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Grand Rapids Readies a Transit Summit

Citizens, business leaders to propose new path to mobility, prosperity

September 28, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI/Carol Blundy

Transit advocates view Grand Rapids’ new downtown bus terminal as a necessary first step toward high quality regional public transit.

GRAND RAPIDS — With ever more vehicles jamming ever-widening streets and highways, local residents and leaders will gather here next Monday to do something about this region’s worsening traffic problem. But instead of demanding the pouring of still more concrete, members of more than 30 citizen groups, churches, businesses, and public agencies will discuss how best to push leaders for better public transportation.

The organizers of the first-time event, known as the Citizens’ Transit Summit 2005, expect a broad audience: Urban dwellers and suburbanites; employers and employees; blacks, whites and Hispanics; and SUV drivers, walkers, bike riders, and citizens with physical disabilities. All will be intent on developing a strategic action plan to reverse the area’s dependence on the automobile by expanding opportunities for pedestrians, biking, and mass transit.

Organizers say the summit reflects the growing consensus in the state’s second-largest metropolitan area that it needs more transportation choices — and that they must be convenient and affordable. In particular, they say that expanding public transit by either adding more busses or a light rail system is crucial to building a vibrant metropolitan community, protecting the environment, and modernizing the economy.

Currently, though, development and spending patterns in the region’s public and private sectors work against that goal. So do three straight years of cuts in state support of local bus systems. Such trends, which are occurring even as public support for and use of transit continues to grow in Grand Rapids and across Michigan, mean that residents remain overwhelmingly dependent on automobiles and that efforts to establish a more comprehensive and effective transportation system languish. 

Even in this increasingly cosmopolitan city, which is Michigan’s model for urban revitalization and redevelopment, local officials are still enlarging expressways and planning to supersize more city streets. An approach that rejects more concrete in favor of transit and pedestrian activity is not yet among the first instincts of many officials here. And the city’s most powerful urban developers struggle with designing and constructing buildings that stimulate street life and make pedestrians feel welcome, safe, and comfortable.

Gridlock or Prosperity?
Urban redevelopment experts and many citizens fear that unless this car-dominated growth strategy changes quickly, metropolitan Grand Rapids is headed for the kind of traffic gridlock endured by Detroit, Los Angeles, and other major urban centers that fail to provide quality public transportation. One 1996 study conducted by Grand Rapids transit experts predicted a 1,000 percent increase in traffic congestion here by 2015, a prospect that holds tremendous consequences for the area’s cultural, ecological, and economic future.

“Whether it is attracting companies or workers, a balance of transportation options is important,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of redevelopment at Right Place Inc., a nonprofit group that promotes economic growth in greater Grand Rapids.

“Companies want to know that their workforce will have options for traveling to and from the workplace in a safe, affordable and efficient way,” Mr. Chapla added. “That means more options need to exist beyond simply driving a car. It means the availability of a well-run transit system, and even the availability of biking and walking infrastructure that is maintained.”

The west Michigan region — which includes Grand Rapids, Muskegon, and Holland — boasts some impressive economic growth statistics when compared to Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, and the other major metropolitan areas in the upper Midwest. In the past 30 years, the region has had the fastest rate of population growth; the fastest rate of employment growth; and the fastest-growing manufacturing segment. That is according to a recent report published by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a regional civic group promoting sustainable growth.

But the Alliance also found that, in that same period, west Michigan grew the lowest number of new-economy jobs outside of manufacturing. A growing body of evidence suggests that energetic downtowns and convenient public transportation are essential to reversing the trend. For example, a recent survey by Jones Lang LaSalle, a worldwide real estate and financial management firm, found that 77 percent of new-economy companies rate access to mass public transit as an extremely important factor in deciding where to locate.

Willing to Pay
That is important information to a city like Grand Rapids, which is attempting to diversify the local economy by luring exactly those kinds of businesses and the talented workers they covet. So far, the community has invested some one billion dollars in an impressive cluster of health and medical facilities to drive research and development in biotechnology and life sciences. The state and local government have collaborated on a model package of economic incentives to lure new commercial and residential development back to the urban core. And the mayor personally champions an initiative to make wireless Internet access readily available throughout the city and position Grand Rapids for success in the Digital Age.

But the city continues to struggle with expanding a modern public transit infrastructure and redesigning the city to support it better. Many economic development experts, planners, and citizens say that effort must succeed if the city is to flourish.

Fortunately, most residents are willing to pay for better transit. Twice in the past five years, spurred by the organizing efforts of many of the people producing or attending next Monday’s summit, area voters overwhelmingly approved tax hikes to improve local bus service. In April 2000, 65 percent of voters in the six-city urban area said “yes” to a tax increase for a better bus system. Then, in November 2003, 66 percent of voters approved another tax hike for transit. The Rapid, the area bus agency, invested the new money to update busses and gradually expand transit service. As a result, The Rapid will provide nearly six million rides this year, almost double 1995’s total of 3.3 million.

But even as ridership skyrockets, efforts to grow the bus system further face barriers. The transit summit’s organizers say their event will focus on prioritizing strategies to deal with the three biggest obstacles: Further improving existing bus service; modernizing obsolete land use policies; and pointing more public spending, especially from state coffers, toward public transit.  

That last challenge may be the most difficult, transit advocates say. The State of Michigan’s transportation policy directs almost all public dollars to building and rebuilding highways, roads, and bridges and leaves little for public transportation. Since 1997, the state has spent one-third of its transportation budget trying to pave its way out of traffic congestion. Transit advocates dislike that approach because, they point out, it leaves substantial federal transit funding on the table and undermines local communities’ attempts to provide other ways for citizens to get around.

“According to the state constitution, 90 percent of the Michigan Transportation Fund is supposed to be spent on roads,” said Jennifer Kalczuk, spokeswoman for the Rapid. “That is not a balanced funding strategy, if the goal is to promote a comprehensive transportation system that provides a range of mobility choices beyond the car.”

Wanted: A Public Consensus
Summit organizers say the event’s overarching goal is to develop a citizens’ agenda that will drive a multi-year campaign to improve land development standards and strategies while redirecting public spending toward building first-class public transit.

The summit features Robert Grow, founder and former chairman of Envision Utah, an alliance of business leaders, planners, and environmentalists who banded together to promote Smart Growth in their state. The group’s work has established Utah and its largest city, Salt Lake City, as national leaders in planning for and funding transit projects.

Underwriting the summit are major grants from the Wege Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and the local Urban Cooperation Board. The event’s many sponsors include the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, United Way, Disability Advocates of Kent County, United Growth for Kent County, the Michigan Land Use Institute, and the Kent County Department of Human Services. 

The Right Place’s Mr. Chapla said the event is essential for promoting a focused, productive dialogue about the urgent need to improve the area’s transportation policy.

“Far more discussion needs to take place involving the region’s government officials, business representatives, and developers about what are the components of a comprehensive transportation system, how such systems will be built and operated, and who will pay for it,” said Mr. Chapla. “These discussions take place usually at the governmental level, but need greater public participation and consensus.”

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes Project and writes about Smart Growth from Grand Rapids. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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