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Looking for Modern Transit

Citizens, leaders campaign for a crucial key to Grand Valley’s new economy

January 27, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Jane Kowieski

Map:Reference: Grand Valley Metro Council and REGIS.
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The people of the Grand Valley are going back to the future. Life science, information technology, and other innovative, high-tech industries represent 21st-century economic opportunity just as manufacturing promised good-paying jobs 100 years ago.

Reminiscent of visionary founders like Louis Campau, entrepreneurs are investing billions of dollars to build vibrant neighborhoods and business districts with modern offices, eateries, and living space. And just like in the 1920s, there is now serious talk of putting streetcars in service to move people around the growing region more efficiently and effectively.
Expanding public transit now is a top priority for students, seniors and, yes, the workers wearing suits. As the convenience of automobile ownership diminishes and costs escalate, walking, biking, and other alternatives to the car have become increasingly popular across the metropolitan area. For example, annual ridership on The Rapid, the urban transit service, jumped 13.8 percent in 2005—to a record 6.4 million rides. And twice in the past five years citizens voted for tax hikes to enhance their local bus service. Now civic leaders are formulating plans to roll streetcars back out. Some even envision building a light-rail system similar to those operating in Chicago, Salt Lake City, and Denver.

“The facts are clear,” said Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid. “Public transportation in the greater Grand Rapids area works.”

Indeed, a comprehensive transportation system that provides practical choices beyond the automobile and promotes independence, health, and prosperity for all citizens in the metropolitan area is now a real possibility. But some significant obstacles must be overcome. Most notably, the region’s growth and investment strategy essentially ignores the growing value of, and demand for, modern public transit.

On October 3, 2005, more than 220 of the metropolitan area’s business leaders, neighborhood activists, public officials, environmentalists, planners, bus riders, and others gathered at St. James Church in downtown Grand Rapids for the region’s first Citizens’ Transit Summit. They convened to develop a strategic set of priorities that steadily reduces the area’s growing dependence on the automobile and greatly expands the transportation alternatives that are so clearly lacking.

This report, Getting There Together, summarizes those priorities. It is a clear, reasoned approach to reforming public spending priorities, trading poorly planned land use patterns for thoughtful development that supports transit, and providing a broader range of transportation options—well maintained roads, safe sidewalks and bike routes, and world-class public transit—throughout the Grand Valley metropolitan area.

The Verdict Is In
A substantial body of research demonstrates how important good public transportation is in the new century. As “old economy” manufacturing jobs continue to fall to “new economy” knowledge jobs, a recent survey by Jones Lang LaSalle, a worldwide real estate and financial management firm, finds that 77 percent of “new economy companies” rate access to mass public transit as an extremely important factor in deciding where to locate.

Michigan, however, largely refuses to take public transportation planning and investment seriously. For example, the Michigan Department of Transportation during the next couple decades intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in our region’s infrastructure. But the agency’s plans are narrowly focused on widening existing roads and building new highways, while  basically ignoring public transit and other alternatives.
That is one of many reasons why a growing number of citizens, business leaders, and civic officials fear that metropolitan Grand Rapids is headed for traffic gridlock, just like Detroit, Los Angeles, and other major urban centers that fail to provide real transportation choices beyond the auto. One 1996 study conducted by Grand Rapids transit experts predicted a 1,000 percent increase in traffic congestion by 2015—unless our car-dominated growth patterns begin to change quickly.
“I never got caught in a traffic jam on I-96 15 years ago,” said Grand Rapids Congressman Vern Ehlers. “Today, you drive in every morning and it’s jammed up. Project 15 years in the future. With the increase in traffic, what do you think is going to happen? We’ll need light rail in 15 years. Public transit is very important for our future. We have to start thinking long term. We have to plan ahead.”

A Winning Strategy
Our region once had a thriving public transit system that carried people to work and recreation. It was dismantled—and the streetcars were actually burned—to make way for the latest transportation innovation: the automobile. Today, growing traffic congestion on area roadways slows the movement of people and goods, erodes air quality, and reduces the quality of the lives of all motorists forced to endure it. The rising cost of driving hurts families and businesses. And the lack of a quality regional transit system immobilizes many of our neighbors, particularly youngsters, senior citizens, workers, and people with disabilities.

It also disrupts our ability to lure talented workers, attract modern companies, and compete successfully in the global economy. St. Louis, Seattle, Dallas, and our other competitors already have begun building safe, highly convenient, and affordable public transit. Clearly, the Grand Valley metropolitan area must join the movement for truly modern mobility and significantly expand our region’s transportation choices.
Getting There Together is a strategy that has wide support across our communities and can help to build a more effective and balanced transportation system. It is a practical agenda to alleviate clogged roadways, conserve natural resources, and promote public health and fairness. What’s more, this strategy will help to rebuild central cities, produce jobs, and fuel future opportunities for citizens across the entire metro area.

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