GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Rapid bus service is asking voters to renew a millage that makes up 35 percent of its budget.
The measure will be on the ballot Tuesday for voters in Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Wyoming, Grandville and Walker, the six communities served by the Rapid.
The ballot proposal would renew the 1.47 mill operating budget for another 12 years.
“The millage is tied to operations — so things like driver wages, fuel, tires, anything directly tied to operating our service,” Michael Bulthuis, marketing and communications manager at the Rapid, explained.
The millage also allows the Rapid to collect federal and state funds that cover other bus operations; funds that would likely disappear if the millage were to fail.
“Even if you never step foot on a bus, it benefits the community as a whole,” Bulthuis said. “If you’re going to a restaurant, it’s likely that some of those employees rode the bus to get there. If you’re going to shop at the mall, it’s likely that some of the employees at those retail stores got there via public transit. So it really is a benefit to the entire community even if you don’t ride the bus.”
The Kent County Taxpayer’s Alliance has come out against the proposal.
“The ridership is not there to merit the renewal of the millage,” Tyler Groenendal said. “Ridership is declining. In 2011, it was about an average of eight people per bus. Now it’s around a little under 6.4 on average people per bus per route.”
The group is also critical of the Silver Line, a bus rapid transit system that runs from the Central Station through downtown Grand Rapids and the Medical Mile, and down Division avenue to parking lots:
“A lot of people are not served by it at all,” Groenendal said of the Silver Line. “The communities of Grandville, Walker and East Grand Rapids do not touch the Silver Line at all. But taxpayers there are still on the hook for funding it despite the fact that they get no use out of it.”
He also pointed out that ridership on the Silver Line is much smaller than expected.
Rapid officials say transit ridership is down across the country, but the Rapid has seen a smaller decline than similar services. The data shows that in July 2017, of the 23 routes tracked by the Rapid, 17 saw fewer riders than the same month last year.
The biggest dip is with route 19, which runs along Michigan Street from Alpine Avenue to Oak Industrial Drive. Data provided to 24 Hour News 8 shows that, on average, 56 percent of the stops along route 19 averaged less than one passenger a day. The busiest stop on the route averaged just six passengers per day.
“We implemented that service working very closely with the employers on Oak Industrial Drive. That’s a service that they wanted,” Bulthuis said. “That’s a pilot route that we put into place, and that’s one of the routes that we continue to monitor very closely to make sure that it is operating efficiently. We did recently change it because we had low ridership on the previous route 19. So again, we are always looking to make sure we are efficient and if we’re not, that’s something that can change in the future.”
The numbers also show that 17 percent of Rapid bus stops average less than one passenger per day. Many of these are on routes that run into Grandville, Wyoming and Kentwood.
“We are a regional transportation service. You do see some lower ridership in the outlying fringes. But that is a very important thing for us. As I said, we serve six cities, so we’re not just serving the downtown Grand Rapids urban core. We are very much a regional service,” Bulthuis said.
The millage request comes as the service is working to come to terms on a contract with its drivers. The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836 has been without a contract for more than two years. In August, a tentative agreement was reached between the sides, but it was narrowly rejected by members. Both sides have recently returned to the bargaining table but have been unable to reach a deal.
The last time voters decided on Rapid funding was in 2011, when a request to raise the operating millage to its current rate passed by just 136 votes. Both sides agree that if this millage were to fail, the Rapid would have to make severe cuts to its service.
However, Rapid officials say they are confident it will pass and continue work on expansion projects such as the Laker Line for Grand Valley State University students and the transition to buses fueled by compressed natural gas, a change the Rapid expects will save money by giving them a stable fuel source.
Bulthuis provided this statement on union negotiations:
“On October 30, representatives from The Rapid and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836 met with mediators to continue contract negotiations. No agreement was reached.
“As previously reported, The Rapid and the ATU reached a tentative agreement earlier this year that included wage hikes for union workers, offered significant increases in The Rapid’s contributions toward employee health plans, retained weekly overtime and provided a sustainable retirement package. Unfortunately, the ATU did not allow all members of the local union to vote on the proposal and it was rejected by a narrow margin. We hope to reach agreement soon on the unresolved issues so our workers can receive the wage and benefit increases they deserve. The Rapid remains committed to good-faith bargaining practices that will result in a labor agreement that is in the best interests of The Rapid, our employees and the communities we serve.”
Officials from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 836 have not responded to requests for comment, but on the group’s Facebook page, the union indicates it is unhappy with the Rapid’s position on daily overtime versus overtime paid based on hours worked in a week. The union is also fighting against a provision that would strip a worker’s seniority after a leave or layoff that lasts more than a month.