GRAND RAPIDS — The Interurban Transit Authority (ITP) hit the ground running a year ago today and has since brought six major public transportation improvements to the metro area, all on or ahead of schedule as promised.
The public, in turn, has responded by hitching more rides on the bus.
“Our ridership growth since Oct. 1 has been 16.4 percent, which is five times the national average,” said Peter Varga, ITP’s executive director. “That’s higher than what we were averaging before.”
ITP took over authority for the metro transit system, named The Rapid, from the former GRATA on Oct. 1 last year.
The cities of East Grand Rapids, Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker and Wyoming formed ITP in January 2000 to allow for needed expansion of public transportation in the metro area.
The transition from GRATA to ITP was far more than a name change; it was a whole different way of operating, noted George Heartwell, ITP chairman. It didn’t happen with ease, but it happened without any major hitches.
“We went, in effect, from a Model T board to a Ferrari board,” he said. “We went from an old way of doing business that we’d been following for two or three decades to a brand new way of doing business as a board made up of representatives of six cities.”
In April 2000, the cities asked voters to approve a 0.75 millage rate for five years to support existing and enhanced public transit services, which voters did by a 65 percent margin. All millage funds are designated for system improvements in ITP’s coverage area, which comprises about 452 square miles.
Not only were transit improvements needed, but prior to the successful millage, the former GRATA was struggling with a deficit. For two years it had been forced to use capital funds toward the deficit and had to cut back on operations as a result, Varga recalled.
“We operate like a business even though the subsidies have to go into it,” he said. “We can’t use our capital reserves for operating expenses, just as a business can’t without cutting down on production. That’s where we were at.”
The infusion from the millage changed all that, giving the transit authority the means to heed public calls for service improvements. So ITP embarked on a six-city solution to improve public transportation. Heartwell said the expectations going forward were clear — to fulfill “The Six Promises” of the following service enhancements:
- Evening service
- Sunday service
- Employment transportation services
- Frequency improvements
- PASS (Passenger Adaptive Suburban Service) program
- 44th Street cross-town connection service
“It was a remarkable year in that we completed all six of the promises we made in our millage campaign,” Heartwell said. “I think the impact on the community of expanding the hours of operation and frequency of service are the most important of the six promises.”
He attributes ITP’s success during its first year to Varga’s “incredible leadership.”
The improvement Heartwell is most excited about is the new Passenger Adaptive Suburban Service (PASS) program introduced in April. PASS uses vans to connect suburban residents to the bus network.
The curbside service is geared to residents who can’t access The Rapid bus system from their location. PASS vans take passengers to a bus route via connection centers located in the northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast sectors of the metro area.
“As far as we know it’s really unparalleled in the country,” Heartwell said. “It borrows from some other programs, but it’s unique and took a lot of creativity on the part of our executive director and his planning staff.”
PASS is going to be very challenging because it’s unique and experimental, Varga observed. “It shows that this agency and its board members are willing to risk trying different improvements to meet a public need out there. If you’re a transit system that can’t be innovative and doesn’t want to take risks, you’re not going to be able to meet market demand.”
Riders have been slow to adapt to the new program, in part because ITP held off on marketing to test for kinks in the system.
“We now know that we have to redesign the system a little bit and make it more flexible,” Varga explained. “We’re going to take that back to the board for approval and then do a big marketing push. We have to do broad marketing to inform the public and targeted marketing to what we think is the most likely client.”
ITP has a full-time staff person devoted to “mobility training,” which involves educating the public in regard to different transit options, teaching people how to use the transit system and finding the best program for their specific transportation needs. Varga said ITP is one of the few transport systems nationwide doing that kind of training.
The board had a number of unexpected issues to deal with during the year, such as a reduction in state funding and the elimination of the Grand Rapids Public Schools contract. In regard to the latter, it took a “very creative and intense” effort by ITP staff to pull together a student bus program on short notice, Heartwell noted.
Evening service is doing well and Sunday service is faring much better than anticipated, Varga said. Night service has caused a spike in ridership because buses can take people to second shift jobs and third shifters can use the system to return back home. He added that evening service has opened up opportunities that weren’t there before for some residents.
Employment transportation was already a focus of the transit authority before ITP took over, but the focus has now sharpened. As Varga adds, “I think it was a trend and we just needed to create more opportunities.”
The new 44th Street cross-town service connects four of the six cities in the ITP service area. The route runs between the Gerald R. Ford International Airport and the RiverTown Crossings Mall and has transfer points to several of The Rapid’s existing lines.
Also this year, ITP introduced three new low-floor buses purchased with a federal expansion bus grant. The new design eliminates the steep steps of current buses and, thus, the challenge of boarding and unboarding for disabled residents, seniors and parents with strollers. The new model extends a ramp from the bus directly to the sidewalk without the use of a lift, and ITP plans to transition to low-floor models as it replaces buses.
As Varga points out, ITP is more than a partnership of six cities. It maintains a number of business partnerships community-wide with such entities as Grand Valley State University and Hope Network.
The city’s downtown shuttle or DASH program, for instance, is a partnership. The Downtown Development Authority bought the vehicles, City Parking Services pays for the operating costs and ITP operates and maintains the equipment.
The Rapid has a fleet of 110 buses, including 10 DASH buses, and 68 combination vans/sedans for specialty para-transit work, such as community mental health and ADA transportation.
“We’re always exploring different kinds of transportation solutions,” Varga said. “What we’re looking at is: What is the demand out there? How do we meet market demand? And what kinds of partnerships can we put into place to improve services? That’s what our business is right now.”