According to data from The Rapid, the average speed of the new Silver Line bus rapid transit (BRT) route in Grand Rapids will be about 17 miles per hour. Peter Varga, the head of The Rapid bus system, says that the speed will be about 22 miles per hour along Division and about 10 miles per hour on the rest of its route. Despite the usage of the term bus “rapid” transit, this is only slightly faster than the average bus that The Rapid operates, and is slower than about a quarter of its existing routes.
Rapid Silver Line
On April 22, 2009 the Rapid made a route change to its proposed Silver Line less than two weeks before the election with little fanfare or explanation. The Silver Line’s proposed route to the medical mile connecting with Michigan Avenue was suddenly adjusted from Lafayette Avenue to Ransom. The new route would bypass the newly completed Grand Valley Health Sciences Building.
At the time the Grand Rapids Press vaguely reported the following: “Now Rapid staffers are exploring the possibility of stops near Wealthy Street and Division near Logan, and considering whether the current plan to use Lafayette Avenue through Heritage Hill is the best way to access Michigan Street NE.”
The question though, was why after years of planning did the Silver Line’s route change right before voters were expected to go to the polls?
The answer is one of back room deals, powerful political forces within the city of Grand Rapids, and a total commitment by the mayor of Grand Rapids, a county commissioner, and the leadership at the Rapid to push forth their agenda of implementing the Silver Line, even if democratic processes had to be circumvented.
The Kent County Kent County Taxpayers Alliance received documents from a curious citizen who issued a Freedom of Information Act request for communications from Mayor Heartwell, Rapid CEO Peter Varga, County Commissioner Jim Talen, and others that explain the extraordinary lengths taken to placate a powerful Grand Rapids neighborhood association that had taken the Silver Line millage hostage.
The Heritage Hill Association (HHA) is an influential neighborhood in the city of Grand Rapids because of its residents and its unique status as an historical neighborhood. That designation gives it unique ‘veto’ privileges for projects that are planned either in or through the neighborhood. According to emails obtained, the HHA was supportive of the transit system so long as it did not traverse their neighborhood. The HHA cited safety, vibration, congestion, and noise as reasons for their opposition. Due to those concerns, the HHA said that, if unchanged, it would oppose the millage and that it had to be altered before the election. City commissioner Rosalyn Bliss accurately noted that the HHA had the power to veto the entire project even if it passed at the polls.
Mayor Heartwell, Peter Varga, and commissioner Talen quickly went to work in an attempt to mollify the association. They did this even though, according to Grand Rapids city commissioner Rosalyn Bliss, GVSU was “honked off” that their facility would be bypassed by the new bus route. They then passed a resolution written by the Heritage Hill Association that simply mentioned that the planning board should look at more considerations with the routing of the Silver Line and make a decision right away.
Of course, the only input was from one neighborhood association that dictated a completely revised route of a major millage proposal before six cities. The reasons for the change were not made public to anyone outside of this small group of insiders and certainly not to anyone outside of the city of Grand Rapids. Afterwards, Mayor Heartwell stated in an email that the process was “a very healthy exercise in democracy.”
KCTA spokesman Eric Larson had this to say about the recent revelations, “The very purpose of our county-wide organization is to promote government transparency and the efficient use of taxpayer dollars. This episode with how one Grand Rapids neighborhood behind the scenes held the mayor, a county commissioner, GVSU, and the Rapid staff at hostage without allowing any input or explanation for anyone in the outlying cities is outrageous.”
“One of the major complaints we hear from people in the cities of Walker, Grandville, Wyoming, Kentwood, and East Grand Rapids is that the Rapid system is one which serves primarily the city of Grand Rapids and that Grand Rapids dictates the terms. Many citizens feel that the outlying cities are simply viewed as a tax base by Grand Rapids and that the real political power of the unelected Rapid board lies downtown.”
“During the Friends of Transit kick-off campaign, Mayor Heartwell described those who opposed the millage and expansion of the Rapid as ‘anti-community.’ Yet, he felt that the back-room deals he helped orchestrate are an exercise in democracy. We cannot help but think that the Mayor and his cohorts view the majority of voters who opposed the Silver Line in 2009 in disdain while they work behind the scenes to circumvent a transparent and democratic government.”
For a more complete time line and copies of all the relevant emails, please visit this link.
