Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / 2nd STOP: FIND A TRANSIT CHAMPION


April 1, 2001 | By Kelly Thayer
and Dusty Fancher
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Rail projects need one person — or one organization — to capture and command the public's attention. In other words, a champion.

In Wisconsin, former Governor Tommy Thompson was that head cheerleader. In the mid-1990s, Gov. Thompson started rallying for rail and ultimately won $50 million from the state Legislature to help ensure that new high-speed Amtrak trains out of Chicago would roll through Milwaukee, Portage, Madison, LaCrosse and on to Minneapolis.

In Minnesota, Governor Jesse Ventura wrestled $100 million out of the state Legislature for the first, modern light rail line to serve the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. A second light rail line is on the horizon, along with a commuter rail line branching off to St. Cloud in the northwest.

Colorado Governor Bill Owens was so fired up about light rail in Denver that in 1998 he gave his legislative liaison a year's leave to help direct a ballot initiative to finance a 20-mile light rail addition to the city's growing electric streetcar network. The Republican governor jumped into the act himself when he strolled down Denver's central 16th Street shoulder to shoulder with Democratic Mayor Wellington Webb. The enticing photo opportunity was a show of top-level, bipartisan commitment. Call it the little engine that could transcend gridlock: Denver's light rail proposal passed.

Success in Denver and elsewhere is convincing other cities that rail is a vital transportation tool. In January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors put increased federal funding for passenger rail at the top of its lobbying list. Denver Mayor Webb explained his commitment to rail this way: "Our emphasis is on supporting our downtown, strengthening our neighborhoods, and expanding our open space and parks. Light rail helps us meet these goals."

Michigan currently lacks a transit champion in the governor's office. Governor John Engler's insistence on building new and wider highways, and resistance to increased funding for public transit, has been a hallmark of his 10 years in office. He raised gasoline taxes in 1997 to construct and repair highways. Last year he persuaded lawmakers to drain $800 million out of the state's "rainy day" emergency fund and another $100 million from the general fund to pay for road expansions. Both funding maneuvers bypassed transit. Gov. Engler has not opposed funding to develop high-speed Amtrak service but, unlike former Wisconsin Gov. Thompson, he has not been a vocal advocate.

At the regional level, Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie is a lone rail visionary among west Michigan officials. A strong advocate for passenger train service, he sits on the board of the new Interurban Transit Partnership and is working to secure planning money for ITP to conduct a full-scale rail study. "The history of cities the size of Grand Rapids is that they wait until they are in complete gridlock before they seek alternatives," Mayor Logie said. "I hope we can do better than that and begin planning right now for light rail."

Other city leaders, such as Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, are struggling with the here and now of deficient bus service. Mayor Archer, who declined to comment for this article, called in January for better maintenance and new bus shelters but has not outlined a vision for rail service to take an improved bus system into the 21st century.

Michigan's lack of leadership on rail frustrates citizen groups who know they need a powerful spokesperson. "Around the country, regions get state-of-the-art transit when their elected officials step forward and demand it. Ours haven't," said Karen Kendrick-Hands, founder of the Detroit-area transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United. "And they don't care about those of us who either must or would choose to use transit if it were upgraded."

Michigan's unmanaged growth and spiraling transportation costs could be just the right catalyst for change and a popular platform on which a transit champion could stand.

Indicators abound that state residents are tired of transportation policies that favor highways, pull apart communities, and pave over farmland. Michigan residents are taking action to combat reckless growth and rampant road building. In nearly a dozen townships and counties last November, voters replaced sprawl-as-usual officials with challengers who stressed reining in unchecked development, protecting the environment, and reducing traffic. More elected officials, including candidates for governor in 2002, will face the same demands from voters.

Federal officials said they've seen public frustration elsewhere in the country turn into citizen coalitions that essentially have become transit champions. In Florida, for example, voters last fall pushed and approved a state constitutional amendment to build a high-speed rail network to connect the state's five largest metropolitan areas and link with highways and airports. The Florida Legislature is now working to meet the mandate.

"A political champion does not necessarily have to be an individual," said Brian E. Jackson, community planner for the Federal Transit Administration in Washington D.C. "It can, for example, be a consortium of local or regional groups and locally elected officials who all have a stake in implementing improvements to a defined transportation problem."

Citizen groups in Michigan are working to build momentum and set the stage for a transit champion to step up, speak out, and leverage grassroots, business, and federal interest. "We're working to create enough pressure and a strong enough base of support for a politician to emerge as a leader on transit," said Vicky Kovari, chair of the transportation task force at the faith-based, southeast Michigan citizens group Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, or MOSES.

Business interests also are key players in such social movements. In Detroit, executives have started to fill some of the business leadership vacuum on transit. Their public-private Metropolitan Affairs Coalition plans to release a rapid bus study in April and possibly follow it up with further implementation planning. A business leader from the group could spearhead this project and lobby for transit in general.

Likewise in Grand Rapids business leaders are joining a growing citizen push for better mobility. Big contributions from business last year helped win a property tax increase in Grand Rapids for expanded bus service. Howard Sutton, vice president of corporate relations for Steelcase, Inc., the $3.4 billion-a-year manufacturer of office furniture, said his company has identified transportation improvements as key to both its own and the region's future. "Improving public transportation is an environmental issue. It's a traffic issue and land use issue. It's a key component to make a better region to live in."

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