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The Transit Connection

March 5, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Kelly Thayer
  Denver has gained thousands of new visitors, workers, and jobs since connecting its suburbs and downtown with electric light rail service

The rapid movement of people, goods, and ideas propels the economy more now than at any time in history. Commuters crisscross entire metropolitan areas, products pour across open borders, and information races instantaneously around the globe on the Internet.

In contrast to the warp speed of bytes and boxes, however, are the daily delays that millions of Americans face in snarled traffic. Like many across the country, Michigan’s residents and business leaders are recognizing that gridlock and road rage frustrate everyday life and constrict free-market momentum.

But unlike many places across the nation, Michigan and its communities have spent the last decade laying more pavement without providing more transportation choices, such as world-class bus and train services.

Other states, meanwhile, are diversifying their transportation portfolios with commuter rail, express buses, and other transit innovations. Their leaders see rapid transit as an opportunity to use tax dollars more flexibly and efficiently and to compete globally for business investment and top-flight employees.

National Comparison
Michigan transportation officials today readily declare the state a “national leader” in providing funds for buses and trains. But in New Economic Engine, the Michigan Land Use Institute and United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan find that the state ranks only average in funding public transit.

New Economic Engine ranks Michigan on a national scale by comparing its transit funding with that of its peers among the nation’s 10 most-populous states and with two of Michigan’s neighbors — Indiana and Wisconsin. Michigan comes in at sixth place out of the 12 states (see page 6). Meanwhile Detroit and Grand Rapids rate worse than average, ranking 13th and 16th, respectively, in a comparison of 22 metropolitan areas (see page 7).

Michigan and its major cities also fare among the worst in the nation in securing federal dollars available to construct and maintain public transit systems (see page 9). As a result, Washington D.C. sends back less than half of the transit taxes that Michigan residents pay every year to the federal government.

Adding it all up, Michigan and its major cities fall well short of national leadership in a comparison of total transit system funding — local, state, and federal.        

Michigan can pull ahead, however, by maximizing current transit funding sources, identifying new ones, and increasing local and state cooperation. These are the tickets to building vibrant communities and competing successfully for workers, tourists, and commercial investment.

Only by putting commitment and creativity into funding transit can Michigan make good on an important goal that the state’s legislative and business leaders set in 2000. As described in a major policy report, the state aims to develop — within a decade — North America’s “premier integrated system of highways and public transit services.”

The state’s report recognizes that Michigan needs more effective and convenient transportation options to shift the economy into high gear. Its recommendations fail, however, to make transit a key part of Michigan’s transportation future.

Just as stocks balance bonds, public transit balances the risks of a highway-only transportation plan, which promotes long-distance living and forces people into cars for every household or business need. Adding first-rate transit to Michigan’s transportation future will create more opportunity for the state’s communities and their economies.

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