When it comes to the battle over the upcoming bus tax hike on the ballot May 3rd in the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, and Grandville the arguments have become heated. The pro-millage Friends of Transit and their opposition, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, have been presenting differing visions of the 31% bus tax hike and the performance of the Rapid.
One very common argument the Friends of Transit makes is questioning why KCTA spokesman Dr. Eric Larson is weighing in on the conversation at all since he is a resident of Cascade Township and will not have the opportunity to vote on the millage question. They also point to the benefits of an expansive public transit system that encourages people to stay downtown and shun urban sprawl. They argue that Grand Rapids must have a large public transportation system to be a vibrant town.
This value, however, runs counter to the actions of Rapid CEO Peter Varga. Mr. Varga has been heading the Rapid for 13 years and moved to Belmont in March of 2010. Mr. Varga, who points to the many benefits of the bus system, now lives nearly five miles from the nearest bus stop according to the Rapid’s own trip planner.
“We do not begrudge Mr. Varga’s decision to move to the country nor do we particularly care that he lives so far from the nearest bus stop,” said KCTA spokesman Larson. “However, we find the attacks on me from the Friends of Transit to be hypocritical when their chief executive officer lives more than twice as far away from a stop as me. He contributes financially to the campaign and often points out the advantages of the bus system when he is not in the voting district either.”
“I speak for our organization which covers the entire county with the bulk of its citizens and our volunteers living in the taxing authority. Our volunteer coordinator lives in Kentwood in Bailey’s Grove but is still nearly two miles from the nearest bus stop. Our project manager lives in downtown Grand Rapids and is about ten feet from the nearest stop. Our mission is simply to provide voters with transparency of the Rapid’s operations and the details on their proposals, like the Silver Line, so that voters can make informed decisions on election day.”
In time for Earth Week, an analysis of the The Rapid’s 2009 services determined that the bus system contributed over seven millions pounds of extra carbon dioxide to the environment than would have been produced if all of The Rapid’s bus passengers had been transported in cars. This startling calculation, independently verified, shows that because of the low ridership on Rapid buses, combined with the low gas mileage of the Rapid’s large buses,The Rapid does not in any way reduce pollution.
In fact, the analysis shows that the buses produce even more carbon dioxide than people who use SUVs. The production of carbon dioxide with vehicles is entirely dependent with the amount of fuel consumed. The comparison is made by determining the average amount of fuel used to transport one passenger one mile and then comparing the different modes of transportation.
A senior fellow specializing in transportation policy at the Cato Institute, Randal O’Toole independently verified the calculations made by the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance. KCTA has been the lead opposition group to the upcoming May 3rd 31% bus tax increase. The group has gotten several prominent elected officials to oppose the millage including a Kentwood city commissioner, three county commissioners, and two local state legislators.
KCTA spokesman Eric Larson had this to say about the new findings, “One of the signature missions of a public transit system is to conserve resources and move people around town efficiently and quickly, while reducing pollution. The analysis today simply points out what we have been saying for months now: the buses are not full enough. Not only is it costly but it contributes to pollution and wastes fuel. Clearly, The Rapid fails to deliver these which is why we have been advocating a ‘no’ vote until they begin running the bus system sensibly.”
“Our analysis shows that their van service delivers on that promise to protect the environment,” continued Larson. “It consumes less fuel and moves people around town inexpensively. Unfortunately, the van service is a miniscule portion of The Rapid system. Instead, The Rapid touts its hybrid buses which are still worse than SUVs because their average fuel mileage is only 0.68 mpg better than the conventional buses. As stewards of tax dollars, we can only hope The Rapid takes an inward look at its operations and rethinks the way it operates.”
The Rapid’s buses produced 25,079,872 pounds of carbon dioxide annually which was 40% more than if the people had been transported using passenger cars. Had all of those riders instead used passenger cars or SUVs, they would have produced 17,754,939 and 18,360,146 pounds of carbon dioxide respectively. Part of the explanation for the large discrepancy is the fact that automobiles’ fuel efficiency has improved dramatically over the last forty years while bus efficiency has actually diminished.
To view the full report along with supporting calculations and links to source data, please see the posting at the ITP Watch web site.
Today Jeff Steinport, co-founder of the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance and manager of the group’s ITP Watch project, filed a Freedom of Information Act appeal with Don Lawless, the chairman of the Interurban Transit Partnership board (also known as The Rapid). Steinport was charged $450 for a basic FOIA request which he states is, “vindictive and malicious and an example of the Rapid’s contempt for its taxpayers.”
