Air Porter Service To Be Reduced

September 7, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Rapid transit system’s Air Porter service will be downsized beginning Nov. 1 because it hasn’t been performing as anticipated and has not become self-sustaining since its debut in January 2005.

Air Porter, a direct shuttle service between downtown and the GeraldR.FordInternationalAirport, has been operating between daily on a 30-minute frequency, making stops at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, the Days Inn Downtown and the Downtown Courtyard by Marriott. Shuttle fares of $15 one-way and $25 round trip were expected to cover 100 percent of Air Porter’s operation and maintenance expenses. Only 1.7 rides per hour would have been necessary for the program to become completely self-sustaining. Instead, The Rapid had to contribute local transit funds out of its general fund to keep the service up and running.

Since 72 percent of Air Porter ridership takes place between April 1 and Oct. 31 — the peak convention season — The Rapid has decided to scrap Air Porter runs between November and March and reduce service hours in the peak season to 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., said Executive Director Peter Varga.

It would have cost The Rapid local revenues of about $140,000 over and above passenger fares, plus a State Operating Assistance subsidy, to continue year-round operation of Air Porter. Varga said the cuts will reduce that cost to $34,000 in local revenues annually.

“We will meet service demands after November if there is a convention coming in that requires Air Porter service,” Varga noted. “We won’t offer the regular schedule, but we can provide demand response service to a convention that might come in during the off season. We don’t want to lose that potential.”

In peak months, Air Porter averages at least 30 boardings a day, Varga said, but ridership plummets when there’s no convention booked at

DeVos Place
. During the 2007 USA/Canada Lions Leadership Forum last week, for example, The Rapid sold 240 Air Porter tickets to convention goers. Up until the Lions convention, just two of the three Air Porter shuttle buses had been in service because the demand didn’t justify putting all three on the road, Varga said. The Lion’s group was so “robust” in their use of Air Porter that the third shuttle was put in use, as well.

Varga said the goal is to build up some of that convention ridership so the $34,000 in local revenues can be made up in shuttle fares. Air Porter service will continue on a slimmed-down schedule in fiscal 2008, and The Rapid will have to kick in $34,000 for its operation again next year unless another funding source can be found.

Varga, his staff and Mayor George Heartwell met with Steve Wilson, president of the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau, on Wednesday to discuss the fate of Air Porter.

“We’re planning on more involvement from the CVB in terms of generating ridership, because that’s one of the ways we can increase revenues,” Varga said.

The CVB gave The Rapid a list of all the major conventions coming in over the next three years and agreed to promote the service to event planners interested in booking dates at

DeVos Place
, Varga said. He said Rapid staff intends to follow up with some of the planners, particularly those representing convention groups that could significantly boost Air Porter ridership.

“There are some groups that are more prone to use Air Porter-type services, so Wilson and his staff will work with us to orient us to those and help package the information,” Varga said. “He didn’t see any way in which the CVB could contribute funds at this point.”

Meanwhile, Rapid staff members have been meeting with representatives of the downtown hotels to discuss the situation. The three existing hotels that Air Porter caters to have not had to pay anything for the service.

Varga said The Rapid still has to follow up with the Amway hotel group to see what their position is on Air Porter service. The opening of the JW Marriot this month will increase the room inventory downtown, which could spur some additional ridership, he noted.  

Air Porter’s fleet includes three 15-passenger cutaway buses that are equipped with larger passenger compartments that sport wider, more heavily padded seats than traditional buses. Each is wheelchair accessible, as well.

The Rapid purchased the vehicles for about $63,000 each, according to Conrad Venema, planning and grants manager. He said 80 percent of the purchase price was covered by federal Section 5303 Urbanized Area Formula funds, and the remaining 20 percent by state transportation funds.    

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