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Three Steps to Transit Success

Kent County Republican Kooiman touts cooperation, quality, local commitment

June 2, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


State Representative Jerry Kooiman is working to translate the success of public transportation in his Grand Rapids area district into more support from the Legislature for other transit systems in Michigan.

Unlike many of his Republican colleagues in the Michigan State House of Representatives, Jerry Kooiman strongly believes that the state government should help finance the building and efficient operation of municipal and regional public transportation systems. Representative Kooiman can point to his own experiences to buttress his side of the debate: The professorial-looking Mr. Kooiman represents the state’s 75th House District, in Kent County, which is home to metropolitan Grand Rapids and to one of the best intra-urban bus systems in the state. That public transit system has, in the past few years, gained the kind of countywide voter support for operating millages that is the envy of every other transit-strapped municipality in Michigan.

The Wisconsin native first became active in Michigan politics as a staff assistant to U.S. Congressman Paul Henry in 1984. He served as Congressman Peter Hoekstra’s district director from 1992 to 2000; in 1994, he was elected to the Kent County Board of Commissioners. He won his current House seat in 2000, gained a coveted appointment to the powerful state House Appropriations Committee, and won a second two-year term in 2002.

Representative Kooiman wound up his career as a county commissioner in the same year that voters in metropolitan Grand Rapids, by a startling two-to-one margin, approved a regional transit millage and a new regional transit authority, the Interurban Transit Partnership. “The Rapid,” as the natives call it, connects Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Grandville, Kentwood, Walker, and Wyoming and has significantly improved the service provided by the original, already-existing Grand Rapids bus system. Pleased voters responded by approving a millage increase last fall by an even wider margin, including in the Republican suburbs around Grand Rapids; now the ITP is studying whether it should add light rail, urban rail, or so-called “rapid busses” to its service. Whatever the decision, it’s clear that metro Grand Rapids is a state leader in public transportation services and that Representative Kooiman thinks this is good for his region’s citizens and economy.

He also thinks well run public transit would be good for other Michigan towns and the state’s economy. So, faced with a state Legislature that seems bent on slashing the public transportation budget — and with a governor that has supported some of those proposed cuts as one way to eliminate the state’s gaping deficit — Mr. Kooiman is forming a House Transit Caucus. He is fighting an uphill battle; many of his Republican colleagues oppose most transit funding. But by pointing to Grand Rapids’ model bus system, which is thriving in a heavily Republican area, Mr. Kooiman clearly hopes to change some minds. He readily admits that nothing much will happen until someone converts more state lawmakers to public transportation’s cause.

Charlene Crowell, the Institute’s Lansing policy specialist, interviewed Representative Kooiman in his Lansing office last month as he was finalizing plans for the House Transit Caucus.

INSTITUTE:  Why did you organize a transit caucus?

REPRESENTATIVE KOOIMAN: It was my concern about the need to educate members of the Legislature on the importance of transportation — for the state and in their own communities. Obviously, we have different types of transit systems in different parts of the state. Some are more efficient and effective than others; some are better funded by local resources than others; and those two things are usually connected.  I want to keep the focus on public transit as an alternative to vehicular traffic and as a necessity for some segments of our society.

INSTITUTE: How do you envision this caucus advancing transit issues and funding here in Michigan, particularly given the state’s financial stress?

KOOIMAN: We are up against a situation where we need to resolve our current budget difficulty. And my hope is, again, that we can first educate our members on the importance of transit as a partner with all the other things we do in that transportation budget. That education has to happen first and primarily.

The second part is developing a strategy to at least hold the line on public transportation funding so that we don’t lose the gains we’ve made over the last number of years. I’m not holding out much hope that we are going to see an increase this year in public transportation, simply because of the current budget situation.

One disappointment I’ve had is the governor’s budget not reflecting a need to seek additional funding for mass transit. For example, her first budget reduced money for the Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which finances public transit, by $10 million by diverting money that would have come from the use tax, which is the sales tax on vehicle sales and on auto parts sales, to the general fund. I’m trying to reverse that trend with legislation that would move a percentage of the use tax on automobile leases to the transit fund. We’ve had a huge shift: More auto drivers are leasing their vehicles today than they were ten years ago. 

