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Will Election Year Politics Derail a New Start?

Lansing gamesmanship could cost state millions in transit funds

February 21, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Michigan cities are currently ineligible for federal transit grants that have helped build regional systems and boost local economies in dozens of other towns, including St. Louis.

GRAND RAPIDS—Twice in the past year, state Representative Jerry Kooiman has asked colleagues in both parties to provide this reviving city access to millions in federal funds in order to build the state’s first rapid transit system in nearly a century.

The first time around, last June, Representative Kooiman’s bill would have allowed many transit systems in Michigan, not just Grand Rapids, to propose new taxes required by federal regional transit guidelines.

But Republican House leaders amended Mr. Kooiman’s bill so that only the Grand Rapids region could enhance its taxing authority in order to obtain a federal “New Starts” grant, a crucial down payment for American cities building regional transit systems. Republicans, under the leadership of House Speaker Craig DeRoche, of Novi, said they did not trust Detroit's capacity to operate a rapid transit system and opposed granting southeast Michigan permission to pursue a new regional tax.

In making the change, though, Representative DeRoche and his colleagues  sensed an opportunity to box in Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm as an election year approached. Ms. Granholm, who argued that the measure should apply to other transit systems, including Detroit's, vetoed the bill, temporarily eliminating Grand Rapid's opportunity to gain $14.4 million in federal transit funding.

Now Mr. Kooiman, a veteran Republican lawmaker, is back with his proposal, and this time he’s focused solely on Grand Rapids. Mr. Kooiman is convinced that the $14.4 million would help his fast-modernizing community’s economy. He also believes that building rapid transit in the state's second largest metropolitan region responds to the biggest question that state leaders of both major political parties are asking: How can Michigan make its economy globally competitive?

Business executives here and in other cities agree with Mr. Kooiman that adding mass transit to a region’s transportation network is an excellent economic development strategy, one already well under way in 26 other states. But Michigan’s Republican House leaders, say critics, are determined to skip careful assessment of the benefits of rapid transit to Michigan's well-being and instead use Mr. Kooiman's bill to drive a political and economic wedge between west and southeast Michigan and between cities and suburbs. Their intent, the critics say, is to force Ms. Granholm to make a decision they know is bound to upset thousands of voters no matter whether she eventually signs the bill or issues a second veto.  

The struggle has not only frustrated transit advocates and economic development specialists here and in Michigan’s other big cities, it also is seen as an especially compelling instance of how political gamesmanship in both parties hurts the state—this time by sacrificing $14 million, a popular transit proposal, and Michigan’s ability to prosper.

Playing Catch-up
Representatives of the Granholm administration, which has long touted public transit, did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.

For his part, Representative Kooiman stayed firmly on a non-partisan, pro-growth message when interviewed by the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “As population and the economy continue to grow in Grand Rapids, this kind of infrastructure will allow us to lead Michigan’s economic recovery,” he said.

Clark Harder, the executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, in Lansing, sounded a similar, practical note. "“Michigan needs this kind of investment if it intends to thrive,” Mr. Harder said.

Representative Kooiman’s proposal would help Grand Rapids thrive by prying open the Federal Transit Administration’s lucrative New Starts program. The highly competitive national program provides major funding for local communities to design and construct rapid transit systems such as subways, trolley networks, and commuter rail service. In Grand Rapids, leaders want New Starts money to build street cars or enhanced rapid bus routes. Like the medical research labs, universities, and new housing that grace the city’s reenergized downtown, rapid transit is widely considered by many here as critical to attracting new jobs and ensuring 21st-century competitiveness.

But one requirement for cities seeking a New Starts transit grant is having the ability to fund a new system for 25 years, something that no Michigan city has; state law forbids local transit authorities from imposing property taxes for more than five years at a time. That is one reason Michigan is the only major state that has not secured New Starts funding.

Representative Kooiman’s latest proposal, introduced January 18, would remedy that problem for The Rapid, Grand Rapid’s transit authority, allowing it to ask local voters to approve a 25-year tax and meet federal local-funding requirements.

Mr. Kooiman’s proposal would cost Michigan nothing to implement, according to a legislative analysis prepared by the House Fiscal Agency, and would almost guarantee The Rapids’ ability to access a New Starts grant that would move the agency to the preliminary engineering phase of developing modern mass transit.

