Transit Needs Study Has Juice

December 17, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Valley Metro Council Executive Director Don Stypula said it has juice. By that he meant there is support for a new study to determine what the public transit needs are in Kent and eastern Ottawa counties.

Stypula said that backing was clearly evident at a meeting he recently co-hosted with Plainfield Township Manager Robert Homan. The get-together was held for the outlying townships that have little, if any, public transit service.

“I think it was eye-opening in some cases,” said George Meek, Plainfield Township supervisor.

And that support took center stage at the last Metro Council meeting, too.

“The study has to be done to see if there is a need,” said Rev. Mark Przybysz, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and an active member of Faith in Motion, a group of religious organizations involved in public transportation issues.

David Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County, said current budget constraints among a number of nonprofits have limited transit services while demand has risen. He said one of those services, Ride Links, ground to a halt just a few weeks after it started because so many senior citizens needed rides. Ride Links is funded by the county’s senior services property-tax millage.

“We feel the county commission needs to have a stronger presence in this,” he said.

Bulkowski said the need for transportation among seniors will only grow in the coming years when baby boomers retire. He said about 2,000 retirees in Kent County give up their driver licenses each year, along with their ability to get around independently.

Casey Dutmer, chairman of The Rapids’ Consumer Advisory Committee, said good things can happen economically when public transit is extended throughout a region. He used Portland, Ore., as his shinning example of accessible public transportation.

“Since they’ve done that, businesses have come to Portland,” said Dutmer.

“Even the Whitecaps games at Fifth Third Park — I think they could raise their attendance with better transportation.”

Freelance journalist Andy Guy encouraged the council to play a role in the study in order to keep young professionals in the region, which would help the area compete economically. He also told board members they need to look beyond the cost of expanding public transit.

“I would also urge us to look at what the returns are from the investment,” he said. “It’s not just the big investment; there are also returns.”

Interurban Transit Partnership Director Peter Vargas said Grand Valley State University understands the return on investment that public transit can offer. Vargas said GVSU President Thomas Haas recently told him that the campus bus service the university has contracted with ITP has allowed Grand Valley to successfully compete for students with larger schools like the University of Michigan and Michigan State University.

“It costs parents less to send them here because of public transportation,” said Vargas.

Stypula told the Business Journal that he hasn’t found any definite funding sources for the study yet, but felt confident he would. He said his next step is to meet with Roger Stafford, Grand Region engineer with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

“I just want to get his advice,” he said.

Stypula said a study will likely cost from $200,000 to $250,000, and ITP has $100,000 to put toward it. Once a few potential funding sources are lined up and a more concrete cost of the study is known, Stypula said he would talk to the council’s members about any funds they could contribute.

“It has juice,” he said of the effort. “There is some support for this.”

It’s likely a study won’t have to start from scratch, as at least two other decade-old works will play at least minor roles in its creation.

One was done by ITP’s predecessor, the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority, and detailed a countywide bus service. The other was unveiled at an event sponsored by the Metro Council. It was a countywide commuter system that used buses instead of light rail trains to transport people from the suburbs to downtown and was less costly to build than a train-driven system.

“We hope the Metro Council can seek funding for the study,” said Dutmer. “It’s important.”

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