Grand Rapids may mold Detroit transit
Grand Rapids — Chris Dekorver didn't mince words when describing how perpetually late buses were here, griping that "it was like they would lose buses in a sinkhole."
Not anymore, he said. Last week, Dekorver, 59, sat on the plush, new Silver Line bus that moved quickly through stops on busy Division Avenue and was, to his delight, on time and then some.
This is exactly what officials for The Rapid, the agency in charge of transit, envisioned last August when it became the first region in Michigan to introduce on the city's main artery bus rapid transit — buses designed to travel in dedicated lanes with fewer stops and a simpler boarding process. And officials expect economic development to follow.
In Metro Detroit, officials are playing catch-up to the state's second-largest city. The Regional Transit Authority has been studying bus rapid transit routes for Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues and are going ask voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties to approve a tax increase for rapid buses in 2016.
And the Silver Line is one BRT route RTA officials plan to visit and learn from in coming months.
"This is much better," said Dekorver, of Comstock Park, who was heading to pick up parts for his vintage audio repair business. "It's much more reliable."
The $39 million BRT project, which was narrowly rejected by local voters the first time passed on the second try when coupled with system-wide bus improvements. It has been embraced by the public and businesses who say the north-south Silver Line is helping to breathe new life into a moribund Division Avenue.
"This corridor, it needed it. We've been in a slump for a long time and (BRT) showed belief in it," said Tommy Brann, the owner of Brann's Steakhouse on Division and a big proponent of the Silver Line. "As a rider, you appreciate the speed of it. The regular bus system has so many stops and is so slow."
The 9.6-mile Silver Line snakes through Grand Rapids, Wyoming and Kentwood — and makes a loop downtown around what officials call the "Medical Mile," where biotech and medical research centers are located in the city's center. The project, officials said, came in nearly $4 million under budget.
The BRT buses pull into stations with 15-inch-high platforms that line up to the bus door to make boarding easier.
Each station has an advanced ticket vending machine that allows for seamless boarding. In the winter, the concrete platforms are heated to melt snow and ice. Each station has seating and is covered.
The Silver Line averages 2,161 riders a week. The corridor average, which includes other bus routes, is slightly more than 4,220 a week; the goal is 5,000 by year's end, Rapid officials say.
Riders can park in a free, 250-space lot owned by The Rapid on 60th Street; the city owns another lot with fewer free spaces. There are 10 buses with eight in service at one time.
Silver Line riders pay $1.50 per ride, the same as a regular bus.
It has also begun to attract non-bus users into embracing public transportation. Employees of the Spectrum Health Medical Center ride for free as the company subsidizes their trips to encourage riding the BRT.
Lida Giacomelli of Grandville works as a radiology nurse in the medical center, and by her own admittance, wouldn't have dared take a bus. But last winter, she totaled her car in a traffic pileup. This winter, she took a ride and hasn't stopped. Her home is five miles from the free parking lot.
"I talked to some other people who had been on it, too, and they said it was really nice. Everything was brand new. It's very nice and clean. And there are some very interesting characters that ride this bus, too."
Maurice Scott of Grand Rapids wasn't so convinced. He rode the Silver Line with his wife for the first time last week and thought too much money was spent on one line.
"I thought it was a stupid idea when you have so many homeless people around," he said.
Peter Varga, the CEO of The Rapid, said that the Silver Line has helped usher in new ridership — even though some riders were siphoned from the traditional buses. "That was expected, but not many," he said.
Varga said the economic development is coming but will take time, possibly years. There already are discussions about some housing and retail development on important parts of the route, he informed.
"People are starting to market the certain properties in the corridor, saying it's next to BRT," Varga said.
Varga says that for the southeast Michigan's Regional Transportation Authority to be successful getting voters to support BRT in four different counties with different needs, it will need to convince voters that it will "help the overall integration of the mass transit system."
The success of the Silver Line has Rapid officials now studying BRT that would travel East-West on a so-called Laker Line.
Brann, who also serves on the Division Avenue Business Association, said the rapid transit line has "modernized the bus system" by getting tickets more efficiently and "getting on and off fast."
Conrad Venema, the project manager for the Silver Line, said when this process began more than a decade ago, there was such "an unfamiliarity of what BRT is" and that much work went into selling it.
"A public education was one of the keys so to understand that what we were trying to accomplish was not yet another woeful bus service," Venema said. "It was something that was uniquely branded and fulfilled a different role, a different experience."
Jeff Lobdell, who owns restaurants in the Grand Rapids region, including a popular Mexican establishment on Division, said the rapid transit is connecting communities. Even some of his patrons and workers at his Beltline Bar use it.
"Although buses do great things, the general consensus in the past was like, buses are for people who don't have enough money to have a car," Lobdell said. "I think it's changed the perception where the Silver Line has made people think it's a great way to get to places and be part of a community. It's making little Grand Rapids feel more like a big city."