The ins and outs of CATA's proposed $133 million Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, system along Lansing's Michigan Avenue- Grand River Avenue corridor would be hard enough to sort out in a calm Zen garden. A Meridian Township board meeting last week was anything but that.
About a dozen BRT opponents booed and heckled supporters of the project, annoying some speakers and intimidating others. Sitting in the midst of the group was its self-described "ringleader," Ingham County Circuit Judge William Collette.
Julie Powers, director of the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition, spoke in support of the BRT. "When anyone got up to speak in support of BRT, most of them actively booed, heckled, made disparaging comments, called out 'liar,'" Powers said. "It reminded me of British Parliament, only the tone was so angry it wasn't even funny.”
Township Treasurer Julie Brixie, a member of the CATA board of directors, bemoaned the "lack of civil discourse" at board meetings on City Pulse's weekly radio show.
"People complained after the meeting that they were afraid to speak because they felt that they were being bullied," Brixie said.
Brixie said Collette had a part in the booing and heckling.
"I don't believe what he did would be tolerated in his courtroom," Brixie said.
"I'm not accustomed to having a sitting judge and his wife heckling people," another attendee, who asked not to be named, said.
Collette said the charge "infuriates" him. "I never booed anybody, but I would have liked to," he said. “My wife and I just sat there.”
The biggest round of catcalls erupted when Susan Pigg, director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, asked the board not to respond to "ill-informed, fear-mongering commentary" from BRT opponents.
Collette said, "Everybody had been totally polite" until then.
"That lady — she got up there and called us fear-mongerers, she called us rabble-rousers, or similar, she said we are creating a false this or that," Collette said. "It was not the audience. That lady verbally attacked everybody.”
Pigg stood by her choice of words. "They're encouraging fear," she said. "I don't know what else you'd call them."
Pigg wasn’t upset, though. “There was a group of people I would call 'uncivil,' but not to any extreme degree," Pigg said. "By most Midwestern standards, it would be considered a bit rude."
The outburst at the end of Pigg's remarks is the only audience noise that is audible on the HOMTV video of the meeting, but directional microphones make it difficult to hear anyone but the speaker. Other attendees said the heckling went on throughout the meeting.
When a soft-spoken Meridian Township resident, Lise Schools, talked about the BRT’s potential to improve service for low-income people like herself, she, too, was heckled, according to an attendee who asked not to be named.
"They were sitting there, heckling [Schools] and talking about what trash she was, and that she was one of 'those' people," the attendee said. "It may not have made it to the audio, but I heard it."
Anne Woiwode, a resident of Meridian Township and former director of the Sierra Club's Mackinac Chapter, said "several people who spoke in support of the BRT were heckled." Woiwode spoke in favor of the BRT at the meeting.
“Yes, there some people who booed a few times,” Collette said. “But it certainly wasn't a rabble-rousing riot."
Collette admitted that one pro-BRT speaker besides Pigg — MSU geography Professor Randy Schaetzl — was booed “by our group,” mainly because he is married to Brixie and didn’t mention that fact in his comments.
The rancorous tone revealed a yawning gap between the high-flown language of regional planners, who praised the potential of the BRT to benefit the region, and the nuts-and-bolts fears of business owners on the project's front lines.
Under the plan, CATA’s Route 1, the eight-mile regional spine from the state Capitol to Marsh Road, would get dedicated bus lanes, improved stations and other improvements, funded largely by a federal grant. CATA says the project will shorten travel time, calm traffic and equip the corridor for a surge of new developments, residents and businesses that's already underway.
Opponents of the BRT, many of them business owners, brought up a variety of concerns, including long-term maintenance costs, emergency vehicle access, extra walking distance to stations for the handicapped and elderly and added difficulty for semi trucks making deliveries. Several speakers worried that replacing left-turn lanes with meridians would limit customers' access to their stores and businesses.
The two sides talked past each other completely on the issue of notice.
"Not one business owner on the corridor was notified" of CATA’s “ridiculous” plan, Collette told the board at the meeting. Responding to an inquiry this week, CATA sent City Pulse a list of over 50 public meetings, charrettes and presentations held in the Lansing area, including Meridian Township, on the BRT since 2009, most of them since 2015.
"It's good to have these so-called charrettes with people that they send out notices to on their website or put a little printed thing in the newspaper or something," Collette responded. "But the people who are legitimately impacted should be given some sort of notice of what to expect."
But CATA also reported that it sent "Corridors of Possibilities" newsletters about the BRT in May 2014 and August 2015 to all residents and businesses within a half-mile radius of the corridor.
Meridian Township Manager Frank Walsh said the township will put together a "work group" of eight to 12 members, including opponents and supporters of the BRT, to begin meeting in July and hand its recommendations to the board to approve or disapprove the project by the end of the year.
Walsh said CATA riders and business owners would be included on the panel.
"Our goal is to keep this fact-based and keep the politics out of the decision making process," Walsh said.
Walsh declined to comment on the tone of the meeting. "Emotions are running high on this issue," Walsh said.
Powers wasn’t as reticent. She said she has spoken at Meridian Township Board and City Council meetings in Lansing and other cities "many, many times” and has “never experienced this."
"I'm not clutching my pearls," Powers said. "Folks who have concerns with the way the BRT is going to be laid out need to be heard, [but] but this is so rude. I don't expect Meridian Township to be the wild, wild West."