"If we’re going to be a progressive metropolitan community, we need to make public transit a priority."– Chris Hensley, councilwoman, City of Des Moines & member of the DART Commission
"If we’re going to be a progressive metropolitan community, we need to make public transit a priority."
– Chris Hensley, councilwoman, City of Des Moines & member of the DART Commission
Build the line and development will follow, say proponents of bus rapid transit (BRT) in Des Moines.

Officials say BRT, described as a rail-like bus service, would represent the next logical step to progress public transportation in the region. Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) officials tout the ability for more frequent service along the proposed corridor, which they say should lead to more economic development in the loop that connects University Avenue, Ingersoll Avenue and downtown Des Moines.

Plus, “If we’re going to be a progressive metropolitan community, we need to make public transit a priority,” said Christine Hensley, a Des Moines city councilwoman and a member of the DART Commission. “You have businesses, and developers, that look at this type of transportation because it’s clearly a benefit and a plus as they’re looking at development.”

For the proposed route to become a reality, DART is hoping for a $20 million grant through the Federal Transportation Administration’s Small Starts Program, which would likely require a $5 million local match. DART has leveraged the city of Des Moines for $1 million of that and is pushing for corporate donations or other sources to make up the remaining money. The project, however, had a large setback earlier this week when the provision for a proposed $2 million grant for BRT in an infrastructure bill didn’t make it through a conference committee in the Iowa Legislature. Despite the setback, officials say they are still pushing forward to raise the necessary funding.

If the first route is implemented and becomes successful, it will likely be the first of multiple BRT routes, DART General Manager Elizabeth Presutti said.

The economic benefits of a BRT line are more or less anecdotal. There is some research, but there is not a lot of conclusive, quantitative data on the benefits of a BRT line in the economy.

There are success stories, and one in particular that Des Moines officials consistently point to.

The system that DART is most closely trying to pattern its BRT proposal after is the Kansas City Area Transit Authority’s (KCATA) BRT system, branded as MAX, which installed its first line in 2005. The first line was successful enough that KCATA added a second route in 2010.

Taking notes from KC

KCATA officials say their investment in the first line paid off.

The line runs primarily along the city’s Main Street and connects a corridor that contains about 150,000 jobs – the “commercial spine” in Kansas City. Ridership on the route, which includes MAX and a couple of local routes, has nearly doubled from 3,300 riders per week to around 6,000.

Kansas City decided to pursue a BRT route after several light rail initiatives fell flat, said Danny O’Connor, director of planning at KCATA. Voters didn’t want to put the money into light rail, but public transit advocates still felt there was a need for some form of increased service along the selected route.

“We wanted something that could operate like rail, and attract choice riders, new riders, and really enhance the connectivity within that corridor,” O’Connor said. “BRT was an affordable option and also an option that was very quick to implement.”

The Main Street corridor was chosen in large part because it was already a well-established corridor, meaning that businesses haven’t necessarily relocated to be along the BRT route. The second route, which runs along Troost Avenue, is primarily a residential corridor but is “prime for development,” O’Connor said.

KCATA officials said it’s hard to measure exactly how much the businesses on the Main Street route have been helped from a dollars and cents standpoint.

But as part of the overall package, MAX has been a plus. The city’s convention and visitors bureau has used it as a selling point to try to attract conventions. O’Connor notes that the MAX bus stops have added a unifying design element to the routes, and the success of the routes has helped the perception of the bus system within the city. It has also helped make the under-30 crowd the fastest-growing demographic of bus riders.

“I’m not sure any businesses have said, ‘Oh, they’ve got MAX; we’re going to Kansas City.’ But it certainly has been an important part of the selling package,” said Cindy Baker, director of marketing at KCATA. “We’ve got a lot of revitalization going on in downtown Kansas City, and MAX has really been a part of that.”

Frequency leads to opportunity

Officials in Des Moines believe BRT would be a huge boost to the economy, leading to business development and additional housing along the route.

Iowa Sen. Matt McCoy, a Des Moines Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s joint Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee, was helping lead the charge for state funding that fell through. More frequent service, he said, will create more pedestrian traffic, more housing development and more business opportunities.

“I think businesses and apartments and developers are going to look toward the University corridor and the Ingersoll corridor and say, ‘What is it that makes sense here?’” McCoy said. “Is it a coffee shop near a bus stop? Is it a newsstand? Is it a computer store, a clothing store, a sandwich shop? They’re going to look for opportunities along that corridor.”

The Greater Des Moines Partnership has thrown its support behind BRT, as a way to meet the immediate public transit needs of the region at a fraction of the cost of implementing light rail. Partnership CEO Jay Byers said he has heard only positive support so far from the business community, and that the BRT plan fits well into the region’s Capital Crossroads long-term plan.

DART Commissioner Hensley added that she has also heard positive feedback from businesses, including one business representative that said this was a “no brainer” and would help fill currently vacant office space.

The trick is getting the support to turn into dollars. Hensley has been working to get corporate support toward the local $5 million match, and had been even before the state money was off the table. Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. has been the leader so far, with a $300,000 donation.

“It is critical to a thriving city,” said Monica Friedman, vice president of human resources at Nationwide, in a statement to the Business Record.