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Fix a Road, Finance a Rapid Transit System

Democrat Granholm, Republicans break new ground on funding public transportation

May 3, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


When State Representative Marie Donigan launched a public push for rapid transit last July in a tent in downtown Royal Oak, she attracted many enthusiastic citizens, civic leaders, and businesspeople.

LANSING—Last July, in an act that joined equal measures of public interest spontaneity and political serendipity,  Democratic State Representative Marie Donigan pitched a big white tent where Interstate-696 and Main Street converge in Royal Oak and held a town hall meeting on improving public transit.

Ms. Donigan was anxious, and not only because she feared that no one other than the invited speakers would show up. Like newsprint lining old cabinets, the notion that the Detroit region’s transit system needs help is an idea yellowed and flaky with age. There was scant evidence that advocating for transit in southeast Michigan was anything other than a confirmed strategy for political burial.

But on the evening of July 11, 2005 something encouraging occurred: As dusk fell on a warm summer day, the tent filled up. County commissioners and several of Donigan’s colleagues from the state Legislature attended. Wayne State University administrators and representatives of the City of Detroit were there. Business executives and transit activists listened. So did students and grandmothers, whites and Latinos and African Americans. There also were a few reporters among the roughly 100 people that came to hear Ms. Donigan, a freshman lawmaker who represents Royal Oak, explain why public transit would be at the center of her work in Lansing.

“Mass transit brings our communities together,” Representative Donigan told the enthusiastic gathering. “If we’re serious about boosting southeastern Michigan’s economy, then we have to have a workable public transportation system.

“Imagine how much more attractive our area would be if our mass transit system was improved,” she added. “The possibilities are enormous.”

Two nights ago, Ms. Donigan held a second town hall meeting on public transit, and this time she had more than “what-ifs” to talk about. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is preparing to announce a preferred route and technology for a proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit transit line that is eligible for $100 million in federal funding. The organizers of Detroit’s successful Super Bowl week in February are now prominent public transit advocates. Rising fuel prices have helped put alternatives to driving at the top of the list of public priorities in metropolitan Detroit.

And late last month came the most significant sign yet that Ms. Donigan’s instinct to lead on public transit was on the mark. On April 20, Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate completed weeks of negotiation and reached a groundbreaking agreement on building roads and financing rapid transit.

A Surprising Marriage
For the first time in Michigan’s history, the governor and the lawmakers married rapid transit financing to road and highway construction. They agreed on an infrastructure development pact that views highways and transit as equally critical pieces of the state’s development strategy.

It’s unlikely, said public interest advocates, that the transit provisions of the accord would have been nearly as strong without Representative Donigan’s work.

“She’s done a good job,” said Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy organization in Detroit. “For too long transit has been ignored by most politicians. It’s been a low priority. It isn’t anymore. Marie has joined with many other groups and individuals. She’s done impressive work to help raise the profile of transit and make it be seen as an important issue that must be addressed.”        

The first half of the novel agreement calls for the Legislature to amend and pass a contentious House proposal that allows Michigan’s local transit agencies to raise money for rapid transit projects. By approving the original version of House Bill 5560, introduced almost a year ago by Grand Rapids Republican State Representative Jerry Kooiman, Michigan preserves $100 million in federal funds that will be used to design and start building the Ann Arbor to Detroit rail line that SEMCOG settles on, as well as the $14.4 million federal dollars earmarked for a streetcar system in Grand Rapids.

The public transit provision of the agreement also provides $1 million in state funds to maintain existing Amtrak passenger rail service in Michigan, and reinstates eight jobs in the state Department of Transportation connected to improving local bus agencies.

The roads and highway portion of the pact calls for spending $68.1 million in state funds on various projects throughout Michigan, including foot bridges in Traverse City and Houghton and $31 million for a two-lane highway bypass outside Constantine, a St. Joseph County town of 2,100 people about 40 miles south of Kalamazoo.

