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Unemployment, Gas Prices Renew Transit Struggle

Advocates say better state support would boost Michigan economy

June 2, 2006 | By Charlene Crowell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kimberli Binschatel

Steadily rising bus ridership, strong local financial support for bus systems across the state, and Michigan's need for more economic development are compelling legislators to reconsider cuts to local transit agencies.

LANSING—With high gas prices, high unemployment, and rising interest rates forcing many Michigan families to cut costs but still maintain their ability to get to work, schools, and stores, advocates for public transportation are telling state lawmakers that now is the time to reverse the three-year decline in state support for their cause.

The state primary elections are now two months away, and the advocates view the weeks remaining before the Legislature’s Fourth of July recess as a “Cinderella moment”—a chance to transform a transit budget pumpkin into a slightly improved transit carriage. To do so, they are emphasizing that state transit spending attracts millions of dollars in federal funding and that local transit systems boost local economies.

Those arguments are gaining ground across the state. In southeastern Michigan, for example, the mayor of Detroit and the chief executives of surrounding Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb County say they want to hire veteran polical leader John Hertel to forge a consensus on a regional transit system. Meanwhile, Democratic state Representative Marie Donigan and citizen groups are pushing for federal funding of a rapid transit system connecting Detroit and Ann Arbor, and for state funds to update a study of the potential to build a rapid transit system along Woodward Avenue, from Detroit to Pontiac. All cite economic development as a top rationale for the large investments their ideas require.

Those moves are one more reason that, for the first time in several years, some advocates believe they have a decent chance of reversing the state's downward transit funding trend.

The transit boosters, who represent more than 100 local bus systems around the state, are urging the Legislature to take full of advantage of millions of federal dollars available for modernizing the aging fleets and facilities many transit agencies are operating. A plan proposed by Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm and recently passed by the Republican-led state House of Representatives would do that. But the Republican-led state Senate reversed that, cutting the Michigan Comprehensive Transportation Fund by $10 million — a change that, if enacted, would forfeit the federal money.

While transit advocates dislike all of the cuts — which were proposed by the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee and then approved by the full appropriations committee and the full Senate — it is the $5.7 million reduction in transit facility and fleet upgrade money that most alarms them. That is because the federal government would give Michigan slightly more than four dollars for every dollar the state spends on new equipment — or a total of approximately $23 million.

Transit supporters say they intend to use steadily rising bus ridership numbers, strong local financial support for bus systems across the state, the availability of the federal matching funds, and the state’s desperate need for more economic development to convince legislators that the penny-wise cuts are actually pound foolish.

“I think, obviously, that economic development is the key,” said Senator Bill Hardiman, of Kentwood, one of the few Republicans who voted against the reductions on the Senate floor. “People want and need jobs. In some areas, public transit will be a real contributor to that.”

Fast-tracking Budgets
Those hoping to reverse the Senate cuts will have to move quickly, however, because this year’s legislative budgeting process is moving with remarkable speed. Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema says he intends to complete it by mid-June—leaving very little time for final budget negotiations before the July 4th recess. Those negotiations would include representatives from both state chambers and the Granholm administration.

So transit advocates are scrambling to bring two messages to Lansing’s power brokers: First, in an anemic state economy, leveraging every available federal dollar is the smart thing to do. Second, the state’s poor economy increases the importance of using public transit as much for economic development as for providing service to seniors and people with disabilities.

Peter Varga, president of the Michigan Public Transit Association, the state’s oldest and largest transit advocacy organization, said he and his members are already pushing the lawmakers who will be involved in reconciling the House and Senate public transit budgets to favor the House version. He said he and his colleagues will also point out that dollars destined by law for the Comprehensive Transportation Fund have repeatedly been diverted by the governor and lawmakers to the state’s general fund to pay for other, unrelated priorities.

“The funds collected for CTF were always meant to go to public transit,” Mr. Varga asserted. “That’s what those taxes—gas and auto-related—were sold to the public for. If they’re using them for other purposes, then what is more important than putting people back into jobs and lessening our dependence on foreign oil?”

New Buses or Bust
Across the state, managers of local bus systems said they, too, are keeping a close eye on lawmakers’ struggles with transit funding and are marshalling their arguments for rescinding the recent Senate cuts. Some point out that soaring energy costs are making it ever harder for people of modest means to get around on their own, and more dependent on catching the bus.

Saginaw Transit Authority Regional Services General Manager Sylvester Payne, for example, said he is certain that escalating gas prices are affecting his community’s bus system. Mr. Payne pointed to an 18 percent increase in ridership between last and this spring: When gas prices soared, so did the number of riders.

“Saginaw is a community that still has double-digit unemployment,” he pointed out. “Those in minimum wage jobs do not have an automobile to go to work, school, or a job. So transit reductions would directly affect people who are just trying to make it from day to day.”

“We also have those in the disabled community who rely upon us,” he added, “and seniors who often use transit to access health care. Without transit, the quality of their lives would change drastically, if not come to a complete halt.” 