INSTITUTE: The Institute’s Top 10 list from the Michigan Land Use Leadership Council’s recommendations included funding public transportation at 10 percent of the state’s overall transportation fund. If the state economy improves, do you think that 10 percent goal is achievable in the next couple of years?

KOOIMAN: I’m not sure that it is. But I believe we have the potential, if we don’t continue to backslide, to increase funding for transit by attracting additional federal dollars. That’s the biggest issue. Michigan gets about 47 cents on a dollar back in the public transportation program from the gas tax money it sends to Washington, D.C. The reason is that, traditionally, Washington supported light rail as opposed to bus transit and Michigan is almost all bus transit. So if we could increase those federal dollars, and if we can divert some of the state moneys from the auto use tax, that would be another $30 million a year or so that could go into the state’s public transit fund. And if we can keep the dollars that are going into that fund now, I think there’s an opportunity to grow the public transit budget. But it isn’t something that will suddenly, dramatically increase. 

INSTITUTE: Why are you attempting this change through a caucus?

KOOIMAN: We’re all very busy. Most of us become specialists in a few things. The whole idea is to get members to focus just for one hour on one issue that they’re not normally involved with. Caucuses are set up to educate legislators. Remember, we’re in an era of term limits. We have a lot of new legislators new to the Lansing scene. The caucuses zero in on particular issues on maybe a quarterly basis to keep us all up to speed on what’s happening in that area: If I’m interested, how can I be more involved as legislation goes through? Generally you do quarterly meetings and caucuses are bipartisan. 
INSTITUTE: Will the caucus address passenger and light rail? There’s been so much talk about the future of Amtrak in Michigan. 

KOOIMAN: Well, there’s already an Amtrak caucus for passenger rail. I don’t see us duplicating that; I’m a member of that caucus. I think this first year the transit caucus will educate people on the importance of transit: Who supports transit, who needs transit. Some legislators think that transit is just for poor or older people. But in Grand Rapids, there’s the Chamber of Commerce leading the way on transit, recognizing that it’s an economic development issue. It’s a pro-jobs, pro-growth issue.

The faith community in Grand Rapids is also leading the way, recognizing that it’s a justice issue, providing opportunity for all folks. Welfare-to-work programs have proved that transportation is one of the barriers to people moving into self-sufficiency. And it is a necessity for the elderly and the handicapped, providing the opportunity to go shopping or go to work or get their medications.

INSTITUTE: Sometimes I’ve heard transit framed as a class issue — the poor, the elderly, minorities, or all three. Has transit been embraced by a wider segment than that in Grand Rapids?  

KOOIMAN:  I tell my Republican colleagues that in my legislative district transit out-polls me. The recent increase in the transit millage in Grand Rapids passed by wide margins in every community, even in strong Republican and suburban communities, which don’t rely nearly as much on transit. In my district, it passed in every precinct by more than 57 percent. I was elected with 54 percent, so it out-polls me. I think that the public, at least in Grand Rapids, is becoming more aware and receptive and understanding of the need for public transit. It does more than just serve your own population.

INSTITUTE: Comparing Grand Rapids’ tremendous transit success stories with southeast Michigan’s tremendous transit horror stories, what made things work so well?

KOOIMAN: First, cooperation. We have six cities in the urban core of Kent County that came together and said, “We’re going to do this.” I was on the county board when we first tried to do a countywide transit millage. It didn’t gather the support because so many townships didn’t see a benefit for their citizens. Some of those townships are now contracting for service with the six cities.

Number two would be making it an effective system. And that would require number three — local dollars to be dedicated to transit. So you have a chicken-and-egg syndrome: You need money to make your system efficient, but you need to make the system efficient before people will give you more money.

In Grand Rapids, the six cities said, “We’re going to put faith in a revitalized system and we’re asking out citizens to attach dollars to that.” They had six promises and they fulfilled all six. Then they went back to the taxpayers and said they wanted an increase to expand further. And the voters, by larger margins, said yes. That means to me that they’re on the right track, that they delivered what they promised. And so we have a better system, a more efficient and effective system. And people are buying into it. But the very first thing that was needed was the cooperation. They did that.

