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Don't expect a high-speed transit system for years

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Don't expect a high-speed transit system for years

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

By Jim Harger

The Grand Rapids Press

A high-speed commuter ride into downtown Grand Rapids is at least a decade away.

When it finally comes, you are likely to step aboard an "enhanced bus" or a streetcar -- not a light rail or commuter rail system, said Peter Varga of the "Great Transit Grand Tomorrows" study into the area's long-term transit needs.

"You must be patient," Varga, director of the Interurban Transit Partnership, told Grand Rapids city commissioners Tuesday.

A new high-capacity transit system most likely will connect downtown Grand Rapids to either the Gerald R. Ford International Airport or run south along the U.S. 131 corridor to 68th Street in Byron Township.

The new systems, which could carry between 4,600 and 6,600 riders a week, are likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars in federal, state and local dollars, Varga said.

An enhanced bus system, with larger vehicles that make fewer stops and override traffic signals, would cost between $84 million and $101 million. A streetcar system that ran along city streets could cost between $206 million to $258 million.

Light rail or commuter rail systems would cost even more, especially if they displace existing highway or railroad right-of-ways, according to the study. Placing a light rail system along U.S. 131's right-of-way could cost up to $1.6 billion, said Lisa Ives, the study's project manager.

After sorting through eight types of mass transit options and 10 possible routes, Varga and Ives asked city commissioners to give their blessing to the two options and two transit corridors on which they have settled. The commission is expected to act on the request next week.

Ultimately, the planners will settle on a single option, which they will submit to the Federal Transit Administration for 50 percent of the project's funding. The rest will come from state and local sources, Varga said.

Varga said the proposal will compete with other mid-sized cities on the basis of how many riders will be served. "It's a highly competitive process," he said. "Either you have the numbers or you don't."

Ives said the study recommends enhanced buses or streetcars because they will serve more neighborhoods, shopping areas and industrial centers. They recommended the routes to the south or southeast of the downtown area for the same reasons.

Both plans call for the system to terminate at the downtown area, Ives said. "Go downtown or lose 50 percent of the ridership," she said.

Second Ward Commissioner Rick Tormala questioned the study's emphasis on routes south or southeast from the downtown area. He suggested the study group consider a route to the Rivertown Crossings shopping center.

Although the two suggested routes would serve the most passengers, future routes would be extended along corridors to other growth areas, Varga said.

"You have to start somewhere," he said.

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