Michigan/Grand River Avenue Transportation Study

For anyone in Lansing following area news recently, you may have read a few months back about the Michigan/Grand River Avenue Transportation Study (MIGRTRANS), whose aim it was to improve transit in the corridor and ease congestion. The MIGRTRANS was commissioned by the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) and completed by engineering giant URS in order to study the best possible transit alternatives for the corridor, including Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Light Rail Train (LRT), and Modern Streetcar. According to the CATA and URS findings, Bus Rapid Transit is the most viable option.

From the Lansing State Journal November 10, 2010:

Lansing-area corridor proposal envisions “bus rapid transit” system

After more than a year of discussion, local transportation experts have come up with a $194 million solution to ease congestion along the eight-mile Michigan-Grand River Avenue corridor.

Capital Area Transportation Authority officials unveiled study results Tuesday that they hope will grab the attention of the Federal Transit Administration.

Less expensive than both modern street car and light rail systems, CATA suggests a modified “bus rapid transit” option that would speed travel along the corridor that runs through Lansing, Lansing Township, East Lansing and Meridian Township.

With new, more attractive buses stopping along a median, with doors opening on both sides, weekday ridership is projected to increase to 7,600 to 8,700. Current weekday ridership is 6,600.

CATA might seek federal dollars for public transportation improvements that will spark economic development along the corridor that has easy access to local highways, downtown Lansing and Michigan State University.

Their findings do not surprise me. In a town that is known more for promoting the blue collar status quo and less for its forward thinking, creativity or support for actual livable communities, public officials have dropped the ball yet again. But I’m honestly starting to think that it’s on purpose.

If you take a look at their Web page for the study (http://www.migrtrans.org/resourcepage.html), there’s a very basic cost analysis of the various transportation alternatives studied for the corridor (Bus Rapid Transit, Light Rail, and Modern Streetcar). Included in their study are observations regarding the likelihood of receiving federal match funding based on their cost/benefit analyses of the various options.

The costs of building any of the systems are great. But it strikes me as rather odd that the cost of the modern streetcar option (which would promote the highest ridership, even by their study) is on average 40% more expensive per mile than what many other, larger cities have built very recently. Consider the following proposals or plans for modern street car as of late:

Cincinnati StreetcarFunded– 2012

  • 3.9-mile new north-south route runs through the city’s Downtown, from waterfront to north downtown
  • 6,400 projected daily riders
  • $128 million cost; $25 million provided by U.S. DOT Urban Circulator Grant

Fort Lauderdale Fort Lauderdale Downtown “Wave” Streetcar– 2013

  • 2.7-mile downtown and inner-city circulator, roughly paralleling the Florida East Coast Railway route
  • 10 stations from Broward General Medical Center to North 8th Street
  • $124.34 million construction costs

Miami Miami Streetcar – 2012

  • 10.6-mile system of lines in and around Downtown Miami
  • Three general alignments:
    • North-South, from Government Center to the Miami Design District
    • West-South, from Government Center to Civic Center/Heath District
    • North-West, from Miami Design District to Civic Center/Health District
  • $200 million cost
  • 7,400 to 17,400 projected daily riders


  • Downtown Streetcar
    • 2.3-mile line, with two routes, running along streets
    • 9 stations
    • $76 million estimated construction cost


  • Downtown Streetcar
    • 1.5-mile line along Virginia Street between Lawlor Events Center and California Avenue
    • $67 million cost for initial phase
    • Second phase of streetcar system, at $84 million, would span 3.5 miles of Virginia Street from California Avenue to the Convention Center


  • Streetcar System
    • 5-mile one-way or two-way lines on Atlantic and Bedford Streets, and potentially Washington Boulevard
    • $129 million construction cost


  • Downtown Modern StreetcarPartially Funded– 2012
    • 3.9-mile new line runs between Downtown Tucson and the University of Arizona, via the 4th Avenue Business District
    • Predicted 3,600 daily riders
    • Construction set to begin in 2011
    • Total costs of $150 million; Received $63 million in TIGER grants for the project

(Source: The Transport Politic)

URS estimates that a Lansing modern streetcar system would cost $505 million for a 7-mile system (just over $72 million per mile).

For argument’s sake, let’s say that their price estimates for all three options are reasonable. Should we build modern street car at this price? Even as the most expensive option, I still believe it be the most viable option for Michigan/Grand River considering their Modified BRT plan may not even increase ridership. Sure, it would be expensive, but if we consider cost alternatives as well as opportunity costs, the choice becomes much easier.

For perspective, it currently costs about $40 million per mile to build a highway through an urban area, not including maintenance. Maintenance includes repairs, but it also includes the hoards of public employees needed to plow snow, clean up road kill, mow the grass, etc. Most highways also do not collect fees to offset such costs. Interstate 496, for instance, is used primarily for non-residents of the city of Lansing to get to their suburban enclaves. State employees use the highway in drovers, yet most do not live in the central city. Many of these residents do not pay city or county taxes, either (considering many commuters live in Eaton, Clinton, and Livingston Counties–and even farther way. I have many co-workers who live in SE Michigan). Yet we facilitate their movement to and from Lansing much better than our own residents’ mobility and accessibility.

Furthermore, we often fail to calculate the external costs of operating highway systems, such as noise and air pollution, disconnected neighborhoods, and the promotion of further sprawl at the expense of vibrant cities and lush farmland. Yet we continue to fund highway infrastructure at an alarming rate while never batting an eye.

Perhaps what bothers me the most about the MIGRTRANS study is that it also leaves out the opportunity costs of not developing the corridor with rail. It has been shown time and time again that rail spurs economic development along urban corridors. Washington, D.C. has seen billions in private investments along rail routes and developers are even chipping in their own money to get transit stops. It gives the private sector the confidence it needs to build higher density residential along urban corridors. And with more people and higher densities of buildings comes more tax revenue to help pay for the system. BRT just doesn’t bolster that kind of bullish confidence in the surrounding housing market. Finally, with increased housing density, ridership inevitably will rise. Can BRT promise this?

The choice of CATA to push its BRT agenda has nothing to do with a make believe cost-benefit analysis. Their decision is completely a political game. Their choice to go for BRT reflects the citizens’ recent distaste with tax increases while the economy is so terrible. This is evidenced by the recent May 3 vote to levy 4 mills to save the jobs of dozens of police and firefighters. Lansing residents voted against a millage increase despite the fact that most of their property values have dropped sharply and the millage increase would have barely increased their tax liabilities (perhaps a couple of dollars extra per month for the average resident).

With that level of distaste for government going around, particularly for a majority Democratic city, it would be extremely difficult to get approval for funding a $505 million streetcar system. But instead of thinking of creative alternatives, the political powers that be have chosen bus rapid transit as the preferred alternative because they believe it will be easier to get approval for funding. Their decision is short-sighted. Instead of planning longer term or with staged, incremental rail improvements while levying public and private resources over time, they’ve chosen the alternative that will have minimal corridor impact, high costs in the short run, and no political will to get it done. If and when this proposal meets the ballot, it will inevitably fail just like the millage in May. The time is now to reevaluate the modern streetcar option as a long-term strategy while considering alternative funding sources to bring a truly world class transit system to the Lansing region.

This entry was posted in cities, planning, transit. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Michigan/Grand River Avenue Transportation Study

  1. Rick says:

    Great analysis, Bryan. I personally would prefer the modern streetcar too. Greater Lansing needs a WOW factor — BRT is not it.


  2. Kudos to you! I really indeed love street car. BRT is too mainstream. Thanks for sharing!


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