Lessons for Detroit from Grand Rapids' not-so-rapid BRT system



Metro Detroit's leaders and transit-watchers should take notice of the brand-spanking new transit system in Grand Rapids — if only because it uses the same model planned for metro Detroit in coming years.
Dubbed "Bus Rapid Transit," it's a system that uses a lot of the features associated with light rail — fare prepayment, dedicated lanes, traffic signals that remain green to stop delays — but with rubber wheels on pavement instead of steel wheels on rail.
Depending on who's talking, it's either a revolutionary system that gives almost exactly what light rail can offer or a bus system gussied up to resemble better-functioning light rail systems. Critics of such systems say that officials often tout BRT systems because of deep personal biases against rail and a lack of understanding about rail systems and why they are better.
As for Michigan officials having biases against rail, we are able to demonstrate that easily, as it was written right into the original bylaws of our local rapid transit authority. Such sentiments likely played into a funding shift from light rail to a proposed $500 million BRT system covering 110 miles in metro Detroit.
Given these ambitious BRT plans for our region, all eyes should be on Grand Rapids, where Michigan's newest BRT system has been operating these last few weeks. The early figures are in, and they should prove discouraging to proponents of BRT.
Sources say the $40 million Silver Line shaves just one minute off the trip when compared to the route's already existing bus line, which includes more stops. Quoted in Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Kent County Taxpayer Alliance's Rick Mills said, "$40 million for a special line to go up and down Division [Street] where we already have a bus line? It’s just a gross waste of money."
Will these results spur local officials into taking another look at the value of light rail? Given the prevailing attitudes in Lansing and metro Detroit, that sort of outcome seems unlikely.

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