With a launch date of August 25, 2014, Division Avenue will be the home of the first Bus Rapid Transit system, or BRT, in the state of Michigan. Named the Silver Line, this enhanced transportation system will be eagerly watched by Detroit and Lansing as a catalyst for potential economic growth and development leading into the downtown area.
Just what is a BRT? According to Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid, “The Silver Line is a lifestyle mobility system” with the purpose of community building, stimulating both residential and commercial growth, and increasing mobility of visitors, employees, and students into the downtown area.
In planning for over a decade, the Silver Line started construction of state-of-the-art stations along Division Avenue in April 2013. Overall, 34 stations have been situated from 60th Street in Cutlerville to the Medical Mile/Grand Rapids Community College loop. The stations are equipped with pillar lighting, camera surveillance, emergency phones, and snow melting platforms. An added feature of the Silver Line stations is to provide level boarding, eliminating the need for wheelchair lifts and providing easy access for those with assistive devices. Care has also been taken to preserve and enhance the landscaping surrounding the stations.
As part of the speed and efficiency of the Silver Line, riders will purchase their fare right at the boarding station with electronic kiosks. No need to fumble with money or transfers upon entering the bus. Fares are reasonable as well. An Adult 10-ride card is $11.50, Student 10-ride card is $9. A 31-day unlimited pass is $40 and a Senior/Disabled 31-day unlimited pass is $26.
The BRT will begin with 8-10 hybrid electric buses. The easily identifiable bright green buses boasting the Silver Line logo are spacious with comfortable seating. Each bus is equipped with 3-position bike rack. An added bonus for commuters is free Wi-Fi. This can cut down on the loss of productivity while driving to and from home, or from work site to work site. You can bring your tablet, laptop, or Smartphone and stay connected while someone else is at the wheel.
Unlike the existing bus service, the Silver Line will provide express service potentially slashing commute times by as much as 40 percent. During peak hours, 6 to 8 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m., there will be dedicated bus lanes reducing congestion along Division Avenue. The Silver Line will also employ “signal priority” where the buses have the technology to “talk” to the traffic signals; as the bus approaches an intersection the light will stay green permitting fewer stops along the route.
BRT and light rail systems are currently being used in several cities across the nation in cities such as Cleveland, OH; Eugene, Oregon; and Kansas City, Missouri. Studies of these transportation initiatives have shown an increase of 30% to 50% in property values along the routes. The Division Avenue Business Association is excited at the potential of the Silver Line bringing increased business, as well as residential development along this major Grand Rapids thoroughfare.
Strengthening communities is another goal of the Silver Line. You can create jobs and educational opportunities in the downtown area, but people need a low-cost means of getting there. Vargas agrees, “The BRT is truly needed for those who are not in a position to own a car.
“For those who are middle to low income cars can be a hardship.”
Payments, insurance, maintenance, and parking are out of reach for some but they need access to a low-cost efficient means of getting to work or school.
Critics of the new $39 million Silver Line project aver that the money could have been better spent on fixing the roads and on structural improvements. Some argue that the city should have opted for a light rail system. Michael Bulthuis, Community Engagement Coordinator with the Rapid explains, “Regarding the cost, many alternatives were looked at for the Division Avenue corridor, one of which was the light rail. BRT was chosen because the return on investment is comparable with light rail, but at one tenth the cost.”
Funding for the Silver Line is possible through grants from the Federal Transit Administration and Michigan Department of Transportation. No local monies are used and funding does not come out of the budget to fix Grand Rapids roads. An added bonus – as of mid-June the Silver Line project was $4 million under budget!
Some are concerned with the amount of technology, phones, cameras installed in the stations that vandalism and crime may increase. Bulthuis states The Rapid has never experienced much in the way of vandalism and they do not anticipate a problem in the future. They have invested greatly in proactive safety measures.
“As an agency that is concerned first and foremost with the safety of its passengers, we have implemented a number of preventative measures at each station. First, each station will have security cameras. Second, each station is equipped with an emergency phone that will dial 911 directly. Third, stations are very well lit which can be a great deterrent to crime.”
With energy costs increasing public transportation will become increasingly important. The Silver Line is just the first piece of moving Grand Rapids toward low-cost, energy efficient transportation which is appealing to business commuters, seniors, and students. Plans for paved park-n-ride lots, like the one currently at the 60th Street BRT station, will make it easier to avoid the overcrowded parking and parking costs downtown. Future plans are being looked at to evaluate the feasibility of a downtown Grand Rapids streetcar system.
We are moving to a new age of public transportation. Once again Detroit and Lansing are eagerly watching for Grand Rapids to lead the way. After riding the new Silver Line to reach my employment on the Medical Mile who knows…I just might have to sell the old Taurus and let someone else do the driving!