Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / In A Major Disconnect, HIghways Still Dominate Grand Rapids Agenda

In A Major Disconnect, HIghways Still Dominate Grand Rapids Agenda

May 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

"Calling for 'efficient transportation systems' was the compromise language used to quiet the pesky transit advocates who fought like hell to get their visions adopted," Ms. Stoneman added. " They were so dismayed that they became deeply cynical about the whole process. They simply did not want to buy into any part of the Blueprint purporting to change 'business as usual' yet promoting a bypass."

Nearly a decade later, not much has changed. Roads continue to be the concert master of the Grand Rapids transportation system while transit plays a distant second fiddle.

Jim Buck, the chairman of Metro Council, says the organization is unsure about how aggressively it can promote public transportation because some of its members are ambivalent, particularly several suburbs unwilling to support a property tax increase to pay for increased service. Mr. Buck, who also is the mayor of Grandville, said it would be more comfortable to push for transit if the business community were involved.

"To me it's one of the most critical things facing the Grand Rapids area," he said. "Transportation is a weak link. No question. There are enough committees out there studying this thing. I think it's going to take a major push among employers to get it straightened out."

Everyone Pays
Grand Rapids is the nation's 93rd-largest city — and Michigan's second most populous at 188,000 — but operates a public transit system, the Grand Rapids Area Transit Authority (GRATA), that lags behind many smaller cities. Ann Arbor, with half of Grand Rapids' population, transports 10% more passengers. The Lansing bus system levied $6.4 million in property taxes last year, while GRATA has no guaranteed property tax support. Flint's buses run until 11 p.m. on weeknights, nearly five hours later than GRATA's.

GRATA Executive Director Peter Varga, at the wheel since 1997, has one tough job. His fleet of 75 buses last year carried more than 3.6 million passengers and logged about 2.3 million miles. Even so, because of the restricted service there are relatively few riders, who alone don't make a sizable enough constituency to compel local government officials to give the system more support. In late 1996, for example, the Kent County Board of Commissioners narrowly defeated a five-year proposal to raise property taxes slightly to support GRATA.

Since the 1940s the federal government has conducted numerous traffic studies on the causes of congestion, each concluding that new roads do not relieve it. Instead more roads induce demand by providing more access.

Recently, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley studied 30 urban counties in California. They found that every 1% increase in new lane-miles generated a 0.9% increase in traffic over four years.

In other words, no matter how much pavement gets laid down, it very quickly will fill up with cars and trucks. Building more roads in Grand Rapids will have the same effect there that it does everywhere else. The South Belt will increase congestion, raise taxes, and encourage sprawl in the same townships that are seeking tools to halt sprawl.

Underfunding GRATA significantly adds to this problem:

  • Employers in the Grand Rapids region cannot rely on a convenient, comfortable, and affordable non-automotive way for employees to get to work.
  • Residents who can't afford or don't want to drive are stuck with a public transit system that fails to serve their needs.
  • An effective transit system would eliminate the need for several million car trips annually, relieving congestion and saving taxpayers the money required to maintain, widen, and build new roads. It also would encourage development of business and shopping districts near transit stops, reducing the need to build on farmland.

So who is hurt by the region's love affair with roads and the struggling Grand Rapids bus system? Peter Varga prefers to turn the question around and ask, "Who isn't hurt by it?"

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org