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From Trolley Talk to Rail Reality?

National streetcar champ will urge Grand Rapids to get rolling

June 13, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The director of Portland Streetcars Inc., Rick Gustafson, will tell Grand Rapids-area leaders tomorrow that his town’s trolley system is boosting downtown redevelopment.

GRAND RAPIDS—In the 1970's, Rick Gustafson lived near Detroit and conducted automotive research for General Motors. Today, however, he resides in Portland, Ore., and travels the nation helping communities research a very different kind of mobility technology—streetcars. His next stop is this rebounding Midwestern town, which is paying more attention to public transit than any other city in Michigan.

Mr. Gustafson's appearance here tomorrow, at the annual Growing Communities conference, symbolizes the drive by many local leaders to expand their community’s transportation choices beyond wider highways and more parking lots. These leaders want to establish Grand Rapids as one of America’s leading midsized cities by making sure it keeps pace with other communities that are already responding to the powerful economic, environmental, and cultural forces reshaping much of the country.

Those communities include Portland, Memphis, Tacoma, Little Rock, Kenosha and other metropolitan areas: All have added street car systems as part of a comprehensive strategy to accelerate urban revitalization, improve downtown mobility, elevate quality of life, and boost their global competitiveness.

Civic leaders in Grand Rapids have talked about making a similar move for nearly two decades, however, and they’ll talk more on Thursday. So the obvious question is, How long before discussion here turns into construction?

What Mr. Gustafson sees going on in America suggests that sooner would be better than later.

"Some 80 to 90 communities across the U.S. are now beginning to understand the relationship between modern streetcar systems and the vitality of their downtowns," Mr. Gustafson, the CEO of Portland’s public streetcar system, said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.

Powerful Trends
Business leaders, public officials, and transit proponents say that the growing popularity of streetcars is a response to many converging national trends, starting with the urgent need for cities to attract young, talented workers and prosper in the Digital Age. Increasing traffic congestion, rising gas prices, and the growing financial burden of car ownership are also pushing people in that direction. And so are bright ambitions to promote green building and sustainable development, demographic and immigration trends that are growing central cities, mounting concerns about climate change and environmental protection, and lifestyle changes that favor walking, biking, and healthy living.

These trends overwhelmingly favor growth in vibrant metropolitan areas and, by extension, the expansion of clean, safe, convenient, and cost-effective public transit, too. That is why alternatives to the automobile, particularly streetcars, are quickly emerging in American cities as ways to cope with these mega trends, turning them from ominous threats into opportunities for change that can propel economic growth in the 21st century.

Civic leaders in Grand Rapids have long recognized the pressing need to weave mass transit options into the modern development strategy. The Citizen's League of Greater Grand Rapids first called for planning to begin on a community-wide light rail system in April 1990. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council proposed several light rail options crossing the city in December 2000. The City of Grand Rapids Master Plan, adopted in 2002, calls for permanent mass transit throughout the city and a zoning code to promote development that supports it.

More recently, the regional transit agency established a task force to prepare a plan for a major investment in public transportation—likely express buses running to the southern suburbs and a streetcar system circulating people around downtown. The group recently took a field trip to Portland to see firsthand how a successful modern streetcar system looks, feels, and functions.

These and several other local efforts confirm the perceived importance of developing a world-class transportation serving metro Grand Rapids. But so far, precious little has happened, beyond incremental improvements to the regional bus system.

Problem One: Money
One overarching reason why is because, despite growing public support, the greater Grand Rapids community—and, indeed, many Michigan citizens—still approach modern mass transit like it is some wild experiment using unproven machinery that threatens to bust government budgets, crash private property values, and interfere with auto independence.

But, in many of these United States, public transit is not an experiment anymore. Portland, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and dozens of other U.S. cities have built incredibly successful systems that stimulate economic development, boost property values, and make getting around easier, not more difficult. There are extremely competent people in both the public and private sector who know how to research, design, fund, and construct streetcar and light rail lines.

Mr. Gustafson, who took an active role in killing a proposed highway expansion in the 1970s, constructing suburban light rail in the 80's, and launching the downtown street car service in Portland in 2001, is one of them. He said that Grand Rapids appears to have the necessary civic assets to build a modern mass transit system, including a nationally recognized bus system, an ongoing high-level regional conversation about future growth and prosperity, tremendous pride in the local identity and reputation, and a remarkable level of corporate investment that is driving the city's revival.

But, Mr. Gustafson said, citizens and civic leaders in metro Grand Rapids, and across car-dominated Michigan, must focus on one key area in order to provide high-level public transportation: Money.

It's not that metro Grand Rapids and the State of Michigan are broke. Since 1990, private developers and local government have plowed some $3 billion into redeveloping the central city. $80 million for the River House condo project. $120 million for a new Marriot hotel. $150 million to expand the Van Andel Institute medical labs. $190 million for the new DeVos Children's Hospital. $220 million for a new convention center.

State officials are spending money, too, particularly on transportation projects. The Michigan Department of Transportation, for example, now is developing a $375 million plan to expand a major downtown highway here.

In light of such spending sprees, the roughly $70 million cost for the city’s proposed 2.4-mile downtown streetcar system seems quite affordable. But the state's long-range transportation plan projects no significant investment in rapid public transit. In fact, the state’s funding formulas for transportation overwhelming favor newer and bigger roads, severely limiting Michigan's ability to finance modern public transit.

"Transit is viewed very narrowly and skeptically when it comes to budgeting and funding," Mr. Gustafson said. "That is the primary obstacle to overcome."

Long Way to Go
Yet residents of metropolitan Grand Rapids, one of America’s more fiscally conservative regions, continue to support increased investment in public transit. For the third time in seven years, voters on May 8 supported a tax hike to expand local bus service. The measure was widely viewed as an economic stimulant that would provide greater access to employment, job training, and education opportunities, and promote independence for citizens who don't drive. The proposal united a broad coalition of business leaders, realtors, senior citizens, churchgoers, and environmentalists, as well as Republicans and Democrats.

The next step, many agree, is to harness that momentum and finally begin laying the tracks for a permanent transit system. Streetcars continue to stimulate strong interest.

"Imagine riding downtown and being able to jump off at the museum, the arena, a small boutique, or a restaurant for lunch," said Peter Secchia, a retired Grand Rapids business man and leader of Michigan's Republican Party. "Streetcars would just add a vibrancy to all that's going on downtown.

"It's a marvelous idea that could add some pizzazz that other cities don’t have," Mr. Secchia added. "But it's a long way away."

Meanwhile, auto exec-turned-transit fanatic Rick Gustafson continues his tour to promote the lasting fiscal, environmental, and social benefits of street car investment. After speaking in Grand Rapids, he hops a plane for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

"Cities all over the country are deeply interested in this concept," Mr. Gustafson said.

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Water Works project and writes about Smart Growth issues from Grand Rapids. He is also managing editor at Rapid Growth Media and maintains a blog at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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