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Cities With Vision Move Ahead

Michigan lacks state, local funds for federal grants and total success

March 5, 2003 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

The ultimate test of whether state officials are correct in proclaiming Michigan a national transit leader is how well its major cities rank in total transit funding. The total funding picture is comprised of state-level support, local contributions from metropolitan areas, and the federal transit grants that state and local funding can leverage.

In the New Economic Engine analysis, Michigan’s major cities are below average in total funding when compared to peer metropolitan areas. Detroit ranks 14th and Grand Rapids 17th among 22 cities in total transit spending on a per capita basis. The reason is that weak state-level transit funding in Michigan along with feeble local financing leads first to less federal support and ultimately to lower overall performance.

Michigan’s metro areas must identify the ratio of local, state, and federal transit support that is acceptable to state and regional policymakers and then seek to maximize and stabilize funding within that formula. Michigan’s power and its place in the national and global economies depend on moving transit in the right direction.

Commitment Key
Leading states in the New Economic Engine analysis range widely in the proportion of transit funding that comes from the state or local level. The one significant funding factor they have in common, however, is a strong commitment to transit from their cities, from their state government, or both.

New York City raises the majority of its transit dollars locally, for example, and tops the New Economic Engine chart for total local, state, and federal funding. Dallas ranks second mainly through local assistance, as well. Pittsburgh comes in third, but it relies mostly on state and federal transit money, deriving only 11 percent of its proceeds locally. Madison, Wisconsin, uses a balance of state and local funds to make its way to ninth place.

No matter the approach, the deciding factor for greater federal funding and, thus, overall success is vision, leadership, and hard work. Leading states and cities have decided to pursue a future in which workers and families have fewer car costs and more travel choices. They also are dedicated to building clean and convenient rapid transit connections that enrich cities with lively downtowns, new business investment, and green space.

Michigan Momentum
The drive for significant improvement in Michigan’s transit future, fortunately, already is underway in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Southeast Michigan officials gained substantial ground in 2001 on a proposal to develop a regional rapid bus system that promises to carry metropolitan Detroit out of years of transit stagnation. Local governments approved the plan, the state Legislature is fashioning a new regional transit authority to administer it, and area leaders are debating the right blend of local taxes to support the system. One funding option is a regional sales tax, which would require a change in the Michigan Constitution to allow the tax to exceed the current 6 percent.

Southeast Michigan transit also is surging forward with congressionally funded studies of commuter rail lines between Detroit and Lansing and between Detroit and the suburban Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

Meanwhile a new regional bus system that Grand Rapids formed in 2000 — after 65 percent of voters approved a property tax increase to expand service and hours — promises to move the city’s transit past persistent weaknesses. That year the nonprofit West Michigan Environmental Action Council added a sweeping regional rail study to the local transit deliberations. Now the new metropolitan Grand Rapids transit agency is pursuing federal funds to analyze a specific rail corridor.

Such fresh energy in southeast and west Michigan for better transit planning and funding makes for an historic moment that state government should embrace and sustain with matching funds and political goodwill.

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