The Rapid

Rapid CEO Peter Varga receives bonus on eve of tax renewal

In just shy of two months, The Rapid will be seeking a renewal of a 1.47 mils tax. The millage will ostensibly be sufficient to help support its operations for another twelve years, to the tune of $14.8 million annually. Though the millage renewal is a short time away, the Rapid’s oversight board saw fit to award Rapid CEO Peter Varga a $4,500 “merit bonus” last month.

Peter Varga’s bonus, while only a negligible chunk of the overall budget, is another in a long line of wasteful financial decisions by The Rapid. The Rapid, operated by the Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP), has a long history of benefiting their executives and their organization at taxpayer expense, with no benefit for riders of taxpayers. It is enormously disrespectful of Kent County taxpayers to urge the passage of yet another millage, while siphoning off thousands for bonuses to ITP executives like Peter Varga (on top of his already ample compensation of over $200,000 a year).

Proponents of the millage will no doubt assert its necessity for continuing “vital transportation services’, even in light of stagnant ridership numbers. Despite grandiose assurances from previous expansions like the Silver Line, which failed to deliver promised ridership and revenue, the Rapid’s supporters will breathlessly assert that, with a little bit more money, everything will work just as they say.

In truth, the tax renewal will go to line the pockets of ITP executives, keep empty buses chugging along the roads, and for more empty central stations.

The KCTA urges you to vote NO on the upcoming Rapid millage.

 

 

How fast will The Rapid’s Silver Line bus be?

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.

Read our entire article here.

Kent County Taxpayers Question Whether the Rapid Engaged in Improper Campaign Activity

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance (KCTA) is calling into question whether the Interurban Transit Partnership (the Rapid) engaged is improper campaign activity in the city of Walker. On Tuesday, November 6th, city of Walker voters will be given the opportunity to exit the ITP and its taxing authority once the current tax renewal expires. On Thursday, October 25th, Walker residents found a mail piece from the ITP in their mailbox touting the benefits of mass transit signed by the Mayor and Mayor pro-tem of Walker. (Images of the mail piece can be found at this link.)

It is not clear to KCTA who exactly received the mail piece within Walker but there were no reports from KCTA supporters throughout the other ITP member cities of any promotional piece coming from the Rapid. If in fact, the promotional piece was only sent to Walker just days before a major election to help decide whether the city remains in the ITP this would potentially be a violation of state law.

Eric Larson, spokesman for KCTA said, “The Rapid seems to be using taxpayer money to influence an election which is at least improper and potentially illegal. The timing of the piece with only Walker board members on the propaganda is clearly meant to sway voters in the upcoming withdrawal question. State law specifically prohibits public entities from engaging in political campaigns because there is an enormous conflict of interest. We see very few credible explanations for sending the promotional piece only to Walker days before the big election day. We have no problem with campaign groups engaging in the Walker withdrawal question (like Friends of Transit) but public agencies using taxpayer’s money to convince taxpayers to vote a certain way is wrong.”

Kent County Taxpayers Alliance calls for resignation of Interurban Transit Partnership CEO Peter Varga

Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is calling for the resignation of Peter Varga, the CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership (also known as “The Rapid”). The ITP is the regional transit agency in Kent County that covers Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville. A news report from David Bailey, investigative reporter from WWMT Channel 3, uncovered unambiguous evidence that members of Varga’s staff, with his knowledge, encouraged each other to circumvent Michigan’s open records laws to prevent public scrutiny of their actions. (view the news story here). Conrad Venema, Planning Director of the taxpayer-funded ITP, emailed Peter Varga, along with two other ITP staff members and two outside paid consultants, and told them to “take this discussion to our private email accounts.” The group was discussing the upcoming vote in Walker on whether to allow voters there to control their own tax rates and spending. (view the email here).

Furthermore, the email mentions that at least one ITP board member may have been involved, potentially implicating the state’s Open Meetings law, which requires public bodies to deliberate in public meetings, not over private email.

KCTA has long criticized the ITP for being the least-transparent and least-accountable government entity in the county. Not only is the ITP’s board not directly elected, but it largely consists of individuals who are not elected to any office at all. Furthermore, the ITP is the only government entity in Kent County that can raise taxes but does not have an elected leadership.

Previously, Mr. Varga has refused to answer simple questions on his agency’s spending and waste, and he even walked out on an interview in May, unable to come up with any answers at all after sitting silent in the face of those questions. Mr. Varga more recently refused to answer questions posed by County Commissioners when he testified to that body last month.

Now Mr. Varga has explicitly approved the use of non-public resources to conduct the business of his agency with the intent of circumventing state law in regards to open records. This is a blatant attempt at preventing the public from understanding what and how the ITP operates. Not only is Mr. Varga’s agency unaccountable, it acts with complete disregard for the taxpayers who pay the salaries of its public servants. Mr. Varga’s actions have no place in a public agency.

