Like Detroit, Grand Rapids finally understands value of transit
July 31, 2001 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service
|Metropolitan Grand Rapids is a prime example of how the lopsided transportation funding formula ignores growing public sentiment. The bulk of public spending still goes to new roads such as Grand Rapids’ new $425 million South Beltline, which is under construction.|
Eight southeast Michigan communities will soon launch the next phase of a $1.3 million study to evaluate commuter rail service from Detroit to Lansing. U.S. Sen. Carl Levin recently called for $1 million in federal funds to finish studying the potential of rail service from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport. And the High-Speed Rail Investment Act of 2001, which Congress is now considering, promises to improve connections between Detroit and other midwestern hubs like Minneapolis, Chicago, and St. Louis.
Metropolitan Grand Rapids is a prime example of how the lopsided transportation funding formula ignores growing public sentiment. The bulk of public spending still goes to new roads such as Grand Rapids’ new $425 million South Beltline, which is under construction.
When the Motor City is part of three separate rail studies you can be certain the public transportation outlook is changing. Mid-sized cities like Grand Rapids would be wise to pay attention. Awareness is growing that healthy communities depend on effective public transportation that gives citizens legitimate choices other than automobiles.
Yet state government still shortchanges mass transit while dumping truckloads of money into road construction. Last year, Michigan allocated only $230 million of its $2 billion annual transportation budget to local transit authorities. This year the legislature added $8.8 million to transit funding.
Metropolitan Grand Rapids is a prime example of how this lopsided funding formula ignores growing public sentiment. The bulk of public spending for transportation in the region still goes to new roads. The city’s new $425 million SouthBeltline highway is under construction, and the state plans to build a $1 billion bypass around Holland.
Yet Grand Rapids-area residents reached into their own pockets last year to pay for expanded bus service. The Interurban Transit Partnership (www.grata.org), Greater Grand Rapids’ public transit authority, has experienced a 43 percent rise in ridership on local busses over the past five years. The local property tax hike passed by an overwhelming 65 percent margin.
“Normally, we don’t support tax increases,” said John Helmholdt, political affairs manager with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “However we gave nothing but full blown support for the transit millage.”
Indeed, the business community has been a strong supporter of mass transit proposals in both Detroit and Grand Rapids. Why? Transit options such as expanded bus service and commuter rail promise to improve the local quality of life in several different ways in addition to conserving energy and alleviating traffic congestion.
Building and maintaining transit systems generate construction and operation jobs. Rail networks also provide workers at all income levels easier access to jobs, protect clean air, revitalize urban neighborhoods, and attract local businesses. If you build it they will use it.
In addition to conserving energy and alleviating traffic congestion, transit options such as expanded bus service and commuter rail improve the local quality of life. This downtown bus station in Detroit is an anchor for an improving southeast Michigan transit system.
In Grand Rapids, passenger rail, or some form of efficient mass transit service, could also redirect residential growth back into urban areas and relieve the development pressure on valuable rural open space. This is something very different from the proposed 27-mile US 31 Bypass around Grand Haven that threatens to consume at least 13,000 acres of farmland in the state’s top agricultural county.
“We’re going to have population growth in the region,” said Peter Varga, executive director of the Interurban Transit Partnership, also known as The Rapid. “Public transit can be one tool to control that growth. It’s not the answer, but it’s definitely a tool.”
Whether Grand Rapids can currently support some form of passenger rail service remains a question. The Rapid is currently establishing a task force to conduct an 18-month study of a major public transit corridor that would service urban Grand Rapids. The $1.5 million the agency needs to complete the study still awaits Congressional approval. But Mr. Varga is optimistic.
When it comes to revitalizing a modern public transportation system, Grand Rapids is like most smaller metropolitan areas. It’s just getting started. Fortunately, more of Grand Rapids’ elected leaders recognize that the goal of transportation planning is to build healthy and sustainable communities. The challenge is for citizens to make sure that officials consider and finance practical public transit options that serve everyone.
Andrew Guy is an environmental journalist and organizer at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him in Grand Rapids at our new regional office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 616-308-6250.