Rapid Transit Would Bring Changes to Downtown East Lansing

Friday, March 11, 2016, 9:12 am
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: artist's rendition of a future BRT station

In East Lansing, CATA’s planned Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) would reduce the number of stops along Grand River Avenue, provide raised platforms for faster and easier boarding, reduce the greenway median by one-quarter in acreage, and reduce the number of westbound car lanes downtown by one, according to the current plan. An update on the plan was presented to East Lansing’s City Council this week by City Planning staff Lori Mullins and CATA’s Assistant Executive Director Debbie Alexander.

The BRT is planned as an 8.5-mile route along Michigan Avenue from the Capitol building in downtown Lansing, through downtown East Lansing on Grand River Avenue to the Meridian Mall. Except for a section of road in East Lansing from Bogue Street to Hagadorn Road, the BRT will drive in dedicated, separated lanes, one running eastbound and one westbound.

Right now in downtown East Lansing, Grand River Avenue has two lanes of traffic running eastbound (on the MSU side), and three lanes running westbound (on the commercial side). If the BRT happens, parts of the greenway median and one westbound auto lane will be eliminated to help create the new traffic pattern, as shown here, looking east:

As the image shows, the eastbound BRT lane will run next to the MSU-side sidewalk, with stations along that south side of the roadway. The westbound BRT lane will run along the median, with station stops built in the median. Mullins told Council the current plan preserves the left-turning lanes in East Lansing, which she said was important to downtown business owners and residents.

According to CATA's Marketing Director and Public Information Officer Laurie "Lolo" Robison, there are currently 3.02 acres of greenway median between where Grand River Avenue and Michigan Avenue meet (near Peoples Church) and Bogue Street. Robison says that greenway will be reduced by 0.75 acres, or about 25%, because of the BRT’s space needs. Mullins called this “a relatively significant loss.”

Trees will be removed from the median as necessary to build the project. CATA’s Alexander told Council the goal is to save as many trees as possible but otherwise to replace existing trees with trees and other plantings better suited to the project space. According to CATA's Robison, CATA has a "commitment to replace existing trees with considerably more than the number of trees that will need to be removed."

Currently the CATA bus that runs along the planned route has 45 stops in each direction, whereas the BRT will have only 27 stops. Some of the East Lansing stops on the proposed route are shown in this drawing:

Alexander said that the current “headway” time between buses on this route is about 9 minutes, and that will be reduced to 6 minutes with the BRT.

Each stop will consist of a raised platform at which riders will purchase tickets and board the double-length, articulated, hybrid buses. (This is not a streetcar, monorail, or lightrail. These will be CATA BRT buses that can and will run on regular streets at times.) Traffic lights may be timed to speed up bus travel, and where the buses have to cut back into regular traffic between Bogue Street and Hagadorn Road, the buses would get the first green light in order to get ahead of car traffic.

CATA’s Alexander says the BRT will “smooth” car traffic by getting buses out of the car lanes for most of the route. Mullins told Council this will also improve bicycle safety. 

The plan is currently estimated to cost about $133,000,000 for the 8.5-mile route, or about $15.6 million per mile. The goal is to fund the project primarily through federal grants, with additional financial help from local corporations with commercial property along the route, including Sparrow Hospital and Meijer.

Alexander told Council there will be additional operating costs to CATA if the BRT goes forward, but she says CATA can handle the costs in the current five-year-plan without any change in revenue. Mayor Mark Meadows noted there would be “no cost to the City of East Lansing for this project,” to which Alexander replied, “Not for building of the project.” She said CATA would continue to levy the existing millage (property tax).

I asked Alexander in a follow-up email interview whether she anticipates asking for a new millage (tax) to support the BRT. She responded that she does not anticipate doing so, and that, “CATA is very hopeful that the BRT will generate more millage tax revenue for all taxing entities. If the BRT performs like others have in other cities, and the new development happens including the property values increase, then so should the millage revenue.”

In other words, CATA expects substantial positive economic development to occur because of the BRT, such that property values will increase and tax revenues will also increase, including the tax East Lansing property owners currently pay to CATA as part of their property taxes.

Because the State of Michigan (and not the City of East Lansing) owns Michigan Avenue and Grand River Avenue, East Lansing has no real control over the BRT, and can only request that CATA consider certain options.

See our separate report on the issue of bicycles as it relates to the BRT plan.

 

You can read Lori Mullin’s memo on the updated plan and see the slide presentation.

Note: On March 14, CATA provided a corrected map of planned East Lansing BRT stops; the previous version did not include the Brookfield Drive stop, so CATA supplied us a new map, which we have now inserted. CATA also provided a correction on the amount of median that will be lost, so that figure has been corrected in this article and we added Robison's statement about commitment to tree replacement.