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Michigan's Road to Rail

First stop: agree on a plan

April 1, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
and Dusty Fancher
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Widespread agreement on what a community's public transit vision is and why it's needed is the key to developing a workable, fundable rail system.

The Federal Transit Administration won't spend a dime of its construction cost-share dollars until cities come up with rail plans that cut commuter travel time, help out low-income residents, reduce smog and fuel use, and coincide with policies to bring homes, jobs, and services closer together. No plan. No money. No exceptions.

Experienced leaders across the nation say the long, involved outreach and design process required is worth the headaches because the end result is a plan that truly meets local needs and qualifies for at least 50 percent federal construction funding.

"We held literally hundreds of meetings, conducted surveys, made telephone inquiries, and produced a video and countless publications," said Jennifer Lovaasen, communications specialist for the Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis. The city started its citizen-directed planning in 1998 and is now in line to receive 50 percent federal funding for construction of a $625 million, 11.5-mile light rail line that will connect downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and the Mall of America.

"I joke that the public came to know my face better than my husband does," she said. "It was a process of educating, listening, negotiating, and relying on the public's ideas as much as possible."

Representative Rick Johnson (R-LeRoy), Michigan's new Speaker of the House, says the same public groundwork is also necessary to convince state leaders to put money into expanding transit. "I'm not opposed to giving transit more dollars, but we have to make sure it's wisely spent," Speaker Johnson said. "Before you go to the Legislature for more money, you've got to have a plan that you've sold to the public."

Michigan's two largest metropolitan areas — Detroit and Grand Rapids — have long-range transit plans, but they ignore rail and simply call for sustaining their bus systems for the next 20 to 25 years. The absence of rail projects, which take many years to envision, design, and build, means that both cities are literally canceling out trains as an option. "We need a lot of money to maintain the lousy system that we have now," said Carmine Palombo, transportation director for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. "So when people say we don't have a transit plan, I would agree with them."

The state also remains dominated by highway building, which taxes residents with greater congestion, higher road repair costs, and a lower quality of life. The haphazard growth that spreads out along its roadways has made southeast Michigan the nation's third-most sprawling metropolitan region, according to the nonprofit Fannie Mae Foundation. It also is the fifth-most expensive region in terms of family transportation costs, according to the Washington D.C.-based Surface Trans-portation Policy Project. Southeast Michigan families spend more on transportation than they do on food and health care combined.

The Michigan Department of Transportation peddles new and widened roads as a cure for congestion and an engine for economic development. This policy fails to recognize that cars will continue to clog roads faster than the state can pave them and that roads do not meet all needs.

In the city of Detroit, for example, the state keeps widening highways even though one-third of households do not own cars. Progressive states have struck a balance by adding buses and trains to their transportation spending to reduce highway traffic and direct growth to urban centers. But not Michigan.

"Our focus is on immediate problems — traffic congestion and safety — and short-term solutions," said Andrew Zeigler, MDOT's planner for the Detroit metropolitan region, where the state proposes widening Interstate 75 for $450 million and a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 94 for $1.3 billion. "We're caught in a box. The highways are out there and are congested. We're very supportive of transit, but it requires a change in the public mindset."

The good news is that, despite current problems and plenty of naysayers, many in metropolitan Detroit and Grand Rapids are planting seeds of better transit planning. SEMCOG last year launched a transit visioning process. In October, it will roll the public's priorities into its long-range transit plan for the region. If local governments can agree on funding options, then the plan could qualify for federal construction cost sharing and become reality. Citizen groups plan to rally their members to urge Detroit's mayor and suburban leaders to back the long-range planning and funding process.

Two congressionally sponsored commuter rail studies are under way as well — one to zip travelers between the city and Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the other to connect Detroit and Lansing. Detroit's business and political interests also are studying a train-like system of rapid buses.

In west Michigan, citizens are leading the way with a fresh, far-reaching rail study and strong working relationships with business and government leaders. "Most of the government's money goes to planning and building highways," said Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, which sponsored the rail study. "We're working to change the focus from a roads-only approach to a mix of transportation choices."

Efficient use of taxpayer money and land is a major reason WMEAC and others are adamant about rail despite huge changes required in attitudes and government spending. Transit investments generate more bang per taxpayer buck than roads. MDOT, for example, is considering a plan in west Michigan to spend $600 million to widen roads and build a 27-mile highway bypass around Grand Haven. A regional commuter rail system could cost half as much while reducing long-term road costs by taking traffic off the highway.

Another promising development is the expected arrival in 2003 of high-speed Amtrak trains that will compete with airlines by connecting southern Michigan cities to Chicago and other major Midwest destinations. When they arrive in Detroit and Grand Rapids, Amtrak travelers will expect the same kind of light rail and bus options that cities like Chicago and Minneapolis offer for getting around town. This added demand for transit, especially from business travelers, could stimulate rail planning through the economic development interests of local leaders. "The more high-level the transit development is, the more private investment there is," said John DeLora, head of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

Making these seeds of rail transit grow into more comprehensive planning is a matter of changing regional and state assumptions that sprawl spells success and that a roads-only policy will keep Michigan competitive with other states.

"If we're going to have a world-class state and cities, we have to be able to move people more efficiently than we do now," said State Representative Kwame Kilpatrick (D-Detroit), Michigan House Minority Leader. "To develop a highly educated, skilled workforce and connect people with jobs in the suburbs, public transit has to be a focal point."

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