Streetcar plan Let it roll

December 11, 2008
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The Transportation Tomorrow Taskforce and the Interurban Transit Partnership’s Strategic Planning Committee have agreed that The Rapid should move forward with the downtown streetcar project, and the Strategic Planning Committee outlined a nine-point plan on Wednesday to get things rolling.

The ITP Board’s approval of the plan set the process in motion. The first step will be to create a special committee of the board to oversee implementation of the streetcar plan. The committee, which will be comprised of members of both the ITP Board and the taskforce, will be responsible for establishing a nonprofit organization for the purpose of pursuing both public and private funding sources for construction of the first 1.6-mile streetcar alignment. The nonprofit will get an assist from a steering committee that will also be formed to solicit private and philanthropic support for the project.

ITP board member Rob VerHeulen, who chairs the Strategic Planning Committee, said he expects the board will move quickly and approve appointments to the special committee at its next governance committee meeting.  

The first leg of the streetcar system is aligned in a north to south route along Monroe Avenue, from Newberry Street on the north to Rapid Central Station on the south. This first segment will link the developing Monroe North area and developable land along the riverfront south of Fulton Street through downtown’s core.

“I think this is a very logical process to creating an investment that is going to have a very good rate of return for the Grand Rapids region,” said Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid. “We encourage people to inquire about it.”

A streetcar feasibility study completed by DMJM Harris in May estimated the project would cost about $79 million, or $24.8 million per mile, in 2008 dollars. That includes tracks, the purchase of streetcars, and any utility issues that might have to be resolved. 

“We’re hoping there will be different sources for the funds — similar to the private contributions that have been made to support various other projects in Grand Rapids,” Varga said “We have talked to a lot of people, and I have made several presentations to different groups: There are people who think this is a good idea, and they would be the kind of people we would want to get involved with this project.”

A streetcar system is a viable concept, and there’s no question it’s a costly concept, VerHeulen said.   

“Only time will tell how easy or how hard it will be to raise the money,” VerHeulen noted. “There are still some questions about the route and so on and so forth, and those are things we need to work through. We’ll have a much better sense down the road a bit.”

Varga said foundations would be potential funding sources. Part of the project could also be financed by bonds: A transportation improvement district could be established, which would levy an assessment on commercial properties near the streetcar alignment. Another way to raise money for construction would be to “sell” the identity of individual streetcars and individual streetcar stations along the route, he said. 

“Once this thing is built, we would like to see its assets transferred to The Rapid so we could operate it,” Varga said. “The reason for that is because it’s better if all transportation services are integrated and operated by one entity.”

According to the plan, throughout the implementation  process the special committee will be involved in ongoing analysis of project costs and will widely engage developers, business owners, city planning officials and others in discussions about the project. The committee will also stage public forums and events to educate the public about the project, which might include bringing a streetcar to Grand Rapids for public viewing.

“We want to do some sort of outreach that will help people visualize this so they can really understand what we’re talking about,” Varga explained.

The final step will be construction. The ITP Board hopes to have the first segment of the streetcar completed at the same time the bus rapid transit line opens in the summer of 2012. How quickly does the special committee have to move to achieve that goal?

“2012 isn’t that far away, so I think we need to work quickly,” VerHeulen said. “We have had a lot of folks tell us they’re interested and that they think the streetcar project is intriguing, but my view is that that interest has to be linked to reasonable assurances that private funding will be available. I don’t want to invest all the time and energy to put a plan together that we can’t finance.” 

The selected first segment of the streetcar system provides multiple options for future extensions, plus, from a transportation perspective, it dovetails nicely with the bus rapid transit line slated for the Division Avenue corridor, Varga said. The BRT will travel along Division from 60th Street north to Wealthy Street, through downtown Grand Rapids to Michigan Street then on to Rapid Central Station. The Federal Transit Administration is covering 80 percent of the $40-some-million cost of the BRT, and the state is expected to provide $8.02 million in matching funds over a four-year period.

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