State Veto Jeopardizes Transit Plan

December 30, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — A planned expansion of The Rapid public transit system is in doubt following a veto by Gov. Jennifer Granholm last week of proposed transit tax legislation.

The legislation would have given the Interurban Transit Partnership the green light to apply for more than $14 million in federal funds to proceed with its Great Transit Grand Tomorrows major corridor study.

Now, the study that has been ongoing for two and a half years may not make it to Phase II, which would include preliminary engineering for the expansion. It’s a major setback for the transit authority, said Jennifer Kalczuk, director of communications and external relations for The Rapid. She said the veto makes it “difficult if not impossible” for the transit authority to move ahead on the study. 

The vetoed House Bill 4993 would have applied only to the KentCounty area. In her veto letter to lawmakers, Granholm stated: “The crass political motivation that would provide funding flexibility to one county while leaving behind the rest of the state is bad for jobs in Michigan and cynically fosters division in a state that cries out for unity.”

Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids, introduced the bill in July and it was subsequently passed by both the state House and Senate. Kooiman refereed to Granholm’s veto as a “roadblock to better transportation in West Michigan” and an attempt by the governor “to cripple KentCounty.” He said the governor “has proven time and again” that she has “no concern” for either KentCounty or the residents of West Michigan

Kooiman immediately began working on a new bill request that will propose similar legislation this year. 

“In the legislative process you often have to negotiate and compromise on things,” he told the Business Journal. “For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the governor vetoed what we sent her because it didn’t hurt any transit agency in the state — and it helped Grand Rapids

“On a regular basis I vote on stuff that impacts only one community; I can’t tell you the number of issues that I’ve voted on that are special legislation for Detroit only. Detroit is important to the overall state, but so is Grand Rapids. It’s about time the governor wakes up and recognizes that.”

Had Granholm signed House Bill 4993, the legislation would have cleared the way for the Interurban Transit Partnership to seek $14.4 million in New Starts federal grants that Congress had set aside in the current transportation reauthorization bill for the preliminary engineering phase of the project. But the transit authority can’t tap into the funds without approval by the Federal Transportation Administration, Kalczuk explained. Candidates seeking FTA approval for New Starts funding have to show “the potential of local support for more than 20 years.”

Under Michigan’s Public Transportation Authority Act, public transit systems authorized under Public Act 196, such as The Rapid, cannot levy a tax for a period of more than five years. The bill would have amended the act to allow transit systems competing for New Starts funding to have the ability to ask voters for up to a 25-year millage. No such tax extension is currently in the works, but the authority to seek it is crucial.

“Five years is not good enough for the FTA to prove we have a long-term financial plan. At this stage all we needed to do was to demonstrate that we had the ability to put a 20-plus year operating millage on the ballot,” Kalczuk said.

“The New Starts money is very competitive. So if we can’t prove that we have a mechanism to get a long-term financial commitment from the community to support a streetcar or bus rapid transit line, that’s really all the reason they need to kick us out of the running. Unless the FTA advances our project to the next level, we can’t use that money.”

Kooiman pointed out that ridership on the Rapid has nearly doubled in the past decade and that The Rapid posted a record 6.5 million passenger trips in 2004.

“As Grand Rapids continues to be one of the areas in Michigan with population and economic growth, we need the infrastructure that will allow us to lead our state in economic recovery,” Kooiman said.

The Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force is presently completing Phase I of the study. Thus far the study has included evaluation of various transit modes — such as light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit — and the identification of primary transit corridors that best support a high-capacity transit system.

At this point, the two modes under consideration are bus rapid transit and bus streetcar, and the two corridors under consideration are the South corridor, which runs from downtown Grand Rapids to approximately U.S. 131 at

76th Street
, and the eastern Grand Rapids/Kentwood corridor, which runs from downtown to the Gerald R. Ford International airport.

“We’re going to continue to do whatever we can to see if we can move this project forward at all,” Kalczuk said. “But realistically, until there is some kind of change to the five-year cap on a millage for us, it’s highly unlikely that the project will continue.”

Phase I of the study was underwritten by the FTA, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Wege Foundation and the Urban Cooperation Board.    

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