Interest In BRT Project Grows

March 24, 2008
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Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a three-part series about the bus rapid transit project and transit funding.

GRAND RAPIDS — Developers and investors appear to be taking a renewed interest in Division Avenue as they learn more about the bus rapid transit project that the Federal Transit Administration has authorized The Rapid to develop along Division’s nine-mile corridor.

The BRT line will run along Division Avenue from 60th Street north to Wealthy Street, through downtown to Michigan Street and then to Central Station, linking hospitals in and around downtown, research facilities on Michigan Street hill, five college campuses, and downtown venues such as DeVos Place and Van Andel Arena. The corridor runs through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood.

All in all, the BRT route will be just under 10 miles, with 19 station stops and 10-minute service frequency during peak hours. The route will have a dedicated traffic lane and will use hybrid electric busses that have “secondary signal preemption,” which means traffic lights will automatically adjust to longer green lights and shorter red lights. The BRT won’t be just another bus route, according to Peter Varga CEO of The Rapid: It will be light rail service on tires.

Jim Fetzer, director of development for The Rapid, said a number of people have been calling to find out where the stations will be located, but not all locations have been identified as yet.

The Roman Catholic Church of Grand Rapids plans to bring its diocesan offices downtown to its 11-acre Cathedral Square campus next to St. Andrew Cathedral and Catholic Central High. Mary Haarman, director of communication for the diocese, said the diocese supports the BRT project and likes the idea of having one of the BRT stations nearby.

“We think it’s a great idea,” Haarman said. “We certainly feel it would be of value to students, parishioners and people who want to come to our new pastoral center.”

Close by, Saint Mary’s Health Care is building its new $60 million Hauenstein Neuroscience Center on Cherry Street that’s expected to open in 2009. Tom Stankewicz, director of strategic planning for Saint Mary’s, is overseeing the development of the hospital’s master campus plan. He said the BRT will provide a convenient, less expensive, and relatively quick transportation option for Saint Mary employees, customers, patients and their families, while at the same time reducing pollution and the need to build more parking lots. 

Stankewicz said Saint Mary’s has recommended a station stop on Jefferson Avenue on Saint Mary’s property. He said The Rapid has agreed to work with Saint Mary’s on the design and architecture of the station to make sure it’s aesthetically pleasing and blends with the hospital’s future campus plans.

“In terms of where the station would be located, it would be ideal for the business we plan to develop on the Eerdmans Printing Co. property on the west side of Jefferson in a few years,” Stankewicz said. “We’re looking more at medical retail and services support.” 

Mick McGraw, president of Eastbrook Homes, said he’s been “wandering around” looking at potential BRT station sites. 

“We’re starting to think about it,” McGraw said. “We’re trying to get a feel, location by location, how the station stops may attract customers and how we might fulfill people’s needs for housing along the route,” McGraw said. “At this point, I’m not sure whether or not the BRT will germinate into something just fantastic or something just marginal, but I think there’s something there.” 

Spectrum Health employees can find co-workers to carpool with through the hospital’s GreenRide Web site, and it also has a pilot project going with The Rapid that allows employees to use their Spectrum ID to hitch a ride to work on the bus. Those initiatives are important to Spectrum, said Project Manager Chris Bailey, because the hospital is growing, whereas available land is not.

Spectrum, Bailey said, is trying to find the best solution so that its staff can get to work without the hospital having to build more parking structures and adding to the congestion around its facility. The BRT would be the ticket for the nearly 1,200 staff members that live within a quarter mile of a bus stop, because they’d have fewer worries about car break downs and the rising price of gas, he said.

“The way we look at it, the BRT will be good for our environment, good for our staff and good for our bottom line,” Bailey said. “The hope is that the new system is going to encourage more people to ride the bus. That whole area of 60th Street and Division Avenue is growing, and the line will provide people with a much easier way to get to and from work.” 

Inspired by the BRT project, an owner of a used car lot on Division Avenue in Kentwood is looking at investing in some commercial real estate fronting Division Avenue, said Community Development Director Terry Schweitzer. Schweitzer said there are national firms that have track records of investing in BRT lines elsewhere in the United States and said he wouldn’t be surprised if those firms looked at properties along the Division Avenue corridor. He said he anticipates some national interest, although no national firm has contacted him as yet. 

“I think you’re going to have to have a full gamut of local and national investment along that corridor to make it work,” Schweitzer said.

In Wyoming, Director of Planning Gerald Mears said he’s heard rumors of a couple of parties eyeing potential development projects along the BRT route, but he said he couldn’t substantiate them.

Andy Guy, a project director for the Michigan Land Use Institute, said in the central city, in particular, what he’s hearing is that people who had some smaller projects already lined up are starting to take a new look at the bus rapid transit route and think about how they might incorporate the station stops into what they’re planning.

“The money is lining up,” Guy said. “The big question right now is whether the state is going to be a partner in the project.”

In order to secure the project construction agreement needed to begin construction, The Rapid has to obtain a funding commitment from the state for a 20 percent match of the capital cost of the project. Total project cost is slightly over $40.1 million, of which the state would need to provide a total capital match of $8.02 million in increments over a four-year period.

From Guy’s perspective, the importance of the BRT project can’t be understated: It will benefit not only the city and local development but also the state, because it will stand as the first present-day example of how transit — and development around transit — can work in Michigan, he said.

“For a governor, an administration and legislature that seem to agree on the idea that we need to revise our economy, rebuild our central cities and create ‘cool places’ for knowledge workers to live,  there are few major projects going on in this state right now that hit on all those points like this BRT project,” Guy said.

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