The original FOIA request from Steinport asked for information on the Rapid’s ridership on a per-route basis, the amount the Rapid spends with several companies, and more detail on the proposed Silver Line bus route, which is again before voters in the May 3rd election. The Rapid is requesting a 31% property tax increase on May 3 with much of the new tax increase going to fund the Silver Line bus route which voters rejected in 2009 in four of the six cities.
Steinport made a request for a fee waiver because he believed the information he sought was in the public’s interest especially in light of the upcoming millage request. The Rapid denied the fee waiver request and proceeded to send him nearly 1,700 pages of printouts and a bill for $450.
“All government agencies have a procedure where they notify the FOIA requester that the cost will be over $50, yet the Rapid did not do this, contrary to their own practices,” said Jeff Steinport. “In fact, The Rapid is sending a message to taxpayers that they’d better not ask how The Rapid spends their money, and if they do, The Rapid will slap them with a bill for hundreds of dollars just for asking.”
Steinport believes that he was specifically singled out by the Rapid because it was graded the least transparent government entity in Kent County after a survey by KCFFR showed how little information it made available online. The Rapid received a transparency score of “D-“, a result of virtually no financial or operational data being available to the public.
Said Steinport, “The appeal filed today demonstrates how The Rapid violates both the spirit and letter of state law and how The Rapid fears public disclosure of its spending and operations. Taxpayers in Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Walker, Wyoming, and Grandville need to ask themselves if a government agency which consistently misleads the public and shows contempt for taxpayers deserves more money.”
The entire Freedom of Information Act appeal and more detail on The Rapid’s operations are available on our ITP Watch web site at www.ITPWatch.org.
The Grand Rapids Press ran an article yesterday regarding our Freedom of Information Act Request to The Rapid on the subject of their hybrid buses. The Rapid’s FOIA response resulted in them admitting that their half a million dollar hybrid buses are only getting 0.65 miles per gallon more than traditional buses. These hybrid buses cost $220,000 more than a traditional bus. The Rapid claims in the article that they have no record of our request, implying that our information is wrong.
Please see our article at the ITP Watch web site, which links to a copy of the actual FOIA response from The Rapid, for all to read. Why is The Rapid denying their own documents? As you’ll see, The Rapid is lying and trying to cover this information up.
The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance has again organized to oppose the ITP’s newest tax hike this May 3rd in the cities of Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Walker, Wyoming, and Kentwood. KCTA helped successfully defeat the last tax hike in 2009 featuring the Silverline. Not only will the ITP tax hike resurrect the Silverline but it also includes funding for the purchase of more hybrid buses.
In April of 2007, The Rapid purchased two hybrid-electric buses with great fanfare. They claimed that these buses, at a cost of $510,000 each (compared to about $290,000 for a regular bus) would reduce pollution and double the miles per gallon of a regular bus. According to an article in the Grand Rapids Press on April 24, 2007:
“Rapid officials expect the new buses will get 8 to 10 miles per gallon on routes with frequent stops.”
The Rapid also claimed that they were working with Grand Valley State University to measure the positive effects of these buses and to determine how much more efficient they were than regular buses.
Then there was silence.
Pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request, KCTA found out why. According to The Rapid, their transit buses average 4.45 miles per gallon. The hybrid-electric buses average 5.13 miles per gallon. This means that for an additional price tag of $220,000 per bus, the improvement in efficiency is only 0.68 miles per gallon.
KCTA also sent a Freedom of Information Act request to Grand Valley State University, asking for a copy of the study of these new buses’ efficiency. Their response? There is no study at all.
It’s been more than three years since The Rapid made those claims. KCTA demands accountability in the bus system and an answer as to why they are pursuing more expensive buses in a time of tight budgets.
The Rapid plans to buy eight more of these expensive and wasteful buses for the proposed $40 million Rapid Silver Line route. That plan, part of a 31% property tax increase on the ballot May 3rd, will simply duplicate a bus route that already exists, it will be slower than the current buses, and it will clog up Division Avenue by closing lanes during rush hour so that regular auto traffic will only have one lane each way. The Rapid is planning to spend millions of dollars more for these hybrid buses which provide negligible environmental benefit.
Spokesman Eric Larson summed up the group’s opposition by saying, “At a time of budget cuts, high unemployment, and record deficits, this is not an efficient or responsible use of tax dollars. We must be better stewards of our public monies at times like these.”
