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The future of The Rapid and the road to yes: Transit millage passes despite rocky journey

The Rapid celebrates the passing of their transit millage for another 12 years. And Though the issue of funding public transportation might seem straightforward, here in Grand Rapids, the millage question was a complex one, and now that the votes have been cast, Rapid Growth sought to clear the dust with a recap of the journey, and a hopeful—albeit murky—look into the future.
It's dark outside, and you can hear the crowd from the sidewalk. On Tuesday night, the craft beers are flowing, and there's palpable excitement among the crowd at Johnny B's on Wealthy St. There are smiles, various high fives, offers to grab another round and excited, exuberant chatting. Here, in this local enclave known for beer and hot dogs, as well as across the city, Greater Grand Rapidians and The Rapid staff and volunteers are celebrating the pass of the Rapid millage for another 12 years.

And though the scene here is a happy one, in other pubs and at the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836, the reception is likely mixed. Here in Grand Rapids and in the other five cities that are a part of the six-city district, the road to Tuesday's election was long and fraught with conflicting voices. Though the issue of funding public transportation might seem straightforward, the millage question was a complex one, and now that the votes have been cast, Rapid Growth sought to clear the dust with a recap of the journey, and a hopeful—albeit uncertain—look into the future.

Though public transportation has existed in GR since 1963, it wasn't until 2000 that the Grand Rapids Transit Authority (GRTA) became the Interurban Transit Partnership—The Rapid—which serves six cities: East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming. This transition to The Rapid expanded service to these six cities, as well as improved service overall. "It wasn't long ago that buses didn't run on Sunday, they ran half a day on Saturday, they quit running at 6 in the evening, there was no service on 28th street, [and] there was no service to the airport," says David Doyle, head of the pro-millage campaign. "We've come a long way."

Doyle, who has most recently labored on the John Ball Zoo and Grand Rapids Public Museum millage, and also worked on The Rapid campaigns in various roles for the past few decades, argues that this six-city spread makes The Rapid unique, but can also be the cause for conflict between areas that receive less service due to lower populations or less dense urban center. For example, Grandville and Walker have posited removing their communities from the millage in the past, to no avail. But, says Doyle, "There's only so much that the tax market will bear," and smaller communities typically—and unfortunately—receive less service.

This past Tuesday, only Walker voted against the millage, by a very slim margin of 225 votes. Though the millage passed overall, this "no" vote demonstrates that particular community's concern with bussing services in their area. When asked about potentially expanding The Rapid for those historically under-serviced areas—like Walker—board member Dave Bukowski says, "As a board, we're committed to expanding service."

Though The Rapid doesn't have concrete plans for service expansions at this time, their CEO Pete Varga hopes to increase efficiencies with their current budget for the next 12 years, with strategies like converting their entire fleet to compressed nitro gas, a more economically stable fuel source. "We're being more flexible," says Varga.

Part of this aim at flexibility will be accomplished through the Align: Transit Improvement Study, a comprehensive effort designed to request and incorporate public feedback into the board's efforts. This research campaign began in June of this year, and will wrap up a year later.

All of these efforts will occur within The Rapid's current budget. The millage in 2011, however, was a different story. This millage, which passed by a mere 136 votes, increased weekday route frequency, extended nightly service times, and added Bus Rapid Transit on Division Ave. Unlike six years ago, this year's millage passed by a landslide—8,209 votes.

Despite such a positive outcome for those fighting for funding, the road to voting day was fraught with dispute.

According to an MLive article published on Oct. 24, decreased ridership was the source of some of the opposition. Eric Larson, opposition spokesperson, specifically pointed out the 2011 millage promise to increase ridership on the Silver Line to 7500 riders has not occurred, and despite a steady increase in ridership from 2011-2014, numbers have decreased each of the past three years.

However, The Rapid celebrates the increased ridership since the initial millage and 6-district creation in 2000, touting an impressive increase from 4.5 million to 11.5 riders in the past 17 years.

The argument that bussing is not as useful as it has been in the past specifically worried low income and minority populations, who rely heavily on the Rapid for daily use. "A public transit like the Rapid is important to our urban neighborhoods as it offers a cost-effective, affordable form of transportation for some of our low-income residents, including many minorities," says Executive Director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Guillermo Cisneros.

"We know, for example, that many students in these neighborhoods rely on on The Rapid to get to and from school, and for many of their parents it is often their only way of getting to and from work. So any disruption or reduction of any of these public services that negatively affects our residents, especially those most in need in our community, ultimately affects all of us."

Other community members and opposition advocates argued that the use of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft will soon surpass public transportation, rendering the Rapid useless for those preferring the ease of use and customizable experience of these services. However, according to USA Today, public transportation and ride-sharing are "complementary," with ride-sharing offering a first and last mile option for those who till utilize a bus or train.

Pete Varga echoes this sentiment, and mentions other partnerships that complement other forms of transportation, like the Rapid's current partnership with Spectrum Health, in which employees utilize the Rapid for free, and the company is billed at the end of each month.

In addition, "As part of the Wave smart card and mobile ticketing pilot testing phase, some Spectrum employees will be testing some smart cards, and we will eventually work with them to develop a more robust smart card program for their employees to utilize. utilizing The Wave Smart Cards, and hinted at other future programs," says The Rapid's Marketing and Communications Manager Michael Bulthuis.

And regardless of the election results, The Rapid board members are outspoken about their commitment to continue contract negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836. Referring to their opposition tagline of "no contract, no vote," board member David Bukowski says "Rapid yes, contract yes." He and other board members, hopeful after Tuesday's win, are looking forward to positive negotiations.

"From our perspective things don't really change," says Bulthuis, of the election results. "We're really eager to get back to the negotiating table with the union." Reiterating that The Rapid seeks a peaceful partnership despite a Union activist's arrest in August and a very public battle between the two groups that continued until voting day on November 7, Bulthuis adds, "We want these wage increases. We believe that they deserve that."

Looking ahead, The Rapid will have 35.5 percent of its funding covered by tax payers for the next 12 years. And although they move forward with the same operating budget that was passed six years ago, they will continue to source public opinion, make improvements in cost efficiency, and negotiate with the union, thus making for an interesting and encouraging road ahead. As board member Barb Holt puts it, "It's an exciting time for transit. Grand Rapids is an exciting city."
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