Transit Study Must Proceed Now

November 28, 2007
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The Grand Valley Metropolitan Council returned to its roots recently when it called a meeting of representatives from several area townships and municipalities to discuss the possibility of expanding The Rapid transit service outside of the metropolitan area into suburban and rural Kent County, and possibly even eastern Ottawa County. The area transportation system was in the forefront of targeted concerns when the Metro Council was first organized, and remains so today.

The Metro Council’s formative years saw it doing a lot of important intergovernmental planning and strategizing. It’s what made the concept of a regional planning group consisting of representation from area units of government so appealing in the first place. But not all the key players came to the table willingly, and when it came time to pitch in to offer funding solutions for cooperative programs, many worthwhile ideas faded away.

There may never have been a better time to consider tangible long-term solutions such as the expansion of the area transit system than there is currently. Service to areas outside of the metropolitan area is already inadequate. Decreasing Community Block Grant Development funds, which finance the Hope Network-run North Kent Transit Service, will likely impact that system. The outlying areas also are served by The Rapid’s County Connection service, but at $14 per one-way trip, it’s much too costly for many people.

It’s encouraging to see the latest transit expansion talk being led by the townships this time. Plainfield Township Manager Robert Homan asked Donald Stypula, executive director of the Metro Council, to gather representatives from the county and from the surrounding cities and townships to discuss how they might get the concept rolling again.

Key to the latest initiative will be the pursuit of a latent demand or “needs” study of the outlying areas. The Rapid is willing to spend $100,000 on such a study, about half of what is needed to conduct a thorough review. The townships and county need to lend funding support to this effort, as well as secure any grant funds that may become available from nonprofit foundations and the state.

The growth of the population and economy of the surrounding metro area makes it essential that the transit needs of new sectors of commuters are met. The continuing growth brought about by M-6 alone represents a sector that must be effectively served for decades to come.

Use of area transit services that currently exist continues to rise, pointing to an obvious need for long-term expansion. The Rapid system had 7.4 million rides in 2006, up from 6.4 million the previous year and double the number from 1996. That represented an increase of nearly one million rides over 2005.

Those increases were attributed to higher gas prices and a teetering economy, along with the offering of new kiosks with complete bus schedules at various stops, and a more convenient and efficient Central Station.

But many residents can’t access The Rapid to get to work — the main reason people use the service in the first place. Township officials have to contract for service if their municipality is outside of the current millage area, and not many units have done so.

When The Rapid Central Station was dedicated in 2004, many in attendance, including Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids, described the project as “one concrete step” in a longer range plan to serve the metro area’s current and future transit needs.

“In view of our growing dependence on oil from other countries that are not friendly, I think it’s very important that we try to develop different means of transportation and different sources of energy, and this is a good example of that,” Ehlers said.

Economic and social realities make it clear that a comprehensive, efficient transit system is essential to a community’s life blood. It’s time to move ahead.    

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