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Grand Rapids: Gateway to Michigan’s Transit Success

Feds won’t support rapid bus unless state does

June 11, 2008 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  The rapid bus transit system in Bogota, Columbia has been called “a cosmic leap ahead,” and most transit experts them as effective, less expensive alternative to light-rail systems.

A promising plan to lay a brand-new light rail transit line in downtown Detroit may be hogging all the attention, but building a Bus Rapid Transit system in Grand Rapids is the most important public transportation project in Michigan right now, according to the state’s leading urban and mass transit experts.

Unlike light rail in the Motor City—or several other regional transit projects southeastern Michigan officials are considering—the so-called BRT in Michigan’s second largest city is actually on the verge of construction. Moreover, the project already is triggering redevelopment plans around station stops targeted for faded areas of Grand Rapids and several of its older suburbs.

But what makes the project truly significant, experts say, is that Grand Rapids now has the green light—and potentially as much as $29 million—from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, the nation’s primary public funding source for major mass transit projects. That means that, thanks to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which has long been absent from the modern public transit arena, now has its foot in the door for federal funding for construction of new public transit systems.

"The BRT gives us the best shot to show the folks in Washington D.C. that we can make modern transit work here in Michigan," said David Worthams, a legislative liaison for the Michigan Municipal League.

It is important for Michigan to impress New Starts officials because that program is exceptionally difficult to tap into. Funding requires years of rigorous study and extensive evaluation of proposed transit routes. And with literally dozens of cities standing in line for a limited amount of New Start funding, the program tends to favor projects from states and cities that previously filed successful applications.

As Ed Benning, president of the Lansing-based Michigan Public Transportation Association, puts it, "Landing a New Starts grant is really important. Those things don’t happen easily."

In fact, it hasn’t actually happened yet: To bring home its federal grant, Grand Rapids still must persuade state officials and lawmakers to match it with approximately $8 million in state money. Even though that is a better than three-to-one match, Lansing’s budget battles, political bickering, and entrenched ideologies could kill the state money.

Remarkably, there’s little indication that Governor Jennifer M. Granholm or members of the State Legislature will actually come through. If they don’t, that likely would sink BRT and slam the federal door to what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in future federal funding for three other sizeable transit projects across the state, including light rail in Detroit and commuter rail systems connecting Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Howell that are currently being studied.

"How we deal with Grand Rapids," Mr. Benning warned, "may affect how we move forward on other public transportation projects in the state."

Playing Catch-Up
Although Michigan fancies itself a leader in modern mobility, today it lacks even the most basic permanent transit infrastructure. What’s more, Michigan has a history of rejecting public transportation that goes back to the 1950s. That’s when Detroit, which once had the country’s largest commuter rail system, ripped up its streetcar rail lines, shipped the cars to Mexico, and built new freeways for the city’s homegrown autos.

Grand Rapids and other cities made similar moves as public transportation came to be perceived as an old-fashioned barrier to modern, car-powered growth and prosperity.

A half-century later, however, mass transit increasingly is viewed as a key to the state’s economic success and sustainability. A series of global mega-trends tell the story: Rising gas prices. Increasing traffic congestion. The growing financial burden of car ownership. The push to rebuild cities that retain and attract talented workers. Mounting concerns about climate change. Demographic and immigration trends fueling growth in central cities. Lifestyle changes that emphasize walking, biking, and healthy living.

Those factors overwhelmingly favor clean, safe, convenient, cost-effective mass transit. So more and more local leaders across Michigan are trying to advance transit projects and keep pace with Chicago, Minneapolis, and dozens of other competing cities that already are investing billions of dollars in public transportation. Four different mass transit projects, in fact, currently are in various stages of development.

The light rail line recently proposed for Detroit's Woodward Avenue arguably is Michigan's most ambitious and complicated mass transit proposal. Civic leaders there just completed the first phase of the project, an intensive 18-month technical review of the route's viability. But several years of design, engineering, fundraising, and support building remain before the city could launch what’s expected to be a two-to-three-year construction project.

Meanwhile, the latest study of yet another proposed commuter rail line linking Ann Arbor, Metro Airport, and Detroit should wrap up this spring. Project proponents have identified the route and are calculating its cost, figuring out how to pay for it, and negotiating logistics with railroad companies.

Similar feasibility reviews are underway for another proposed line serving the US-23 corridor from Howell to Ann Arbor. But the multi-million-dollar proposal must be incorporated into the regional transportation plan to become eligible for major public funding; meanwhile, local governments, including Livingston County, are still debating the project's merits.

Small Sum, Big Challenge
Officials in Grand Rapids, by sharp contrast, are gearing up for the construction of the BRT. The system, officials say, will function much like light rail by using dedicated traffic lanes for buses, infrequent stops, substantial station stops that offer pre-paid boarding and "next bus arrives" signs, as well as traffic-signal preemption to speed commuters down one of the city’s busiest corridors.

The project is estimated to cost approximately $40 million and already enjoys broad support among business leaders and environmentalists, most Democrats and Republicans, and urban and suburban officials across the metro region. Most of the initial design and cost projection is complete, and federal officials say the project meets their New Starts criteria. And local officials are finalizing station locations, coordinating with private developers, and rewriting zoning codes to promote development that stimulates transit interest and activity.

They are also preparing the project’s Federal Transit Administration construction grant agreement. But that last step requires the State of Michigan to partner in the project and fund 20 percent – approximately $8 million – of the construction costs over the next four years.

That may sound like a small sum for a state with a nearly $10 billion annual budget, but it is proving to be a significant challenge for West Michigan’s leaders for several reasons.

First, Michigan is short on public transit funds; the state’s current investment strategy disproportionately favors roads and highways over buses, trains, and streetcars.

More immediately for Grand Rapids, and eventually Detroit, the state lacks a process or program that enables it to leverage major New Starts funding. While Michigan funds mass transit projects with one-year appropriations, the federal program requires multi-year funding commitments.

And while awareness about the economic and environmental benefits of transit investments is now rising among many state leaders and lawmakers, few of them recognize the strategic, statewide importance of Grand Rapids’ BRT project.

Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, for instance, does not seem to get it: In Grand Rapids last March for a community forum, the governor shrugged off a question about state support for BRT construction and chose instead to tout light rail in Detroit.

A Top Priority
There are glimmers of hope: A recent report issued by the House Public Transit Subcommittee clearly affirms that public transportation "is essential for Michigan’s economic recovery," and acknowledges that federal officials approved Grand Rapids Bus Rapid Transit system. But the report stops short of noting the tactical significance of state support for the project.

Now transit proponents await the findings of yet another study group, the Transportation Funding Task Force, appointed by the governor. The task force, which is scheduled to deliver its preliminary findings in October 2008, is charged with assessing the adequacy of Michigan’s transportation spending agenda and identifying new ways to ensure the state collects a greater return on its investments.

Developing a standing process for the state to access, secure, and match federal New Starts funding, starting with the Grand Rapids BRT, must be a top priority, transit advocates say. Otherwise, the project will start losing traction with federal officials perhaps as early as summer 2009.

"If we don’t address this, the message back to D.C. is, ‘Why give money to Michigan?’" Mr. Benning said. "It could be a huge embarrassment for all of us. If the BRT doesn’t go, the feds are going to say, ‘What makes you think you can make more complicated projects like light rail in Detroit work?’"

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids project. He is also managing editor at Rapid Growth Media and blogs at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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