ITP Seeks Millage Renewal, Hike

January 26, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Interurban Partnership Board voted unanimously to seek voter approval in the May 8 election for a renewal of its existing 0.95 operating millage, plus a 0.17 targeted millage increase to support $2.2 million for a second wave of mass transit service enhancements, which would result in a millage rate of 1.12 mills for a period of five years.

The service enhancements proposed for The Rapid bus system are geared to expanding mass transit service in the metropolitan area. The improvements were identified through a recent comprehensive operational analysis and were recommended by the Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force. The analysis resulted in a two-phased recommendation for improving operational efficiency and improving route connectivity and transfer opportunities. The first phase is covered in the current budget, but Phase II requires $2.2 million in additional funding to implement.

The improvements would include the extension of evening and weekend service, the addition of a new route to the northwest area of Grand Rapids near Union High School and increased frequency of service on certain routes. A 1.12 millage rate would generate $12.21 million in 2008, said Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid.

The May 8 millage request was overwhelming backed by seven public transit advocate groups, including Friends of Transit, Faith In Motion, Concerned Citizens for Improved Transit, Disability Advocates of Kent County and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, all of whom said they stand ready to raise voter support for the measure. Representatives of Friends of Transit, in fact, vowed to begin the push immediately.

Also on Wednesday, the board considered a proposal for an express bus system — or Rapid Transit Bus system — on a 9.8-mile route along the South Division Avenue from Wealthy Street to 60th Avenue. As a result of the four-year Great Transit Grand Tomorrows Study, the Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force selected the South Division route as the “locally preferred alternative” above seven other primary corridors that were considered.  As proposed, the express system would have 19 stops and would also service Michigan Street Hill during peak traffic hours.

The ITP board endorsed Bus Rapid Transit on the Division Avenue corridor and authorized The Rapid to take the next steps, which would include seeking the endorsement of the Grand Valley Metro Council for the system’s inclusion in the Grand Valley Long Range Transportation Plan and submitting a grant application to the Federal Transportation Authority for funding under the Very Small Starts program.

For the projects to move forward, the ITP will have to run “the gauntlet of approvals,” Varga pointed out. The gauntlet includes the approval of both the GVMC and FTA, Congressional approval of FTA funding, and securing a capital match from the state, he said.

In addition, the ITP agreed to step up the study and design of a circulatory streetcar system to serve the central city. Tentatively, the streetcar system would cover a 2.4-mile route with buses running every five minutes. Such a system is projected to cost about $69 million.

The city of Portland, Ore., for example, established a 2.4-mile streetcar system in 2001, and it has accelerated commercial development and raised property values along the streetcar route, noted Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Jeanne Englehart, speaking on behalf of the task force.

“Public transportation is vital to the well-being of a community and successful cities are on the forefront of mass transportation innovation and investment,” Englehart said. “Furthermore, transit investments do stimulate economic growth, and redevelopment itself contributes to a vibrant and thriving downtown. We really look at this as something that will benefit the entire area.”

Now, much closer study will be given to a streetcar system’s possible development potential, capital cost, operating cost, ridership, funding sources and potential locations for a streetcar yard to house the vehicles.

There have been two transit millage requests since The Rapid was established; voters were asked for a millage increase in 2000 and for both an operating millage renewal and a millage increase in 2003. Voters in the Interurban Partnership’s six-city footprint overwhelmingly approved the millages.

Last year, The Rapid commissioned a public opinion survey of 400 likely voters in the six cities that form the Interurban Partnership. Survey results indicated that there was both a need and the support for expanded public transportation service in the metro area. Some 74 percent of respondents rated The Rapid’s services as “very important,” and 76 percent indicated there was some degree of urgency in regard to improving public transit. A total of 76 percent of those surveyed said they would support a transit millage renewal and 52 percent said they would support a renewal and millage increase.    

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