Dead End Road?
State stalling on transportation reform; citizens get revved up
August 1, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Three years after granting itself a deadline extension to forge meaningful transportation reform, the state Legislature opted last June to scrap its deadline completely rather than retool a key law. The sleight of hand raises doubts about whether lawmakers will advance any changes this year to Public Act 51, the state’s primary mechanism for funding new roads, road repair, and local bus systems.
The prospect of doing nothing but preserving the status quo would undermine a year and a half of work by a public-private committee to revamp the 50-year-old law. And inaction would mock the efforts of hundreds of citizens across Michigan to press for better transit funding and an aggressive road repair program at a time when the state has a record $3 billion annual transportation budget.
“We came to Lansing last spring to ask for a fair share for transit,” said Janice Joseph, staff organizer at Metropolitan Organizing Strategy for Enabling Strength (MOSES), a faith-based community group seeking urban revitalization in Detroit and its suburbs. “We heard several lawmakers support our cause, but now there’s been no meaningful action on Public Act 51. How long must we wait for access to good jobs and the other places we all need to go?”
Last April, MOSES and the Institute rallied more than 300 citizens at the Capitol. Residents poured in from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Traverse City, and beyond to support full funding of public transit and repairing and re-investing in the existing road network. Clergy cajoled, transit riders testified, high school students stumped for change, and union representatives roused the crowd, as several lawmakers looked on and offered supportive remarks.
What sparked the rally was a concerted effort by state officials to further weaken ill-funded bus systems. Earlier in the spring, the Michigan Department of Transportation and a PA 51 public-private legislative committee recommended changing the law by slashing funds to local bus agencies by 50% over five years. The transit providers then would compete among themselves for funds generated by the cuts. The only way to get additional money would be for other bus systems to get less. And no bus agency would be certain of what funding to expect from year to year.
“We feel that the transit agencies must become more efficient and effective before we can consider giving them any more money,” said Robin Pannecouk, MDOT’s chief spokesperson. “Creating competition for funding is the way to do that.”
On the other end of the efficiency spectrum, MDOT proposed keeping more funds for the state highway system and giving less to local road agencies. And the Engler Administration stumped for $900 million to subsidize road expansions, gaining legislative approval for $100 million from the general fund and permission to use the state’s rainy day fund to pay back $800 million in new bonds.
Roadblock to Public Involvement
After the state unveiled its more-roads and less-transit plan, it took a series of steps to silence the public by:
• Rigging a PA 51 “Citizens” Advisory Committee. The Governor packed it with members of the road-building industry and few actual transit users, and gave them 10 days to review more than a year’s worth of work.
• Trying to outlaw local control. When the Senate introduced a bill last May to revise PA 51, MDOT added language to exempt itself from all local ordinances, seeking free rein to act as a state land use planning agency.
• Ending public participation. Ultimately, the Legislature scrapped the original Senate bill and simply yanked the deadline for reviewing PA 51, circumventing the provision requiring periodic public review and hearings.
Real Reform Dead Ahead?
Pledging to keep the reform of PA 51 moving, State Rep. Rick Johnson (R-LeRoy), Chairman of the House Transportation Committee, last June appointed three House subcommittees to jumpstart the process. But no meeting dates have been set, the Legislature’s summer recess has begun, and the entire House of Representatives faces re-election or retirement in the fall.
“It’s my intention to redo Public Act 51 by the end of the year, likely in lame duck session, and I believe it’s the Governor’s intent too,” Rep. Johnson said. “It’s not just for show.”
CONTACTS: Janice Joseph, MOSES, 313-838-3190; Robin Pannecouk, MDOT, 517-373-2160; State Rep. Rick Johnson, toll free, 877-642-4102; Kelly Thayer at the Institute, 231-882-4723.