trip when compared with a traditional bus system and allows riders to be productive while on the go, Venema said. The buses have technology that keeps traffic lights green, enabling the driver and passengers to cruise through intersections. Riders can use Wi-Fi capability — a function that won’t be immediately available due to a vendor snafu — while moving.

Imagine a commute, Varga says, without the worry of being caught in traffic or having to find a parking space. The trip gets faster when rush hour bus-only lanes take traditional traffic out of bus drivers’ sight. The right lanes in some portions of the route will be only for buses, which will stop at each station every 10 minutes. Riders can monitor the system with real-time arrival and departure times.

“When you start putting all these layers on top, that totally separates it from your regular bus,” Venema said. “That’s when you start having that competitive edge.”

A ride on the Silver Line will cost $1.50, the same as a regular bus trip, with options to buy passes for two weeks or a month at a time. Rather than paying a driver or at the central station, passengers will be on an honor system and able to pay for fares at kiosks resembling an ATM at any of the stops.

While the Rapid will have spot fare checks, leaders are confident most will pay. Research by Transit Cooperative Research Program that found nine out of 10 passengers pay when bus drivers aren’t collecting fares upon boarding.

And fare-jumping won’t be cheap with $65 fines for the first offense and higher penalties for additional offenses that quickly climb above $200.

There also are consequences for vehicle drivers who don’t follow the bus-only lane regulations, with a ticket costing a minimum of $110 and adding two points on an operator’s license.


The Silver Line, supporters say, is positioned to move people along its route and benefit the communities it serves, though only time will tell how successful it becomes.

While this project is Michigan’s first such BRT line, a 12-mile “Laker Line” between Grand Valley State University and downtown Grand Rapids on Lake Michigan Drive could be its second. Transit officials currently are conducting a $600,000 grant-funded study to determine how much the project would cost and what it ultimately might look like upon completion.

That project combined with the Silver Line could create additional opportunities for the region and help offset a potential traffic crunch, Schultz said.

“Given that Grand Rapids is a regional employer, we have about 50,000 people who are either employees or visitors within a square mile,” she said. “Having everyone drive their own vehicle is not going to be the answer if we’re going to have economic development.

“If we did not do some sort of improvement for transit, bikes and pedestrians, everything comes to a stop.”


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