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Agency Endorses Grand Rapids Streetcars

System also seeks funds to improve its service, add rapid buses

January 26, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Andy Guy/MLUI
  Portland’s downtown streetcar ties its business district to many important destinations, including Portland State University.

GRAND RAPIDS—Emboldened by rave reviews from a delegation sent to Portland, Ore., to study the economic effects of that city’s highly popular streetcar system, the board of directors of Grand Rapids’ regional public transit agency has voted to approve acclerating the study and design of a similar system of its own.

At the same meeting, held two days ago, the board that directs the regional system, known as The Rapid, also took two other steps: It decided to ask local voters to approve a property tax increase to improve existing bus service, and directed its staff to pursue federal funding for constructing a new “rapid bus” system.

The three decisions are meant to enhance urban mobility, unleash another wave of private downtown investment, and boost economic competitiveness in this rapidly de-industrializing Midwestern city, which is working to transform itself into a major player in the burgeoning global knowledge economy.

The board’s action is another step forward in a long, arduous effort that could eventually lead to the construction of a proposed 2.4-mile streetcar system that would circulate throughout the central city. The currently proposed route would link commuters to a convention center, an arena, numerous bars and clubs, new hotels and residences, and several other popular destinations in the city's central business district.

The project, estimated to cost approximately $69 million, is strikingly similar in terms of scale and cost to a number of streetcar systems already built or underway in cities across the United States. Portland’s, for example, cost $54 million, is 4.8 miles long, and in 10 years stimulated nearly $3 billion in new downtown investment, including the largest economic development project in that city’s history.

"Wherever the track goes down becomes ground zero for massive development," said former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie, one of the local leaders who went to Portland to study the streetcars and their effect on that city. "But private investment ripples about four blocks away on either side of the streetcar line. So you want to go where development has yet to occur."

"They can do a block a week," Mr. Logie said of the companies that build streetcar systems. "They can put in the rails and the fixed guide-way overhead power source week by week, block by block."

Mr. Logie's apparent eagerness reflects a sense of urgency that has recently crept into discussion about revitalizing Grand Rapids. The city may be enjoying an unprecedented building boom—developers and local government have in recent years invested more than $2.7 billion in new housing, parks, retail and office space, high-tech labs, and medical buildings to anchor an emerging, regional knowledge economy—but there are signs that the city's redevelopment strategy remains incomplete.

Sustaining a Downtown Revival
Those signs include the recent, surprise closings of two popular downtown destinations—an eatery and a bookstore; a declaration by a local business journal that Tall House, a nine-story, $35 million, mixed-use, downtown development, "will be the last [condo] development of any size for a number of years"; and a central city that is still struggling to attract a critical mass of retailers and basic services such as a grocer and movie theaters.

To date, the vast majority of downtown development here has been driven by tax breaks and philanthropy. But with many of the breaks set to expire—and the city's economic giants already heavily invested in big-ticket items like Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place convention center, the Wege Center medical complex, and the Meijer Majestic Theatre—officials are realizing that lasting urban revitalization requires something more. That something, many officials now say, is more and better public transportation, which is what the streetcar decision represents.

Streetcar boosters can point to many other examples, besides Portland, of cities where new streetcars trigger a storm of new downtown development. A 1.6-mile streetcar line in Tacoma, Wash., for instance, opened in 2003, cost $89 million to build, and already has spun off approximately $1 billion in new development. A 2.5-mile system in Little Rock, Ark., opened in 2004, cost approximately $20 million, but already has leveraged $1.2 billion in private reinvestment. In each case, the new development sprung up within a few blocks of the new streetcar routes.

That is why local leaders such as Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, who also traveled to Portland, believe they know the answer to what’s become a crucial question in their community: What will it take to elevate Grand Rapids’ revival to the next level, and then sustain it?

"The successful cities across the United State are at the forefront of mass transit innovation," Ms. Englehart told The Rapid’s board before members voted to move forward with the streetcar system, request voter financing of improved bus service, and take another step toward rapid buses--vehicles that operate in dedicated lanes largely unimpeded by traffic signals.

Beyond Autos and Idealism
One major reason streetcars are gaining ground across the country is that the argument for expanding modern rapid transit has moved from the idealistic to the practical.

For decades, transit supporters maintained that better public transportation was essential for addressing social issues, such as maintaining mobility and independence for young people, seniors, and other citizens who can't afford or choose not to drive. More recently, supporters added an environmental dimension to the debate, pointing out that stemming traffic congestion and the air pollution it generates requires more transportation choices than just the automobile.

Now cities like Portland, Tacoma, and Little Rock are helping Grand Rapids understand yet another aspect of the transit debate: economic competitiveness. These cities have discovered, and are now demonstrating, that the 21st-century economy’s raw materials are not place-specific resources like iron ore, gypsum, or water, but knowledge and information. That means modern companies and their workers can locate almost anywhere.

So, knowledge company executives and employs now consistently rank quality of life—and especially the presence of vibrant, accessible cities—among the most critical assets in choosing where to do business and where to live. That makes modern mass transit a crucial asset in a region’s economic development plans.

“The factors driving economic development and quality of life are changing, especially among the outside interests looking to locate in our region," said Rick Chapla, vice president of the Right Place Program, who also made the trip to Portland. "Business leaders used to ask about tax incentives and land cost. They still do. But today there’s another, increasingly important question. The new factor is mobility. Now they want to know about traffic congestion, mass transit service, and other options for getting around beyond the automobile.”

Mr. Chapla is actively engaged in the growing local movement to reconstruct a public transit system in his city, which once boasted an extensive network of street trolleys and buses. But the system was dismantled throughout the last century to make way for the automobile. Today, civic leaders are trying to put that legendary system back together.

‘Enthusiastic and Impressed’
Those civic efforts also helped prompt The Rapid’s board to ask voters to approve a property tax increase to improve current bus service and direct its staff to pursue federal funding for a brand new rapid bus system.

The tax increase, which will be on the May ballot, would fund more frequent service on select routes, more weekend and evening service, and other improvements. The proposed 9.8-mile rapid bus route would connect commuters with major downtown hubs such as Grand Rapids Community College, St. Mary's Hospital, and the so-called Health Hill district. It would include approximately 19 stops, primarily along Division Avenue, and cost a projected $33.6 million.

But it’s the idea of trolleys roaming around downtown that is generating the most excitement among civic leaders, especially those who made the trip west to see Portland's system firsthand.

"To a person, we were enthusiastic and impressed," said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who added that it is now important to further investigate the purpose, governance, and funding strategy for streetcar systems.

""I found it remarkably convenient," said Don Stypula, executive director of the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency."I close my eyes and I can literally envision these streetcars on our streets."

"We all came back pretty excited about what we saw," said Bing Goei, president of Eastern Floral & Gift Shop, who chairs the Grand Rapids Chamber, after his return from Portland. "The positive effects of mass transit—and the streetcar in particular—in the city of Portland are very impressive. I think it could work here."

"If the streetcar system is an economic development tool, and I believe it is, we as a community need to decide where to use it," added Mr. Goei, who is convinced a streetcar system could help to stimulate and sustain small business in metro Grand Rapids. "And we need to bring more people to the table."

And, apparently, send more people out to Portland. Mr. Goei said local leaders are now planning a second, larger expedition to Portland later this year to continue to build local interest, particularly among developers, in the streetcar revolution.

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Water Works project and writes about Smart Growth issues from Grand Rapids. He is also managing editor at Rapid Growth Media and maintains a blog at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.
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