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Draining Michigan’s Rapid Transit Swamp

Are Penske’s priorities prompting progress?

March 30, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


With regional transit generating prosperity in cities around the world, some Michigan legislators may be rethinking their opposition to building quality public transportation systems in Detroit.

LANSING—The spotlights in downtown Detroit had just been turned off. It was three days past Motown’s big Super Bowl XL weekend and Roger Penske, the Host Committee chairman, addressed a genuinely impassioned crowd of executives at a packed luncheon at the Marriott.

Mr. Penske told his business peers that he was devoted to “continuing the momentum” of Detroit’s revival, and described his enthusiasm for what he believed should be the city’s next big project: Constructing a modern rapid transit system.

“I’m here to tell you today that I’m ready to join the effort,” Mr. Penske said. “Right here and right now.”

Since 1981, when San Diego built the new light rail line that started its remarkable downtown resurgence, 39 cities have opened new street car, light rail, and commuter rail systems in the United States. Each time, jobs, housing, businesses, and economic opportunity blossomed along their routes. And in every city that built a new rapid transit system, and in the more than 40 others that are either constructing or planning to build one, a leader stepped forward as the principal advocate. Minneapolis’ two-year-old Hiawatha line wouldn’t have been built without independent Governor Jesse Ventura’s advocacy. Denver’s new 154-mile rapid transit system turned on the support of Joe Blake, the conservative chief of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

It is not known whether Mr. Penske followed up his public challenge by privately advocating for rapid transit with Michigan’s Democratic governor or Republican legislative leaders. But for the first time in generations, Detroit and the state appear to actually be drawing a bit closer instead of running away from a commitment to join the rest of the country and pursue new transit lines.

Three Steps Forward
Signs of progress are surfacing in several places. Here in Lansing, negotiations between Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s administration and Republican legislative leaders have been underway since February. Officials are bargaining over a bill that would give some local transit agencies much greater authority than they have now to raise money for new rapid transit systems, something the federal government requires before it will fund engineering, construction, and other rapid transit start-up costs.

In Detroit, the city government, according to one of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s top aides, now views improving transit and building a regional rapid transit system as top priorities for economic development.

And, during Super Bowl week, Mayor Kilpatrick invited state House Speaker Craig DeRoche, an arch opponent of public transit, to come to Detroit to talk about funding public transportation. Days after the game Mr. DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, displayed an uncharacteristic cooperative streak: He told reporters that he and the mayor agreed to work together on transit issues.

“While we don’t have anything to announce immediately,” said Representative DeRoche, “I hope to be able to find solutions that work that we can both get behind.”

All of this election year talk by no means ensures that new transit lines — especially those on the table in Grand Rapids and the Detroit-Ann Arbor region — will be built. But the gestures and words of support for rapid transit, along with new body language displayed by Democrats and Republicans, are important departures from the automatic rejection that proposals for new rapid transit systems in Michigan have repeatedly received since World War Two.

“What people are saying now is a change,” acknowledged Megan Owens, the director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group in Detroit. “The words sound better. It’s especially good that Detroit is getting active in fighting for transit and itself.”

Detroit’s Transit Priority
Last week, Lucius Vassar, Detroit's chief administrative officer, appeared before the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments general assembly and informed members of the regional planning group that Mayor Kilpatrick was determined to improve transit service. The mayor, said Mr. Vassar, also strongly supported the proposed new transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Mr. Vassar urged SEMCOG, which has completed at least nine transit studies over the years but has also been a reluctant transit supporter, to help.

In Lansing last week, Representative Chris Ward, a Republican from Brighton and the House majority floor leader, met with Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Cherry for the latest negotiating session over a bill that would expand local transit taxing authority. The pending House bill, HB 5560, which is essential to any statewide progress on rapid transit, is sponsored by Kent County Republican Representative Jerry Kooiman. It would give The Rapid, the transit agency that serves Grand Rapids and five adjoining communities, the authority to ask voters whether they support levying taxes for 25 years in order to help pay for a proposed new streetcar line and make the region eligible to collect $14.4 million from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program for the project.