“Peter Varga should be ashamed, but frankly, we’re not surprised. The ITP is unaccountable and this is what happens when a public agency is run by an unelected board. Peter Varga’s disregard for the spirit and letter of state law is telling about his wanton disregard for those who pay his salary,” said Jeff Steinport, project manager for KCTA. “We were shocked by David Bailey’s report. This is just a continuation of the ITP’s disregard for openness. The ITP has broken state open records laws in the past when we filed our own Freedom of Information Act request, and they backed down when we made their actions public.”

Previously, KCTA has exposed made-up numbers that the ITP publishes on its economic benefits, its false claim that its buses reduce pollution, its false claims of how much it costs taxpayers to run its buses, and its false claims of improved gas mileage when it spent enormous amounts of money on hybrid-electric buses.

“Frankly, the ITP has no credibility,” continued Steinport. “We’ve never come across a government body that so frequently misleads taxpayers. The public cannot believe the ITP’s numbers because they have such an extensive record of being misleading or simply making things up. The ITP appears to have an internal culture of contempt for openness and accountability. Also, Mr. Varga’s reference to some of the taxpayers – the one’s who pay his $200,000 plus salary, benefits, and company car – as ‘enemies’ because they question the practices of the ITP, shows a remarkably callous disrespect towards those whom he is asked to serve.”

KCTA Praises Channel 3 Reporter David Bailey for Courageous Reporting on The Rapid

The Kent County Taxpayers Alliance today praised David Bailey, lead reporter from Television News Channel 3, for his hard-hitting reporting on yesterday’s news broadcast. Bailey’s broadcast involved an interview with Peter Varga, the CEO and director of The Rapid, the area’s local government agency that provides public busing service to Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville, and Kentwood. Unable to answer the most basic questions about The Rapid’s services and use of public money, Varga walked out of the interview and refused to answer Bailey’s questions.

Prior to this report, Bailey contacted KCTA for help in getting information from The Rapid because of the unwillingness of The Rapid’s staff to be helpful and forthcoming. Our own experience is very similar. Last year, The Rapid tried to slap KCTA with a $450 bill for a Freedom of Information Act Request, but backed down when we appealed that bill and pointed out that The Rapid’s actions were illegal and a violation of the Act.

Eric Larson, spokesperson for the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance, said, “Our experience mirrors the Channel 3 reporter’s experience. The Rapid works hard at preventing openness, transparency, and accountability to the public. Frankly, The Rapid has the worst record in the county of all local governments we’ve dealt with.” Larson went on to say, “Trying to get information from The Rapid on how our tax money is being spent is frequently frustrating and disheartening.”

The must-see Channel 3 report can be viewed in two parts online:

Part One: http://bit.ly/KXLs8S

Part Two: http://bit.ly/LHuyMW

Earth Friendly? Not The Rapid as it Posts an Even Worse Pollution Record Than Last Year

As Earth Day approaches, the people of West Michigan are encouraged to be conscientious of the planet and its resources. Citizens are asked to rethink the way they live their lives in order to reduce their carbon footprint and the detrimental impact that they may have on the environment. People are often encouraged to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels whether it is by walking and biking more or riding the bus.

But does riding the bus really help the environment? Does riding mass transit decrease a person’s carbon footprint?

Last year, Kent County Taxpayers Alliance showed definitively that The Rapid transit system buses were less green than the average SUV. After reviewing the newest data that The Rapid provides annually to the federal government and its National Transportation Database, we have determined that The Rapid is actually getting worse performance from its bus fleet and is even more harmful to the environment than it was last year.

In the latest data, Rapid buses averaged 4.10 mpg which is down from the 4.17 mpg it posted the previous year.  Its greenhouse gas emissions were worse too as the amount of carbon dioxide released from each passenger mile traveled increased from 0.762 pounds to 0.774 pounds. After calculating the total amount of miles driven by the buses this comes to 25.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide produced by the bus fleet. In comparison, if people had instead used SUVs, there would have been 3.9 million pounds less of carbon dioxide produced in the Grand Rapids area.

“The simple fact,” said spokesman Eric Larson, “is that the buses get lousy gas mileage and operate mostly empty throughout the metro area to be an environmental benefit to the community. The fact that The Rapid is going to be adding even more stops and run more buses through the streets will probably worsen its already dismal environmental record. We will continue to report on The Rapid’s performance and work on improving its transparency as long as it fails to provide this information voluntarily to the public.”

A full explanation and example of the calculations can be found on the ITP Watch website as well as many other facts about The Rapid transit system.

Mayor Heartwell and Backroom Deals Circumvent Democracy in Rapid Millage

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.

Rapid CEO Peter Varga Shuns the Bus, Moves to the Country

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.”

The Rapid’s web site says that Peter Varga can’t use The Rapid to get to work

Earth Week Analysis Shows Rapid’s Buses Contribute More to Pollution than SUVs

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.

KCTA Founder to Appeal ‘Unjust and Massive’ Fee with the ITP for FOIA Request

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.