By next August, 16 new accordion-style buses will begin connecting the booming areas of downtown Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University’s Allendale campus in Ottawa County, the state’s fastest-growing county.
The buses, unveiled on Monday during a ceremonial kickoff event, were purchased as part of the Laker Line bus rapid transit (BRT) route. The $70 million, 13-mile route operates similar to light-rail trains, with dedicated lanes and traffic signal priority, but with buses using roads and negating the need for more expensive train tracks. The system also includes raised platforms and pre-boarding fare payment, aimed at speeding up the boarding process.
Spearheaded by The Rapid, West Michigan’s main transit operator, the Laker Line will be the second BRT route both in the region and in the state.
The route has been in planning for about five years and will primarily serve GVSU students commuting between the two main campuses. Business leaders in West Michigan say the route also helps to better connect the West Michigan region and diminishes the need for future road building and maintenance along heavy traffic corridors.
“If you look at the city of Walker, that [buses will] drive through, if you look at the city of Allendale, where it terminates, those are two of the fastest growing communities that we have in West Michigan,” said Tim Mroz, vice president of strategic initiatives with The Right Place Inc., a West Michigan business and economic development organization.
“So any opportunity that you have to make those connections and not build more lane miles … is a good thing,” Mroz told the Advance. “It’s solutions like this that are going to be needed, not building more lane miles.”
While construction on new platform stations along the route has been ongoing, the ceremonial groundbreaking on Monday comes just months after the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan released a report calling for a paradigm shift in how the state approaches transit needs.
As West Michigan prepares its second BRT route, Southeast Michigan has struggled to make regional transit a priority for many suburban residents, particularly in Oakland and Macomb counties, as the Advance has previously reported.
The March study from the Livonia-based CRC says the state needs to treat transit as a “public utility,” rather than as a “social welfare program.”
“When you look at successful places, [transit] is not just a service for the poor and it’s not just a service for the carless,” CRC President Eric Lupher told the Advance in March. “It’s a choice. People want to use that.”
In some ways, the Laker Line project seems to build upon that notion. Tom Haas, president of GVSU and a New York City native, said during the event on Monday that he’s seeing more people wanting to use transit and that the accessibility it offers is a priority for many of his students.
Funding for the project comes from a wide variety of stakeholders, including a grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), money from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and operational support from GVSU, whose students will make up the majority of riders.
That “public-private partnership” is what helped get U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) on board as a cheerleader for the project. The conservative Ottawa County lawmaker and former state representative sent a letter of support for the Laker Line to the FTA back in 2017 when federal funding was being held up.
Those various partnerships are what “made it way more easy for me to go and advocate for this,” Huizenga told the Advance in an interview on Monday, noting that he plans to explore that model when other requests for transit dollars come in.
“Here in West Michigan, we’ve got a unique culture, an expectation of public-private partnerships, and having community buy-in and community participation,” he said. “And, you know, Grand Valley is I just think a great model to talk about when we’re back in Washington D.C.”
Kelley Brookins, the FTA’s regional administrator, appears to agree.
“New jobs, more economic development, more sustainable communities, are the kinds of benefits our [communities] see when they invest in transportation,” Brookins said. “You have a great example for the future right here in Grand Rapids.”
While Huizenga has championed the Laker Line project and several other elected officials showed up Monday, noticeably absent was U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.), whose district encompasses much of Grand Rapids and its suburbs.
Huizenga declined to comment on Monday when asked about the firestorm Amash has found himself in since becoming the only Republican member of Congress to call for President Donald Trump’s impeachment.
Amash’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday as to whether the libertarian-leaning congressman supports the Laker Line project in concept. In the past, however, Amash has generally said the federal government shouldn’t be involved in such projects.
“Federal tax dollars should be spent on things that are national in scope,” Amash told West Michigan business newspaper MiBiz in 2016.
“That’s how the framers of the Constitution designed the system,” he said. “They didn’t expect the federal government to be involved in local projects. That’s for locals to be involved in. It’s really for the private sector, but it definitely should be at the local or state level.”