GRAND RAPIDS — When September rolls around, the shuttles still will be periwinkle blue and still will carry the bright yellow DASH logo.
But by then six buses will be bigger, have a longer life expectancy and feature seats made by a local company — thanks, in part, to the Downtown Development Authority.
The DDA agreed to spend $200,000 last week to assist Parking Services with buying six new buses for the DASH shuttle system, a system that has served downtown since 1997.
“We had anticipated providing assistance in our priority plan last year,” said DDA Executive Director Jay Fowler
All six buses will cost the city nearly $1.22 million, or $203,000 for each one. Parking Services, which operates the shuttle system, will pick up $1.02 million of the tab for the purchase it will make from Hoekstra Transportation of Wyoming.
Hoekstra was low bidder for the contract, edging out Holland Bus Co., which posted a bid of $218,900 per shuttle. City commissioners approved the transaction earlier this month.
DASH Program Manager Barbara Singleton told the Business Journal that buying the buses from Hoekstra also gives Parking Services a local source for replacement parts. She said the company’s 36th Street location carries parts that can be accessed quickly.
Parking Services Director Pam Ritsema said her department may finance the sale or pay cash, a decision that will rest with the outcome of the five-year budget plan that is being put together for her department. But Ritsema did feel the new shuttles will better meet the needs of downtown workers and visitors.
“DASH is a critical component in the mix of parking alternatives offered to those seeking a parking space while in the downtown area. DASH transports over 25,000 passengers per month, on time, in a customer-friendly manner,” she said.
The DASH system has 11 buses in service. Ten came from the Champion Motor Coach Co., for a price of $733,000, in 1997 to get the service started. Another $20,000 was spent to equip three of those buses with wheelchair lifts and make the other seven lift-ready. Two more shuttles were added to the service in 2001, but one was totaled the following year.
Ritsema said the buses have exceeded their life expectancy, and the new shuttles, which are made by Daimler-Chrysler in North Carolina and feature a Mercedes Benz MBE turbo-charged diesel engine, will replace the most worn-out buses.
“The new buses will accommodate more passengers, are a heavier-duty bus and have a 12-year life expectancy,” said Ritsema.
The new shuttles can seat 29 passengers and allow up to 20 to stand, while the old ones sat 22 and let 10 stand. Singleton said having the ability to shuttle more passengers on each trip will make the system more efficient, as fewer paying customers will have to wait for the next bus to come along when a shuttle gets filled.
The Daimler-Chrysler buses are heavier and have a longer wheelbase. They allow passengers to board at the front rather than through a door located in the middle of the bus, as was the case with the Champion buses. Singleton said a front entrance lets a driver greet passengers as they come aboard and helps to create a better relationship with riders.
Singleton said the new buses are easier to maintain and the wheelchair lift automatically lowers instead of having to be lowered by hand. Parking Services also placed a special order for seats made by a local company.
“On these new buses, we have specifically requested that the seats come from American Seating, and that is not a standard option with Daimler-Chrysler. That was a big deal for us,” said Singleton, who added that the new buses should be in service in September.
The DASH system offers about 2,000 parking spaces in its lots located west and south of the downtown core. It costs $22 a month to park and ride from DASH West, and $22 and $32 a month to do the same from the two DASH South lots.
The DDA has made the shuttle service a priority since its inception. Board members spent $500,000 to buy the Champion buses. They also supplied the parking lots to get the system going eight years ago.
“The DDA provided a substantial service to the DASH system,” said Fowler.
Parking Services has a contract with the Interurban Transit Partnership to drive and maintain the shuttles. Ritsema said DASH revenue meets the system’s expenses and covers some of the capital costs. The service, she said, comes close to breaking even. Parking Services began the current fiscal year with $6.5 million in its working capital account.