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Bus Rapid Transit Plan Draws Downtown Dollars

But Grand Rapids’ project must score scarce state transit funds

May 1, 2008 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Bus rapid transit systems use longer vehicles that stop infrequently, travel along dedicated “guideways,” and change red lights to green.
Despite all of Michigan's maladies—the job cuts, population loss, housing crisis, credit crunch, and fear of change—developer Jonathan Bradford is confidently pushing forward with plans for a multi-million-dollar project in a gritty part of inner city Grand Rapids that's suffered for decades from disinvestment, decline, and despair.

Some might say he's crazy. But Mr. Bradford, like a growing number of other developers and investors here, eagerly anticipates something brand-new to Michigan: a BRT.

This city’s BRT, or Bus Rapid Transit system, is an approximately 10-mile long, permanent public transportation route that would connect Grand Rapids' central business district with its southern suburbs. The line, which could begin operating as early as 2012, would link its riders to five different college campuses, major job centers such as the Spectrum and St. Mary's medical campuses, and downtown entertainment destinations like Van Andel Arena.

The proposed route also weaves right through the middle of a large, underperforming tract of urban property that Mr. Bradford's firm controls, near the intersection of Wealthy and Jefferson Streets. Although the neighborhood has done little other than close businesses, shutter homes, and fight crime since the 1970's, Mr. Bradford is convinced that the BRT would bring customers and residents back to—and through—the area. So he's finalizing plans to open a full-service grocery; build a hub of service shops, offices, and public space; and restore quality housing. He’s also rounding up financial backers.

But, so far, the BRT’s most crucial backer—the State of Michigan—is missing in action.

To get the busway’s construction started, Michigan must pledge to spend approximately $8 million for the project over the next four years. That would provide the local money in a highly favorable “match” that would secure the $32 million the Federal Transit Administration approved for the project last December.

Michigan’s transportation spending and policy, however, is fixated almost exclusively on the private automobile. A state strategy to diversify the transportation system with more mobility choices simply does not exist. And that, most observers of successful American cities agree, is a serious impediment to fostering a new era of economic growth, environmental protection, and opportunity in Michigan communities, including most notably Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Mr. Bradford, the CEO of the Inner City Christian Federation, a nonprofit development firm, is quite literally banking on state support for the BRT.

"That transit line gives us great sizzle to promote," Mr. Bradford said in an interview. "It's the kind of sizzle investors have gotten used to seeing in other cities. They expect it in Chicago. They expect it in Portland. They expect it in strong, healthy urban areas.”

Ducking the Question
A wide range of civic, elected, business, and community leaders expect it here, too. They see investment in modern mass transit as a major key to their region’s—and the state’s—turnaround and now view BRT, high-speed commuter trains, light-rail systems, and urban streetcar circulators to be as basic to building an attractive, sustainable, and economically competitive city or state as new highways were after World War II.

Michigan, however, currently is not prepared to build modern transit in Grand Rapid. Not only is there a shortage of mass transit money: Michigan also lacks an official process to make multi-year funding commitments to public transit projects, such as the BRT or the light rail system proposed for Detroit’s Woodward Avenue on the other side of the state.

And even with tens of millions of federal dollars hanging in balance, there’s little reason to believe that will change anytime soon.

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a self-described proponent of vibrant cities and public transportation, ducked a question about BRT funding at a recent town hall meeting in Grand Rapids.

Meanwhile, the Michigan Legislature is desperately poor in imagination and leadership on the mass transit issue.

For example, state Representative Michael Sak, a Democrat from Grand Rapids whose district stands to gain as much as anyone’s from the BRT investment, has yet to take on the issue in any meaningful way. And the Michigan Department of Transportation is focused on spending its dwindling budget on bigger bridges and wider highways, including expanding the I-196 expressway through downtown Grand Rapids.

