The Beginning Of The End (of The Rapid)?

It has been a long time in the making, riders have been able to feel it coming, and now it's here: the service cuts. DASH service since the launch of the DASH v3.0 routes in May (2023) has not operated Monday or Tuesday, the other days of the week it has been unreliable (not 15 minute headways). Ghost buses have begun appearing across the network, a phenomenon rarely experienced in previous years. This is the convergence of inflation, inconsistent and insufficient funding, and the decades long bipartisan failure of the state government (Lansing) to cultivate a sufficient workforce to meet economic demands.

Here we are. The 2023 frequencies on the left, the frequencies for 2024 on the right. Changes are highlighted.

This is the wrong direction. And is not the fault of the Rapid. It is frustrating, it makes life harder - yet again - for many of our fellow citizens. But if there is a desire to lash out please do so at the appropriate people: elected officials. They made this mess, they are the ones who refuse to do anything about it. We must not blame employees; technicians, functionaries, and bureaucrats, for making the hard choices forced upon them by elected officials.

The answer is to pay bus operators more. Yes. And that is simple. But there is no more.

First, the Rapid is operated at an extreme level of efficiency. The Rapid wrings more hours of operation out of every dollar than almost any other transit operator. We can lay down all the lazy blaming of problems on waste and inefficiency. That is not a problem here.

The largest single line item in the budget of any bus operator is those operators whom we need to pay more. This is true of the Rapid. The Rapid spends ~$15,000,000 a year on bus operators, just in wages. Benefits are then on top of that. That's at least $20,000,000 in total.

Yes, the answer is to pay bus operators more. Yet, math is math, cold and merciless.

Give operators a 6% raise; that is another $1,000,000/yr. If a bus operator is making $22/hr today [$44,000/yr], that is only an increase to $23.32 [$46,640/yr]. Yes, that is a meaningful change. But is it enough to put the system back on track? And, most importantly, where in that budget does $1M/yr come from? As the first slide showed, the Rapid is already wringing more out of every $1 than anyone else.

We are facing down something serious. Robust public transportation is necessary to rebuild our economy and city in a more equitable way, it is necessary to answer the climate crisis, it is necessary to reach a state of abundant housing, all that in addition to being necessary to our becoming the kind of community which people consistently say they want [walkable, urban]. But here we are.

These cuts are nothing compared to what is coming.

Only ~27 years after the creation of the Rapid, from the sadness that was GRATA, the Rapid may soon be little more than a shadow of its 2010 - 2015 self. The fiscal cliff is coming. The Rapid is burning financial reserves every day to maintain the level of service we have. Those reserves are not endless.

If you'd like to use the term "Death Spiral", I will not argue with you.

The answer is to pay operators more, by having more. State support of public transportation has been on a consistent decline for decades - this is money called the "Local Bus Operating Assistance" which according to state law the state government owes to local public transportation providers. The state legislature doesn't want to meet those obligations and barely provides half of the share it owes.

See: "How Michigan Funds Local Public Transportation" for more on how state funding does not work.

Other communities have stepped up to provide greater funding for their own services. Ann Arbor voters recently approved a transit millage 1.6X greater than the Rapid's millage. That would increase that operators budget line item in the slide above from $15,000,000 to $24,000,000.

The Rapid's current local millage is 1.43080. In 2023, my home - which Zillow thinks is worth $240,300 - cost me $103.33 in support the Rapid, via property taxes. That is $8.61/month. That does not reflect a community which takes public transportation seriously. That does not reflect a community which takes economic prosperity and equity seriously, that does not reflect a community which takes the climate crisis seriously, that does not reflect a community which desires abundant housing for all, and it does not reflect a community which values livable, walkable, and welcoming neighborhoods.

As of 2022 the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority receives 2.38 mills in funding; which passed with 61% of the vote. That is a community displaying its values.

Here in Grand Rapids our local leaders are not willing to try. They've not tried on land-use reform to address the housing crisis, they've not tried on parking reform, and they have not tried for public transportation. They are always about to try, something. It is always unclear. Any day now.

But we need to try. We need to try locally. And we need to make Lansing work for the urban residents of this state as hard as it has been working - for decades - to transfer our wealth out to their preferred citizens.

2024 is an election year. Please, do not do what Grand Rapids has been doing for too long: supporting nice people. Do not support candidates who will not commit, on the record, in front of cameras, in writing, to trying. Specifically. Clearly. Promising to answer the phone is not enough. Promising to "continue making our community better for everyone" (David LaGrand) is not enough. Saying you will "forge relationships with neighboring cities and municipalities" for more discussion is not enough (Senita Lenear). If candidates want your support - they are asking you to give them power - you should demand they say what they are going to do with that power. If they don't know ... really? Then why are they running for office? If that is their honest answer they should be encouraged to drop out, to let someone serious run.

And, we all need to show up. Until January 2025 we have the leaders we have. But if we show up it is still possible they might try. Improbable things happen every day. That's a big ask. I know that. Yet, Democracy is a participatory form of govenment, without participation our leaders can - and will - just do whatever, most likely nothing. This is where organizing helps. Join up with Strongtowns GR, or your neighborhood association, find something to join; let other people help you participate. That makes it much less work. And you will get to meet interesting people who are willing to show up for our city.

Let's display the values we claim, and build the community and city we keep saying we want to build. Others are not going to build it for us. They are willing to let it drive off a cliff.

Related / Notes

  • Kent county reports the Rapid's millage as 1.4074, my own property tax statement says 1.43080. For this article I went with the higher value to give the establishment as much credit as possible; and 0.0234 mills is not a material difference. There is strange "equalization" that occurs, Michigan's property tax law is nearly inscrutable.
  • "How Michigan Funds Local Public Transportation", Article @ StrongtownsGR
  • The current Rapid millage was passed in November 2017 with a 12 year term. Contrary to what you made read online or hear at the pub the passage of that millage was not attached to any service expansion plans. It was merely a continuation of the previous millage rate. The 2017 millage passed in a landslide (by 8,209 votes) in contrast to the previous (2011) millage which only passed by 136 votes.
  • The future of The Rapid and the road to yes: Transit millage passes despite rocky journey, Rapid Growth Media, 2017-11-09
  • Voter Support Of the RAPID in 2017, UrbanGR, 2018-02-11
  • Not all routes operated by the Rapid are equivalent; some routes are contracted service, most notably the Laker Line, and others may be under specific restrictions or requirements due to arrangements with the FTA (Federal Transit Administration). The Rapid has less freedom to change the schedules of these routes vs. other routes. This many cause some routes to seem privileged or the targets of particular cuts; it is not that simple, in these cases the Rapid has either a customer, or legal obligations, or both.