Southeast Michigan will get $11.8 million to build new interchanges along Interstate 96 at Wixom Road, in Oakland County, and Latson Road, in Livingston County. And there is $10 million to keep studying the proposed expansion of Interstate-75 in Oakland County, an investment that several state officials said in interviews was designed to mollify Oakland County executive L. Brook Patterson and keep the disputed project alive. There is no other money—local, state, or federal—available for expanding Interstate 75.

Crossing a Line
Governor Granholm and the Republican leaders—House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema—framed the accord as an economic stimulus package, an addition to the $400 million highway construction program announced earlier this year that Ms. Granholm said would generate some 7,000 jobs.

Representative Donigan and other Democratic lawmakers were quick to note the partisan dimensions. Transit financing is seen as aiding Michigan’s biggest cities, where most of the governor’s supporters live. The road construction dollars, meanwhile, are being delivered to heavily Republican suburban districts.  

There’s nothing novel about relying on highway construction to generate jobs and votes, especially in a gubernatorial election year. But in the joint statement announcing the agreement, the negotiators broke new ground. In making such a big deal about mass transit, say transit agency professionals and advocates, Michigan crossed an ideological threshold and joined Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas, and other states that are strengthening their economic competitiveness by simultaneously modernizing existing highways and building new rapid transit lines.

“The governor wants to make sure our state’s economy has the maximum benefit of the best possible mobility options available,” said Ben Kohrman, Governor Granholm’s transportation advisor, in an interview. “One of her priorities has always been to improve public transit all across the state, and southeast Michigan is a particular focus.”

“Transportation infrastructure is a critical component of economic investment and growth,” added Senator Sikkema.

A New Era?
Though she is reluctant to take credit, Ms. Donigan played an important role as the deal took shape. She rallied Democratic colleagues in her party’s legislative caucus meetings, urging them to focus on making sure that the $114.4 million in federal funds did not vanish, as an even larger amount did in 1976 when Detroit and its suburbs actually rejected a $600 million regional rapid transit system that Washington would have paid for.

The representative had a long meeting with the governor’s chief of staff, pushing him to consider the Detroit to Ann Arbor line a political and economic necessity. Ms. Donigan joined transit advocates in a meeting in Lansing with Governor Granholm’s transportation advisors, a gathering meant to display the expertise and influence of the statewide civic movement that supports rapid transit service in Michigan.  And she spent a lot of time talking about the economic value of rapid transit—to the media, in public appearances, in the Legislature.

The agreement that Governor Granholm and the Republicans reached included everything that Ms. Donigan asked for. But, like several other transit advocates in Michigan, she wasn’t sure what to think when the details were made public, saying she was disappointed because of the $10 million set aside for expanding I-75.

“My constituents don’t like it. We don’t need to expand I-75,” Representative Donigan said. “What we need is money for a light rail line up Woodward Avenue. That will do more to relieve congestion and expand the economy in this region.”

But, she said, as she weighed the list of 20 road projects against the rapid transit provisions, her view changed. All of the road projects, she noted, have been in various stages of planning for years, including the Wixom interchange, which dates to the 1980s. Many are minor modifications—$52,000 for a traffic light in West Michigan, $80,000 for improvements to M-37.

The only new stretch of highway considered in the agreement is the proposed seven-mile Constantine bypass. The $31 million provided by the state is less than a third of what the project is likely to eventually cost if it’s built. Design, engineering, and environmental studies need to be conducted before right of way is purchased. Construction will not begin before 2010 or 2011 at the earliest, say state officials.

What is much more telling about the highway side of the agreement is what’s not considered. There are no plans to revive old and very expensive highway proposals that were killed in the 1990s by citizen activism, including the $300 million Traverse City bypass, a $90 million Petoskey bypass, or a $500 million expansion of US 131, north of Manton. The era of superhighway construction in Michigan ended in the 1990s and the April 20 agreement did nothing to bring it back.

Instead, the governor and the Legislative leaders took an essential step to open a new era of rapid transit construction in Michigan. “It moves us in the right direction,” said Representative Donigan in an interview. “In this state, that’s what we need.”

Keith Schneider is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article appears in the May 3, 2006 edition of Metrotimes, Detroit’s weekly newspaper.

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