For much more documentation on The Rapid’s operations, including a copy of The Rapid’s Freedom of Information Act response regarding their hybrid buses, please visit the ITP Watch web site.
The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance once again expresses its disapproval of the proposed Silver Line bus “rapid” transit line. KCTA most recently opposed and was instrumental in the defeat of the Silver Line millage request in 2009. KCTA also opposed the previous ITP millage request in 2007 and ran a “This Pig Stinks” ad on the side of a Rapid bus.
The organization is the local taxpayers’ rights group that professes to fight for good governance and low taxes. They believe that private enterprise have better and more efficient solutions to solving local problems than using the public purse.
Spokesman Dr. Eric Larson stated a number of reasons for KCTA’s opposition to any effort to resurrect the Silver Line plan. “It is very hard to imagine that Mr. Varga and The Rapid are once again entertaining any thoughts about trying to build the Silver Line. Although the new proposal request is projected to cost less than the plan revealed a year ago, it is still a serious tax hike request from The Rapid. It calls for $56 million over 5 years to build a bus line on Division that is already being serviced by The Rapid’s buses. It will close down half the road during peak traffic hours which will cause widespread congestion and affect parking for a lot of the businesses along the route. Worse yet, this so-called “rapid” service will average only 16 mph!
“Not only is this a poorly-hatched plan for what it sets out to do, but it extracts tax money from the residents of East Grand Rapids, Walker, and Grandville and they will not receive any of the benefits. It is simply inconceivable that during a large economic downturn the ITP would consider taking more than $10 million out of the pockets of local taxpayers instead of allowing those citizens to use the money to care for their families and support local businesses.”
The group is prepared to mount an opposition to the proposed tax request should it be placed on the ballot this year or next. KCTA helped defeat the last Silver Line millage request in 2009 using grassroots support and a shoe-string budget. The supporters of the Silver Line spent in excess of $70,000 of special interest money in an attempt to pass the tax increase, yet it failed at the polls in four of the six cities in the ITP area (Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville).
For more information, we encourage readers to visit KCFFR’s “ITP Watch” project web site, whose mission is to “Shine the Light” on the ITP, also known as The Rapid bus system.
The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, opponents of the proposed Silver Line, celebrated the defeat of the Silver Line Tuesday night. The defeat is the second straight tax increase that the group claims credit in helping defeat. Their most recent campaign was the second GRCC millage request in August of 2007. The organization’s self-described mission is to promote good government and a rational tax policy.
Throughout the campaign, KCTA volunteers passed out literature to thousands of households over the metro Grand Rapids area, wrote letters to the editor, and organized on the internet. Targeted precincts in many of the cities voting helped turn out more voters than in May of 2007 (the last Rapid vote) with a significantly higher ‘no’ vote percentage. Despite spending a mere fraction of the Friends of Transit, who received a gift from one donor of $50-80,000, they managed to create a palpable impact expressed best on the Facebook online message board of the Friends of Transit where they described KCTA’s “presence (being) felt electronically and we’re getting pummeled.”
Said KCTA spokesman Eric Larson, “Tuesday was a great night for property owners across Kent County. For the first time, the Rapid lost a millage request. The Silver Line was rightly seen by taxpayers as a redundant service that traveled no faster than their current buses but carried a steep price tag in a bad economy. Clearly, this plan was rejected in very high numbers by the cities of Wyoming, Walker, Grandville, and Kentwood to a lesser degree. Fundamentally, we think it is incumbent upon those city governments to reconsider their role in this ITP taxing authority. Despite their overwhelming opposition, the city of Grand Rapids still almost forced them to pay a tax that Grandville and Walker would get absolutely no benefit from. This is a dangerous path that the ITP board is traveling where these suburban cities are getting taxed without representation.
“KCTA is pleased with the results but wants to emphasize that our work has only begun. We are not solely an anti-millage group. We will work in the near future on improving governmental accountability and transparency at the Rapid and through the local school districts as well. It is the taxpayers’ right to know where and how the government spends its money and we intend to make that easier over the coming year.”
Today, the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is launching a new project called ITP Watch. We aim to shine the light on the finances and operations of the Interurban Transit Partnership / The Rapid bus transit system. The ITP continues to lack transparency. ITP Watch will make available the information that ITP doesn’t want taxpayers to have access to: budgets, operational reports, and other data showing the lack of efficiency of The Rapid system.