Transit Legislation Resurfaces

January 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — The House Transportation Committee approved a re-introduced bill Wednesday that would clear the way for the Interurban Transit Partnership to apply for more than $14 million in federal funds to proceed with its Great Transit, Grand Tomorrows transportation study.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids, had introduced similar legislation last July that passed both the state House and Senate. Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed the bill in December, contending it would provide funding flexibility to only one county — Kent County — rather than counties all over the state.

The veto was considered a major setback for the transit authority.

The language of the redrafted bill is identical to that of the bill the governor rejected last year, Kooiman told the Business Journal. He said he’s committed to getting it through the Legislature and has taken every opportunity to meet with the administration to see if an agreement can be reached.

At issue is the ITP’s access to $14.4 million in New Starts federal grants that Congress authorized for The Rapid transit system in the latest transportation reauthorization bill, specifically for the second leg of the transportation study —  the preliminary engineering phase for a fixed guideway corridor project.

But the transit authority can’t access the funds without Federal Transportation Administration approval because candidates seeking FTA approval for New Starts funding have to show “the potential of local support for more than 20 years.” Thus, The Rapid has to demonstrate it has the ability to seek and maintain funds to operate the system for at least 20 years.

However, under Michigan’s Public Transportation Authority Act, transit authorities organized under Act 196, such as the ITP, are only allowed to seek millages for up to five years. The re-introduced bill, House Bill 5560, would amend the act to allow Act 196 authorities to extend their millage collection period from five to 25 years, which would give The Rapid clearance to compete for designated New Starts funding. The bill also would limit applicability to transit authorities located in counties with populations greater than 500,000 and less than 750,000. Kent is the only county in the state that currently meets that criteria.

According to Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid, the New Starts program is extremely competitive and designed to ensure that only “the best” projects survive. He said that without a change to the existing five-year millage cap, the FTA will rate The Rapid’s project as “not recommended” and eliminate it from further consideration.

As Varga explained, The Rapid is the only Act 196 transit system in Michigan that’s currently identified for New Starts program grants and is fully ready to move on the project now. The Southeast Michigan Council of Government also has received authorization to compete for $100 million in New Starts funding for its Ann Arbor-Detroit rail study. SEMCOG, however, is not an Act 196 transit authority, it’s a metropolitan planning organization, so the bill wouldn’t have any impact on its project, Varga said.

Jennifer Kalczuk, spokesperson for The Rapid, said that judging by what she heard at the transportation hearing Tuesday, there seems to be some confusion about the intention of the bill and the actual level of impact it would have.

It has taken the ITP four years to reach this point, Kooiman noted, and if the agency isn’t granted the authority to ask voters for a longer term millage, it can’t get FTA approval for the project.

Since virtually the same bill passed the House and Senate last year, Kooiman anticipates similar support from both chambers this time around, too. He implied that should other transit agencies in the state qualify for the funding somewhere down the road and encounter the same problem, the legislation could be amended. 

“Bottom line, it will be a question of whether the governor is willing to assist Grand Rapids in being able to move forward with their project, recognizing that we may have to revisit this if and when another area of this state ever gets to a point where they’re ready for this designation. Right now, there is no other area of the state that is ready.”

Varga said it’s possible the bill could come out of the House as the same bill the governor vetoed but there’s always a possibility that a bill will get amended on the Senate side and have to go back to conference committees.

“Somewhere along the line there’s always room for legislative negotiations that create a different kind of a bill, and that bill may be one that the governor can sign,” he observed.

Regardless of how things shake out, The Rapid is forging ahead, Varga said. Even if it takes two or three years before that happens, the data collected in Phase I of the study will remain accurate, sound and “fresh” because it makes projections out to 2030, he noted. The Rapid will freshen it even more with data from an upcoming household survey. 

“What the Legislature does and the governor does is not going to stop us from pursuing this project, because we feel we’re on very solid ground,” he said. “We think that at some point the citizens of Michigan are going to put pressure on the politicians to deliver on this issue. At some point this will break.” 

Phase I of the Great Transit study was an alternatives analysis; it was conducted over two and a half years and involved massive public input. Over the course of that time, ITP and its consultants explored future transit system expansion scenarios, long-term transit needs and the feasibility of fixed guideway projects for Grand Rapids and its surrounding communities.

The transportation study 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.    

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