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In Michigan, Big Night for the Bus

Millage landslides challenge Lansing’s efforts to cut transit funding

May 4, 2011 | By Glenn Puit
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Glenn Puit/MLUI
  Friends of Benzie Bus campaigned aggressively and successfully to renew a millage for its four-year-old bus system.

TRAVERSE CITY—It was a clean sweep last night: In five local elections across Michigan, from Kalkaska County in the north to Grand Rapids in the south, millage requests for bus systems won big, even crushing victories. The dramatic electoral sweep will keep popular transit agencies rolling and, advocates say, send strong signals to Lansing lawmakers trying to cut state funding for public transportation.

Four of the millage requests won by landslides. Three—in Benzie County, Kalkaska County, and the Holland area—won by 3-to-1 margins; the fourth, in Grand Haven Township, won by a 2-to-1 margin. The fifth, in the Grand Rapids area, which will fund what likely will be the state’s first-ever “rapid bus” line, was extraordinarily close: “Yes” won by 126 votes.

Transit advocates, including Hugh McDiarmid, spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council, said that the pro-transit tax clean sweep, taking place during the deepest recession in the state’s modern history, sent a clear message to Lansing lawmakers who are trying to cut Governor Rick Snyder’s proposed state funding for public bus systems.

“The message is, the voters support public transit,” Mr. McDiarmid said. “People appreciate these services, and they see the value in them.”

Several state legislators are seeking to cut public transit funding in Michigan by as much as $20 million. According to Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based citizen group that pushes for better public transit in southeastern Lower Michigan, the cuts to the governor’s transit budget would be “devastating” to public bus systems that help seniors, the disabled, and working families.

Representative Dave Agema (R-Grandville), who as chair of the House Transportation Committee persuaded his members to cut the state’s bus budget while on its way to the House floor, could not be reached for comment before this story went to press. A statewide coalition of transportation advocates, Trans4m, is looking at ways to persuade lawmakers to restore the transit cuts.

Meanwhile state Representative Wayne Schmidt, also a Republican, is planning an attempt to restore the cuts when the bill reaches the House floor. Representative Schmidt represents the Traverse City region, which is adjacent to both Benzie and Kalkaska Counties, scenes of two of Tuesday’s biggest transit victories.

James Bruckbauer, transportation policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute, pointed out that the vote tally in Benzie and Kalkaska strongly reinforced the findings of a recent, citizen-based community design project that eventually involved more than 15,000 people in the six counties surrounding Traverse City.

“The results align with what the public wanted thru the Grand Vision,” Mr. Bruckbauer observed. “Eighty percent of those who participated wanted more public investment in transit. And, despite economic uncertainty, people still see the value in increased transportation choices."

By the Numbers
In Benzie County, just south and west of Traverse City, voters renewed a 0.5 mil request for the Benzie Bus for five years. At last night’s victory celebration at the Cold Creek Lounge, in downtown Beulah, millage supporters said the heavy pro-bus vote made it clear that most residents see the county’s bus system as a critical component of life in the rural county of 17,000 people. The bus system said it provided 70,000 rides in 2010.

The vote tally—2,371 in favor, 804 against—left members of the group that worked for the millage, Friends of Benzie Bus, glowing. It also thrilled the Benzie Transit Authority’s executive director.

“Oh man!” said Susan Miller, who manages Benzie Bus, when asked about the huge margin of victory. “It confirms that the community is pleased with the service we are offering. It’s been very rewarding for us.”

In Kalkaska County, just east and north of Traverse City, the Kalkaska Public Transit Authority won approval of 0.25 mils. KPTA Director Ron Kea said voters there realize that the public bus system is badly needed in the rural community.

“I hope it says a lot about the job that’s being done by the transit system)in Kalkaska,” he told the Traverse City Record-Eagle in an article published this morning.

In the Holland area, voters renewed the Macatawa Area Transit Authority’s .4 mil tax.

In Grand Haven Township, voters approved a .95 mil increase, with proceeds split between road repairs and the local Harbor Transit bus system. 

And, in the Grand Rapids region, city voters overcame some suburban resistance and approved a millage renewal and .35 mil increase, for a total levy of 1.47 mils for transportation. The revenue will fund the first part of a 20-year master plan that includes more night and weekend service, more-frequent service, route extensions and, a first in Michigan: a proposed “Bus Rapid Transit” route along Division Avenue, linking downtown Grand Rapids to distant Gaines Township.

Glenn Puit is a policy specialist for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at glenn@mlui.org. Jim Dulzo is MLUI’s managing editor; reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org.

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