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Kent County May Form Transit Task Force

Advocates say study could hasten drive for rapid regional system

April 2, 2006 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

City of East Grand Rapids

Transit advocates want streetcars to be part of a modern transit system in Grand Rapids, which once had a regional trolley system. The Cherry Ramona line served East Grand Rapids.

GRAND RAPIDS— In response to a strong push from a long list of community, business, religious, civic, and elected leaders, Roger Morgan, the new chair of the Kent County Board of Commissioners, will soon decide whether to launch a full-scale, county-sponsored study of the benefits of building a modern mass transit system.

The highly anticipated transit task force would examine the economic, environmental, and social implications of extending public transit throughout the county, which includes metropolitan Grand Rapids and small towns like Lowell, Cedar Springs, and Rockford, where Commissioner Morgan lives. It would also recommend county-level funding mechanisms that would pay for the large public investments required to build and maintain an expanding regional network of buses, urban streetcars, airport shuttles, and other public transit services.

Several of the county’s premier attractions —  DeVos Place convention center, Frederik Meijer Gardens, and Millennium Park — remain drastically underserved by transportation alternatives beyond the automobile. And as regional population and traffic congestion grows, more people demand new and more convenient ways to move around the community.

The proposed transit task force, and the expansion of countywide service, is one of several recommendations recently introduced in a 15-point strategy to build a modern regional mass transit system to serve metropolitan Grand Rapids.

The strategy, Getting There Together: A Citizens’ Agenda for Moving Transit Forward in the Grand Valley Region, was developed at a one-day community summit in October 2005 and presented to Kent County Commissioners on March 9, 2006 by a broad coalition of citizens and public interests groups.

In an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, Commissioner Morgan said he is inclined to launch a study group to look into the recommendations, a process he said could take one to two years. The group would include county commissioners, citizens, and representatives from the area transit agency. It would focus on exploring what he called “a highly complex issue.”

“I need two weeks to think about it,” Mr. Morgan said. “I’ve met with [pro-transit Commissioner] Dick Bulkowski and he clearly supports the idea. I want to talk with the other commissioners before I determine what the county will do.”

Moderation and Momentum
The careful approach is characteristic of Mr. Morgan, a moderate suburban Republican known for his fiscal discipline and consensus-building. But a growing number of community leaders say that building regional rapid transit is an urgent issue that the county should help bring to a swift resolution because it is so directly tied to the area's ability to generate jobs, grow the economy, and preserve its quality of life.

Establishing a county transit task force is widely considered the next essential step in the evolution of mass transit in Michigan’s second largest city. Twice in the past five years residents living in the metro area’s six cities — Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Grandville, Walker, and Wyoming — overwhelmingly approved tax hikes to improve transit service. Ridership on the local bus system is skyrocketing. Cities like Grand Rapids are rewriting construction and zoning codes to encourage transit-oriented development. And The Rapid, the local transit provider, aims to build a more permanent express transit system to complement existing bus routes.

The Rapid is pursuing a lucrative New Starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration. The highly competitive national program provides major funding for local communities to design and construct modern transit systems such as subways, trolley networks, and commuter rail service. Leaders in Grand Rapids want New Starts money to build street cars or enhanced rapid bus routes. 

But securing the federal funds demands a decisive showing of support at every level of government — city, county, and state. The local campaign for hopping aboard the New Starts program suffered a major setback in December, however, when Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm vetoed a proposal that would have empowered The Rapid to ask voters to approve a new, 25-year tax structure required by federal transit guidelines.

Now, in the wake of the controversial veto — which the governor said she exercised because the bill did not apply statewide — transit proponents say the need for the county to step up and demonstrate unified local support for public transportation has only intensified.    

Commissioner Morgan said the governor’s veto moved him to think twice about the importance of public transit and establishing the proposed task force. He also said that, in the midst of budget deficits and cuts, local governments will need more county help in providing essential community services. Transit, he said, is just one of many items on a long and growing list of tax-related questions that also include funding to maintain a jail, parks, and senior citizen care.

“This is a time to be diligent,” Commissioner Morgan said.

A Broad Coalition for Jobs and Prosperity
Transit proponents say it is also time to consider just how much the public’s attitude toward mass transit is changing. Metro Grand Rapids residents are now proven supporters of greater investment in mass transit; advocates say that is because citizens and a growing number of political leaders increasingly understand that public transit can help relieve traffic congestion, develop a more modern economy, provide people with more transportation choices, and attract new residents seeking the best possible employment and quality of life.

The diverse mix of citizens participating in the October 2005 transit summit seemed to confirm that, in this part of the state, the need for modern mass transit now transcends economic, racial, geographical, and political barriers. It is unifying blue collar workers and white collar executives; African Americans, Hispanics, and whites; Republicans and Democrats; and city dwellers and rural folks in a common call for action. The rapidly growing number of transit supporters sees better service as a way to better connect local workers with jobs, senior citizens with family, doctors, and grocery stores, and students with after-school activities in the central cities.

That is why John Petuska, the newly elected president of the rural Village of Kent City, called on the Kent County commissioners to support expanded bus service as soon as he was sworn in. Mr. Petuska said that regional transit service will promote mobility and independence, something needed in Kent City, which is located 20 miles north of downtown Grand Rapids, beyond the apple orchards of the Fruit Ridge, the region’s agricultural district. Kent City also is located in Commissioner Morgan’s district.

“As our communities continue to grow, and residents live longer, so will the transportation needs of our residents,” Mr. Petruska wrote in his December 20, 2005 letter to Commissioner Morgan.

Other community leaders are sounding the same call, albeit in different ways. Rick Chapla, the vice president of The Right Place Inc., a nonprofit agency that recruits workers and companies interested in new business opportunities, said mass transit is essential to the region’s economic competitiveness. According to Mr. Chapla, executives and employees increasingly site the availability of convenient, affordable public transit as a top factor in deciding where to locate families and businesses.

“It would be a welcome and encouraging step forward for the county to show leadership on this issue,” Mr. Chapla said. “This is about ensuring the movement and mobility of people, goods, and services. First-class mass transit is essential if greater Grand Rapids and the region intends to grow into a bigger economic force in the state and nation.” 

It’s in the Numbers
A growing body of evidence confirms Mr. Chapla’s view. Investments in public transit boost local tax revenues, reduce public expenditures on social services such as Meals on Wheels delivery programs, and decrease household and business costs, according to a recent report prepared by the National Business Coalition for Rapid Transit, a group of regional chambers of commerce from Minneapolis, Denver, San Francisco, and other major cities.

It also stimulates job creation, private profit, and urban redevelopment. For every dollar invested in public transit, for example, a community can expect a return of between four and nine dollars in economic benefit, according to a report prepared by the American Public Transportation Association.

The report also found:

  • State and local governments can realize a four to 16 percent jump in tax revenues due to the employment and income generated by mass transit.
  • Properties within a 10 minute walk of transit stops typically sell for as much as 25 percent more than comparable properties further away.
  • Every $10 million capital investment in public transportation can return up to $30 million in businesses sales alone.

But, despite the mounting evidence, Kent County leaders still do not view public transit as an economic issue, according to County Commissioner Dan Koorndyk, a Republican who lives in the City of Grand Rapids and serves as the county board’s vice chair. He said most officials still view public transportation more as a social service subsidy than as a strategic investment in critical infrastructure like roads and sewers. That is one reason why establishing the transit task force is so important, Mr. Koorndyk said. 

“Some commissioners support public transit,” he said. “But some don’t. Forming this committee should be easy. This is an important issue that we all need to understand more fully.”

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

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