Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / All Aboard For The New Regional Ride

All Aboard For The New Regional Ride

Bold metropolitan leaders, emerging bipartisan consensus ready Michigan for building world-class public transportation

February 17, 2003 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

An exact diagnosis of what weakens a metropolitan region is always hard to come by. Like everything else that involves large numbers of people, communities decline — or thrive — due to a complex interlinking of economic opportunity, safe neighborhoods, good schools, arts and recreation, great public spaces, and civic attitudes about race, culture, and quality of life.

This report concludes, however, that smart regional leaders and an engaged citizenry can advance at least one specific remedy that not only improves the health of some of Michigan’s weakest cities but also fortifies its already healthy ones. That remedy is effective, convenient, efficient, regional public transportation.

Our research found it is no accident that across the nation the metropolitan regions that operate effective public transit systems usually have the strongest economies, the most vibrant job markets, the best neighborhoods, and the most robust quality of life. Conversely, metropolitan regions with feeble or no regional public transit usually have frail economies and spiritless job markets.

Bold Leaders Make Brave Choices
Across Michigan, metropolitan leaders are focusing on the sharp contrasts between these different pictures of civic health. This report focuses on five communities whose leaders have bravely dismissed the shortsighted conventional wisdom that public transportation has no significant place in Michigan and are investing in improving their transit systems.

These leaders, in metropolitan Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Sault Ste. Marie, understand that public transit is the most vital civic network for connecting workers to jobs; linking one neighborhood with the next; binding people to arts, culture and recreation; and improving quality of life.

These civic leaders discovered that public transit also provides cost-effective alternatives to new highways and traffic congestion; as well as new investments in urban neighborhoods; better housing, job, and cultural opportunities in cities; and better control of development that devours farm and forestland.

Two Parties, One Vision
This new recognition of public transit’s value is decidedly bipartisan. Two of the five transportation systems we report on 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 reapproving legislation for the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority — a bill Republican lawmakers helped pass, only to see it vetoed by then-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. While this is music to ears of those who have worked hard and long to get public transportation moving again across the entire state, this report recognizes that many barriers to that goal remain, particularly making the necessary investments in this era of budget deficits.

Nevertheless, we conclude that 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. We also believe those investments will secure the final leg of the funding triangle, federal support.

Next Steps
Based on our research, The Regional Ride recommends that metropolitan regions and the state take the following steps toward a more durable economic future:

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.

Statewide Coalition Supports 5-Step Program  >>

Michigan Land Use Institute

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