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Special lane designations would increase mass transit efficiency

Bill seeks approval to construct BRT lanes on Michigan highways.

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Proponents of the bill say there is a direct correlation between vehicle miles traveled and air pollution, so more riders in a single vehicle is an environmentally sound choice, too. Courtesy Experience Grand Rapids

LANSING — A new bill to allow local transit agencies to construct Bus Rapid Transit lanes on state highways would make mass transit more efficient, advocates say.

The bill would qualify any highway marked as a M-, U.S.- or I- route for BRT lanes.

Rep. Sam Singh, an East Lansing Democrat who introduced the bill, said the BRT concept is relatively new to the state and the proposal would help designate the personal bus lane required for rapid transit and allow the state to work with local agencies in creating such lanes.

“We need to make sure we have some vibrant public transit in all of our metropolitan areas,” Singh said.

As a former member of the Lansing Capital Area Transportation Authority board of directors, Singh said he has a firsthand perspective on public transit as an economic development tool in mid-Michigan.

The proposed plans for BRT lanes in the East Lansing and Lansing area wouldn’t come into play until 2017 or 2018, but Singh said the bill is the first step in the process. The rapid transit lane would be built along Grand River Avenue, a state highway.

“The bill might not be needed today, but as we move forward, it will have to be in place for communities to implement these lanes,” Singh said.

Co-sponsors include Reps. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, Tom Cochran, D-Mason, and Andy Schor, D-Lansing.

The Rapid, the public transit system in Grand Rapids whose Silver Line functions as a BRT, plans to create an additional rapid transit line that would extend from the main Grand Valley State University campus in Allendale into downtown on Lake Michigan Drive, another state highway.

Jennifer Kalczuk, external relations manager for The Rapid, said the agency was already in agreement with Grand Valley to operate along the Lake Michigan Drive corridor, but still wants to see improvements like fare collection before boarding, high-speed travel with precision docking and prevention of cars from crossing bus lanes at intersections.

Kalczuk said residents were initially worried that the original Rapid route down Division Avenue from the Kentwood/Wyoming border at 60th Street to downtown would lose all its ridership with creation of the “fancy” new Silver Line taking the same route.

The two lines operate almost like local and express lanes, Kalczuk said, serving different needs. Although there has been a small decline in the original route, it still has strong ridership.

“We have seen the ridership in the corridor is up about 45 percent, if you look at the operating Silver Line, and we still operate Route One in the Division Corridor,” Kalczuk said. “We are attracting new riders in addition to the same people that are already riding.”

The Rapid’s Silver Line was the first BRT to become operational in Michigan.

Patricia Houser, an assistant professor in the Geography and Planning Department at Grand Valley, said the combination of pollution and lack of exercise for drivers in individual cars calls for a change in transportation.

There’s a direct correlation between vehicle miles traveled and air pollution, Houser said. And the leading cause of water pollution is storm runoff water from roads. BRT could address those concerns.

“That runoff is toxic from roads because there’s a chemical soup of hundreds of chemicals that can get loaded onto a roadway over a course of year or even a week,” Houser said. “When 50 people get on a bus, that’s 49 fewer vehicles on the road. That’s why we want to pack people onto mass transit, and that’s why environmentalists love it.”

Elizabeth Treutel Callin, a Michigan Environmental Council policy associate who focuses on transportation issues, said the council supports any legislation that improves public transit and gets people out of cars.

Treutel Callin said BRT positively impacts the environment by reducing the number of cars and offering transportation to non-drivers.

Additionally, rapid transit lanes would increase economic activity in downtown areas.

“One of the big, direct benefits that we see from Bus Rapid Transit is the property value and development that happens along the corridor that it runs along and its main stops,” Treutel Callin said.

Treutel Callin also said relying more on BRT could lead people to sell their cars or consider not buying them at all. Fewer car payments, Treutel Callin said, mean more money to reinvest in the economy.

“This allows families to either have a car-light lifestyle or, potentially, a car-free lifestyle, and they can spend more money on education or child care,” Treutel Callin said. “There is a big impact on families of all different economic levels.”

Singh also introduced a bill that would fine private car drivers who drive in the BRT designated lane. Violators would not accrue points on their license as a result.

Both bills are pending in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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