If lawmakers pass the January version of Mr. Kooiman’s legislation, and Governor Granholm signs it, Grand Rapids would likely become Michigan’s first—and definitely its only—participant in the New Starts program. But if another local transit authority wanted to apply for New Starts, it would first have to convince the Legislature to pass another bill.

Other States’ Success Stories
Civic leaders across the nation see the highly popular and competitive New Starts program as a vital tool for upgrading transportation infrastructure, reducing congestion, spurring private investments in business and housing, improving air quality, and encouraging walking and biking.

In his 2007 budget proposal, Republican President George W. Bush recommended a $1.5 billion investment in New Starts. Many cities would stand to gain significant funding for their regional rapid transit projects. Salt Lake City, for example, would receive $80 million for a 43-mile commuter rail system, Denver would collect $35 million to design a 12-mile light rail line, and Chicago would receive help for three separate projects. That inspired Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, to comment in his 2006 State of the State address that Illinois can generate “more than 85,000 jobs through mass transit construction.”

The Rapid is the only transit authority in the state organized in accordance with New Starts criteria to secure the special transit funding in the federal transportation budget, according to the U.S. House Fiscal Agency. Twice in five years, the region's voters approved property tax increases to establish what is, arguably, the best regional bus system in Michigan. “Grand Rapids is positioned like no other transit authority in the state,” Mr. Harder said. “This is the furthest any agency in Michigan has gotten in the New Starts program. We need to bring this crucial federal funding home.”

Meanwhile, without the Kooiman bill Grand Rapids cannot join the hundreds of others cities standing in line for limited New Starts funding. The city also is at a competitive disadvantage when compared to places like Seattle and Pittsburgh because Michigan’s policy and spending slights mass transit. In fact, state leaders have for three years running cut state general fund support for local transit systems, despite overwhelming evidence from successful millage elections that citizens strongly support them.

A Political Stroke's Dark Side
It is not clear, though, whether Grand Rapids will get the federal money. In convincing fellow Republicans  to limit Mr. Kooiman bill's to Grand Rapids, say critics, House Speaker DeRoche set aside the public interest to put Governor Granholm in an acutely uncomfortable position.

Signing the limited bill would garner support in west Michigan, an important part of her winning coalition in 2002. But it would almost certainly upset her crucial African American base in Detroit. Republican opponents seem determined to approve Mr. Kooiman's measure in its current form and force Ms. Granholm to make a decision that will be unpopular with a large constituency, either in west Michigan or in the Detroit region.

What has surprised the governor’s supporters is how she has studiously kept the issue out of the public eye, and avoided any public confrontation with her Republican opponents over one of her core issues: economic development. Ms. Granholm, said her supporters, has been too passive on the issue.

“The Republican caucus is decidedly more negative towards public transit than they were just five years ago,” said Mr. Harder, a former Democratic state lawmaker. “And on the Democratic side, there are passionate people, but there’s almost an air of indifference.”

The politics that could derail Grand Rapids’ regional transit upsets Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid. Mr. Varga worked closely with transit activists and a bipartisan group of community leaders to position metropolitan Grand Rapids for the New Starts program. Along with the two tax hikes for transit they successfuly pushed for, leaders retooled development laws to stimulate transit use and spent nearly $2 million in state and federal funds to prepare for the federal program. Now the bold effort teeters on the knifepoint of Lansing gamesmanship and partisanship, said Mr. Varga.

“With every New Starts submittal cycle that passes, we lose traction,” Mr. Varga said, noting that some 150 projects across the country are competing for federal transit funds. “The Rapid is the only system capable of moving forward with this type of project in the foreseeable future. We’ve established bipartisan support at the local and federal level. Without legislation that allows a 20-plus year financial plan, we may well be the only state that is purposely rejecting this kind of investment.”

But Melissa Trustman, director of governmental relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed long and hard for regional transit in metro Detroit, thinks the bill must include any potentially eligible transit agency in Michigan. She wouldn’t speculate on why Republicans insist on limiting the Kooiman bill to Grand Rapids, but said that it clearly is the wrong thing to do.

“What is really troubling for us is that the Legislature is drafting policy for just one area of the state,” Ms. Trustman told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “So we oppose the bill in its current form. If you want good policy for the state, and wide support for it, then you need to apply it to the entire state.”

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Grand Rapids office. Reach him at andy@mlui.org

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