CATA Presents Possible Revisions to BRT Plan

Tuesday, October 4, 2016, 4:56 pm
Ann Nichols

It was a capacity crowd yesterday as engineers representing the Lansing-based Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) explained several new possibilities for the proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project at the East Lansing Hannah Community Center. “This is a listening session,” said moderator Kelly Rossman-McKinney, opening the first of three such sessions to take place this week, each scheduled to last one hour.

After a brief introduction, AECOM engineers outlined five new ideas for what the BRT might look like, based largely on the concerns expressed by members of the three communities most affected by the plan: Meridian Township, East Lansing, and Lansing.

The original BRT plan (as of March 2016) involved running buses in dedicated lanes for the 8.5 miles from Lansing’s Capitol Building to the Meridian Mall, including through downtown East Lansing along Grand River Avenue. Under that plan, the overall number of stops would have been reduced along what is now the #1 bus route, and the number of lanes available to cars in various places would also have been reduced. East Lansing would, under this plan, have lost about twenty-five percent of its green median space.

The original plan has also called for the addition of a long median along Grand River Avenue in Meridian Township, with the BRT buses running alongside the center median, with stations in the median.

Engineer Mike DeVries spoke of the possibility that the BRT line would terminate at a proposed station in the Okemos Meijer parking lot with a 60-car park-and-ride lot. Having a station and park-and-ride lot at Meijer are ideas rather than firm plans, and serve as an attempt to address concerns about the increased distance riders would have to travel from the front of the store to a stop in the center of Grand River Avenue. CATA is still “lobbying” Meijer and other business owners to work with them on BRT modifications.

The engineers acknowledged that, compared to the current #1 bus route, this BRT plan “does require folks to travel further” to make a turn if they are driving their car along the route. Additionally, car drivers would have to go to a “signalized intersection” and turn around rather than turning left into certain places, because of the added length to the median along Grand River Avenue, particularly in Meridian Township. The engineers named signalized pedestrian crossings, ADA-compliant intersections, and improved traffic flow as benefits of this plan.

In meetings with the public, the most commonly expressed concerns about the original BRT plan have included the added difficulty for cars making left turns, the reduced number of bus stops, the elimination of the Frandor stop, potential problems with emergency vehicle access to side streets, and the new Okemos Meijer and Meridian Mall stops requiring a much longer walk than current stops. Based on these, and other considerations, the AECOM engineers came up with five new ideas, all of which are very much “ideas” rather than concrete plans at this point.

Plan One would eliminate the addition of a median to Grand River Avenue in Meridian Township. It would instead have streetside-running buses in Meridian Township starting at the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Hagadorn Road, allowing a two-way center turn lane from that point on. This would increase car mobility in Meridian Township, but the engineers cautioned that “It does come at a cost” because the road has to be widened to accommodate the side-running lanes.

The cost of construction goes up $8-13 million with this plan, and the need for property acquisition along Grand River could make it higher; those property acquisition costs might include buying privately owned land along both sides of Grand River Avenue, including driveways that might have to be reduced, combined, or eliminated. Those costs are “not vetted” as of last night’s meeting.

The cost of operations and maintenance (O&M) would increase approximately $2.77 million with this plan, and ridership is not projected to change. There are also safety issues because cars going in or out of a driveway on Grand River would have to cross the side bus lanes, and would have to get into “bus only” lane to turn right, which might cause congestion.

Plan Two proposes the BRT goes to Hagadorn Road, but at that point, instead of side-running lanes, there would be mixed-traffic lanes, with buses in the lanes with vehicles from Hagadorn Road to Marsh Road. Naming negatives of this plan, AECOM engineers said the number of buses would rise from fifteen to sixteen because it’s less efficient to run buses with traffic.

On the positive side, the engineers cited reduced construction costs (as low as $125-130 million), capital cost reduction, and left turns allowed east of Hagadorn Road. They listed more negatives, though, including the highest O&M of any of the five plans because of the need for more buses, a reduction in projected ridership, greater environmental impact, more likelihood of delay, no improvement in signalized crossings for pedestrians, and a possible need to consolidate driveways along Grand River Avenue.

