ITP millage stirs debate

April 1, 2011
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Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell had some harsh words recently for the group that opposes the Interurban Transit Partnership’s millage request, which would extend The Rapid’s existing bus service and move ITP forward with its proposed Silver Line.

Heartwell, who is on the ITP board, said Kent County Families for Fiscal Responsibility hasn’t spoken truthfully about the ballot proposal and has attacked the community with “misleading” statements.

KCFFR, which says it is a non-partisan advocacy group for local taxpayers, said putting more tax dollars into The Rapid system is a bad investment. The group claimed the service is “exceedingly expensive,” much more costly than driving a car, and the system’s proposed high-speed Silver Line would only add more cost to taxpayers and more congestion to a heavily traveled Division Avenue.

The millage request will appear on the May 3 ballot in Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, East Grand Rapids and Grandville. The measure seeks an increase of 0.35 mills for seven years to the current 1.12 transit millage, bringing the rate to 1.47 mills. ITP estimated it would get an additional $15.6 million this year if voters approve the request. At that rate and if taxable values remain constant, ITP would receive $109 million more over the millage’s term. A property owner with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay $35 a year more in property taxes, or $245 more over those seven years.

ITP reported it would use the additional funding to enhance weekday service so that most routes would run at least every 30 minutes until 11:15 p.m. The seven busiest routes would run every half-hour until 12:15 a.m. ITP would also double the number of routes offering 15-minute service during morning and afternoon commute times and would run all routes until 10 p.m. on Saturday, except for Route 17 that goes to Woodland Mall and the airport.

ITP would also connect Route 50, which runs from Grand Valley State University’s Allendale Campus to downtown, to The Rapid Central Station, and operate the Silver Line’s workday round-trip service along Division Avenue to downtown employment sites. The line would cost about $37 million to build. ITP is counting on a federal grant for 80 percent of those funds, but has to come up with the remaining 20 percent.

“This millage request is responsive to the citizens’ vision of a dynamic transit system in the 2030 planning process,” said Heartwell of the open houses ITP held for public comment last year. “It couldn’t come at a better time. Now is the time to rally behind The Rapid.”

But KCFFR, using data from the National Transit Database, claims The Rapid service costs $9.53 per mile to operate and is far costlier to run than a medium-sized passenger car, which AAA has pegged at 56 cents per mile. Again citing the National Transit Database, KCFFR said The Rapid loses $4.31 for each rider and averages 7.3 passengers at any given time. The group also pointed to a 2009 American Community Survey, based on U.S. Census Bureau data, that showed 1.6 percent of the area’s 258,000 workers rely on public transit to get to work.

KCFFR also said the Silver Line would take 35 minutes to travel 9.8 miles. Because Route 1 travels about 8.3 miles in 33 minutes, KCFFR suggests extending that line’s Division Avenue route into the targeted employment areas and scrapping the Silver Line. KCFFR noted ITP plans to use 10 hybrid busses along the Silver Line, also known as the Bus Rapid Transit system. The group pointed out the 10 hybrid buses would cost $2 million more than standard diesel-powered buses. KCFFR also noted the BRT would use one lane of Division Avenue in each direction, leaving one lane open for other traffic, and only right turns could be made onto the street during peak-travel hours, which would worsen traffic congestion.

Heartwell took exception to those claims. “These folks have made a habit of distributing misinformation and making attacks against The Rapid. Here’s what they need to understand: They are not attacking The Rapid. They’re attacking our communities and a valued community asset that connects our cities together, creates opportunities and supports our values of prosperity, diversity and sustainability,” he said.

“They’re also attacking the hundreds of thousands of citizens that will take more than 10 million rides on The Rapid this year,” the mayor added. “It is sad to see these anti-community forces attack what we’re trying so hard to build here in Grand Rapids.”

Eric Larson, a local anesthesiologist and KCFFR spokesman, disagreed with the mayor’s anti-community assessment of his group.

“I would say the community spoke in 2009, and it may not be his vision of what the community is, in that they said no to the Silver Line. I personally am not part of the community that is in the taxing authority, but a lot of supporters in our group are,” he said.

“We’re not anti-community. We’re not anti-bus. We just want open government and we feel The Rapid lacks transparency. We want an efficient use of resources and for them to be good stewards of our tax dollars.”

KCFFR opposes the ITP millage request, in part, because it sees the Silver Line as an overly expensive and redundant service that the existing Route 1 line could fill. The group also feels the BRT will worsen traffic congestion on Division.

“And it doesn’t travel very fast for a rapid service. It’s going to travel negligibly faster than the current bus line, as 1.5 miles-per-hour (faster) is their projection,” said Larson.

KCFFR also doesn’t feel the expansion plan is a good one. The group was formed in 2007 and opposed the last ITP millage request two years ago. Back then, because that request was solely for the Silver Line, Larson said KCFFR didn’t take a close look at the services The Rapid offered. But this time around it did.

“We found that The Rapid has fairly empty buses — about 90 percent empty most of the time. In general, the expansion of services to hours that are not quite as heavily traveled and to areas that are not as heavily populated would only worsen those numbers because you would have less occupancy on those buses, most likely. So it would make what is an already expensive affair to run these buses even more expensive per passenger per mile. It’s also a waste of fuel and probably not a good way of conserving our resources,” said Larson.

Voters approved the ITP millage for 1.12 mills in 2007. But they defeated a request for an increase of 0.12 mills that ITP sought for the Silver Line in 2009. The upcoming ballot question doesn’t mention the Silver Line specifically, but it does include the phrase “other public transportation purposes.”

ITP said The Rapid system’s ridership has risen from 8.2 million passengers in FY07 to 9.8 million in FY10, a gain of nearly 20 percent. The ITP operating budget for the last fiscal year was $32.9 million.

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