June 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Rapid bus project for Woodward advances

Detroit-Pontiac plan faces RTA approval, environmental study

Michael Ford, head of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, who has been offered the job as the Regional Transit Authority's (RTA) first CEO, said he supports the rapid bus system concept, but will need to study the corridor and its community impact more if he becomes the RTA chief. The rapid bus system proposal heads to the RTA for feedback and approval. (Ann Arbor Transit Authority web site)

Detroit— A planned rapid bus system along Woodward Avenue, from downtown Detroit to Pontiac, has taken a step forward with development of a proposed 27-mile route that has loops off Woodward in Pontiac, Royal Oak and Detroit’s Midtown-New Center and downtown.

Regional transit officials hope to work out details for the system, which is in its preliminary stage, for a public funding vote as early as 2016.

They envision specialized and faster-than-normal buses traveling along curb lanes for 5˝ miles of the route, and in or near the median for 21˝ miles. According to an initial plan, there would be as many as 26 stations, typically one mile apart.

The Woodward Avenue Rapid Transit Alternative Analysis study was approved recently by the steering committee of transit, city and township officials along the route. The proposal now heads to the Regional Transit Authority for feedback and approval. If the RTA approves the route, an environmental impact study will commence that could take up to a year to complete.

“At this level of the analysis, we can’t make a determination of the final alignment,” said Carmine Palombo, the deputy director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, who is also one of leaders of the Woodward steering committee. “There hasn’t been anything decided upon at this point. We’re just moving to the next level of analysis.”

Many questions remain, such as cost to build and operate, as well as potential ridership. And in the meantime, groundbreaking is expected this summer on a light rail train route along Woodward in Detroit.

Once the RTA is presented with the bus route proposal in June and approves it after some input, Palombo said the most important aspect is the completion of environmental and engineering studies, which will determine specifically where the stations will be built as well as the impact on the community and the economy around it. Advocates contend that transit systems bolster economic development along routes.

Michael Ford, head of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, who has been offered the job as the RTA’s first CEO, said he supports the concept, but will need to study the corridor and its community impact more if he becomes the RTA chief.

“I think the general concept is, get you on a bus, move you quick to your location with limited stops and get where you need to go,” Ford said. “It’s about convenience. It’s just a quicker service.”

The route would connect Detroit to the south, by way of the Rosa Parks Transit Center, to the Amtrak station in Pontiac to the north. It is viewed as a less expensive option to light rail because it uses elongated buses that travel in exclusive lanes where stoplights are synchronized to change as the vehicles approach.

The buses travel about 35 mph with fewer stops to reduce travel times, and riders would pay fares before boarding to shorten stop times. The RTA will seek federal funding for the project, which can take years, but must also go to voters to approve operating costs.

Detroit already is behind Grand Rapids, which is poised to launch the state’s first rapid bus line in August after nearly a decade of studies, a slow federal funding process and one failed funding initiative.

Deborah Schutt, the executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association, said her economic development-based organization supports the rapid transit project and the benefits it will bring to the region.

But she said her association has some concerns about the veering off Woodward, particularly in downtown Detroit because “we want to make sure that it doesn’t displace development, it supplements development.” Schutt hopes the issue is studied more carefully.

“I’m happy with the fact that we’re moving forward with rapid transit,” Schutt said. “It’s critically important for this region.”

Palombo said the off-Woodward loops are intended to boost ridership. For example, more Detroit riders could catch the rapid buses at Wayne State University on the trip south down Cass and up on John R. “I keep telling people the more riders and the faster it goes, the higher chance for federal funding,” he said.

Bloomfield Hills City Manager Jay Cravens said he and other city officials had some initial concerns about how the project might “tear out some of the landscaping and the work that we have done in the (Woodward) median over the last several years.”

But those fears have been allayed, he said, and council members, along with those in Berkley and Royal Oak, voted last month to support the still-developing project.

Cravens said that there are questions in his township about ridership numbers, since SMART buses don’t run there, “and so if there’s no record of ridership, how can you generate models that show how many riders you will have, so it’s sort of a conundrum.”

“Looking at it from the standpoint of greater good of the area, you could say Bloomfield Hills is supportive,” he said. “I think there’s some concerns about how long out this project is going to take for funding and actual construction.”

Berkley City Councilman Steve Baker agreed that there are concerns about how long it will take to complete the project, but said there are many advantages to this project such as enhancing property values and economic development “that transit systems tend to bring to those who live in the area.”

“It can add jobs, it can add access to entertainment, it can access to employment and employees,” Baker said. “It helps folks get from point A to point B with choice rather than being pretty much required to have to have a car.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com

Michael Ford, head of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, who has been offered the job as the Regional Transit Authority's (RTA) first CEO, said he supports the rapid bus system concept, but will need to study the corridor and its community impact more if he becomes the RTA chief. The rapid bus system proposal heads to the RTA for feedback and approval. (Ann Arbor Transit Authority web site)