Bus buy sells short for mayor

August 14, 2009
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Members of the downtown Development Authority agreed last week to help buy five new replacement shuttle buses for the DASH system, which services downtown, despite a compelling appeal from Mayor George Heartwell to take another route.

The city’s Parking Services Department, which operates the DASH system, wants to replace five of the nine shuttles that run during peak hours because those buses have reached the end of the road. The replacement shuttles would cost $1.76 million.

Parking Services will contribute $708,810 to the purchase price, $850,000 will come from the DDA, and a federal air-quality grant will cover the remaining $208,000.

The difficulty for Heartwell was that none of the buses are hybrids, models that are powered by a combination of electricity and fuel and release fewer emissions than standard ones.

The mayor, who also serves on the Interurban Transit Partnership board, said the last time he voted to buy standard buses for The Rapid was the final time he would ever support purchasing buses that solely ran on gasoline or diesel fuel. He tried to convince the DDA to include at least two of the higher-priced hybrid shuttles in the order.

“If we don’t start making these types of investments, we’re being shortsighted,” he said.

Heartwell said Grand Rapids is on two national lists as a sustainable city, and not buying hybrids would hurt that standing and the city’s reputation.

“It’s not a practical position,” the mayor said, acknowledging the additional cost for the hybrids. “It’s principle.”

Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said she investigated buying hybrids but found they cost an additional $204,500 each, which would raise the overall price tag for the five buses by more than $1 million. Plus, she said, the hybrids would only save about a mile-per-gallon in fuel costs, and their life expectancy isn’t long enough for the city to recover the additional cost.

DDA member Brian Harris said the mayor made a “compelling argument,” but the board chose the less-expensive shuttles.

Ritsema solicited bids for the buses and decided to go with shuttles made in California and sold by the Gillig Corp., the same company that ITP buys its buses from. The shuttles are ADA compatible, seat 27 passengers and can carry up to 35 when standing room is included. Each bus costs $353,362, while a hybrid runs $557,862.

The DASH system is primarily aimed at downtown workers and students who don’t want to pay the monthly parking fees in ramps. The system has 11 parking lots and the monthly charges range from $25 to $45 for a parking space and a ride. Ritsema said DASH provides more than 540,000 rides each year.

“For the most part, we’re essentially full on (the west) side of town,” she said.

DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler said the DASH system is vital to downtown because it prevents key properties from being filled with parking lots.

“It allows the core downtown area to be developed more intensely,” he said. “It’s very important to the long-term health of downtown.”

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