The DASH Dilemma

April 16, 2002
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" align=right border=0>GRAND RAPIDS — The city sees the Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) as a driving force in the transportation future for the central business district, and for good reason. But the prospects for DASH South and DASH West, and possibly a third route, are somewhat uncertain right now as the service is tied to future development downtown.

For the present, though, DASH has had some dynamic growth over the last three-plus years. Total passengers have swelled from slightly more than 216,700 in 1998 to well over 331,000 last year for a 53 percent increase in riders. (See related chart.)

"DASH has done really quite well," said Ted Perez, longtime director of Parking Services, the city department running the shuttle. "The numbers speak for themselves."

DASH West has outperformed DASH South, even though the South route got off to a better start when the service began in April 1998. But it only took West a year to catch and pass the South's ridership total. Passengers for the West route have grown by a phenomenal 147 percent since then, while riders for DASH South have slipped by 9 percent.

"It's not a precipitous fall, but when you compare it to DASH West, it really stands out," said Perez. "It's about 3 percent a year in average annual decline."

Still, the system has averaged a 17 percent gain of passengers each year, a trend the city certainly hopes will continue. But other factors, unrelated to the service, will have a big say in whether it does.

Take DASH South, for instance. Its starting point is a city-owned parking lot known as Area 6 that runs from Cherry to Wealthy along U.S 131 and has room for 700 cars. But the lot has been picked by the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP) as the ideal location for its new Surface Transportation Center, and work on it is set to begin after Labor Day. When it does, DASH South will be without a home base.

"We lose the South route. You lose the principal reason for having a South route," said Perez. "We'll run the bus through there. It'll be a modified route, as you can't run it through a construction site. Perhaps through Cherry Street would be the logical way to do it and then we'll monitor ridership."

Perez said fewer shuttles may run along the route, depending on passenger levels. Right now, four of those periwinkle-blue buses — that cost $30 an hour to operate — run from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on each route.

"We'll take a look at it and make a determination to what kind of service is required."

DASH West faces the same hazy future. Its point of origin is a pair of special lots known as Areas 7 and 8 on Summer Avenue NW, just west of the U.S. 131 Pearl Street exit. What makes those lots unique is that, taken together, they create the largest undeveloped tract remaining downtown.

"That is the premier redevelopment parcel where size matters. I think it would be somewhat naïve to think that the city would cling to it as a surface parking lot forever. So with Area 6 almost certain to be developed for another use, and considering the marketability of the DASH West properties, we kind of have a dilemma," said Perez.

Perez didn't gripe about new developments taking away the DASH sites. In fact, he told the Business Journal that he would never want a city-owned lot to become a roadblock for a new major project. But in order to keep the service running he would have to find other staging sites further from downtown — and that is his dilemma.

Perez said a successful shuttle service has to have three key elements. First, the starting point must be near an expressway exit. Second, it must offer customers a visual connection with downtown. Third, it must be close enough to downtown offices that customers could walk, if necessary. The current DASH lots meet the three criteria. But how much further out Parking Services can go and still succeed in a city so auto-dependent is in doubt.

"I haven't scoured the fringe to see what may or may not be available. But I can say we now have a couple of sites that are as good as it gets in terms of being attractive DASH sites," Perez said of the system's current locations.

And without DASH, everyone's downtown commute would take longer.

"We intercept almost 1,500 cars a day at the expressway. We intercept them before they get downtown. They never cross the river or get north of Fulton," said Perez. "And I would just suggest that if you added another 1,500 cars to the mix in morning and afternoon drive, I think we'd notice it."

DASH should bring in $1.08 million in revenue this fiscal year, while expenses have been tagged at $523,000. Parking Services contracts the driving, storage and maintenance of the shuttles with ITP. It costs $20 a month to park and ride the system, or $1.25 for a day pass. Perez said a third route may be added to the Michigan Street hill area once construction there is finished. For more on DASH, call 456-3290.

If either DASH staging area has to move, it won't be something new for Parking Services. DASH is the result of multiple moves that came from the expansion of the central business district over the past two decades. Few may remember, but DASH rose from the ashes of the GUS Bus system that Parking Services began operating in 1980 from two parking lots on Front Avenue between Pearl and Fulton streets.

At the time, those lots were thought to be fringe parking areas. Today, that section of Front is solidly part of downtown, home to the Van Andel Public Museum Center, the Day's Inn and Grand Valley State University.

Those building projects unofficially signaled the end of GUS and the genesis of DASH, which made its debut after another big project, the Van Andel Arena, was done. But the South service was quickly shut down the following year for the second time in a half-decade when the S-Curve rebuilding project started.

"We've been pushed around by redevelopment — and that is not a complaint — for as long as I've been here, which everyone knows is nearly forever," said Perez, who is in his 28th year with the city. "So we started pushing south and we pushed all the way down past Wealthy."           

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