Deal Gives ITP Transit Funds

April 28, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Thanks to a deal recently reached by Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Republican leadership, the Interurban Transit Authority has clearance to apply for $14.4 million in federal funds for the second phase of its Great Transit, Grand Tomorrows transportation study.

The move gives the transit authority the chance to compete for the New Starts federal grants that Congress authorized for The Rapid transit system in the latest transportation reauthorization bill, funds specifically designated for the preliminary engineering phase for a fixed guideway corridor project.

“It was a big hurdle,” said Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid. “It’s really good that there was a bipartisan approach to solving this problem. It was very positive.”

In order to compete for New Starts grants, The Rapid has to show it has the ability to seek and maintain funds to operate the transit system for at least 20 years. Up to now, the Michigan Public Transportation Authority Act has allowed transit authorities organized under Act 196, such as the ITP, to only seek millages of up to five years. Re-introduced  legislation would amend the act by eliminating the existing five-year millage cap and give Act 196 systems the authority to extend the millage collection period from five to 25 years, with voter approval.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids, said the ITP is the only Public Act 196 transit authority in Michigan immediately affected by the agreement, because The Rapid is the only transit system that’s currently identified for New Starts program grants.

“The agreement was to provide the opportunity for any Public Act 196 authority operating in Michigan if they are designated under the fixed guideway New Starts program,” Kooiman said. “Presently, Grand Rapids is the only one designated, but it doesn’t exclude others if they get that designation sometime in the future.”

At this point the ITP is still in the planning stage for a fixed guideway system, so it doesn’t have to have an approved 20-year millage in place, just the ability to obtain 20-year operational funding, Kooiman explained. He said it could be as long as five or 10 years before the ITP actually has to go to voters for operational funding.

The agreement includes a requirement that local communities be notified of their ability to opt out of a newly created transit system if they choose not to participate. They would have a 30-day timeframe to opt out. It’s simply a notification requirement, Kooiman said, and it was added to the agreement to satisfy some concerns in Southeast Michigan, where some communities don’t want to be a part of a transit system.

The Rapid spent four years and approximately $2 million in federal and state funds on the first phase of the Great Transit study, which was an alternatives analysis that involved massive public input. During 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.

As part of the transit deal struck last month, several West Michigan road projects previously eliminated from the Department of Transportation’s Five Year Plan were put back in the plan. One is the extension of U.S. 131 from Three Rivers south to the Indiana border. Another is construction of a $31 million U.S. 131 bypass around Constantine, which includes road upgrades and the purchase of right-of-way for future freeway expansion. The other is a $1 million Amtrak subsidy to support operation of the Pere Marquette line through the end of the fiscal year. Some local projects were also worked into the plan.

Kooiman expects the legislation will be implemented before the Legislature breaks for the summer.

Phase I of the Great Transit, Great Tomorrows study included evaluation of various transit modes — such as light rail, streetcar and bus rapid transit — and the identification of primary transit corridors that could 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.

Varga said transit system staff and consultants now have to refine the study and come up with one corridor and one transportation choice.

“Then we’ll have the (Public Transportation Tomorrow) task force take it to the ITP board, probably sometime around September, and then take it to the Grand Valley Metro Council for inclusion in the regional long-range transportation plan. After that, we submit the whole proposal to the Federal Transit Administration for them to recommend to Congress. It is only after that that we would go and ask for the money. The money will not be in our hands until sometime in fiscal year 2007, because that’s when they might appropriate it.”

If and when the funds are appropriated, The Rapid will launch into the second phase — the preliminary engineering phase — of the study.    

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