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Michigan Regions Play Transit Catch-Up

Report finds new interest in public transportation to build stable economies

February 20, 2003 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Safe, convenient, inexpensive public transit is an unmistakable signal of civic vitality. It’s no accident that Ann Arbor, which operates an excellent public transportation system, is also among Michigan’s most vibrant cities.

Maybe the conventional wisdom about public transportation is correct: Michiganians love their vehicles so much that there’s no chance public transit — even innovative, fast, and convenient public transit — will ever get them out of their cars and trucks.

Conventional wisdom, though, is usually a narrow measure of what is happening now, not what is coming or what is possible. That’s why it’s often so woefully off the mark.

Indeed, after decades of embracing conventional wisdom on transportation and allowing their transit systems to steadily erode, three of Michigan’s most influential metropolitan regions — Detroit, Grand Rapids, and Ann Arbor — have tossed aside the “conventional” and “wised up” to what was lost and can be regained.

According to The Regional Ride, a just-published study by the Michigan Land Use Institute and United Cerebral Palsy, a remarkable reckoning with the new century’s need for more economically effective, environmentally sensitive, and community-minded transportation services is taking shape statewide. The study found Michigan’s metropolises taking significant steps to rebuild the high-quality, regional public transportation systems that existed 50 years ago.

Public transit, The Regional Ride finds, is also gaining more acceptance in the state’s rural regions, which until recently regarded riding the bus as something only the impoverished or those with disabilities would willingly do. Traverse City and Sault Ste. Marie have modest regional bus systems that increasing numbers of citizens and leaders are working to improve.

It’s Real. It’s Happening
Embracing public transit as a realistic regional transportation choice in Michigan, as it already is in the nation’s greatest metropolitan regions — New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle — comes not a moment too soon. From Cleveland and Atlanta to St. Louis and Dallas, public transit is becoming the powerful economic engine its proponents long predicted.

In St. Louis, for example, new light rail lines and enhanced bus services helped generate some $2 billion in public and private commitments to new development — including hospitals, retail centers, and high-end housing.

In Atlanta, BellSouth consolidated 75 scattered telecommunications operations into offices near the city’s new light rail system, simultaneously expanding the city’s investment and job base and giving half of the company’s 20,000 employees a new, attractive transportation choice.

Two Parties, One Vision
Such transit-savvy regions are powerful reminders to Michigan’s elected leaders and citizens that well-designed, well-managed public transit inspires developers to build homes, businesses, offices, and recreation centers close to transit stops in neighborhoods and cities. Michigan must engage in a serious game of public transportation catch-up or lose its attractiveness for top employees and companies looking for new places to work or do business.

Fortunately, recognizing public transit’s value in Michigan is becoming decidedly bipartisan. Two of the five transportation systems featured in The Regional Ride draw their support from strongly Republican electorates; two others do so in Democratic strongholds.

Last November, the state elected Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm who, in the first days of her new administration, declared that approving legislation for the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority — a bill Republican lawmakers helped pass only to see it vetoed late last year by Republican Governor John Engler — was her top legislative priority.

In fact, Ms. Granholm promised to work in metropolitan Detroit with local and community leaders to develop a system that uses buses and commuter rail to bring citizens to where the jobs are, link communities together, and increase prosperity for the entire region and the state. “Improving transportation options is not the concern of one city or county, but of entire regions and the state,” said Ms. Granholm in a statement.

“Finding solutions that will help our citizens get to their jobs, link our communities together, and increase prosperity is a common goal we all share and must work toward in the weeks and months to come.”

While this is music to ears of those who worked hard and long to get public transportation moving again across the state, The Regional Ride recognizes that many barriers to that goal remain, particularly making the necessary investments in an era of budget deficits.  Nevertheless, public transit is essential to Michigan’s economic health in the 21st century, just as it was in the first half of the 20th century. Now, as then, a clear commitment to public transit investments is needed at the local and state level. The Regional Ride also concludes that those investments will lead to more federal support.