Plan Three is the first of three variations on a “Capitol to Campus” theme. This plan shortens the BRT route, which would stop at Delta Street in East Lansing (about 2 blocks west of Abbot Road), where there would be a transfer station allowing riders to get on a different bus and continue east on Route 1. To access this station, buses coming east on Michigan Avenue would turn left onto Delta Street and then right on Grand River Avenue to travel westbound back to Lansing. The parcel of land where a station might be built is “very small” according to the engineers, and “having a transfer station would be very difficult” and might mean CATA has to “purchase a little more land.”

BRT frequency remains the same with this plan, and reducing the route to this 4.8-mile stretch means capital costs go down, although the (presently unknown) cost of land acquisition is an issue. The annual O&M cost is projected at $2.3-2.6 million, and ridership would likely go down, but this plan addresses many public concerns, including impact to the median.

Plan Four proposes the BRT run east to Abbot Road in dedicated lanes, and then buses would run in mixed traffic beginning at a station in the pullout area in front of The Broad Museum. At that station, BRT buses could turn around to head back to Lansing, and riders could transfer to a Route 1 bus and continue heading east.

The BRT portion of this plan is little longer than the previous route, and construction cost is estimated at $100-105 million with an O&M of $2.3 – 2.6 million. The major issue with this plan is coordinating with MSU, which has not so far been publically receptive to the BRT concept.

Plan Five would terminate east of Abbot Road, where the buses would go north on Charles Street and make a loop on Albert Avenue and Division Street to reverse back towards downtown Lansing. The parallel parking spaces in that general area were originally developed by CATA and could be repurposed for bus use. The engineers said that there would “be traffic impact” running big buses on narrow East Lansing streets, which would probably necessitate removing a lane so buses would have sufficient enough turning radius. Making such changes would require CATA “to work with City of East Lansing to fine tune the details of operation.”

This plan could be completed sooner than the lengthier routes, would have lower O&M costs, and would have no impact on East Lansing’s medians. Additionally, the engineers say that “the signal at Division and Grand River is already perfect for the operations that would have to occur.”

The formal presentation ended at 6:17 p.m., and moderator Rossman-McKinney made it clear that the event would end at 6:30 p.m., as planned. There was some audible displeasure with the limited time available for questions, but Rossman-McKinney encouraged those present to complete question cards and leave them with CATA staff who would post answers on their site “in about a week.”

One spoken question involved the impact of a raised, center platform on emergency vehicle access to side streets. The response was that the engineers have spoken to first responders, who don’t see anything about the current plan “as a non-starter,” although “they wanted to continue the conversation’ and wanted mountable curbs in areas where there are no trees or areas where the road is flat.”

One man in the audience remarked that the plans presented made many assumptions, including “assuming MSU will help, assuming the City of East Lansing will help,” and that there is “no proof that will happen.” He added that “the people who live here” should have an opportunity to vote on it, a statement which was met with some applause.

Another person’s question involved where bikes could travel under the original plan, the answer to which was that bikes (and pedestrians) would travel in the median.

The final audience question asked, “What type of discussions are happening between the City of East Lansing and CATA, regarding aesthetics and economic concerns?”

To this, CATA’s Assistant Executive Director Debbie Alexander responded, “that is my greatest concern,” and added that she was “talking regularly to East Lansing.” She confirmed that the “current plan takes about a quarter of the median, but will add green in Lansing.”

This presentation will be repeated on Tuesday, October 4, at the Allen Neighborhood Center (1611 E. Kalamazoo Street in Lansing), from 6:30-7:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 5, at the Okemos Masonic Center (2175 Hamilton Road in Okemos) from 6:00-7:00 p.m. There will also be a formal public hearing on the project, although no date has yet been set.

Maps of the five “ideas” were not made available at last night’s meeting, and are not yet on CATA’s website. They will be posted on the site, and we will update this article with links as soon as the maps are available.

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