Last week, I randomly collared 22 people waiting for a bus at three stops along Route 1, the Lansing metro area’s main drag along Michigan and Grand River avenues, and asked them if they knew what Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, was.
Only two of them did. Both were MSU students, sitting in the Meijer stop with a stack of pillows, hangers, laundry detergent and supplies to schlep to the dorm room for Welcome Week.
They knew about it because their hometown, Guatemala City, has had a BRT system since 2007.
“It’s OK,” one of the students shrugged as he boarded the bus. “It’s faster, less traffic.”
Nobody I talked with that day knew a $133 million BRT was in the works for Lansing.
But they will, and soon.
The Capital Area Transportation Agency, or CATA, is getting closer to an end-to-end overhaul of Route 1, paid for mostly by federal dollars. The huge project has been on the drawing board since 2011, and isn’t expected to get underway until next year at the earliest. But it’s peeping over the horizon, exciting some people and alarming others.
There isn’t a lot of middle ground on BRT. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either crazy to do it or crazy not to do it.
CATA officials, regional planners and a youthful subset of area business owners and developers say the BRT is more than a time-saver. To them, it’s a godsend, the next leap forward for greater Lansing, a spur to connectivity and economic development, an affordable way for a corridor exploding with growth to build capacity for more, mostly on Uncle Sam’s dime.
To opponents, BRT is not a godsend, it’s Godzilla — a boondoggle, a waste of money and a business-killer, both in its construction phase and afterwards. A brushfire of opposition among dozens of businesses in Meridian Township, at the eastern end of Route 1, led to the township board’s August resolution not to support the project. Last month, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce announced that it, too, did not support CATA’s “current plan” for the BRT after polling its members and finding 66 percent opposed.
Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Area Economic Partnership, has been a vocal supporter of BRT for months, but Monday Trezise said LEAP is not taking a position on the project.
Bicyclists and people with disabilities have their own issues with CATA’s preliminary design for the BRT, discussed in detail in two companion stories.
CATA spokeswoman Laurie Robison noted that the Lansing Chamber formerly supported the BRT as part of a “shared vision” for change that would keep graduating MSU students and other millennials living in greater Lansing’s “urban core.”
“When it’s critically important for the same leaders to take action and make this vision a reality, some are backing down,” Robison lamented.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has not backed down on his support of the BRT. Bernero’s spokesman, Randy Hannan, cautioned that “cracks in the conversation” over the project might hurt CATA’s chances of getting federal money, but mayoral warnings aren’t likely to mollify worried business owners in the project’s path.
Hurrying to pave the cracks, CATA is reminding all parties that the engineering is only at 30 percent and the plan is still flexible.
Looking for a problem
The basics of BRT can be counted on one hand. A fleet of new, double-length buses will travel in dedicated lanes along most of Route 1, shared only by emergency vehicles and police. To save time, riders will pre-pay fares and board from 27 glassy, sheltered, light-rail-style stations 90 feet long, with raised platforms at bus level. Buses will have signal priority, the ability to stretch a green light a few more seconds (but not to turn a red light green).
The bells and whistles vary, but all these features are in the federal guidelines for BRT systems, along with “separate and consistent brand identity to stations and vehicles,” as seen along Cleveland’s Healthline or the Emerald Express in Eugene, Ore. — an overall spiffiness meant to upgrade the image of public transportation and lure “choice” riders who don’t have to use public transportation.
CATA is applying for $99 million, just under the $100 million ceiling set by the federal Small Starts program. The rest of the money is expected to come from a state match and a patchwork of road improvement money, most of it from federal and state programs administered locally (see accompanying table).
On Michigan Avenue, from Grand Avenue downtown to Detroit Street on the far east side, there would be one lane in each direction for autos and one in each direction for buses. (CATA says traffic counts don’t support the need for two lanes in each direction.) Beyond I-127 all the way to the end of the line at Meijer, there would be two lanes in each direction for autos.
CATA predicts that with the BRT in place, buses will arrive every six minutes and travel time from one end of the route to another would be cut by 7 to 12 minutes from the present time of 45 minutes. CATA also predicts that traffic will be considerably calmer, as stop-and-go buses no longer jostle in the same lane with cars.
At peak hours, some stops along Route 1 are starting to become overcrowded, with buses refusing passengers, according to CATA. But the pitch to the feds for grant money has more to do with the future than the present. When opponents say BRT is “a solution looking for a problem,” CATA and regional planners think they’ve found one: the next 20 years.
“If capacity isn’t added in this corridor, congestion will lead to significant delays for automobiles and buses by 2035, particularly during peak hours,” CATA regional project manager Debbie Alexander said.
An estimated $300 billion to $500 billion worth of development is either happening or about to happen along the Route 1 corridor, from mixed-use developments going up on Lansing’s East Side to the giant Skyvue apartment block next to Frandor and two slow-starting but inevitable behemoths, East Lansing’s City Center and the Red Cedar Renaissance.
