Documents Show MSU President Critical of BRT

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Friday, August 12, 2016, 9:42 am
Alice Dreger

With “Stop CATA’s BRT” signs now beginning to populate at East Lansing businesses along Grand River Avenue, the Meridian Township-based group producing the signs has assembled evidence of a long-running skepticism of the project among MSU officials. These include MSU’s President Lou Anna K. Simon.

As we’ve previously reported, CATA wants to build a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) running in dedicated lanes from Lansing’s Capitol to the Meridian Mall. In the last few months, critics of the project have become increasingly vocal, especially among the business community. Speaking to East Lansing’s City Council this week, business owner J.J. Neilson said the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce is about to come out against the project. (The Chamber did not respond to our request for confirmation.)

Asked this week for President Simon’s take on CATA’s plans for the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), MSU’s spokesperson again told ELi that MSU remains concerned about pedestrian safety in East Lansing. The project as currently planned would reduce the number of places pedestrians could safely cross Michigan and Grand River Avenues and would reduce the green median space available for pedestrians to stand in between east- and west-bound traffic when crossing in downtown East Lansing.

But letters from MSU to CATA assembled by the “Stop CATA’s BRT” Facebook group show MSU’s top administration has had many other concerns as well, particularly with the cost of the project and the funding plan.

In a June 2014 letter, MSU’s President Simon told CATA Executive Director Sandy Draggoo, “I believe that the larger issue related to this project has to do with the funding.” She told Draggoo that the Director of the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) “indicated that it is highly unlikely that MDOT could contribute anywhere close to the 20% local match that you expect.”

Understanding that most of the funding is supposed to come from a federal grant, Simon also expressed skepticism that CATA would get federal funding at the level it had been hoping.

Simon told Draggoo, “We recognize the desire of both students and young professionals to use transit, and understand that having a robust system is an important part of economic development, sense of place, and talent attraction. However, given the concerns about the East Lansing section, as well as pessimism about future funding, I think the current proposal is much too ambitious at this time.”

Simon suggested “that CATA consider a smaller system, without dedicated lanes, which I understand are the primary reason this proposal is so expensive. A modified BRT system, similar to what Grand Rapids is opening this summer, might be a good first step for our region. It has a much greater likelihood of receiving both state and federal funding, and would alleviate many of the design concerns that continue to plague the project.”

Simon asked why CATA could not find a way to come up with plans that would better address active needs. She asked, for example, if CATA “could even explore adding an express run to and from the airport from the downtown Lansing end of the line—connecting downtown, MSU and East Lansing and even Meridian Township to the airport with only having to build one additional station.”

MSU’s skepticism of the BRT project goes back many years, as evidenced by a joint letter written to CATA in November 2010 by Fred Posten, MSU’s Vice President for Finance & Operations, and Vic Loomis, then Mayor of East Lansing. The two told CATA, “we cannot, in good conscience, vote at this time to advance this project to the next level.”

According to Loomis and Posten, “The preservation of the landscaped median has long been a common concern of both Michigan State University and the City of East Lansing. It is also important that the right-of-way be maintained at its current total width to preserve pedestrian and other amenities on both the north and south side of Grand River Avenue. The concept design for the bus rapid transit alternative seems to make both of these objectives mutually exclusive. We cannot support the advancement of a plan that does not guarantee the achievement of both of these objectives.”

The two also “expressed joint concern over the continuation of the present level of vehicular access to downtown East Lansing—the commercial district for the campus,” and concern about the City and MSU ultimately being asked by CATA to help pay for the BRT.

Five years later, in June of 2015, Simon told Draggoo she understood that the current mayors of Lansing (Virg Bernero) and East Lansing (then Nathan Triplett) were supportive of the project. But, Simon told CATA again formally, “we continue to have very serious concerns and unanswered questions about the overall BRT project. As such, we are not able to support the overall BRT project as it is currently conceived.”

The most recent letter in the set, from September 2015, from two other top MSU administrators to CATA, again expressed “genuine concerns.” They named pedestrian safety, “safe vehicular movement through the corridor,” as well as concerns about what the project would do to the East Lansing green median. The project, they said, would involve “aesthetic impact and loss of the existing tree canopy” and “effectively reduce the space for pedestrian sanctuary between the east and westbound traffic.” (CATA has said it would replace lost trees with trees more suited to the space.)

By this point, MSU was seeking written assurances from CATA that MSU would not “be approached to contribute to the capital cost and that the operational costs of the BRT.”

“Finally,” that 2015 letter closed, “we do have concerns regarding the overall benefits of this proposed BRT relative to the proposed cost at $145 million” and “we do not understand why the capital costs for the proposed Lansing system are more than 3 times greater than the Grand Rapids RAPID system.”

East Lansing’s City Council has asked for an update on the project from City staff, but that presentation has not yet been scheduled.


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