DeLynn Klein, general manager of the Marquette County Transit Authority, said that obtaining federal matching funds to buy new busses is crucial for maintaining the lifeline her bus system extends to isolated, rural, Upper Peninsula areas far from Marquette. Ms. Klein said that state cuts over the past three years have strained MCTA’s services.

She pointed out that Marquette’s 34-bus fleet includes, among other aging vehicles, a 10-year-old vehicle — ancient in transit terms. MCTA’s newest vehicle is a four-years old, putting it, in typical times, close to retirement. She also said that not all of the authority’s buses are handicap-accessible, a serious drawback which, combined with the age of the fleet, can pose serious problems when many one-way runs are 30 to 50 miles long.

Somehow, the buses still manage weekly runs like the ones from Palmer to Marquette, and from Republic into Ishpeming. The Palmer route allows residents to eat: the tiny village has no grocery store. The Ishpeming route allows residents to pick up prescriptions; that town has no pharmacy.

And Mike Stoner, general manager for Bay City’s Bay Metro Transit, said his system runs fixed routes for urban and non-urban communities six days a week; they average upwards of 2,000 patrons a day.  

“Public transit has been perceived in the past as a social service activity,” said Mr. Stoner, echoing Ms. Klein’s concerns. But he also reiterated Mr. Varga’s view: “In many communities, bus service is part of the whole economic health of a community. Public transit means providing freedom.”

Some Lawmakers Respond
Some state senators are responding to pleas to restore the funding cuts. On May 24 Senator Mike Prusi, a Democrat from Ishpeming, offered floor amendments to restore the cuts. They failed, but Senator Prusi was unbowed.

“I firmly believe that public transportation is critical to our quality of life here in Michigan,” the senator said. “Whether you live in one of our great cities or enjoy life in our beautiful rural areas, you need the options provided by our transit systems. With the price of gas skyrocketing, it makes real sense to have these systems available and up to date.”  

Senator Hardiman echoed his comments.

“As a former mayor, I know the importance of transit funding,” Senator Hardiman told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “It was my hope with people in my caucus that some of the cuts could be restored. I hope that it can be done. Obviously, economic development is the key. People want and need jobs. In some areas, public transit will be a real contributor to that.”   

November Looms
One likely member of the budget conference that will reconcile different funding levels for public transportation is majority caucus vice-chair, Shelley Taub, a Republican representative from Bloomfield Hills. Ms. Taub is running for the seat that state Senator Shirley Johnson, chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and a supporter of the transit cuts, is leaving.

Representative Taub told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that she does have some concerns about this year’s transportation budget, based on her previous service as an Oakland County commissioner.  

“In my mind, the most important thing is to fix roads where people are driving,” Ms. Taub said. Then she added: “But transit is a priority among senior citizens and the disabled. We’ve had wonderful success in my district with the SMART system.”

Representative Taub also acknowledged that communities less affluent than Bloomfield Hills have some concerns about transit beyond getting seniors to doctor appointments: “Those on welfare need to be able to get to work,” she said. “If you don’t have a car and can’t get to work, you’re stuck.”  

And Senator Jim Barcia, a Bay City Democrat who disappointed many of his fellow party members by joining the two Republican members of the appropriations subcommittee—Ms. Johnson and Tony Stamas, of Midland—in supporting the Senate cuts, said the fight for better transit funding is far from over. Although he favored the cuts, Senator Barcia also offered advice on rescinding them: Make sure that lawmakers hear from their constituents.

“Establishing a relationship with a legislator puts faces and real people together with their issues,” Mr. Barcia said. “With the turnover, it’s important with lots of new individuals coming in—lots of new issues—to raise the profile of public transit’s importance.”

Senator Barcia would not state for the record why he supported the cuts, while Senators Johnson and Stamas did not return calls from Great Lakes Bulletin News Service asking them to explain their subcommittee votes.

Transit’s challenge in the budget battle
Whether public transportation advocates can persuade enough Republicans on the budget reconciliation committee to restore the cuts will be answered soon.

“They have to look beyond the budget to the community, and try to service their constituents,” Ms. Klein of the Marquette bus system said. “People need to get to the grocery store, doctor’s offices, and dentist. More and more families are having a hard time trying to make ends meet, and they’ll probably be taking buses more.”  

Mr. Varga of the Michigan Public Transit Association said local priorities will fuel his organization’s continued efforts. “We’re not going to alter our game plan, because I think these cuts are going to be restored. They can’t happen; they shouldn’t happen.” 

Representative Steve Tobocman, a Democrat from Detroit, thinks the upcoming election could actually help public transit.

“There’s political weight to transit; it is a good political issue,” Representative Tobocman observed. “Otherwise, you would not have seen Republican senators in competitive races supporting transit funding.”

Charlene Crowell is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s statewide policy director. Reach her at charlene@mlui.org.

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