West Michigan is often thought of as staid, conservative and traditional, but when it comes to regionalizing public services and leveraging public and private resources, a number of communities on the west side are changing that image. They are working together in a regional effort to provide public transportation services in this fast-growing urban region. What can the rest of the state learn from this endeavor in West Michigan?
The WMX pilot project
A 2017 meeting of West Michigan community and nonprofit leaders and government officials launched discussion of the possibility of express transit service along the Chicago Drive corridor, which connects Holland and Grand Rapids. From there, a study of costs and feasibility was completed as well as an employee interest survey.
These meetings and studies led to the West Michigan Express (WMX), a commuter bus service project still in the planning phases. The hope is to start a pilot project operating 10 buses (equipped with bathrooms, WiFi, and other amenities) to carry people to and from work each day between the two cities by Fall 2020. During peak commute hours, the buses would make stops in Holland, Zeeland, Hudsonville, Grandville, and Grand Rapids every 15 minutes.
While the initial focus in on commuters, the pilot would offer some off-peak service and could eventually expand hours and/or frequency of service to include weekends and evenings. If successful, the pilot could also expand to other communities and eventually become rail service along the Chicago Drive corridor. The tracks are there, but the task force is starting with bus service because it is much less costly.
Does West Michigan need commuter bus service?
West Michigan is not as large nor as densely populated as Southeast Michigan, but it is growing fast (16 percent in Kent and Ottawa counties since 2000). If this growth continues, the population density of West Michigan will increase, along with the need for increased public transportation options.
The Research Council’s recent report on urban regional transportation found that West Michigan lacks a regional transit authority or any real way to integrate the region’s providers – The Rapid in Grand Rapids, MAX Transit in Holland/Zeeland, and others. Commuting patterns suggest that connecting the areas will increase access to jobs; however, getting the buy-in and desire to pay for more transit service in the rural parts of the region is a big hurdle.
A 2012 study on regional transportation in West Michigan found interest in connecting communities across county lines, but limited demand due to low density of both residential development and employment locations, generally low levels of congestion, and the prevalence of free or low-cost parking. The study found that demand might increase with any of the following: increased fuel prices, the creation of a large centralized employment destination, demographic changes, or the ability of local units to provide funding for expanded regional transportation.
Since the 2012 study, the region has continued to grow (Ottawa County is the fastest growing county in the state). Additionally, this pilot project is not planning to raise taxes to provide the funding, instead relying on grants, private funds, and existing local funds to pay for the service initially.
WMX – a step towards regional transportation
Our recent research into regional public transportation shows that we need to work to change the perception of public transportation from a social welfare program to a vital public utility providing residents with mobility options. The WMX task force formed in response to a need in West Michigan — connecting people to jobs. But this pilot project can also be the first step in meeting a greater need in a growing region — improving mobility by connecting people and urban transit providers across communities.
To be successful, community leaders must be proactive in addressing growth, crafting development around the nascent system, and building on successes to address transportation needs across the region. This project could enhance an already popular and well-traveled corridor, making West Michigan a leader in regional transportation options across the state and a more attractive place to live.
That being said, the WMX pilot project does face hurdles, the first one being financing. As with all public transportation, fares are only projected to cover part of the costs of service. The task force is working to secure funding from public and private sources to cover the remaining operating costs, at least for the duration of the pilot.
Capital costs represent another hurdle and the reason bus rather than rail service is being pursued. Capital costs for rail service are estimated to be between $8 million to $28 million in the first year. This can be compared to less than $500,000 in capital costs in the first year for bus service. If the pilot is successful, then future funding, including capital costs, for a built-out system should be easier to secure.
Also, connecting people to job locations and not just the city that they work in will be another hurdle. The task force is working with local transit providers and businesses to find answers to these “first and last mile” issues so that they can provide services either directly to work sites or within walking distance.
Finally, will the pilot project actually attract riders? Task force members think so and the employee survey indicates interest in the service. Area businesses could increase the likelihood of their employees taking advantage of the service by providing incentives, such as bus passes or discounts to ride.
West Michigan at the forefront of regional transportation in Michigan
If this project is successful, it will put West Michigan at the forefront of regional transportation in the state. The region will join the Flint region in providing quality, reliable regional commuter service across county lines.
If services eventually expand to rail service and/or to other communities, it could easily surpass regional, cross-county transportation options currently available in Southeast Michigan, which has some regional transportation options with SMART bus service and the Detroit Department of Transportation, but lacks regional connections to Detroit and across county lines. As it is, it looks as though we may connect Holland and Grand Rapids before we connect Detroit and Ann Arbor.