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‘Very Small Start,’ Very Big Deal

Grand Rapids’ application could help state’s federal transit funding

October 22, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Lloyd Wright
  Rapid Bus Transit systems, like this one in Quito, Ecuador, are popular because of their relatively modest cost and quick service.

ROYAL OAK—Sandra Nelson is shaping big plans to literally get metro Detroit back on track with a modern, regional public transportation system.

But, as crucial as that is to helping southeastern Michigan attract young workers, lure new economy companies, and compete in the 21st century, Ms. Nelson, the energetic director of special projects for Wayne County’s Department of Public Services, is also paying close attention to what is happening 160 miles to the west, in the Grand Rapids region.

Michigan’s second-largest metropolitan area is not only poised to build the state’s first new rapid transit line in more than half a century. It is also on the verge of opening the door for the rest of the state to a family of federal funding programs that could give a powerful push to efforts to build quality public transit in other urban areas around the Great Lakes State, including the projects that Ms. Nelson is working on in metro Detroit.

If Grand Rapids manages to open that door, it will bring renewed pressure on state leaders to reform Michigan’s public transportation policy and spending practices. Many say those policies are badly out of touch with ongoing grassroots campaigns to bring modern transit not just to West Michigan, but to metro Detroit, the Grand Traverse region, and other parts of the state, too. They add that Michigan is already far behind other states whose transit investments have already helped retool their own central cities for the knowledge economy.

Leaders in metropolitan Grand Rapids are trying hard to catch up. This past July the regional transit agency requested funding from the federal Very Small Starts program to build a highly sophisticated bus service along one of its busiest thoroughfares, Division Avenue.

Southeast Michigan has a considerable stake in Grand Rapids’ successful pursuit of federal transit funds. Ms. Nelson and others are working on the long-delayed dream of linking Detroit, Metro Airport, and Ann Arbor with convenient commuter trains and cutting down on the chronic, intense traffic congestion that plagues the Interstate 94 corridor. She’s also at the center of an ongoing study to determine whether the Motor City should build its first modern public transit route—likely a light rail line—along Gratiot, Michigan, or Woodward Avenues.

Start-Up Money
The service that the Grand Rapids’ regional agency, The Rapid, wants to start up is a 10-mile route using what is called Bus Rapid Transit. The service features express buses that run along a dedicated road right-of-way, have priority over cars at traffic signals, and stop only at permanent stations. The rapid service, known as BRT, would improve mobility in the congested central city and serve three major employment hubs—two growing medical campuses and the rebounding core business district.

Local transit leaders asked the Very Small Starts program to pick up as much as 80 percent of the expected $40 million tab to get BRT service going. It is the federal decision on that application, expected by late November or early December, that transit leaders in Detroit are watching with interest.

"Getting the BRT system in Grand Rapids through this federal program is so important," Ms. Nelson said. "It's very challenging to crack into the [Very Small Starts program]. Unless you've already invested in mass transit, and have a rapid transit system that exists, it's almost impossible to qualify for new funding."

Even the initial leg of the Detroit-area projects Ms. Nelson is working on would cost tens—if not hundreds—of millions of dollars and require funding from a wide variety of sources, including federal, state, and local governments, and possibly even private donors.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), a division of the United States Department of Transportation, offers several programs beside Very Small Starts that help cover the costs associated with constructing new, "fixed guideway" systems such as light rail, commuter trains, and streetcar circulators.

The New Starts Program, for instance, is the agency’s primary program for supporting major transit infrastructure projects that often run into the billions of dollars; the list of past funding recipients reads like a who’s who of America’s most popular cities: Denver, Seattle, San Diego, and Portland.

By contrast, the Small Starts Program funds projects with capital costs less than $250 million, such as recently constructed rapid bus lines in Los Angeles and Kansas City, Mo. And the Very Small Starts Program, which Grand Rapids aims to tap, funds proposed projects with a total cost less than $50 million.

But competition to secure the funding is stiff because dollars are limited and hundreds of cities across the nation now are studying, planning, building, or expanding public transit systems. So priority tends to go to those states and cities that have familiarity with the programs and permanent transit infrastructure already in place.

That, transit proponents in Michigan say, is why Grand Rapids’ application to the Very Small Starts Program is so significant. Unlike Connecticut, Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, and dozens of other states, Michigan has yet to tap the FTA’s key funding programs and, according to some veteran transit officials, someone in the state needs to take this crucial first step with the feds.

Breaking the Ice
Transit officials in Grand Rapids, who invested a considerable amount of time and energy navigating the complexities of the federal rules involved in pursuit of the funding, say they believe the prospects for their BRT application are high.

"We've been working on this project for about five years," said Jim Fetzer, director of development for The Rapid. "We submitted our application [to the Very Small Starts program] and they got back to us within a week. That's unheard of. It's usually months. They told us it's one of their top-ranked projects."

Success could deliver more than $30 million in federal transit funding to metropolitan Grand Rapids and set the stage for designing, engineering, and preparing to construct what would become the state’s first-ever Bus Rapid Transit route.

"This would be a significant development," said Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association. "Once tapped, it becomes somewhat easier for other systems in a state to break into this funding source. The ice has been broken, so to speak. So this does have statewide implications."

Transit officials are careful to point out that securing the federal funds is by no means guaranteed. And even if FTA administrators approve Grand Rapids’ request, state and city leaders would be required to come up with more than $7 million in matching funds to land the money.

Given that Michigan, compared to other states, has historically under-funded public transit, and that all levels of government in the state are enduring an ongoing budget crisis, transit leaders expect the approval of federal funding will only intensify the contentious partisan fight over state fiscal spending, particularly over how transit funding is distributed across the state.

"Our expectation for [federal BRT] funding is very high," said Peter Varga, CEO and executive director of The Rapid. "So the conversation soon will turn to state and local funding. The governor's office. State leaders. The Michigan Department of Transportation director. They've all been thoroughly briefed on the project. And we hope they’ll actively support this important project."

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids project. 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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