Grand Rapids Majority Rules for Transit: Rapid Buses, Better Service Will Set Pace for State

The Silver Line: just one part of the picture. The Rapid
The Silver Line: just one part of the picture. The Rapid

Two years after an earlier transit measure went down to defeat, voters in the Grand Rapids region have approved a property tax increase for expanding their bus system, The Rapid, by 136 votes out of 34,432 cast. Those votes will spur the West Michigan metropolis, known for its relatively conservative culture, to some of the biggest transit strides the state’s seen in years. The rest of the state would do well to follow its example of an aggressive, well-balanced transit strategy that not only beefs up major corridors with faster transit – by reallocating road space, if need be – but also spreads the love to other lines as well, cutting wait times by increasing bus frequencies.

For many transit boosters, the most exciting part of the Rapid’s expansion will be “Silver Line” bus rapid transit. A first for Michigan, this project will give buses their own lanes on Division Street during rush hour for most of its roughly eight-mile length; staff hope it will cut travel times in half. Just as importantly, though, the additional $15 million per year will dramatically improve service throughout the Rapid system.

The Silver Line will take time to build, but Grand Rapids riders will feel service benefitsmore immediately. The Rapid’s to-do list includes buying 17 new buses and hiring 51 new drivers. Every route will now boast weekday daytime frequencies of thirty minutes or less, and twice as many routes will now feature buses every 15 minutes during rush hour. Operating hours will be extended, too; the most-traveled routes will run to midnight.

Grand Rapids’ transit strategy, which makes a project like the Silver Line one part of a comprehensive transit plan to improve service across the system, should be a model for other places around the state. Across the country, many transit advocates have often placed more emphasis on building new systems than on maintaining and expanding existing service. There are some good reasons for that. A new light rail line can seem more tangible than more frequent buses, and the federal funding structure for transit privileges capital projects over operations: for decades, the feds have given money to build trains and buy buses, but not to run them.

Overlooking system-wide service, however, can lead to schizophrenic situations like Detroit’s, where light rail development has proceeded even as bus service has been slashed  by one-third over the past five years. (This writer hasn’t heard of any private investors stepping in with donations for the buses.) If a new investment like Woodward light rail aren’t accompanied by improvements to existing bus service, the new system isn’t nearly as useful, nor is it as likely to get broad public support. The Rapid millage is a case in point: the defeated 2009 millage sought money for the Silver Line alone. It stands to reason that transit advocates should rest their hopes on holistic, system-wide planning, of the kind that both the Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor regions – two places with divergent political reputations, but the same understanding of transit’s importance to thriving communities – are pursuing.