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Broad Support Revs Up Public Transit

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

Photo courtesy of Amtrak
  Travelers will soon arrive in Detroit and Grand Rapids on Amtrak's new high-speed trains, which are scheduled to link nine Midwest states by 2003. The intercity service will increase the demand for world-class transit options in Michigan's major cities.

A bullet train of transit activity is set to race across Michigan once state and local leaders commit to supplying a lasting fuel source.

Citizens have spent years building the engine of better transit by demonstrating the need for buses and trains to connect them with the places they want to go. Now regional officials are putting public transit on track with their plans for rapid buses and rail in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

State and metropolitan leaders must unite to move Michigan from poor transit performance to excellent service by maximizing local, state, and federal funding for world-class rapid buses and trains. Only with such a concerted effort can Michigan and its cities satisfy increasing demands from residents and businesses for clean and convenient communities, accessible jobs, and strong economic competitiveness.

Automakers On Board
In a telling sign that transit’s moment has arrived, even Detroit’s Big 3 automakers now understand that the future vitality of Michigan’s metropolitan areas depends on transit. Once opponents of transit, these world industrial leaders are joining citizens in asking public officials to acknowledge the great cost of relying so heavily on cars and highways while allowing transit to sputter.

General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler issued this joint declaration in September 2001: “We want to reiterate our support for public transit in southeast Michigan … An effective regional transit system is important in connecting workers with jobs, serving a rapidly aging population, and in reducing traffic congestion, which has a positive effect on the environment.”

The automakers understand, along with a wide range of citizens, that a roads-only transportation policy delivers numbing gridlock, bad air, and faceless places. Family and government costs soar as new roads spur sprawling development and drive up the cost of extending water, sewer, and schools to ever more remote locales. First-rate transit, on the other hand, can provide the cost savings and transportation options needed to enhance quality of life and put cities on course to better compete nationally and globally for public and private investment.

State’s Turn
The Michigan Department of Transportation calls itself a national leader in supporting transit. For countless social and economic reasons, it is time that Michigan’s actions match its lofty words.

As documented in New Economic Engine, Michigan at the state level is only average in its commitment to providing top-flight transit. Detroit and Grand Rapids are worse than average. This half-hearted approach to sustaining buses and trains weakens these cities and the state as a whole and undercuts Michigan’s ability to recoup federal tax dollars. Without reform, Michigan taxpayers will continue to fund rapid bus and train systems in other places that, in turn, use the money to contend with Michigan for workers and private enterprise.

Michigan citizens no longer should be left stranded while other states launch new transit systems that take their communities and economies to world-class levels. The state’s lawmakers now must follow the lead of residents, who are intent on lifting Michigan to the upper ranks of transit-rich states.

The Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition — with the support of the Michigan Land Use Institute, the Michigan Environmental Council, United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan, and many other partners — is the true leader in this endeavor. Together, MLUI and UCP Michigan call for citizens, local officials, and state and federal lawmakers to supply the necessary funding to ignite 21st-century transit in Michigan. Key steps in this critical direction must include efforts to:

• Increase state funding for transit
To elevate and stabilize Michigan’s unpredictable transit funding, state lawmakers have considered several bills to boost transit revenues and seek new sources of support. With few exceptions, these bills have languished in the discussion stage without real progress.

In 2002, lawmakers must pass House Bill 4002, which would direct a portion of the sales tax on auto leasing to transit and boost state transit spending by $23 million, or 10 percent. Lawmakers in 2002 also must approve Senate Bill 636, which would maximize the amount of state transportation tax revenues that support buses and trains, adding another $23 million to state transit coffers.

These revenues will lift transit spending in Michigan to an unprecedented level and begin the state’s climb toward national transit leadership.

• Strengthen local support for transit
To leverage federal dollars and join in the economic benefits that America’s other leading cities are reaping, metro Detroit should adopt a plan to fund a regional rapid bus system, as proposed in 2001 by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Detroit and its suburbs must settle their disputes over tax equity to move the rapid bus proposal forward. Grand Rapids must support the efforts of its citizens and local transit agency to expand its bus system and to consider rail service. Communities along the proposed commuter rail line between Lansing and Detroit must back the plan and share in the operating costs. Michigan’s other cities, large and small, must add and expand transit as a key component of their transportation and land use planning.

• Expand commitment to paratransit
Timely and dependable paratransit service for people with disabilities allows everyone to contribute to Michigan’s social and economic well-being. Michigan lawmakers in 2001 passed legislation requiring the transportation department to ensure that paratransit service for the elderly and people with disabilities is available statewide. The transportation department must conduct a feasibility study, and lawmakers must provide funding for the investigation.

• Build and expand high-speed rail
High-speed interstate rail service can connect and invigorate cities much like the Internet supercharges personal computers. New state-of-the-art Amtrak trains traveling 110 miles per hour are scheduled to run by 2003 from Detroit across southern Michigan to Chicago and on to major hubs in a total of nine Midwest states. Congress must pass pending legislation to support high-speed rail, and Michigan must continue to contribute its matching share.

• Protect transit corridors for the future
One of the greatest difficulties in building transit systems is assembling right-of-way for the bus and rail lines. State lawmakers in 1998 voted to sell off more than 1,100 miles of publicly owned rail lines and right of way around them across Michigan. Legislators must repeal this law and preserve these corridors for recreational trails today and transit in the future.

• Convince Congress to increase transit spending
In 2002, federal lawmakers will begin drafting the next six-year federal transportation funding package, which is expected to exceed $220 billion for all forms of transportation. Presently, requests from metropolitan areas for federal transit funds outstrip available resources. Congress must significantly increase its support for public transit.

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