Bus Rapid Transit Controversial in Meridian Township

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Tuesday, May 17, 2016, 8:07 am
Alice Dreger

Above: A rapid bus system in downtown Chicago, with photo showing a raised station platform and dedicated bus lane, similar to what CATA is proposing for its Bus Rapid Transit (BRT).

With East Lansing’s Commission on the Environment set to get an update on plans for CATA’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on June 20, some visible opposition to the project has sprung up in Meridian Township. Some Meridian business owners have expressed concerns about the project limiting customer access to their businesses; at a March 22 meeting in Meridian Township about the BRT, Whole Foods’ manager said “that she would not have opened a store in Okemos if she knew about the BRT system,” according to MSU journalism student Riley James. Meanwhile, some residents have raised questions about the necessity and cost of the project.

The BRT project, if built, will involve dedicated bus-only lanes running east and west down Michigan Avenue and Grand River Avenue all the way from the Lansing Capitol to the Meridian Mall (aside from one section in East Lansing where the buses will run with car traffic), essentially the same route currently covered by the #1 CATA bus. The number of bus stops along that route will be reduced, travel time speeded up, and raised platforms provided for faster and more disability-accessible loading and unloading.

The current cost estimate is about $133,000,000, or about $16 million per mile, with plans to have about 80% of it funded by federal taxpayer dollars. The rest would be funded by state and local dollars, including taxes and corporate sponsorships.

To date in East Lansing there has not been opposition nearly as vocal as in Meridian Township, although as we reported, bicyclists here have been raising some concerns. The plan calls for eliminating about 25% of East Lansing’s green-space median along Grand River and reducing auto traffic in downtown East Lansing by one lane westbound.

According to CATA, the project is necessary because of the steadily increasing traffic along the Michigan Avenue/Grand River Avenue corridor. The BRT would reduce the bus-car jockeying that now occurs, smoothing traffic flow, according to CATA’s traffic engineers. CATA believes it would also lead to substantial economic development along the pathway and provide a good transportation option for those living along the corridor, including seniors.

Earlier this month, I spoke with Julie Brixie, Meridian Township Treasurer and one of Meridian’s representatives to CATA, about the project. (She spoke to me in the latter capacity only, referring me to CATA for its official perspective.) According to Brixie, “The whole point of the BRT is to get more people riding public transit and more cars off the roads because of congestion and overcrowding. The BRT will meet the need of transporting people through the corridor and provide more capacity on both the road and the buses, and will smooth the traffic flow on the Grand River Avenue corridor.”

In Meridian Township along Grand River Avenue, the BRT would run along lanes surrounding a center median which would be built and landscaped in an effort to make the long strip more attractive. Brixie says the center-lane BRT design for Meridian Township will create a much safer situation for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, including those using the bus. She says the center-running bus with an attractive landscaped median will also help provide a sense of place, which is something residents of Meridian Township sought when they participated in design discussions.

Also according to Brixie, the Grand River Avenue traffic model as it currently exists “cannot sustain what we are building in the region and planning to build over the next 25 years. That’s why we need to improve public transit.”

Brixie raised a concern that some of the information being distributed by opponents of the BRT is factually incorrect. An unsigned letter has been circulated around Meridian Township, for example, claiming that the project is estimated to cost between $200 and $500 million and that traffic will get much worse because of it. Brixie referred me to CATA’s FAQ for accurate information. The letter also objected to what the project will do to traffic flow and to the use of public funds for this project when many roads, bridges, and schools need repair.

Brixie told me that one theme among Meridian Township opponents of the BRT has been that #1 CATA bus is generally empty in Meridian Township and that “our residents don’t ride the bus.” But she says that is a misconception. I asked CATA representative Lolo Robison how the numbers shake out for East Lansing and Meridian ridership when MSU is in spring and fall semester sessions versus during the summer months.

According to Robison, CATA’s data shows that when MSU is in session, about one-third of all Route #1 rides include someone boarding or exiting the bus in East Lansing. When MSU is not in session, about 22% of all Route #1 boarding/deboarding happens in East Lansing, Whether MSU is in session or not, about 16-19% of all Route 1 boarding/deboarding occurs in Meridian Township. From October 2014 to September 2015, Route 1 in its entirety varied from 113,000 to 195,000 rides per month, or about 3,700 to 6,500 rides per day.

According to CATA’s Robison, “The BRT project brings federal and state public transportation dollars to the region, and will improve the roadway to provide for the BRT lanes. This means that MDOT and the City of Lansing will not have to find other roadway funds for this portion of the corridor.”

She suggests the public funding is a good investment: “The BRT project is an opportunity to bring federal funding back to Michigan and to use it to improve the roads while building the dedicated bus lanes. If not awarded to CATA, these funds will be forfeited and awarded to another community, specifically for major infrastructure projects such as light rail, streetcar and BRT.”


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