Officials find silver lining in BRT plan

April 19, 2009
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Finance it and the jobs will come — over 400 new and permanent, direct and indirect jobs that will have an annual average wage of $37,500 and add roughly $15 million each year to the local economy.

That is the bottom-line point officials of The Rapid made last week as they tried to drum up support for a transit millage on the May 5 ballot for voters in East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Walker and Kentwood — the six cities that make up the Interurban Transit Partnership.

The ballot measure asks voters to renew the ITP’s current millage of 1.12 mills and OK an additional 0.16 mills that would fund the Silver Line, faster bus service that would make daily runs from 60th Street SE to downtown Grand Rapids and back.

More yes than no votes would give the Bus Rapid Transit program about $1.7 million in 2012, its first operational year. The five-year millage would be levied on the taxable value of all properties in the six cities through 2016. The tax on a home valued at $150,000 would see an increase of $12. In 2012, the millage is expected to raise a total of $13.9 million.

The federal government has set aside $32 million for the project, which proposes to have 19 stations along the nearly 10-mile route. The state has committed $8 million to it. But the millage has to pass for ITP to be able to collect those fares.

Other cities have done what The Rapid wants to do. ITP officials have pointed to a transit study by the University of Michigan that showed the investment Cleveland made in its similar light rail service had a return of nearly 1,000 percent. The same study reported that other cities had an ROI between 300 and 400 percent.

ITP Executive Director Peter Varga said developers and commercial realtors have shown an interest in properties along the Division Avenue route.

“Some of them wanted to know specifically where the stations were going to be, but we haven’t done any of the engineering work so that we can be that specific. We gave them general ideas about where some of the stations were going to be located at major intersections like Division and 54th Street,” he said.

The Silver Line has 17 stops between its starting and ending points, and transit officials expect developers will make investments near many of the Silver Line stations that will be built at high-traffic cross streets such as Burton, Hall, Franklin and Cherry. The service will make a run through the “Medical Mile” on Michigan Street and down Monroe Avenue to The Rapid station on Grandville Avenue SW.

“There have been developers and their representatives that we’ve heard from. We talked to (Eastbrook Homes CEO) Mick McGraw at one point about the project because he was curious about it,” said Varga, who added that commercial realtors have also contacted him.

The Burton Heights, Creston, Division Avenue, Heartside and West Fulton business associations are backing the millage. So are Dwelling Place; Hansen-Balk Steel Treating; Hoekstra Transportation; Independent Research Associates; Local Development; Metro Health Hospital; Nantz, Litowich, Smith, Girard & Hamilton; Progressive AE; Spectrum Health; and the Wyoming-Kentwood Area Chamber of Commerce. A lengthy list of individuals, nonprofits and government agencies are also backing the millage.

Varga said the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is also on board and he hopes the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce will jump aboard at this week’s meeting.

Traffic data shows that roughly 67,000 daily trips are made along Division Avenue to the Central Business District, and the current bus service captures 2,345 of those commuters, or 3.5 percent. Transit officials predict the Silver Line will increase daily ridership to more than 4,200.

They also have said the Silver Line will reduce travel time along the corridor to less than 20 minutes because there will be a bus-only lane and traffic lights will be controlled by the drivers. Right now, a trip on Division Avenue from Wealthy Street to the downtown core can take 25 minutes. And despite the current economic times, Varga felt now is a good time to put a millage question before voters.

“The reason is that, in this economic climate, people want to see projects that actually will deliver jobs as results. We’re providing the opportunity to support something where federal money is coming in to do precisely that. So at a time when people are looking for things that are going to produce jobs, this is what we’re doing,” he said.

“There are 450 jobs that are going to be directly created because of the project, and that is a conservative estimate. And the return on the investment of $40 million is 400 percent — that’s also a conservative estimate based upon conversations we’ve had with entities about possible development. … Yes, I think this is a good time. It’s as good a time as any.”

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