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Looking for Modern Transit

Citizens, leaders lay tracks for Grand Valley’s new economy

February 2, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Expanding public transit is a top priority for students, seniors, and the workers wearing suits.

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. Entrepreneurs are following in the footsteps of Louis Campau, who purchased Grand Rapid’s present-day central business district from the federal government for $90 in 1831, by investing billions of dollars to build vibrant neighborhoods and business districts with modern offices, eateries, and living space. And just like the 1920’s, there is now serious talk of putting streetcars in service to move people around the growing region more efficiently.

Expanding public transit now is a top priority for students, seniors, and 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 14 percent in 2005—to a record 6.4 million rides. And twice in the past five years citizens voted for tax hikes to enhance the local bus service. Now civic leaders are formulating plans to roll streetcars back out or possibly even build a light rail system similar to those operating in Sacramento, St. Louis, 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 the region’s growth and investment strategy essentially ignores the growing value of, and demand for, modern public transit—one of several obstacles that must be overcome in order to meet Grand Rapid’s transit needs.

That is why 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 on October 3, 2005. Their goal: Develop a strategic action plan that steadily reduces the area’s growing dependence on the automobile and greatly expands the transportation alternatives that are so clearly lacking.

The Institute’s newly published report, Getting There Together, is that plan. 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
The body of research demonstrating the importance of good public transportation in the new century is huge. 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 rapid 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 intends to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in regional infrastructure improvements over the next couple of decades. 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 the car-dominated growth strategy begins to change quickly. 

“I never got caught in a traffic jam on I-96 15 years ago,” said Grand Rapids Congressman Vern Ehlers, a Republican. “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
The Grand Rapids 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: automobiles. 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 the ability to recruit talented workers, attract modern companies, and compete successfully in the global economy. St. Louis, Dallas, Cleveland, and other competitors already built safe, highly convenient, and affordable public transit. Clearly, the Grand Valley metropolitan area must join the movement for truly modern mobility and significantly expand the region’s transportation choices.

Getting There Together is a strategy that has wide support across the community 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 accelerate the central city's redevelopment, produce jobs, and fuel future opportunities for citizens across the entire metropolitan area.

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes project. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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