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Bumpy Ride for Buses and Trains

March 5, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Pat Owen
  Grand Rapids voters overwhelmingly approved a property tax hike in 2000 to create a new regional bus system. Stronger funding from both the city and the state of Michigan are still needed, however, to leverage essential federal transit grants for Grand Rapids.

States that value public transit as an engine for economic growth and urban revitalization provide strong and stable funding to their bus and train services. Michigan’s transit spending, in contrast, has bounced up and down since 1990 like a passenger on a poorly maintained bus.

The message these actions send to Michigan’s cities and citizens is that they cannot count on the state to treat transit as a vital link in Michigan’s transportation system. As a result, communities struggle to keep basic transit systems functioning and fail to plan and build 21st-century transit options.

Like any business, public transit cannot serve its customers efficiently and effectively with meager and unstable financial support. Michigan must put substantial state-level backing behind local transit efforts by maximizing transit’s share of existing funding sources, such as the gasoline tax, and by developing new revenue streams.

Bypassing Transit
The period from 1997 to 2001 offers a revealing snapshot of Michigan’s debilitating attitude toward its urban and rural bus systems.

At every opportunity for new transit funding during this time, the governor and the Legislature directed revenues to roads instead. In addition to undercutting transit, this policy also stimulated the kind of suburban growth that spreads people and destinations farther apart, undermining the workability of bus and train service.

In 1997, Michigan Governor John Engler and the state Legislature raised the tax on gasoline by 4 cents a gallon, generating an additional $200 million annually. By law, public transit should receive about 10 percent of the gas tax and, as such, was in line to reap some $20 million more each year. It would have been a vital boost after Gov. Engler and the Legislature cut transit’s budget three times in the early 1990s to curb state spending. Instead, state politicians bypassed transit completely and directed all the new gas tax proceeds to roads and bridges. This left state support for transit in 1997 nearly unchanged since the beginning of the decade, while spending on highways soared. 

Roads Only
One year later, citizens learned that the Michigan Department of Transportation had failed to disburse all of the funding available for local transit dating back to 1990, quietly accumulating a $58.5 million surplus. Rather than infuse transit with this critical cash, however, the governor and Legislature sent $25 million of the transit surplus to the highway program. Local transit agencies received just a bit more than half of their own money, which they sorely needed to catch up on deferred maintenance and service upgrades.

Even so, this one-time 1998 spike in transit funds has since emboldened the governor and legislators to reduce transit funding again, as if levels were too high. In reality, transit’s annual budget regularly falls well short of the full 10 percent of certain transportation tax revenues allowed it under the state constitution. Transit’s share in 2001 would have been about $25 million higher if it had reached the 10 percent cap.

Survival Mode
Michigan’s local bus agencies have survived the state’s bumpy funding ride only by cutting routes, reducing hours, and postponing maintenance. They have not been able to put planning for world-class transit at the forefront of their activity.

Now, rather than boarding sleek trains or express buses, Michigan citizens remain stuck in the same old traffic. And those who rely on transit to get to work sometimes go without a bus ride or, in some cases, without a job. In the city of Detroit, for instance, one-third of households don’t own a car, and underfunded buses are notorious for frequent breakdowns and scheduling backups. Few employers can afford to tolerate an employee who regularly arrives an hour or more late.

Urban traffic congestion also worsened and air quality suffered during the 1990s because of the state’s low regard for transit. Meanwhile, state officials continued laying plans for new and ever-wider highways, failing to account for the toll such over-reliance on cars puts on family budgets, community quality of life, and the state’s economic competitiveness.

Citizen Action
Motivated by transit’s travails, the Michigan Land Use Institute and its many grassroots partners launched the Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition in 1999 to change the state’s focus from laying pavement to moving people.

The coalition saw transit’s best chance in 2000, when Gov. Engler announced his $900 million Build Michigan III transportation initiative. The coalition worked to promote transit as a part of the plan, but the governor again directed all the money to new highways.

The state’s pattern of pulling funds from transit’s reach repeated twice more in 2001. First Gov. Engler chopped nearly half of a hard-won $8 million increase. Later lawmakers ignored transit when proposing a diesel fuel tax increase for transportation.

The Road Ahead
Michigan cannot possibly become North America’s leader in seamlessly connected highways and transit systems while pouring cash into pavement and demanding transit do more with less. Yet that’s exactly the vision the state unveiled in 2000 with its Transportation Funding for the 21st Century report.

The report recommends cutting guaranteed funding to transit agencies by 50 percent, lumping the other half in a funding pool, and then requiring local agencies to compete for the remainder of their basic operating funds. Total state transit funding would not change. But some bus systems would face certain loss of financial support. All would suffer from still greater uncertainty.

The Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition offered a distinctly different vision, calling for stable and improved support — including an incentive program — to make transit a viable and valuable part of the state’s overall transportation system.

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