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Horse and Buggy or Rail and Streetcar?

Lansing’s gridlocked, so Grand Rapids launches its own transit agenda

January 24, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Carol Blundy

As funding and service improved over the past decade, ridership on metro Grand Rapids’ bus system doubled, sparking a broad push for rapid regional transit.

GRAND RAPIDS—With political feuding inside the state Capitol blocking more than $100 million in federal transit funding for three of Michigan’s largest cities, a broad coalition of public interest groups here has united to introduce a plan for expanding public transportation, reducing traffic congestion, and quickening the pace of economic recovery both in metropolitan Grand Rapids and across the state.

The plan, Getting There Together: Citizens’ Agenda to Move Transit Forward in the Grand Valley Region, outlines 15 steps for ramping up regional bus service, updating planning and development standards to speed urban revitalization, and reforming outdated public spending practices to provide more transportation choices for students, workers, senior citizens, and people with disabilities.

A broad coalition of community leaders will release the plan at 10:30 AM on January 30 in Rapid Central Station. U.S. Representative Vern Ehlers and state Representative Jerry Kooiman, both Republicans from Grand Rapids, will help publicly unveil the agenda, which was developed at the Citizens Transit Summit 2005, a one-day public forum held last October in downtown Grand Rapids. Supporters say the plan is essential to the region’s future.

“Improved public transportation is a value that everyone—regional planners, economists, environmentalists, and an increasing number of citizens—has embraced,” said Kent County Commissioner Dick Bulkowski. “Now it’s time to make it happen. This agenda will strengthen the area's economy, improve public health, and contribute directly to the overall quality of life for the residents of Kent County."

More than fifty different community, business, faith, educational, health, and citizen organizations participated in the summit and now endorse Getting There Together, which was produced by Concerned Citizens for Improved Transit, Disability Advocates of Kent County, Faith In Motion, and the Michigan Land Use Institute. The length and the breadth of the list of supporting organizations indicates that building a modern transit system is a top priority in west Michigan, where growing traffic congestion is raising concerns about the region’s human, environmental, and economic health.

But transit advocates here and throughout the rest of Michigan face an uphill battle. The Republican-led Legislature has cut funding for local transit systems three years in a row; Speaker of the House Craig DeRoche and Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Shirley Johnson repeatedly challenge the value of mass transit; and state transportation officials push for billions of dollars in road-widening and new highways while mostly ignoring public transit. Even Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat who enthusiastically endorses public transit, recently crossed swords with local transit supporters when she vetoed legislation to secure federal transit funding for Grand Rapids, the state’s second largest city.

New Life for Transit
However, the fact that Governor Granholm’s veto could cost her votes here in the November gubernatorial election indicates just how much things have changed in this politically conservative area in recent years. Voters in metro Grand Rapids have approved two property tax increases in the past six years to pay for improving their basic bus service and have seen ridership soar. And area citizens and community leaders of all political stripes say they will support candidates who are in step with efforts to expand mass transit and turn against those who don’t.

These leaders now agree with longtime transit activists on the importance of providing more transportation choices that reduce the region’s growing dependency on the automobile. After years of resistance, they see transit as a practical way to help maintain air and water quality, reduce the rising costs of driving, and help aging baby boomers get around when they can no longer drive.

Such realizations are also evident in many smaller communities across the state; in the past several years, voters in 13 out of 14 communities that held local transit millage elections approved them, often by landslide margins.

But the chief reason Getting There Together cites for changing public sentiment about public transit is economic growth. With the state’s economy in severe decline, many leaders are looking for new solutions to the state’s stubborn unemployment problem. Many economic development officials insist that a lack of quality transit service makes it harder to rebuild cities and replace lost manufacturing jobs with “new economy” employment. In fact, according to a recent survey quoted in the report, 77 percent of new economy companies rate access to mass transit as an extremely important factor in deciding where to locate.

A Very Close Call
Now, at the start of the campaign season, there is a new struggle between Michigan Republicans and Democrats for control of the transit issue. It burst into the open on December 29, when a proposal that could have helped Grand Rapids - and eventually Detroit and Ann Arbor - secure tens of millions of dollars in federal transit funding went off the rails.

As first introduced by Representative Kooiman, the proposal would have empowered certain transit authorities in Michigan that seek funding from the federal New Starts program to levy a property tax for up to 25 years to secure its local transit funding base. The current limit in Michigan is five years, but the federal government requires a proven, long-term local ability to raise sufficient dollars to leverage federal funds. The New Starts program funds major transit infrastructure projects such as commuter rail and light rail systems. At this time, Grand Rapids' transit authority is the only authority in Michigan eligible to participate in the program.   

The Kooiman proposal was popular with leaders from metro Grand Rapids because the region is competing with other cities for more than $14 million in federal funding to develop a street car or rapid-bus network and enhance its popular transit service. Southeast Michigan transit agencies are not yet eligible to participate in the New Starts program. But transit activists there supported the Kooiman proposal in order to improve their perceived standing for $100 million in additional federal funds to build a rapid transit line from Detroit to Ann Arbor. With the governor also supporting modern public transit and frequently observing that it is essential to reducing road congestion, generating jobs, and modernizing the state’s economy, the bill had a good chance of passing.