Building for anticipated growth is a strategy rewarded by the federal Small Starts project that would mainly fund the BRT. The language in the grant application is explicit: “Some projects are designed to address and accommodate future growth more so than current congestion problems.”
Light rail lite
Compared to subways, light rail and the venerable streetcar, BRT’s are latecomers to the world’s cities. But as civic budgets shrink and mega-projects become less feasible, “light rail lite” has caught on around the world. (Many estimates put the cost of BRTs at about one-fourth that of light rail.) The number of cities with BRTs has grown from a handful in the early 1970s to about 170 in 2013, about 120 of which have been built since 2002, according to the most comprehensive recent study of BRTs, sponsored by the World Resources Institute.
In the United States, the gold standard is Cleveland’s HealthLine, widely credited with transforming the Euclid Avenue corridor, boosting ridership along the line by more than 50 percent and generating nearly $6 billion in “transit oriented development,” or about $115 for each dollar spent on the project, according to a study by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
A Lansing delegation, including Mayor Virg Bernero, took a spin on the Cleveland HealthLine last year.
“The density along the route, the new investments in medical facilities, restaurants, housing density was impressive,” Randy Hannan, Bernero’s spokesman, said.
Post-BRT ridership gains from 20 to 30 percent were reported in Pittsburgh, Houston, and Los Angeles, according to the Transportation Research Board, but BRTs are popping up in smaller cities as well.
In June 2016, the feds awarded Columbus, Ohio, $37 million for a BRT in a city with a capitol-to-campus corridor often compared to the Lansing—East Lansing route.
The EmX (Emerald Express) in Eugene, Ore. — slightly larger than Lansing in population— started in 2007 with a four-mile link from downtown Eugene to neighboring Springfield. The Federal Highway Administration tracked a spike in ridership from 2,700 to 4,700 in the Emerald Express’s first five years of operation.
With BRTs under consideration in cities across the country, researchers at the University of Utah chose Eugene’s system as an economic impact case study. Light rail, the study concluded, is too expensive to benefit a city with less than 1 million people, but BRTs brought a measurable result to Eugene. In the post-2008 recession, jobs fell by 5 percent outside the Eugene’s BRT corridor, but increased 10 percent within a quarter mile of a BRT station and five percent within a half mile. “We are impressed to see how the Eugene-Springfield market responded so quickly to the EmX BRT system,” the study concluded, with a caveat that further research was needed to pin down the correlation between the BRT and economic growth.
But in Eugene, a $96 million EmX extension into the city’s western suburbs, a sprawling commercial strip similar to that of Meridian Township, has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition. Our Money Our Transit, a local group opposed to the extension, filed a lawsuit against the local transit district and the FTA. The lawsuit didn’t stop the new line, scheduled to open next year, but their objections are similar to those that have been aired in a series of contentious meetings in Meridian Township, where CATA’s proposed BRT has aroused the most vocal resistance.
Plans for CATA’s BRT have been public since 2011, but it wasn’t until last year that a group of Meridian Township business owners spotted CATA’s trademark blue leopard in the bushes and began to chatter with alarm.
BRT opponents have a long laundry list of perceived flaws in the BRT. For one thing, they fear it will cost more to run in the longer term.
CATA maintains that with 27 stations replacing 28 enclosed bus stops, any increase in operational costs for the BRT compared to the old Route 1 would be “minimal” and easily handled within the current budget. Robison said CATA “is not considering a millage increase to fund costs associated with the BRT.”
Another frequent charge against CATA is that it’s highballing ridership projections along Route 1. Susan Pigg, director of the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, said “CATA is held to strict standards on its assumptions they can make” and its rider ship estimates are “quite conservative in terms of increases in Route 1.”
But for many local businesses, center boarding along a new median, beginning at Hagadorn Road along the route eastward to the Meridian Mall, is the deal-breaker.
“A person heading east would not be able to make a left turn to come into the Coral Gables, the Oriental Market, all the way up the line,” George Tesseris, co-owner of Coral Gables in Meridian Township, said. “When we explained this to some of the merchants, they went up in arms. [CATA] is crazy.”
Last fall, Tesseris gathered signatures from about 55 businesses and commercial property owners on or near the corridor and gave the petition opposing BRT to the township.
Small businesses are leading the anti- BRT charge, but even heavier hitters like Brian Jones, co-owner of Playmakers, said he doesn’t support the project “the way it’s presented currently.”
Jones said the Lansing Chamber of Commerce announcement was a “big statement.”
“Most people are not against the idea of improved public transportation,” Jones said, “but the center loading — I have a hard time picturing how that’s going to work.”