Public Transportation’s Bonuses
The Regional Ride cites evidence that public transportation has many social and economic benefits including its ability to help reduce sprawl and its negative consequences. Using buses and trains instead of cars and light trucks cuts vehicular pollutants that trigger asthma attacks, greenhouse gases that change the climate, and consumption of foreign oil.

Reining in sprawl is vital to Michigan’s future for many reasons. Research by Carnegie Mellon University and others indicate that a state’s quality of life — vibrant cities, good schools, ease of movement, welcoming public spaces, accessible shorelines, and clean air and water — is the chief factor in attracting the capital, businesses, and jobs that sustain a strong economy.

But in Michigan a combination of government policy and social expectation has instead produced land-hungry, sprawling development: From 1980 to 1995 development for new suburbs consumed land at a pace eight times faster than the state’s population growth. Michigan now has one of America’s highest sprawl rates and one of its lowest population growth rates.

Like timber cutting in the 19th century, sprawl has become an unsustainable, boom-and-bust economic generator. In Michigan, sprawl speculators grow rich by turning farm fields into concrete prairies and by blurring the boundaries between small towns and the countryside with new, congested suburbs. 

Meanwhile, everyone else pays dearly in higher family costs, taxes, and stress levels. Distances between home and everyplace else grow longer. Forced to maintain fleets of cars and pay higher taxes to build and maintain ever more miles of roads, families grow poorer. Water pollution, air contamination, and deforestation grow worse. And older, increasingly abandoned neighborhoods grow more decrepit.
Best is Better
On a more personal level, some people frequently say that until a transit system is good enough for people with disabilities, it’s not good enough for the entire community. In the short run it’s particularly helpful to those who are too old to drive anymore — in the next 25 years the state’s senior population will grow by more than 50 percent — and to many of the 17 percent of Michigan’s citizens with disabilities. But in the long run it will take continued, wise investment in public transportation if urbanized regions are to reach their full potential.

Safe, convenient, inexpensive public transit is an unmistakable signal of civic vitality. It’s no accident that cities with excellent public transportation are also the world’s most vibrant.

When Michigan residents once again become comfortable with the quality of life offered in its leading cities, the pressure to sprawl into the countryside will ease. Good public transit is absolutely essential to that equation.

The Turning Point
Transportation innovations are hardly new to Michigan. In 1909 Henry Ford paved the way to a new, independent lifestyle when he built the first mass-produced car: The Model T. That same year, Wayne County laid the world’s first mile of concrete highway.

Michigan’s 20th-century leaders supported transportation innovation because they saw a need — and a huge opportunity. Now, in the 21st century, Michigan has another chance to use innovative transportation as a modern economic development tool. The Regional Ride concludes that Michigan really has no other choice and recommends the following steps to improve public transportation and strengthen the economy:

I. Fix It First
Regions should set priorities for maintaining existing roads rather than building new or wider ones. This not only reduces future maintenance costs, it also can help make more money available for public transportation.

II. Establish Regional Authorities
Regional transportation authorities can promote cooperation among local governmental units because they are able to coordinate services for people, places, and commerce far more effectively and efficiently. They are also essential to maximizing federal funding of transportation systems.

III. Enable Regional Taxation
Legislation allowing regions to tax themselves for public transportation or other services is essential if they are to manage their own growth. Across the nation, dedicated regional sales taxes — from one-quarter to one percent — are the chief method for funding public transportation. In Michigan, this is a constitutional question requiring a statewide vote.

IV. Get Michigan’s Fair Share
Michigan’s lackluster commitment to public transit costs the state, on average, $100 million a year in federal funds designed to encourage public transit diversification. Because Congress will reauthorize six-year federal transportation funding in 2003, it is essential that the state makes transit a priority so it can capture its fair share for investment in new bus or rail initiatives.

Johanna Miller is a writer and transportation policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.  Reach her at joey@mlui.org

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