But trouble arose when Republicans amended the bill so that it would only apply to Kent County, where Grand Rapids is located, then quickly passed it and sent it to Ms. Granholm. That forced the governor to make a difficult decision: Sign a bill favoring west Michigan and alienate transit activists in southeast Michigan, where she draws the bulk of her political support; or stand firm for Detroit and other regions interested in expanding their transit systems, veto the bill, and seemingly turn her back on Grand Rapids, the only city in Michigan legally eligible to pursue the federal funds in the first place.

Governor Granholm chose the veto, even though Grand Rapids is the hometown of her likely challenger in November’s gubernatorial election, Republican billionaire businessman Dick DeVos.

“Effective public transportation connecting job providers with the workers and customers needed to fuel business growth is a key component of economic development and job creation throughout all of Michigan,” the governor wrote in her veto message. “Restricting to only one county the tools that can enable communities to develop more effective public transportation is short sighted.”

Applause and Brickbats
Transit supporters in southeast Michigan applauded her move. “It clearly was not a veto against public transit in Grand Rapids, but rather a recognition that the Legislature must put options for improved transit in the hands of all Michigan citizens,” said Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

But the backlash from metropolitan Grand Rapids was swift and fierce. Local elected officials, business leaders, and citizens stormed newspaper opinion pages, television news broadcasts, and Web sites with a common message: Investment in public transit is essential to Grand Rapids’ economy, environment, and culture.

“Our vibrant downtown and growing region needs this [Kooiman legislation] and others like it to continue becoming a more attractive place to work, play, and live,” wrote Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, in a January 7 letter to The Grand Rapids Press. “A fundamental part of this process is a world-class transit system.”

Others took to the Internet, calling for the governor’s job. A chat room dedicated specifically to the transit flap popped up on the popular community-oriented Web site www.UrbanPlanet.org. The discussion group, titled Granholm Screws West Michigan, has generated more than 120 responses to date.

“[The governor’s veto] doesn’t surprise me,” wrote Rizzo, a regular contributor. “But I will make my concerns heard come ’06. DeVos will be in that office.”

But whether Mr. DeVos would have signed the Kooiman bill in any form is unknown. He has yet to formally announce his candidacy, or any specific plans for Michigan’s economy, including transit and urban revitalization efforts.

Matt Resch, a spokesman for House Speaker Craig DeRoche, from Novi, who supported narrowing the Kooiman bill to include only Grand Rapids, said that region appears ready to expand its public transit system. But, he said, Speaker DeRoche lives in Oakland County, where everyday he sees transit that’s he claims is ineffective, inefficient, and a waste of taxpayer dollars. That’s why, according to Mr. Resch, the legislation was tailored specifically to Kent County.

“Southeast Michigan needs infrastructure improvements,” Mr. Resch said. “The Speakers’ priorities are filling pot holes and expanding roads and bridges to relieve the traffic congestion problem.”

But many observers believe Republican leaders in the Legislature deserve as much blame for the lost transit funding as Governor Granholm. Representative Kooiman’s bill, as originally introduced, would have applied statewide, which would have open windows of opportunity for transit systems far beyond Grand Rapids. The move to scale it back, many contend, was politically motivated.

“The Republican Speaker of the House insisted on an alternative to the bill sponsored by state Representative Kooiman,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, whose office is officially nonpartisan. “Speaker DeRoche would have no part of a bill that might at some barely-imaginable time in the future benefit Detroit-area transit. So the bill was altered to narrowly benefit only the Grand Rapids area.”

Mayor Heartwell continued: “Partisan rancor—a Republican legislature flexing its muscle and a Democratic governor staring them down—has dealt Grand Rapids a major economic blow. Indeed, it has kicked Michigan back to the horse and buggy days. I’m sick of the partisanship that is immobilizing our state and I’m not alone. Every citizen of Michigan ought to be outraged.”

Refocusing the Debate
Transit advocates disappointed by the political maneuverings that sunk the Kooiman bill do find some comfort in the fact that the governor’s veto stirred up such a firestorm here. They say that the imbroglio reveals just how strongly metro Grand Rapids now supports ramping up investment in public transit, rather than merely building more roads, as a more reasonable way to relieve traffic congestion.

Representative Kooiman already has reintroduced his Grand Rapids-specific bill in the Legislature. And transit boosters in the region say they hope that the forthcoming release of Getting There Together will help to refocus the debate both in Lansing and locally. The report calls for 15 targeted actions that, they say, will lead to first-class transit in metro Grand Rapids and across the state.

Recommendations include ramping up transit service throughout the metropolitan area, particularly to reach popular places such as Frederick Meijer Garden and Millennium Park; replacing outdated zoning polices with new guidelines that promote the development of transit and pedestrian-friendly buildings and urban centers; and increasing local property taxes and state fuel taxes to generate new funding for transit.

“It’s time for our elected officials to get in line with the public's will and keep this issue a priority until these goals are reached," said County Commissioner Bulkowski.

Andy Guy, who directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids program, researched and wrote Getting There Together. The report will be published on the Institute’s Web site on Monday, January 30. Andy can be reached at aguy@mlui.org.

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