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Michigan’s Pro-Transit Landslide

Big local victories challenge Lansing inaction on public transportation

August 18, 2004 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Marquette County Transit Authority

Marquette County approved its Aug. 3 transportation millage by a two-to-one margin. Now the county’s transit authority is planning a new bus station for downtown Marquette, which recently was designated one of “America’s Most Livable Communities.”

LANSING — In a sharp challenge to the state Legislature’s resistance to funding public transportation, citizens in 13 Michigan counties voted overwhelmingly for either continuing or increasing local property taxes to support their bus systems. Transit advocates are heralding the statewide groundswell, which occurred in local elections on August 3, and say they hope it will persuade the Legislature to increase, instead of decrease or even eliminate, state support for local transit systems.

Only one community rejected a proposed transit millage, and did so by a 10-point margin. The 13 winning millages, in contrast, passed by an average of 21 points, essentially a landslide. The director of one statewide transit advocacy group said that such strong showings for public transit, which stretched from Marquette in the far north to Flint in the south, send an unmistakable message to Lansing lawmakers.

“Public transportation is valued and people are willing to step to the plate and fund their fair share at the local level,” said Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, the state’s oldest and largest association of transit systems. “It is critically important that the Legislature step up and maintain the state’s fair share as well.”

The strongly pro-transit votes in the 13 counties matches the sentiments that other citizens across the state also expressed, both in August 3 votes and other recent political decisions, particularly in northwest Lower Michigan. For example, Smart Growth candidates defeated a number of incumbents by sizable margins in Acme and Elmwood Townships, respectively in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. And earlier this summer, the Traverse City Commission approved the construction of a downtown bus transfer station over strenuous objections from some who felt the project would harm property values. Benzie County commissioners unanimously approved a transit millage for next August’s ballot.

However, the Legislature continues to move in the opposite direction. Lansing lawmakers are considering a series of bills that could dramatically reduce state transit funding and transform budgeting and policy making for bus systems from a relatively stable, consensus building approach into a politicized, unpredictable one. Among the transit bills attracting the strongest criticism from public transportation supporters are several sponsored by State Senator Shirley Johnson, the Troy Republican who chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Sub-Committee for Transportation Appropriations.

Senator Johnson’s hostility to public transit seemingly ignores the transit-related recommendations made by the bipartisan Michigan Land Use Leadership Council last August. Among other pro-transit recommendations, the council urged the Legislature to fully and permanently fund local transit with the full amount that state law allows. Last October, Senator Burt Leland, a Detroit Democrat, sponsored SB 0768, which would turn that council recommendation into state law. But the bill has languished in Senator Johnson’s Senate Appropriations Committee without a hearing for 10 months.

Combating the Johnson Factor
In the meantime, Senator Johnson has been pushing her own bill, SB 1163, which would eliminate the possibility of any yearly guarantee or goal for state support of local transit systems. Another of her proposals, SB 1081, would prevent local transit systems from administering ride sharing programs, even if, as in Michigan’s case, there are almost no private companies willing to provide the service under state contract. Ms. Johnson also authored two other bills, co-sponsored by the entire Republican senate caucus, that would transfer the final decision-making powers for the Michigan Department of Transportation’s five-year spending plans, as well as for MDOT’s bonding, from the State Transportation Commission to both chambers of the state Legislature, which observers describe as a direct attack on the transportation department’s policy and budgeting authority.

Several influential organizations registered strong opposition to Senator Johnson’s proposals month ago. Those organizations, including MPTA, the Michigan Municipal League, Southeast Michigan Council of Government, and the Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition, a statewide advocacy group led by the Michigan Land Use Institute, say that this month’s statewide transit landslide should give them more political leverage as they push to maintain transit funding.

Transit advocates point to another aspect of the August 3 transit victories that they believe helps them: The demographics of the communities that supported transit. They range from rural, almost completely white areas of the Upper Peninsula, including Marquette, Ontonagon and Gogebic Counties; to rapidly suburbanizing areas, such as Shiawassee County; to more urbanized areas with significant African American populations, including Genesee County, where Flint is located.

In all, transit millages were strongly favored by voters in Charlevoix (65 per cent approval), Clare (63 per cent), Genesee (54 per cent), Gogebic (77 per cent), Ingham (60 per cent), Isabella (62 per cent), Lake (56 per cent), Marquette (65 per cent), Mason (62 per cent), Midland (70 per cent), Ontonagon (63 per cent), Shiawassee (62 per cent), and Tuscola (61 per cent) counties.