The federal government requires that communities show a 25-year financial commitment, but state law currently prohibits local units from levying taxes for more than five years. Whether Representative Kooiman’s proposal can be amended to remedy that is the subject of the negotiation between the Legislature and the governor’s office.

Kooiman’s Disputed Proposal
The sticking point on the bill is highly contentious. In June, when Mr. Kooiman first introduced it, the bill was structured to provide long-term financing authority to 22 transit agencies, including both of southeast Michigan’s major bus systems. But Republican House leaders amended the Kooiman bill so that only the Grand Rapids transit agency could enhance its taxing authority.

Speaker DeRoche said at that time that he wanted to limit the bill because he did not trust Detroit's capacity to operate a rapid transit system and so opposed granting southeast Michigan permission to pursue a new regional tax. In limiting the bill to just one region, though, Representative DeRoche also seemed eager to box in Governor Granholm by forcing her to make a decision that, no matter what she did, was sure to anger thousands of voters: If she signed the Grand Rapids-only bill, it would hurt her in Detroit, a city whose voters are crucial to her reelection. If she vetoed it, it would hurt her on Michigan’s west side, where she gained considerable support during the 2002 election.

The governor did veto the bill on December 27, asserting that its benefits should apply not just to Grand Rapids, but to other transit systems as well, including Detroit's. Grand Rapids’ Mayor George Heartwell, fearful that the federal funds and the streetcar line would vanish, issued a blistering critique of the political gamesmanship.

“I’m sick of the partisanship that is immobilizing our state,” Mayor Heartwell said. “Every citizen of Michigan ought to be enraged.”

Representative Kooiman, a 44-year-old former aide to Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra and a veteran lawmaker, was not deterred. He reintroduced the Grand Rapids-only version of the bill in January. It was sailing towards quick House passage — and another Granholm veto — when Mr. Kooiman stepped in the way on January 31. He convinced Speaker DeRoche to put a final vote on hold, and urged his leader to negotiate with the governor.

“I stalled it on the floor and I kept it there,” said Mr. Kooiman in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “The decision was made between myself and the speaker not to move the bill to the Senate.”

Roads Versus Transit, As Usual
Republican legislators are now using the Kooiman bill to leverage road construction projects that they want — like widening several Detroit region Interstates — against transit projects in Grand Rapids and Detroit that the administration wants. There is a lot to leverage against: Along with the $14.4 million that the Federal Transit Administration would send to Grand Rapids is $100 million that Congress earmarked last summer for a proposed regional line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. SEMCOG is scheduled to complete a feasibility study and announce a preferred route between the two cities by June.

Michigan’s jobless rate, the nation's third highest, makes the negotiations even more acute. One study shows that every $10 million spent on transit capital investments, like those proposed in Grand Rapids and Detroit, yields an average of 314 new jobs. And every $10 million spent on running a transit line yields 570 jobs, say economists. In other words, the potential benefits challenge leaders of both parties to stifle partisanship in an election year and come up with an agreement that secures thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in transit-related business investment. It would mark the start of a new strategy that many economic development experts say would make Michigan far more competitive than it is today.

If the leaders fail, however, and Mr. Kooiman’s proposal still only applies to Grand Rapids, Governor Granholm says she will veto it again. If that happens, say federal and state authorities, the money will disappear, just as it did in 1976 when southeast Michigan could not agree on a transit plan and the $600 million that President Gerald Ford secured for a regional rapid transit system melted away.

Governor Granholm’s transportation advisor, Ben Kohrman, did not respond to a request for an interview. Representative Ward, interviewed earlier this week, said the negotiations are hampered by the efforts of both sides to heap other issues onto the table. He could not predict when an agreement would be reached but indicated that “we’re getting closer.”

Representative Kooiman seemed cautiously optimistic.

“I understand there was some positive action,” he said. “As long as negotiations move forward I’m willing to hold off and not move the bill to the Senate.”

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org.

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