Only a few places in Michigan get it
August 1, 1999 | By Kelly Thayer
and Conan Smith
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
Standing in the control room that overlooks the bustling staging area of the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, Executive Director Greg Cook looks a lot like a commander-in-chief. In a high-tech setting that resembles a NASA flight center, computer screens flash statistics, buses are tracked electronically, and uniformed women and men keep in regular radio contact with drivers.
Without question, Ann Arbor operates the most sophisticated, convenient, and effective public transit system in Michigan. The state-of-the-art system breathes life into Ann Arbor's robust downtown by providing residents with a cost-efficientandflexible alternativetocars.
More than four million passengers a year ride Ann Arbor's 75 buses. Only transit systems in Detroit and Flint, both of which have significantly larger populations, carry more passengers, and only Lansing's system comes close in innovation. Public transportation is regarded as such an important civic asset that in 1973 Ann Arbor residents approved an amendment to the city charter perpetually funding the system.
"One of the great things we have in Ann Arbor is technology," said Mr. Cook. "We have been able to develop a great system because we have great community support."
Unfortunately, Ann Arbor and Lansing are unique in Michigan in providing residents with a convenient alternative to cars. In most cities the transit systems are woefully underfunded or nonexistent, and residents and local leaders have been unwilling or unable to raise property taxes or secure other sources of revenue to properly fund them.
Since 1975, transit ridership statewide has fallen from 104.1 million to 86.5 million. Michigan lawmakers and transportation department officials cite the falling ridership figures to justify their decision to consistently deny the state's 73 transit agencies their fair share of financial support. Of the $2.8 billion available this year for transportation spending in Michigan, just $168 million is going to public transit. The result is that most transit agencies operate at the brink of ruin.
The scarcity of public transit means Michiganders are using their cars more than ever. The state's highway-dominated transportation policy is producing ruinous sprawl, with increasing traffic congestion, rising costsforreconstruction and repair, and grave environmental problems includingwidespread air and water pollution.
Will Michigan Learn from the Leaders?
Mr. Cook argues that increasing funding for public transit is a well-documented solution to the costly problems caused by urban sprawl. "I come from Oregon where land use planning is paramount," he said. "It's not that way here, and it's time we took a look at ourselves. If we want to survive, transit has got to be a top priority."
Excellent public transit systems, he noted, are a defining characteristic of the world's greatest cities. From New York to Hong Kong, Paris to Santiago, international leaders rely on modern transit to economize, contain growth, make it possible for residents of all ages to participate in civic life, and reduce pollution. In short, said Mr. Cook, if Michigan expects to be globally competitive in the next century, mass transit must become a political priority and a practical reality.
CONTACTS:Greg Cook, Ann Arbor Transit Authority; 2700 South Industrial Highway, Ann Arbor, MI 48104, Tel. 734-973-6500; Michigan Public Transit Association, 412 W. Ionia, Lansing, MI 48933, Tel. 517-374-6810.