Development-oriented transit encouraged

October 17, 2008
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There are three megatrends that are compelling planners to take a closer look at transit today: the public consciousness has been awakened regarding emissions and pollution; the era of cheap and abundant oil is over; and a lot of Americans simply want to live the urban lifestyle, according to Charles Hales, commissioner of Planning and Transportation for the City of Portland.

Hales has an extensive background in integrating regional transit with the urban environment. He’s known as the godfather of Portland’s highly successful streetcar system, which has spurred millions in new development in the city’s downtown. He spoke with business leaders and transit advocates Thursday afternoon at the University of Michigan & Urban Lank Institute Real Estate Forum. 

Public transit serves poor people who need it to get around and it serves some middle class people who use it to avoid the hassle of everyday commuting, Hales said. It’s also the choice of many of the young people who are flocking attracted to the urban living environments, he added. But statistics from the American Association of Retired People show that 71 percent of older Americans, too, want to live within walking distance of a transit system, he pointed out.

“People are seeking better designed communities served by and organized around transit,” Hales said. “We’re seeing an American Renaissance in transit.”

Some cities are building light rail systems. Others are investing in bus rapid transit, which Hales describes as a “great tool” for connecting a community. A bus rapid transit system will open in Grand Rapids in the summer of 2012. The BRT line will run along Division from 60th Street north to Wealthy Street, through downtown to Michigan Street and then to Central Station. The corridor runs through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood. All in all, the route will be just under 10 miles, with 19 station stops and 10-minute service frequency during peak hours. The route will have a dedicated traffic lane and will use hybrid electric busses that have “secondary signal preemption,” which means traffic lights will automatically adjust to longer green lights and shorter red lights.

Many business leaders believe the route will be a catalyst for new jobs and investment in the corridor and that the 19 station stops will be sweet spots for development. Rapid Central Station will serve as one of the station locations and another station location has been recommended — on Jefferson Avenue on Saint Mary’s Health Care property.

Through the auspices of Grand Valley Metro Council, The Rapids will hold a series of charrettes with the three cities to talk about some of the other potential station locations, noted Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid transit system. Varga said Thursday he expects the BRT will provide about a 400 percent return on investment at station sites.

The total cost of the BRT line is estimated at slightly more than $40 million, of which the state would need to provide a total capital match of 20 percent, or $8.02 million over a four-year period. Varga said legislators juggled items in the budget around a bit and have now assured a match by the state.

Other cities, like Portland, have built or are building downtown streetcar systems — what Hales refers to as “pedestrian accelerators” and “moving sidewalks.” Grand Rapids is one of the cities considering a streetcar system downtown.

A streetcar system is a local “concentrator,” in terms of bringing people together, it’s a tourist amenity, it’s a transit connector and, perhaps most importantly, it’s a huge catalyst for development, Hales said. Portland, for instance, opened an initial 2.4-mile streetcar line in 2001 for a cost of $56.9 million. Three extensions have since added 1.6 miles to the system. By 2005 more than $2.39 billion in private investment had occurred within a two-block radius of the streetcar route, with construction of 7,248 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel space. Portland’s return on investment was 1,900 percent, which computes to a 40-to-1 return on investment.

According to Hales a streetcar system breeds greater intensity in an area, sharply increases property values and expands the customer base and customer access to businesses along the route. 

“Streetcar creates the kind of environment people want,” Hales commented, adding that a streetcar system makes a city more competitive in its ability to attract knowledge workers and makes it more livable by reducing the city’s carbon footprint.

What does it take to it takes make a streetcar system a reality? Hales said it takes the participation of public partners, including the city, universities and hospitals in the area, as well as the participation of private partners who are willing to invest in it.

The local Public Transportation Tomorrow Taskforce has already selected a 1.6-mile streetcar alignment along Monroe and Market avenues from the Sixth Street Bridge on Newberry Street to Rapid Central Station. The estimated cost for the first segment of a streetcar system, in 2008 dollars, is anywhere from $64 million to $80 million, which includes tracks, purchase of streetcars and any utility issues that might be involved.

Construction of the first segment would be funded under a public/private process. Varga, said he’s not seeking federal funds for the streetcar project because under the federal New Starts program The Rapid cannot compete effectively against city’s that are vying for those funds to build streetcar systems that go long distances. The task force is looking into funding options, he said.

The route selected would provide multiple options for future extensions, Varga said, and the task force is already envisioning the next possible alignment. Future extensions, however, would not include Michigan Street hill because the grade on that stretch of Michigan is too steep, he noted.

Varga said he’d like to see the opening of a streetcar system coincide with the opening of the BRT four years from now.

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