By Griffin Wasik
Ingham County Chronicle Staff Reporter
A $143 million proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system could be finished as soon as 2018. The BRT would run from the Capitol to Meridian Mall via Michigan and Grand River avenues. It would also add a designated bus lane, remove current bus stops, and add traffic signals, according to Meridian Township documents.
“The total cost of the BRT is not $133 million,” John R. Veenstra, a Trustee member on the Meridian Township Board of Commissioners, said. “Many people are getting this confused. That is the construction cost, not the total cost. The total cost is approximately $143 million.”
The BRT would replace CATA’s Route 1: Downtown Lansing to Meridian Mall. Route 1 serves the Michigan and Grand River avenues corridor and provides as many as 6,900 trips per day when school is in session, making it CATA’s busiest route, according to CATA.
“The BRT is a project CATA is working on behalf of the entire region,” Laurie Robison, CATA Director of Marketing, said. “It is a transportation system that is very much like a rail system, but it uses high capacity buses that will operate in dedicated, or shared, bus lanes.”
“The BRT is a transformational project that will serve to enhance CATA’s efficiency in delivering quality public transportation services and maximize the number of people who travel through the corridor – not just today but into the future; it is expected to stimulate new business development and the economy (a phenomena that, in present times, is ostensibly evident); enhance traffic flow and pedestrian safety; improve our region’s multimodal transportation network, mitigate congestion; create jobs and placemaking … the list goes on,” Robison later said in an email.
“In certain places they would take out and devote specific portions of streets or create another lane in places for the bus to go,” Scott Witter, professor at MSU’s School of Planning, Design and Construction, said. “The main thing is to keep car traffic out of that lane. I think in front of campus, that’s not the case. But certainly from the west side of campus on into the Capitol, they would add lanes into those places.”
Veenstra said the BRT is a lot of money and having the designed center running lanes creates a lot of problems.
Karen Overbeck, CATA Bus Driver on Route 1, said she experiences the packed buses on a daily basis.
“Buses on Route 1 are often at full capacity during peak hours,” Overbeck said. “They get so full that sometimes I have to pass by occupied bus stops because there is no room.”
Neil Mahmoud, who rides the bus to work, said the new transit system would be beneficial to everyone.
“In the morning I can get to work quicker, and the buses will be less crowded,” Mahmoud said. “We won’t have to worry about standing on the bus anymore.”
A preliminary service plan for the BRT increases peak-hour service to every six minutes to meet existing demand. Current Route 1 service operates every nine minutes during peak hours, according to the release.
“Once the BRT gets put in place, it will be a really good thing,” Overbeck said. “Buses will depart from Meridian Mall and downtown Lansing every six minutes during peak times. The busiest times to ride the number one bus is between 9-11 a.m., and 3-6 p.m.”
Charles Jones, a student at Lansing Community College, said he rides the number one bus because it is cheap and easy to get around.
“I’m excited about the BRT. I think the faster the route, the better,” Jones said.
Said Robison in an email: “The BRT project is not being proposed to increase speed or save time, though these are certainly happy outcomes of the project.”
There are currently 45 bus stops on Route 1. This will be decreased to 27 long stations, Robison said.
“They are not bus stops, these are long stations. It’s proposed an addition of nine traffic signals would be added to the corridor and those would be to aid pedestrian crossings, and improve safety in the corridor,” Robison said.
In Meridian Township, the number of stops will decrease from 10 to six, Veenstra said.
“Some of these stops are about a half mile apart,” Veenstra said. “So, I think there is a problem with fewer stops, and the fewer stops are driven by the fact that CATA insists the dedicated bus lanes for the BRT must be center running. And because they are center running, meaning the bus runs in the middle of the road, the bus stops can only be at traffic lights.”
Robison disputed this would be a problem. “There are two sections of the corridor where bus stations are proposed to be more than a half-mile apart – .6 miles, to be exact. They include the stations that are proposed at Northwind Drive and Campus Hill (which are on either side of the bridge that straddles a set of railroad tracks – there is no location upon said bridge to feasibly position a bus station); and the Montrose and Okemos Meijer stations,” she said in an email. “It is unlikely that BRT passengers would walk the full .6-mile distance from one station to the other.”
Horace Tanner, who rides the bus to visit his ex-wife and friends, said he doesn’t want CATA to take away stops from old people’s houses or disabled people.
Said Robison in an email: “The maximum distance that an individual may need to walk from one station to the next-nearest station is .3 mile. For those who are physically unable to travel that distance, CATA offers a complementary range of curb-to-curb demand-response services.”
Regarding the issue of center running lanes, Robison said in an email: “CATA proposes center-running lanes to ensure safety for all individuals sharing the roadway, including bicyclists and pedestrians who attempt to cross the street at mid-block points, which is a common occurrence today. Center-running lanes will serve as a resting point where pedestrians and bicyclists can safely stop while crossing the street and attempting to navigate heavy oncoming traffic to get to the other side.”
Mass transit systems are a vital piece to the economy as well as the productivity to any region or city, Jordan Snow, a Research Transportation Planner/Analyst at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said.
“Giving people a low cost alternative to get people to and from their jobs, schools, or other social engagements is a really valuable thing,” Snow said. “Mass transportation helps people who don’t have the access, for whatever reasons, to their own vehicle to get to and from where they’re going. I think it’s a good thing to have.”
Mahmoud said he rides the bus because he doesn’t have a car.
“I mostly ride from downtown Lansing to the Meridian Mall,” Mahmoud said. “I like riding the bus because all you have to do is buy a bus pass and you are good to go. If you have a car, you have to pay for gas and that can get expensive.”
Witter said he is not a huge supporter of the BRT plan.
“I think the idea of the BRT system is a good one, but it works best in communities where there is high density in the residential areas,” Witter said. “Right now, that really is not the case here. We don’t have a great deal of the state workers live in downtown Lansing. We don’t have a great deal of the MSU employees that live in downtown East Lansing. I think we need to see an addition of another 10,000 people or so living here, then it would have a big impact.”
CATA is counting on that sort of growth, especially along the Michigan Avenue corridor where several residential developments have been built or proposed.
“The BRT project anticipates 10,000 additional beds coming into the corridor at this time, as well as construction projects that are planned or already underway, including The Outfield Apartments, Red Cedar Renaissance, White Oak Place and East Town Flats,” Robison said in an email.
The project is eligible to receive up to 80 percent of its funding through a Federal Transit Administration Small Starts grant. The remaining balance will be paid for through other federal and state grants, local investment, public-private partnerships, and state funding specifically reserved to match federal transit dollars, according to the release.
Transportation companies cannot entirely pay for its operations based just on passenger fares, Snow said.
“Transportation companies need a combination of government funding, contributions from private companies, and contributions from advertising revenues,” Snow said.
The current financial plan does not rely on increased taxes and the BRT fare will be the same as the current number one bus. Transfers will also operate the same, according to the release.
“Price fares depend on the market they are serving, as well as the ability of outside funding to help them operate and maintain their system,” Snow said.
Tanner said he pays about one dollar per day in taxes to CATA.
“Even if the tax goes up a little for the BRT, I wouldn’t really mind it,” Tanner said. “I use the bus so much, it’s worth it.”
CATA supports the concept of the BRT and the corridor for a number of reasons, Robison said.
“CATA has been working very closely with regional transportation and urban planning experts,” Robison said. “CATA wants to find a solution that is going to best service our existing customers, transform the region, and make sure we can efficiently transport people throughout the region, not only today, but into the future.”