Flint's Seniors and Disabled Make the Difference
The closest of the “Yes” votes occurred in Genesee County, where the proposal won by eight percentage points. It offers a textbook example of how a determined citizenry can overcome institutional opposition and its own transit board’s cautious approach.

The county’s Mass Transportation Authority has 410 employees and operates a fleet of 225 vehicles on an annual budget of $18 million. It serves Flint, the rest of Genesee County, and through inter-local agreements, neighboring Livingston, Oakland, Lapeer, Saginaw, and Washtenaw Counties. Approximately 20,000 riders use the system each day and, as is typical for most bus systems, riders include students from kindergarten through college, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and people who cannot afford cars.

Spurred by reduced funding from state and federal grants that threatened to limit service and lay off employees, MTA earlier this year proposed that its board of directors put a modest 0.4 mill increase on the August ballot to avoid cutbacks. But the board voted to reduce the request to 0.3 mill. That prompted an outcry, particularly from seniors and people with disabilities, who pressed the board to work for the larger millage and expanded services. The board changed its mind and approved the higher increase request.

Seniors and advocates for the disabled then organized into Friends of Public Transportation to promote service expansion. The countywide, citizen-led effort helped voters better understand the choices their community were facing.

“Two things people realize” said Ed Benning, MTA’s assistant general manager. “The senior population is just growing, and so is the disabled community. We basically went out and visited every jurisdiction — all 32 — to address questions. That was very helpful.”

At least one major local media voice remained unconvinced, however. According to Mr. Benning, “Our local daily paper opposed the millage increase; but voters approved it anyway.”

The increase adds another $4 million to the MTA budget. The original, 0.3 mill increase first proposed by the board will offset the loss of the grants; the extra 0.1 mill that the board added under citizen pressure will fund extended evening hours for specialized services for people with disabilities, as well as additional fixed-route services. The routes that now run Monday through Saturday from 6:30 AM until 10:30 PM will soon extend to midnight, better accommodating service and retail employees that work in the evening.

Like Mr. Benning, Michigan Transportation Specialist Kevin Wisselink, who works for United Cerebral Palsy Michigan, agrees that determined advocacy by seniors and people with disabilities for decent public transportation made the difference in Genesee County.

“People with disabilities and seniors are an increasing part of our transit system — now over 15 per cent”, said Mr. Wisselink, speaking of bus systems across the state. “It is apparent that a comprehensive transit system is essential to providing the mobility that all Michigan citizens need.”

A Different Story in Manistee
But the state’s ultimate decision on funding for public transit for this fiscal year will likely come too late for the Manistee County Transportation Authority, which managed to attract just 45 per cent of local voter support for its millage request, a .33 mill increase to maintain Dial-A-Ride service.

According to Dick Strevey, the MCTA general manager, the failed millage request was a “last resort” for his transit system. Previous cuts in state and federal funding had already forced the authority to double its fares and shorten its days and hours of service. Predictably, ridership fell by half. With the millage defeat, bus patrons can expect even more of the same.

“With this millage loss”, said Mr. Strevey, “we will be cutting back in the next month or two. Perhaps we’ll be looking at a budget deficit of about $40,000. What we have to do is cut people. And that will also mean cutting services.” 

Mr. Strevey said that in his 12 years working for the Manistee transit system other millage requests won voter approval by margins that ranged between 6o and 70 per cent. He pointed out that, while there was no organized opposition to this month’s proposed increase, there was also no organized support for it. He added that the Manistee News Advocate editorialized against the millage the day before the election. The combination led to a defeat that was rare both for Manistee and, in this past election, for the entire state.

Meanwhile, MPTA Director Harder, who previous served as a Democratic state legislator and has led the statewide organization since 1999, is building another, more diverse coalition of pro-transit advocates that includes organized labor. Called the Let’s Get Moving Coalition, it also stresses the urgency of funding bus systems to state lawmakers. Mr. Harder said advocates can make a convincing case because the recent millage elections’ “high level of success demonstrates the recognition level that exists amongst the voting public: That public transportation is a vital component and a quality of life asset in each community where it exists, whether that community is urban or rural.”

Mr. Wisselink of United Cerebral Palsy added: “Now that the people of Michigan have shown overwhelming support for public transportation, it is time for the Michigan Legislature to do its part — move forward, not backward, on funding.”

Charlene Crowell directs the Institute’s Transportation Project from its Lansing office. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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