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The Rapid Recommendations: Do you agree?

Over lunch this past Tuesday, May 25, 2010, a community task force that for months had brainstormed and brought to one table a variety of perspectives and ideas, largely agreed upon and applauded a recommendation that may move forward West Michigan – and its population – for years to come. That recommendation was presented to The Rapid's board last night, May 26, 2010, and after public feedback, will be voted upon June 30.

Since last fall, the Mobile Metro 2030 Task Force has convened to research and cast a vision for what sort of mass transit system will be required to support the needs of a metropolitan Grand Rapids 20 years from now. Deciding where you want – or need – to go is critical when you creating a long-range plan. And since The Rapid had largely exhausted its last such plan, it was time to cast a new vision to guide leaders of the region's mass transit system.

After months of research, including review of comparable cities, best-practices mass transit systems, projections for Grand Rapids growth, and public surveys, three "scenarios" were created and shared at five public forums between May 11 and 19, resulting in a final "preferred scenario" that was presented, discussed and approved on Tuesday.

The three scenarios earlier presented to the public, creatively named A, B, and C, represented three degrees of expansion to meet the needs of a growing Grand Rapids. Scenario A essentially expanded upon and improved service levels for current bus routes, adding Bus Rapid Transit – BRT – on the Division and Lake Michigan corridors. Scenario B achieved the improvements of the first scenario and introduced new bus routes, added additional BRT routes to the north and east, and created a downtown streetcar project to replace a bus circulator system proposed in Scenario A. Scenario C, meanwhile, expanded further upon the earlier scenarios with streetcar services connecting downtown with the West Side, Medical Mile and East Grand Rapids.

Following the five sessions where the public provided extensive input – held May 11-19 at LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church, Rapid Central Station, Walker Fire Station #2, Kentwood City Chambers and Wyoming Library, the MM2030 Strategic Planning Committee created the "preferred scenario" reflecting public input. That scenario essentially captured elements from Scenarios B and C, with a final long-term price tag only slight more than the original Scenario B.

Top priorities expressed by the public attending the open houses that were incorporated into the final recommendations were: 1) Expanded service hours; 2) More frequent service; 3) More choices, like BRT and Streetcars; 4) Extended service to growth areas in the county; and 5) Improved service to underserved areas within the current metro area.

Based on comments during the final MM2030 Task Force gathering Tuesday, support for the final recommendations was near unanimous. Most, in fact, would have supported going even further but acknowledged that gaining public support for more aggressive plans would be difficult. The plan to be submitted will eventually increase millage support for mass transit from its current 1.12 to 1.96 in 2028. Placed into context, however, it might seem like a bargain.

Currently, to support their mass transit systems, Lansing and Saginaw residents pay a 3.0 millage and Ann Arbor pays a capped 2.5 millage that is hindering its expansion plans. Grand Rapids' 1.12 millage seems like a bargain, and an increase of less than 100% over the next two decades to increase services and create a downtown streetcar system – and still come in lower than three lesser Michigan cities' current millage rates – seems within reason. The total cost of the preferred scenario is estimated to be $570.3 million – about twice the capital expenditure that would be required to maintain the system exactly like it is.

Funding for these capital costs are anticipated to come from gas taxes, new contract fees from townships and municipalities benefitting from expanded services, and increases to millage rates.

The recommendation submitted by MM2030 "strikes a good balance between vision and reality," says Don Sypula, Executive Director of the Grand Valley Metro Council. "I like the thinking that went into it."

Meanwhile, reflecting the opinion of many on the task force, MM2030 vice-chair Casey Dutmer of the Consumer Advisory Committee said he was torn between the preferred scenario and the more aggressive "Scenario C." His concern with not going far enough is the retention of young professionals who will be the lifeblood of West Michigan going forward. "It's really about the future," Dutmer said, "and the real future is with our youth and the development of jobs for them." He believed that the recommendation forwarded to the board, however, allows for future expansion of the vision to accommodate the region's growing needs.

James Buck, Mayor of Grandville, recalled efforts in the mid '90s when the numerous townships ringing the six core Rapid-serviced cities – Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville, Walker, East Grand Rapids – were unwilling to become involved and help fund mass transit. Most remain uninvolved more than a decade later, and Buck said "it's hard to sit here with the townships not part of the process."
 
It was pointed out that any expansion of service beyond the core six cities would involve contracts with townships. There should be no expectation on the part of the public that Rockford will be serviced by The Rapid without investment from Rockford, said Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid. The same is true for recommendations to create BRT service for Grand Valley State University. GVSU would become part of the funding solution for that type of expanded service.

"We need to set the transit vision for the community," said Andy Johnston, Legislative Affairs Director for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and a MM2030 task force member. He feels like the recommended scenario begins to do so, but that a more aggressive plan is in the region's future. "It's about time we caught up with Flint," he said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

The public can visit http://rapidtmp.org/ to comment on these recommendations and ensure The Rapid's board considers all voices as it sets the direction for long-range planning efforts next month.
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