The Rapid’s Go!Bus paratransit service is preparing for a new headquarters in Grandville. The Rapid’s Go!Bus paratransit service is preparing for a new headquarters in Grandville. COURTESY PHOTO

New operations center to ensure continuity of Go!Bus paratransit services

BY Sunday, May 22, 2022 06:12pm

The Interurban Transit Partnership has received board and federal approval to purchase a $1.95 million property in Grandville for its new paratransit service operations center.

The ITP operates The Rapid transit system as well as Go!Bus, which provides on-demand transportation for people with disabilities and senior citizens within The Rapid service area, serving more than 4,700 individuals.

After months of searching for suitable sites, The Rapid plans to purchase the property located at 3531 Busch Drive SW from Meekhof Trucking Inc., with a closing scheduled for June. Funding for the purchase will come from the $15.8 million allocated to The Rapid under federal infrastructure funding earlier this year.

The Go!Bus fleet currently operates out of a facility at 125 Cottage Grove Street SE in Grand Rapids that is leased by MV Transportation Inc., the contractor that operates the service. The owner of that facility plans to sell the property, according to an ITP board resolution. 

Land for a new operations facility was prioritized in both The Rapid’s Facilities Master Plan and fiscal year 2022 Capital Improvement Plan as needs increased and in anticipation of expanded mobility options like RapidConnect, which allows real-time mobile ride booking.

“It’s really about risk mitigation, because we didn’t own the facility,” said The Rapid Chief Operating Officer Steve Schipper. “Because that service is contracted, we were vulnerable if there would be a change in the contractors or if we decided to bring it back in-house on our own, we wouldn’t have a place to store or maintain that fleet of 60 vehicles.”

The Grandville site already includes maintenance bays, administrative offices and parking space, and will need only minor upgrades to be operational. 

According to the ITP resolution, relocating the demand response operations center to the Grandville site — which should be usable by the fall — will save The Rapid millions of dollars compared to building a new facility.

The facility will be owned and managed by The Rapid and serve as a center of operations for contracted drivers and mechanics as well as storage and maintenance space for Go!Bus vehicles.

This new arrangement will help to ensure critical continuity of services, The Rapid CEO Deborah Prato told MiBiz

“Even if we have a hiccup for one day, for folks that are taking medical runs and necessity treatments and things like that, we can’t have a miss,” Prato said. “You might be able to get to the grocery store the next day, but if you’re due for dialysis, we need to get you there. … That works into the calculus on having surety in our own property.”

Bridging transportation gaps

For people with disabilities and senior citizens, Go!Bus makes getting around in Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville and Walker easier by providing everything from daily commutes to the office to rides to medical appointments.

“Unfortunately, we’ve built a world where … you have to have some type of mobility to get around (and) to live a full life,” said Dave Bulkowski, executive director of Disability Advocates of Kent County. “Mobility is just absolutely critical. There are places that you just literally can’t get to, unless it’s very expensive.” 

According to Bulkowski, “mobility has a massive impact” as a social determinant of health, but most transportation services lack the infrastructure to provide reliable transportation to people who need accommodations. Transportation services like Uber and Lyft rarely have accessible vehicle options, and while many ambulance providers offer non-emergency transportation for medical appointments, those trips tend to come with high costs, Bulkowski noted.

For many people with disabilities, acquiring individual means of transportation also poses challenges. Vehicle modifications can be expensive, and for some people, driving simply isn’t an option. 

“A lot of folks, especially folks with visual impairments, you’re just not going to be able to drive, no matter what the modifications are,” Bulkowski said. 

Disability Advocates of Kent County has been involved with every local campaign in support of funding for The Rapid, as well as through the Essential Needs Task Force Transportation Subcommittee and by offering disability awareness training for The Rapid drivers. 

“To The Rapid’s credit, they’re always looking for ways to increase their effectiveness in the community,” Bulkowski said. “It’s great The Rapid is doing this work.”

But there’s still more to be done. Kent County Administrator Al Vanderberg announced in his April 27 state of the county address that a countywide mobility task force will be convened this year — a victory for advocates like Bulkowski. 

A key question for that committee, Bulkowski said, is: “How do we identify the current barriers and begin to create better solutions than what exist today?” 

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