BRT operating millage proposal goes to voters May 5

January 29, 2009
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The Rapid has successfully secured the federal and state funds necessary to build a bus rapid transit line — now officially named the Silver Line — along a nearly 10-mile stretch of Division Avenue, from 60th Street north to Wealthy Street. Now it’s time to ask the voters of the six member cities served by The Rapid if they’re willing to support operation of the line with their local tax dollars.

The ITP board agreed Wednesday to put the question before voters in a May 5 millage election. An additional 0.16 mills is being sought for operation of the Silver Line, along with a continuation of the current 1.12 millage rate, for a total of 1.28 mills. At a rate of 0.16 mills, the owner of a $150,000 house would have to pay an additional $12 per year to support the line’s operation. The millage would be collected for the first time in July 2012.

In formulating an estimation of what the millage rate should be, Varga said staff factored in 20 percent of the operating cost coming from the firebox, 25 percent from state operating assistance and the balance coming from the millage. 

The Federal Transit Administration authorized the project in late 2007 and is prepared to finance 80 percent of its estimated $40.14 million cost. The state has committed to providing a 20 percent match. Varga said the federal program requires three things from The Rapid before it will issue a project construction grant agreement. First, there has to be an environmental study of the project area, and Varga said the Rapid will issue requests for proposals to solicit bids for that. Second, the Fed wanted assurance that the project is on the state’s transportation improvement program schedule, which it is. The Rapid also must submit a financial plan outlining how the BRT’s first year of operation will be funded.

“The Feds will not give us the project construction grant agreement — and the state match contract would follow that — unless we have a way of providing for them how we’re going to fund the first full year of operation of that project, which would be the year 2013,” Varga explained. “It makes sense because they’re investing $32 million of federal money, and they want to make sure we actually pull through with it.”

Varga stressed that The Rapid is not interested in eliminating some bus routes to make the Silver Line route happen. That’s not what federal officials want to see happen, either. They want the Silver Line to be a genuine enhancement to existing service, he said.

Varga acknowledged that given the poor state of the economy it’s not the most opportune time to be asking voters to shell out additional dollars for operation of the bus rapid transit line. If voters turn down the millage request, he said, it will threaten the prospect of getting the $40 million from the FTA. It has taken more than five years to get to this point, and it has been a very studied, deliberate process, he added. If The Rapid is unable to present the Fed with a financial plan for the new line, it may have to get back in line for funding.

The Silver Line would be the first bus rapid transit line in Michigan and it’s one of the first Small Starts BRT projects that the FTA has approved. The next Small Starts annual report is due out in November. The report rates each project against FTA’s various criteria and provides a snapshot of where each project stands in its development process.

“The problem is that there are so many people wanting funds that if you can’t meet the criteria the Fed sets in front of you, they might just not put you in the next Small Starts annual report,” Varga explained. “You don’t want to start slipping behind on the project because other ones in the pipeline move along, then they take precedence over yours. Then at some point the Fed says the project is not rated anymore because it can’t meet the financial plan.”

Board chairman Don Lawless referred to the project as “a high volume opportunity” for the community. The Silver Line will have a dedicated traffic lane, a 10-minute service frequency during peak hours and 19 station stops. The Division Avenue Corridor crosses the boundaries of Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids and serves an area with the highest commuter volume in the region. Local developers anticipate the route will be a catalyst for new jobs and investment in the Division Avenue corridor, particularly around the station stops. BRT projects have been shown to spur development. Pittsburgh, for instance, experienced $300 million in new development around its BRT stations and Boston witnessed $650 million in new investment around its stations.

Representatives of Friends of Transit vowed Wednesday to do their part to educate voters about the BRT and get out the “yes” vote. The organization helped to successfully pass millages in 2000, 2003 and 2007 with “yes” votes totaling 65 percent, 66 percent and 58 percent, respectively.

The Rapid has experienced record-breaking ridership over the past four years: It provided more than 9 million rides in 2008, an increase of 11.4 percent over 2007 ridership totals, and demand for service keeps growing, Varga noted.

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