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Michigan Losing Its Shirt in Transit Funds

Woeful transit programs cost taxpayers $100 million annually in federal aid

March 29, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The loss of federal funds is felt in every Michigan community, where many bus systems offer limited routes and hours, and some places deliver no transit service at all.
Lansing, MI — Michigan taxpayers lose about $100 million a year in federal transit aid because the state and its major cities have failed to plan for and invest in world-class bus and train service, according to a national report released today. The report compared Michigan to the nation’s other populous states and found that Michigan ranks average at best in state funding of public transportation.

The loss of federal funds is felt in every Michigan community, where many bus systems offer limited routes and hours, and some places deliver no transit service at all. Detroit and Grand Rapids — Michigan’s two largest cities — rank below average in providing funds for transit. The result: Michigan’s transit inactivity leaves the state nearly last in line for crucial federal dollars to build and expand rapid transit systems.

Those are the key findings of a new report on transit spending in the nation’s largest states by the Michigan Land Use Institute and United Cerebral Palsy of Michigan. The report, New Economic Engine, disputes the state Transportation Department’s assertion that Michigan is a national transit leader. The report calls for Michigan to aggressively plan and pay for world-class bus and train service to compete globally for workers, tourists, and commercial investment.

The report challenges critics of public transportation who assert that even if the money is spent Michigan residents are unlikely to use anything but their private vehicles. Said Chuck Moss, an Oakland County commissioner in an article for the Detroit News late last year: "What will we get for our money? Will anybody ride in enough numbers to make the cost worth it?"

Indeed, says the report, cities such as Cleveland, Chicago, and Minneapolis are building and expanding transit choices to enhance their quality of life and economic might. Michigan, the report says, needs to catch up to its competitors by diversifying the transportation portfolio with a significant increase in funding that can lead to the development of express bus systems, commuter rail lines, and other rapid transit choices.

New Economic Engine ranks Michigan on a national scale, comparing state-financed transit funding to the nation’s 10 most-populous states and two neighbors — Indiana and Wisconsin. Michigan is sixth among the 12 states because it lacks creativity in establishing new sources of transit support, the report finds. Meanwhile, Detroit and Grand Rapids are worse than average, ranking 13th and 16th respectively in a comparison of the largest 22 metropolitan areas in the states studied.

Michigan and its major cities also fare among the worst in the nation in securing federal dollars that are available to construct and maintain public transit systems. Congress awards federal transit funds to communities with growing transit service, high transit ridership, and feasible plans for building new rapid bus and train systems. But Washington D.C. sends back less than half of the transit taxes that Michigan residents pay every year to the federal government — a loss in 2000 of about $100 million. Roughly three cents per gallon from the sale of gasoline goes to the federal transit budget.

The loss of federal funds is felt in every Michigan community, where many bus systems offer limited routes and hours, and some places deliver no transit service at all. In addition, state transit funding supports a large share of the budget to run local buses but remains unpredictable from year to year. New Economic Engine finds that Michigan’s transit funding since 1990 has been unstable and the target of selective cuts, even as state money for highways soared.

"That we have 34 counties in Michigan with little public transit service is unacceptable," said Kevin Wisselink, transportation project coordinator at UCP Michigan. "The basic mobility that accessible public transit provides should be available to all the citizens of our state, including people with disabilities and seniors who do not drive or don’t own a car."

New Economic Engine calls for leaders in state government and all of Michigan’s communities to: Increase and stabilize the state’s unpredictable transit funding. State lawmakers should send a full 10 percent of the state transportation budget to transit and approve new sources of support, such as current proposals to direct proceeds from the use tax on car leasing and a diesel fuel tax hike to transit.

Strengthen local support for public transit, particularly in Detroit and Grand Rapids. New and greater revenue streams are needed to develop world-class transit.

Expand transit service for all people, especially the elderly and people with disabilities. The state Transportation Department should conduct a statewide transit needs study and develop a plan to meet the identified need. Local communities should coordinate transit offerings to serve residents more efficiently and effectively.

In addition, greater state and local transit funding is sorely needed in Michigan’s largest cities — Detroit and Grand Rapids. Metropolitan Detroit spends only about $34 a year per resident on public transit. Chicago invests about three times more per person in buses and trains than Detroit, and Cleveland spends more than four times as much per resident. New York City, the national transit leader, pours nearly 10 times more money per capita into bus and trains systems than the Motor City. Thus, Detroit remains the nation’s largest metropolitan area without rapid bus or train service. The gap leaves workers and employers struggling to reach each other and residents with few choices for accessing essential services or avoiding congested highways.

New Economic Engine also contains some promising trends. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, and the Detroit Regional Chamber, for instance, are collaborating to plan and seek funds for a regional rapid bus system, building on years of groundwork by local citizen groups. In 2001, even the Big 3 automakers — General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler — called for an effective regional public transit system in metro Detroit.

Grand Rapids increased its support for transit in recent years including approving a new property tax in April 2000, but the region has far to go to achieve top-flight transit. Local citizen groups have supplied necessary transit advocacy, authoring transit studies and helping run the recent millage campaign. Still, the Grand Rapids region invests only about $24 per resident on public transit, falling far below average among the 22 metropolitan areas studied in the report.

Kelly Thayer is a journalist and transportation project manager at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at kelly@mlui.org

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