INSTITUTE: So what is your advice to southeast Michigan – with its long-standing Hatfield-and-McCoy feud over transit? How can they get beyond that to the cooperation Grand Rapids has?

KOOIMAN:  Obviously it’s a much different picture because it’s a much bigger system. The bigger you get, the more difficult it is to bring everybody to the table. But, really, you need the political leadership in each of those communities to come to the table willing to discuss ways to make their system better, willing to talk about “How do we cooperate for the common good?” I think they need a single system in southeast Michigan, not two — one system supported by all and maybe funded at different levels because there will be different levels of service. But it’s going to take cooperation from those communities’ leaders to pull together a system.

They’ve got to build a system that people can trust. I can’t wait because the bus is 30 minutes late. It’s got to deliver on its promises. But the first step is cooperation. The communities must come together at the table. I don’t think the state can impose it; it has to come from within. I thought we had some opportunities over the last two years for that to happen and, unfortunately, each time it’s fallen apart.

INSTITUTE: Is there a chance for a greater use of transit to lessen road rage?

KOOIMAN: I don’t believe Michigan will ever become dominated by transit. We’re too independent. And we don’t have the very costly infrastructure that could improve that. I opposed the governor’s elimination last year of the 34 road-widening or expansion projects. Roads and highways, I believe, are a fact of life. They are also economic development tools. Can we have better balance and make transit systems more effective? Yes. And I think you’re going to see some regional transit things happen.

I think in west Michigan there’s a potential for maybe not light rail, but express buses from one side of the county to the other, from one county to another. When you look at the triangle between Holland, Muskegon and Grand Rapids, there are perfect opportunities to look at regional transportation from a standpoint of community-to-community, not just within a community.

INSTITUTE: Will this caucus work with Michigan’s Congressional delegation to get more federal dollars to do a better job? Right now we send more gas tax dollars to Washington D.C. than we get back in transportation dollars, whether it’s roads or transit.

KOOIMAN: I won’t prejudge what the caucus will do. But I think we will have to work with our Congressional delegation on that “donor issue.” I went to Washington last year for the Michigan Transportation Team that met with our state’s delegation, key committee chairs, and subcommittee chairs.  We argued, debated, and requested more road and transit money. I wanted to be there so that there would be a balance between asking for both. We need a fair return on the dollar for roads, but also for transit. If you bump that federal 47 cents on the dollar that we get back now to 55 or 60 cents, that means major new investment in transit in Michigan. I’d ask for 95 cents on every dollar; but even if we got 60 instead of 47 cents, we’d be doing much better.

INSTITUTE: Last year during the summit held by the Michigan Department of Transportation, there was much discussion of next steps; the different breakout groups have continued those discussions. Will those discussions ever intersect with the caucus?

KOOIMAN: First, the caucus has to decide its agenda. But there’s certainly potential for a caucus meeting where some outside groups present information and allow for dialogue.

INSTITUTE: If you got your wish, how would Michigan’s transit be different two years from now?

KOOIMAN: Maybe my goals are too low, but very honestly, my one-year outlook would be that we don’t have a reduction in funding for transit below where we are today. I think we’ll be doing well if we can hold that line. But if we look at how we fund transportation in Michigan, if we look at the auto use tax, at state House Speaker Rick Johnson’s idea of going to a sales tax for road funding in its entirety with a portion set aside for public transit funding, and at other possibilities like additional federal dollars — if we can add to it over the next two years, I would be very happy.

And if there was strong support in the Legislature overall for transit programs, that would be a success. Right now I don’t think we have that, and that goes back to some transit systems in Michigan not performing at peak efficiency. People look at those examples and think all transit systems are the same. And there are others who look at transit users as a very narrow set of people. They don’t look at the broader picture of economic development: Job creation, meeting the necessities of elderly and handicapped individuals.

Charlene Crowell is the Institute's Lansing-based policy specialist. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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