The status quo is hardly ideal. Traffic experts come down harshly on the two-way left turn lanes now in place along Grand River Avenue from MSU to the Meridian Mall.
Experts coolly refer to the daily games of chicken that take place along two-way left turn lanes as an “unsafe density of conflict points.”
Parts of the Michigan-Grand River corridor carry 25,000 vehicles a day already, CATA says. When the average annual daily traffic on a major roadway is projected to exceed about 28,000 vehicles per day during the next 20 years, installing a raised median is “prudent,” according to a study by the Iowa State Institute for Transportation.
The study advises a rapidly growing suburb to “design or retrofit its arterial streets with raised medians in anticipation of high future traffic volumes.”
Responding to businesses’ objections to the BRT design, MDOT and TCRPC embarked in July on a more intensive study of traffic data, including left turn data, to refine the models used in developing the system.
Alexander said CATA is prepared to go back to the drawing board, “identify which businesses will be truly disadvantaged” and find a solution for them.
Small businesses aren’t the only ones with worries about the BRT. One major player — MSU — still has not taken a formal position on the project as a whole or its current design.
In a series of meetings and written exchanges going back to 2012, MSU President Lou Anna Simon and other MSU officials told CATA that shaving the meridian in Grand River by one third to make room for the eastbound bus lane would reduce “pedestrian sanctuary,” a key element of Grand River’s design as it runs along MSU.
It was hard for MSU administrators Mark Burnham and Satish Udpa to see how CATA’s goal of smoother traffic flow and faster bus service would be reconciled with “pedestrian safety…especially for persons with disabilities,” according to a Sept. 28, 2015 letter they wrote to Alexander.
MSU spokesman Jason Cody said last week that the university still has “significant concerns” over the safety of the thousands of students and staff members that swarm back and forth across Grand River every day.
Across Grand River from MSU, East Lansing has not taken a position either. East Lansing City Councilman Erik Altmann spent some time on the CATA BRT web site last week and said he found the details “sketchy.”
“They mention something about partnerships with local jurisdictions,” he said with alarm. “Who knows what that means?”
Talk of regional collaboration on CATA’s website reminds Altmann of the visiting aunt heading toward you with a wet kiss.
“You end up trying to wave away her perfume,” he said, laughing. “We are out of money in East Lansing.”
MSU has also expressed dread of the wet kiss from the aunt.
“The university continues to remain very concerned that it will be approached to contribute to the capital cost [of the BRT],” Burnham and Udpa wrote in the September 2015 letter. Besides being hit up for up-front money, the administrators worried that running the BRT will “result in additional costs to the university and our students.” The letter goes so far as to request a promise, in writing, from CATA that neither of those things would happen.
CATA’s Robison said that’s not going to happen. “Funding — from planning elements of the project to the procurement of the BRT — is already secured,” Robison said.
The back-and-forth between MSU and CATA has been prickly at times. In a letter dated June 13, 2014, Simon tried to school CATA CEO Sandy Draggoo in the art of compromise, suggesting that CATA scale back on the BRT project the same way MSU did when the feds pulled the rug from under a $1.2 billion Rare Isotope Accelerator and MSU came back with its Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, “a project that was half the cost but still delivered 80 percent of the science,” Simon wrote pointedly.
In response, CATA’s Alexander suggested that Simon, “when she’s recruiting people internationally to get people to work at FRIB, can use a silver standard BRT system as a bragging point.”
Pinch off or hold in?
Judging by the shift in language some of the principals in the debate have adopted in recent weeks, some of them are ready, if necessary, to pinch off the inflamed Meridian Township end of the proposed BRT line, and possibly even the mile-long stretch of Grand River adjacent to MSU. In a 15-minute conversation with Hannan, he used the phrase “Capitol-to-campus” four times.
“We consider the Capitol-to-campus connection the most significant part of the corridor,” Hannan said. “Anything beyond that would be gravy.”
But the battle of the BRT, all along the corridor, is just heating up. This month, a rival group of businesses have banded together in support of the BRT. Chris Buck, owner of Fluid Salon in Meridian Township, is still outnumbered when he speaks in support of BRT at township meetings, but he insists that it would be a “50-year mistake” to stop the project.
Buck said he “absolutely” moved his business to Grand River because of the flurry of activity, including the proposed BRT, along the corridor.
“We are on the verge of having a progressive look to a somewhat aging town,” Buck said. “The youth of our community is clamoring for connectivity. It’s not an easy process, but let’s at least be productive with our opposition, collaborate, fill in the dots before we lose this chip.”
Small Starts (Federal) $99M
State Match to Small Starts $25M
City of Lansing Surface Transportation (STP) funds & Match $3M
MDOT Grand River Resurfacing $3M
Congestion Mitigation Air Quality (Federal, state) $2M
Non-Motorized funds (federal, state) $1 M