Fares Up Millage Issue Still Ahead
GRAND RAPIDS — While new fare increases for The Rapid bus system went into effect today and the cost of monthly passes will increase beginning May 1, the ITP board has yet to make a decision on the millage renewal issue.
Fare increases are expected to up revenue by about 7.5 percent, or $232,000, for the second half of the year as the ITP wrangles with an $875,000 budget deficit.
Hikes in the cost of student tickets and monthly passes are the most significant, reflecting increases of 33 percent and 16 percent, respectively.
Fare increases, the first since October 1998, were broadly supported at public hearings last month. A number of individuals and community groups had encouraged the board to “think longer term” and raise bus fares by larger increments to avoid the possibility of having to seek yet another modest fare increase a year or two down the road.
The majority of those who turned out for ITP board meetings and public hearings over the past several weeks voiced concerns about potential cuts in service and supported a millage increase, as well.
Voters approved by a 65 percent margin a five-year, 0.75 milage rate in April 2000 to support existing and enhanced public transit services. But board members and bus riders alike are now questioning whether a renewal of the same millage rate would be enough to ensure no service cuts in the near future, particularly in light of the fact that ridership has grown 65 percent since 1995 and continues growing.
Individuals and representatives of organizations such as Faith In Motion, Concerned Citizens for Improved Transportation, Healthy Kent 2010, the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), the Delta Strategy and several downtown area churches, asked the board to seek a millage rate higher than the current 0.75 mills.
Beyond simply protecting current baseline services, many people have implored the board over the last couple of months to “take the next step” and expand service.
John Mitchell, social justice liaison for Catholic Human Development Outreach, praised the board for the “wonderful” service improvements put in place after the successful passage of the millage three years ago.
He said every one of the improvements have been beneficial to his organization’s clients — many of them low income residents, refugees and immigrants — who all share a common need to work and the means to get to work, he said.
“Without an increase in our local milage to 1.0 or something, the ITP may have no alternative but to start looking at reduction of services. This would negatively impact our clients and their ability to be contributing members of their communities. We respectively ask the board to consider an increase in the milage to cover existing services and to start working toward a full complement of Saturday, Sunday and evening services on all routes and express buses.”
Rev. Hank Post, pastor of Park Church in downtown Grand Rapids, said The Rapid is a good system, but that it’s “right on the edge.”
“It’s high time for our city to get into the 21st century and build a forward thinking mass transit system,” Post told the board. “We’re just dinking around thinking about modest increases. We need to be thinking long term.”
Mass transit will never pay for itself, he said, urging the board to seek a higher millage rate rather than stick with the status quo.
A representative of WMEAC said the environmental council strongly supports mass transit “for environmental and humanitarian reasons” and that the council would be willing to do outreach in the community to drum up support for a millage increase.
Sue Sefton, a public health nurse with the county, said a millage increase has the support of the Healthy Kent 2010 Infant Health Implementation Team, an organization comprised of 32 health care agencies working to reduce infant mortality.
Sefton said in a survey conducted by the team last year, clients cited transportation to and from health care facilities as their No. 1 problem. An increase in the millage will help maintain a low-cost means of transportation via The Rapid, and clients, she assured, would use it.
Cascade Engineering is all for a millage increase, too. Ron Jimmerson, manager of workforce diversity and community partnerships, said many of the company’s employees come from the inner city. The company has worked closely with the ITP to solve worker transportation issues, such as the use of van pools.
A couple of years ago, the firm successfully petitioned for the extension of The Rapid’s Route 5 to serve businesses in the industrial park area between 33rd and 36th streets and Kraft and Patterson avenues in Cascade Township. An ITP survey last year revealed that 58 percent of riders use the bus for work-related transportation.
“Business’s input is really critical when we begin to talk about transportation,” Jimmerson said. “You’ve got to continue to move this whole transportation plan forward, not go backwards.”
He said people who use the bus regularly don’t need to be sold on the idea of an increased millage; rather the focus should be on encouraging those who don’t ride the bus to vote for the millage.
“We’ve got to have a selling mechanism that’s really going to show them in the long run the benefits of supporting an increase in the millage,” Jimmerson told the board.The board will continue discussion of the millage issue at its next meeting on April 23.