The pros & cons of the brt proposal

Patty McPhee owns a Meridian Township commercial cleaning business nowhere near a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) route through greater Lansing. But that hasn’t quelled her anxiety over the Capital Area Transportation Authority plan, to which she is actively opposed.

“I don’t have blood, sweat and tears in this,” she said after attending a recent community BRT meeting. “I don’t want to see the local businesses in my community suffer because of this legacy project that has no use or purpose in this community.”

Proponents disagree, believing an express bus line along 8.5 miles of Michigan and Grand River avenues will jump-start new businesses and housing, attract millennials and present a modern, attractive alternative to driving cars.

“It’s pretty evident BRT, in other places where it’s done, sparks new investment and job creation,” said Randy Hannan, chief of staff to Lansing Mayor, Virg Bernero, who supports the BRT concept in general.

“We’re building an infrastructure for the future, added Bob Trezise, president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership. “And the belief is that the future is about connecting our city and [Michigan State] University in that corridor, in a dense, walkable fashion.”

Others fear the BRT will divert drivers and customers for existing route merchants, at costs both figurative and literal. BRT construction is pegged around $130 million, 80 percent of which is eligible for federal grants, according to CATA’s website.

“The concerns for my CEOs is, do the costs dramatically outweigh the benefits?” said Trezise. While Trezise sits as LEAP’s president and CEO, LEAP itself has no position on BRT.

CATA Assistant Executive Director Debbie Alexander argued in an email that BRT is worth it, saying, “CATA believes these concerns have been addressed by the project. The project delivers on concerns the businesses stress such as increased congestion, diversions and stagnant business growth. Change is challenging!”

Alexander noted when Cooley Law School Stadium was being proposed and how businesses were concerned it would put them out of business.

“Today, the area around the stadium is flourishing and the stadium brought a wonderful asset into our community,” Alexander said.

BRT systems mimic light rail lines with infrequent station stops replacing frequent curbside pick-ups, making travel times competitive with autos. Replacing train tracks would be bus-only lanes barred to all other traffic except emergency responders.

In promotional materials, CATA claims BRT will improve adjacent property values, create $4 in investment for every $1 spent on BRT, reduce traffic congestion and crashes and nearly double route ridership (now nearly 7,000 daily riders) over 20 years.

“We’ve seen 50 percent, 100 percent increases [in ridership],” said Dennis Hinebaugh, director of the University of South Florida’s National BRT Institute and an MSU alumnus.

According to a 2015 University of Utah study of BRT systems nationwide, it found increases in new office space and evidence of an “office rent premium” within a half-mile of most BRT routes.

“We conclude that, on the whole, BRT systems are associated with positive development and job location outcomes, though not necessarily population or housing outcomes,” the study said.

Attractive to developers is “the permanence of the change … they know they have a high-speed, quality solution as opposed to a regular bus line” that can easily be rerouted, Hinebaugh said.

Jeff Neilson, who owns five Lansing-area auto repair shops, including two along the corridor, fears construction will lead commuters to avoid the route and never return due to the traffic pattern changes.

“They want to risk the existing infrastructure and business corridor in Meridian Township in the hopes that other things will be built bigger and better around it,” Neilson said.

A U.S. Federal Transit Administration study said, “If the creation of exclusive bus lanes reduces the number of lanes available for other traffic then in the short term the possibility of increased congestion on the roadways is raised … mobility on alternate routes may deteriorate, as drivers seek ways to avoid roads with exclusive bus lanes.”

Jen Costigan, co-owner of the Green Door, said her Michigan Avenue bar and grill has already lost parking from adjacent new development: “If this goes through, we’ll lose our street parking. It’s kind of another hit.”

Alexander downplayed those concerns.

“The traffic modeling conducted by the traffic engineers shows an improvement in traffic patterns” as a result of the changes, she said in her email. “Thus, no diversions as a result of the project are anticipated.”

Also, Alexander claimed the single lanes on Michigan “will more than sufficiently accommodate traffic demands in the downtown area through year 2035” and “there is sufficient unused parking inventory in the parking system” along the route.

Officials at MSU, Sparrow Hospital and Meridian Mall said they are taking “wait and see” approaches, though MSU is concerned about whether the BRT plan is pedestrian-friendly.

“You’re making a decision today that’s probably going to have a greater impact over the next 10 to 20 years. That’s difficult for people to see,” said Tim Daman, Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. The chamber opposes the current BRT plan.

There is worry over CATA’s insistence at a recent public hearing that it can act unilaterally on BRT, regardless of public buy-in.

“You have this lack of accountability, transparency, the leadership throughout the process, that’s hindering the progress for CATA,” said Daman. “When they tell the media, ‘our board has the authority’ [to do this project] … that’s not the right message to send to the taxpayers of Ingham County.”

But according to Alexander, “CATA has been encouraging the community leaders to join us by taking actions to set up an environment to capitalize on this change.”

There is also the issue of how to pay for increased operating costs. At an October hearing CATA executive director and CEO Sandy Draggoo said they are “within our five-year plan” but “I can never say that there will never be a millage increase, whether a BRT is put in or not.”

CATA is considering modifications, including limiting BRT service to a “capitol to campus” route between the downtowns of Lansing and East Lansing, which the chamber prefers.

Hinebaugh said other compromises exist, like “business access lanes” where “during a certain time of day, you’d allow the lanes to be open for left turns or parking.”

Trezise said resistance to change is “50 percent of the battle” over BRT, but the other 50 percent “is the reality that the road itself is literally crumbling when we’re talking about putting all these bells and whistles on that road. Michigan Avenue is a disgrace as a road itself.”

“That’s very tough to overcome, because it’s true,” Trezise said, adding he is “very hopeful” a compromise can be reached in time.

Still, Alexander and other BRT supporters stand by the value that BRT could bring to the community.

“Does the community really want to accomplish the vision they have set out to revitalize this corridor… to attract the next generation of workers and leaders? If so, change is required [more than just repaving the roadway] and big steps like the BRT are necessary to have the infrastructure to facilitate this change.”

Alexander said CATA has submitted the project design to federal authorities and request the project be funded during the 2018 federal fiscal year, which begins in October of 2017.

“Getting to the decision is a process, not an event,” said Alexander. “This takes time, communication and cooperation.”

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Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija

Omar Sofradzija is an adjunct journalism instructor at Michigan State University. Prior to that, he was a columnist and reporter at the Las Vegas (Nev.) Review-Journal, where he covered the development and launch of that city's Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) bus rapid transit system and the Las Vegas Monorail.

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