Trump Budget Threats and the Local Anti-Transit Brigade Spike Lansing BRT

A 2014 rendering of a possible configuration for Lansing BRT. Image: Dover, Kohl & Partners
A 2014 rendering of a possible configuration for Lansing BRT. Image: Dover, Kohl & Partners

A plan to upgrade Lansing’s busiest bus route was shelved earlier this week. The transit authority said the uncertainty of federal funding under the Trump administration, along with the costs of continuing to study the project, were enough to kill it. Eight years in the making, the project was also undone by suburban opposition. Now, transit advocates in Michigan’s capital are figuring out what can be done to improve transit while their opponents take a victory lap.

The $143 million project would have added center-running bus lanes and stations along 8.3 miles of Michigan and Grand River avenues, wide streets connecting downtown Lansing, East Lansing, Michigan State University, and Meridian Township. A study of bus, streetcar, and light rail options began in 2009, and in 2011 the Capital Area Transportation Authority board decided to proceed with BRT.

Over the past year, opposition forces began to organize on Facebook, centered on suburban Meridian Township. Last July, the township board came out against plans to add bus lanes and restrict left turns. A month later, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce joined in. Even Michigan State University, which has thousands of students that would benefit from BRT, made noises against the project.

“We’re the automobile state and we have this assumption that everybody should have a car, which is false,” said Laurel Burchfield, a Lansing resident who co-founded Capital Area Transit Supporters last year to push back against BRT naysayers. “There was a very organized opposition that played a really large role in this. And that’s something we need to think about locally moving forward. How do you respond to this NIMBYism?”

BRT did have its backers, including Lansing Mayor Virgil Bernero. But his combative reputation didn’t exactly help the project. “He came out vocally in support, but that didn’t necessarily help our cause,” Burchfield said. “He’s the angriest mayor in America.”

“It seems like no one was really battling to support it at all,” said Sean Hammond, deputy policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council and co-founder of Capital Area Transit Supporters. “It wasn’t really a coordinated effort to get supporters out and spread the word about why exactly this is a good thing for the region.”

On Wednesday, CATA’s longtime executive director announced her retirement. The same day, the transit authority’s board voted to suspend the BRT plan, citing the cost of continuing with an environmental study and the Trump administration’s proposal to gut transit funding. The project was not funded locally, and depended on winning a federal New Starts grant, combined with state funds.

But Trump may not actually enact his slash-and-burn funding blueprint. While his transit cuts would be devastating to projects like Lansing’s BRT, the proposal isn’t guaranteed to survive the congressional budget process. Ultimately, it seems, local opposition is the lead culprit behind the death of Lansing BRT.

So where does that leave transit supporters?

“We’re going to have to increase bus service,” Hammond said. “It could be something like BRT-lite, like Grand Rapids has, which doesn’t require as much capital.”

“I would hate for transit as a general service to get hit because of opposition to one project,” Burchfield said. “I view this as a postponement, not as a death note.”

  • CaptDuffy

    Would have been nice to hear from those opposed to the BRT and not just those in support of it.

  • Amber Greene

    There were tons of BRT supporters speaking out in Lansing. But none of the local media would print their words or give them airtime. The local chamber of commerce is anti-transit, anti-mmigrant, and pro-Trump. They’re a racist institution that has harmed Lansing to the point where the city can barely retain its dwindling population.

  • nickkwiatkowski

    I was one of the group that was against the BRT. It wasn’t just people in the suburbs that were against the plan — there were PLENTY of people in East Lansing and Lansing that opposed it as well.

    CATA screwed this one up in a way that I hope becomes a case study. They took a service that is generally well liked in the community and turned it against them. From plans that completely ignored pedestrians and cyclists, to community forums where, I kid you not, the presenter was screaming at people asking questions. They used numbers that were clearly old to show ridership was up (it was down for the last several years), they didn’t do complete traffic studies that included all forms of transportation, and they ignored major community concerns. Instead of working with the community, they kept responding with a message that they weren’t concerned with the community and they were planning on doing what they wanted to do, regardless of what everybody said.

    My biggest issue with the plan was that it not only didn’t provide new cycling facilities along the proposed stretch, but it actually removed facilities that were recently installed (such as bike lanes, etc). All three municipalities have ordinances that require complete streets. The standard response was “oh, don’t worry — we will include bike lanes in the final design!”, but every revision of the plan actually showed less and less ability to add them. The final design actually had sections that is now a 4 lane street reduced to two lanes (one each way) and removed shoulders and bike lanes. This a street that is fairly busy and a cyclist would clearly not have been welcome along the stretch. One of the last communications actually said that it was the municipality’s responsibility to add biking facilities after the project was complete.

    There were other very notable concerns including pedestrian traffic (a large portion of the East Lansing stretch is extremely ped heavy, with campus being on the south side of the street), and the inability for peds to safely cross in many areas. The designs made some stations inaccessible for handicapped people. There were also large concerns that long stretches of road wouldn’t allow left turns by cars (or any other mode) into businesses — for up to a mile.

    All in all, the entire project screamed that CATA had a chance to get a large grant and they were going to do anything in their power to get it. All this work to improve the entire stretch’s ride-time by about 10 minutes, all the while saddling CATA and the community with millions of dollars of current and future debt.

  • acerttr250

    Whenever the government does anything to benefit poor (aka black people and brown people) the white affluent groups always fight it. That what this is.

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