New Era, New Investment
Despite the state’s ongoing embrace of a transportation agenda fit for a past century, the federal government’s approval of Grand Rapids’ BRT system has touched off a wave of interest from private developers in both the project itself and the rebounding Division Avenue corridor, where it would operate.

"Since the federal funding was announced, we've been barraged with meeting requests,” said Tom Williams, a consultant from DMJM Harris, a national transportation engineering firm based in New York City that is working with The Rapid, metro Grand Rapids' regional transit agency, to design and construct the proposed BRT.

“Developers and local officials want to know what BRT is, where the stations might be, and details like how long platforms are and what canopies could look like,” Mr. Williams continued. “We went to one meeting where the architect had already drawn the station right into the development."

Developers are drawn to Bus Rapid Transit, Williams said, because “it’s much more than just another bus stop sign.”

Unlike ordinary bus lines, BRT operates in permanent, dedicated, bus-only lanes that enable vehicles to travel faster than general traffic, especially at rush hour. Grand Rapids’ proposed system would deploy state-of-the-art technologies that give the BRT priority at traffic signals, resulting in faster trips, and provide real-time travel information to its riders so they know when the next bus is coming.

BRT systems also include substantial station stops with roofs, lighting, and electronic fare collection for quick, easy boarding. That’s not just good for passengers; it also means investors can be confident that the system won’t be moved or rerouted after construction. As a result, BRT routes and stops, like new highway interchanges, tend to attract significant private land investment and development.

400 Percent Payback
The so-called Transitway in Ottawa, Ontario, for instance, regularly cited as one of the more successful BRT systems yet built, stimulated approximately $700 million in new development around its station stops. Boston’s Silver Line BRT, which began operating in 2002, so far has spun off approximately $650 in transit-oriented development. And Pittsburgh reports approximately $300 million in investments around its BRT system. In fact, the average rate of return on investment in BRT systems in North America hovers around 400 percent, according to a survey compiled for The Rapid.

A similar story seems poised to unfold in greater Grand Rapids. In the five months since the federal government approved the regional transit spur, a number of architects, city planners, economic development officials, and developers like Mr. Bradford have expressed interest in developments around nine of the 19 proposed stations stops, according to transit officials.

Officials at St. Mary’s hospital, for example, which is constructing a new $60 million cancer center right on the proposed BRT route, are working with the transit agency to incorporate at least one station stop in their growing medical campus. Economic development leaders in the neighboring City of Kentwood hosted a series of community planning sessions devoted entirely to revitalizing underutilized property around a proposed station stop at 54th Street and Division Avenue. And the Catholic diocese is building a new $22 million center right downtown, next to the proposed BRT route.

The prospective investment in Mr. Bradford’s project alone is equivalent to the projected cost of building the entire BRT system: $40 million.

"The return on investment in the total construction [of the BRT] is already 100 percent,” Tom Williams said. “If you think of it in terms of just the state and local money we need, you could argue that return on investment is already at 500 percent."

“The state money not only leverages the federal money,” Williams added. “It also leverages all this development.”

Mr. Bradford is no starry-eyed naÔf when it comes to development. He has worked with neighbors and civic leaders to revitalize the Wealthy-Jefferson area for nearly a decade. Conversations began informally in 1999. The group produced a preliminary vision for redevelopment in 2002. But the plan essentially stalled as economic conditions worsened.

"There was a vision and hope," Mr. Bradford said. "But nothing got traction until the transit folks said we're coming through. As soon as that announcement happened, the conversations we were having with grocers and other potential investors suddenly had staying power. For us not to have that sizzle would really impede us."

He plans to officially announce the project this summer. And construction is scheduled to begin in spring 2009. In the meantime he hopes the state takes an active interest in the BRT.

"Developments of this nature succeed when there is a broad and very committed array of partners,” he said. “In view of the investment climate, and the disinvestment reality of this area, the state's investment in the BRT vision could very well be the thing that gets the whole deal over the tipping point. It is the kind of milestone that will get investors both in and out of the state very interested.”

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