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In A Major Disconnect, HIghways Still Dominate Grand Rapids Agenda

May 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
and Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

David Bulkowski's work day is over, and he's locked in traffic again, daydreaming about better ways he could spend the time. The vision returns: he'll sell his second car, save all that gasoline and insurance money, and ride to work on the Grand Rapids bus system that his taxes already support.

Then the reality check:

  • Each morning, if Mr. Bulkowski misses his 8 a.m. bus, he'll wait up to 30 minutes for the next one.
  • He sometimes works late, and the buses stop running at 6:15 p.m.
  • The downtown bus "station" is a small parking lot with little shelter from the elements, no heat, and no bathroom.

Despite the limitations Mr. Bulkowski, associate director of the Grand Rapids Center for Independent Living, a disability rights organization, recently decided to make the switch to commuting by bus even though "the level of bus service here is outrageous, and that's on a good day."

Not nearly enough other people in Grand Rapids are ready to put up with such inconveniences. Despite its enviable record of achievement in preserving open space, gaining local government cooperation, and even establishing a new urban service boundary, (see article on page 9), Grand Rapids has been unable to resolve its growing dilemma over transportation.

On one hand, the Grand Valley Metro Council, an alliance of 29 local governments, has agreed to a pioneering Blueprint Plan for the region to halt sprawl by developing compact business centers and neighborhoods to be served by mass transit.

On the other, the region is starving its mass transit system and promoting hundreds of millions of dollars of new highway construction that critics say will accelerate sprawling development south of the city and make congestion in the suburbs worse.

Gorging on Roads, Starving Public Transit
There is little dispute about the facts of transportation investment in Grand Rapids. The $420 million South Beltline, a four-lane bypass linking interstates 96 and 196, is under construction after years of planning. Other highway and road projects include spending millions of dollars to enlarge intersections, reconstruct 36th Avenue, and improve several suburban routes.

Meanwhile, funding for the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority (GRATA) is so thin that service is declining in many parts of the city.

There are clear differences between area officials and land use advocates about the causes of the region’s unbalanced transportation priorities.

Gerald L. Felix, executive director of Metro Council, said his organization’s members support both public transit and new highways, especially the South Belt.

“The South Belt has been planned since the 1950s,” he said, insisting that it will not promote more sprawl. “Businesses moved out there in anticipation of the new highway. People moved out there. So we say it’s not going to promote sprawl because sprawl is already there. We need a major improvement in east–west access.”
Other observers, however, say the South Belt crosses land that is primarily undeveloped and will surely promote new subdivisions and commercial areas. And while halting sprawl through promoting neighborhoods and business centers served by transit is the primary stated mission of Metro Council, the organization has not backed it up.

“The weakness of the transportation link in metro Grand Rapids is due in part to the fact that transit was simply not a priority of Metro Council or the Blueprint despite the perception that it is,” said Julie Stoneman, director of land programs at the Michigan Environmental Council. In the early 1990s she participated in establishing the Blueprint while a staff member at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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