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Federal Funding's Late Arrival Chokes Transit

As White House and Congress bargain, Michigan service faces retreat

September 1, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Bruce Giffen

Washington's inability to agree on new transportation spending is eroding the considerable progress Michigan transit agencies have made in improving service and attracting more riders.

A year-long deadlock between the White House and Congress over how much to spend on transportation during the next six years is starting to cause havoc in Michigan public transit systems. State transit agency leaders said the inability to renew the law on schedule is causing long delays in receiving federal funding to replace old equipment, add routes, and extend hours of service for thousands of state riders.

The Flint Mass Transportation Authority, for instance, is unable to secure the $1 million it was promised last year for new equipment this year, or nearly 10 percent of the agency’s $11 million capital budget.  “We have federal grants and those monies have not been released yet,” said Ed Benning, the Flint authority’s assistant general manager. “That’s because of some of the issue they are working with in Washington.”

Public transit advocates added that the inability of the Bush administration and Congressional leaders of both parties to reach agreement may be a signal that Washington is preparing to permanently reduce federal funding for public transit, a move that would seriously erode the considerable progress transit agencies have made in Michigan and in other states to improve service and attract more riders. Since 1999, according to the Federal Highway Administration and the American Public Transportation Association, transit ridership has grown 21 percent, nearly twice as fast as the 12  percent increase in the number of miles people drive in their own vehicles. Transit systems in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor, and suburban Detroit are experiencing steady growth in ridership. Statewide, 90 million passengers used public transportation last year. 

“The most significant effect, whether deliberately or unintentionally, is that we are choking off resources. Public transit outpaced both the growth in highway use and in aviation,” said Kevin McCarty, senior director of federal policy at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. “To reward success with fewer resources is certainly peculiar math.”

A Question of How to Grow
Spending for transportation is one of the largest accounts in the federal domestic budget. The dispute over renewing the law reflects not only the need to begin closing the largest budget deficit in the nation’s history, but also a deep divide about how the United States ought to grow. New highways promote the spread-out patterns of development favored by influential industries – retail, energy, vehicle manufacturers, developers, road pavers – and their allies in Congress. Public transit uses much less energy, is less polluting, and helps to focus development around centers of commerce. It is generally favored by residents and officials in urban areas. Public transit advocates also note that one-third of all Americans do not drive – young people, the elderly, people with disabilities, the poor – and that buses and trains are essential to their independence.

The struggle in Washington is over three versions of a six-year bill to authorize spending for highways, bridges, public transit, and an assortment of smaller projects including recreational trails, access to jobs, and economic development assistance. President Bush originally proposed spending $256 billion over six years. The House and Senate have, respectively, approved $275 billion and $318 billion bills. Mr. Bush’s version would provide $606 million for transit in Michigan over a six-year period, while the House and the Senate would provide $627 million and $656 million, respectively. The two chambers are trying to negotiate a compromise in a House-Senate conference committee that the president will agree to sign.

Deficits vs. Sprawl and Cars vs. Public Tranist
The negotiations have proceeded so slowly that Congress has voted four times to enact short-term extensions of the existing law, which expired on September 30, 2003. No one in Washington anticipates action on the new bill before the November election. The Michigan Department of Transportation says the delay in enacting a new law has cost Michigan $36 million in transit funds and $317.2 million in overall transportation funding. The cost is increasing by the second according to a running tally the agency has published on its Web site.

The outcome of the negotiations could well determine whether the recent surge in public transit ridership continues. Federal funding for local transit systems grew dramatically in 1991, when a Democratic Congress passed, and Republican President George H.W. Bush signed the first six-year package, known then as the Inter-modal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act or ISTEA. The bill was remarkable, said advocates, because it provided public transit a share of the national transportation budget, which had previously funded bridges, highways and car-centered transportation. The shift toward public transit continued when a Republican Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton renewed the bill in 1998, increasing public transit’s share yet again.

Highway advocates and their allies in Congress are now pushing hard to shift funding for public transit to building more roads. Transit proponents are scrambling to make sure that the formula in the final bill does not push states or municipalities away from transit and toward more highways. According to Mr. McCarty, “People are trying to push down the transit funds to make more room for highway demands because the amount of available funding is not sufficient to meet both demands.”

Jeff Boothe, an attorney and a member of the board of directors of Reconnecting America, a non-profit organization that advocates for public transit, said, “We’re in the midst of a huge philosophical debate here in Washington, D.C., which is where and how metro areas should grow.”

Michigan Is More Vulnerable
The same debate is occurring in Michigan, where residents are seeking alternatives to congestion, long commutes, and the cost of vehicle-dependent lifestyles caused by sprawl. In Grand Rapids, for instance, public transit ridership increased 5 percent last year, or 200,000 riders, continuing a nine-year trend of steady growth. Ridership more than doubled since 1998, to nearly 9 million, for Lansing’s excellent system since 1998, and have increased every month for more than a year, to 37,000 passengers per day, for suburban Detroit’s SMART system. In August, citizens in 13 Michigan counties voted overwhelmingly for either continuing or increasing local property taxes to support their bus 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.

Several public transportation officials in Michigan say that even as the number of riders increases, their systems are particularly vulnerable to any reduction in their federal funding. The reason: they have been battered by cuts in state funding, under both former Republican Governor John Engler and current Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm. Michigan spends roughly $400 million annually on public transportation, according to the state Transportation Department. Of that amount 12 percent is funded by the federal government, 42 percent by the state, and the balance by local governments and fare box revenue.

“The real losers in all of this are those people who depend on public transportation as their mobility option and those who like to have it as an option of choice,” said Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association in Lansing.

Ups and Downs in Flint and Alger County
Waiting for the White House and Congress to reach agreement on a new transportation spending bill has affected state transit agencies in varying ways. Mr. Benning, of the Flint Mass Transportation Authority, described two programs, the federal Jobs Access Reverse Commute Program and the state's Project Zero, which together have helped thousands of Flint-area residents who do not live close to their jobs, and can’t afford cars.

A temporary federal transportation bill, passed earlier this year, actually increased funding for the commute program by 43 percent, a major boost for the working poor. But at the state level, Flint's funding for Project Zero has decreased from $2 million in 2002 to $380,000 in 2005, undermining the city’s effort to connect people without cars to jobs they cannot reach. 

Such uncertainty also affects rural areas, where public transportation is particularly vulnerable and where a greater proportion of residents are elderly. The House version of the temporary bill boosted overall federal funding for general transit services in rural areas slightly and increased funding for specialized programs for the elderly and disabled by 5.9 percent. But the House version also targets capital expenditures for new busses for a 2.6 percent cut.

In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Rochelle Cotey, executive director of the Alger County Transit Agency in the Upper Peninsula, said public transportation is necessary to get senior citizens and mental health patients to doctors’ appointments and shopping centers, special education students to schools, and low-income workers to their jobs. These people, she said, would be trapped at home without ALTRAN.

“There are no options here,” Ms. Cotey said. “There are no taxis. Even the schools got rid of their handicapped buses.”

Carolyn Kelly is a student at the University of Chicago and a Jeff Metcalf Fellow serving as a writer on the Michigan Land Use Institute’s news desk. Reach her at Carolyn@mlui.org.

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