East, West Urge Transit Collaboration

December 17, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — Though politics in Lansing are such that the east and west sides of the state are often pitted against one another, representatives from both locations were in a collaborative mood when they gathered at The Rapid Central Station last week to discuss how they could work together to address public transit issues across Michigan.

Rep. Marie Donigan (D-Royal Oak), chair of the House transportation subcommittee for southeast Michigan, said the subcommittee has had 10 hearings since last month, and she’s been inspired by what she has heard. A lot of the inspiration came from Grand Rapids.

“I quickly came to realize that you all have found a way to coalesce around public transportation and a plan and a mission and a vision for what you want to do for public transportation in this part of the state,” Donigan said.

Southeast Michigan has been working for years to find a way to rebuild its troubled transportation system and realizes it has to form a plan to bring a mass transit system to its region, Donigan said. But in Lansing, statewide issues such as transit often become east-versus-west debates, and there’s no real meeting of the minds, she said.

“It occurred to me that if we brought Grand Rapids to southeast Michigan and southeast Michigan to Grand Rapids, when these issues of statewide importance come to the House floor perhaps we wouldn’t have that problem anymore, and perhaps we could work together to improve our public transportation systems,” Donigan said. “We can draw from you some inspiration as to how we can coalesce ourselves around a plan.”

Transit system improvements are neither Democratic nor Republican, nor east nor west in nature; they’re the kinds of improvements everybody needs, said Carmine Palombo, director of transportation for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

“It would be nice when we have common issues to be able to go to the legislature hand in hand,” Palombo said. “The area of additional funding for transportation improvements is one of those issues where I think we can find some common ground.”

Palombo said he has discussed that possibility with Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid, as well as Donald Stypula, executive director of Grand Valley Metro Council. SEMCOG has developed a lot of plans for the region in the past that failed for a couple of reasons: local politics and the lack of funding.

“This time around it seems that we have more people in our area that are engaged, more people that believe in public transportation and a lot more people who want to participate,” Palombo observed. 

Palombo said the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments has a number of different corridors it’s trying to improve. One in particular is a commuter rail line it hopes to establish from Ann Arbor to Detroit, with stops in Ypsilanti, at Detroit Metro Airport and in Dearborn. The council is presently negotiating with the three freight railroad companies serving the region to run passenger trains on their freight rails. He said by February or March it will know what the costs and time schedules would be for the railroad companies to run passenger trains in addition to their freight trains. The council will then intercede with both businesses and the state to see what can be done about securing some initial short-term funding, he said.

“What’s common to both of our areas, especially with these large capital transit projects, is that we don’t have the ability to fund either the capital or ongoing operating costs without really hurting every other transit operator in the state,” Palombo explained. “I think that’s something we ought to figure out how to get our arms around.”

The Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail project is going to facilitate Wayne County’s opportunity to become a transportation hub, said Sandra Nelson, director of special projects for Wayne County’s Department of Public Services. Commerce is what is needed to make the region a more attractive place for economic development, and a key component of economic growth and development is transportation — being able to move people, freight and goods, Nelson said.

“Collaboration is the key,” she remarked. “It will take statewide cooperation to get the funding we need — not only from the state but the federal government — to get what we need in terms of transportation infrastructure.”

In the last decade there has been a significant change in attitude toward transit in the greater Detroit area, said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit transit advocate group. She remembers when people were asked about mass transit 10 years ago, the most common response was: “Why bother? Who cares? We’re the Motor City.”

Owens believes the greater Detroit region is ready to make some major investments in public transit. There’s a lot of enthusiasm throughout the region and in the business community, which understands the huge economic benefits that can be achieved, she said. 

Owens envisions commuter trains connecting several top cities and airports served by modern light rail or rapid transit lines. But the only way that’s going to happen, she said, is by working together. 

“If it continues to be a Southeast Michigan versus West Michigan issue, we all lose, because we’ll just end up fighting amongst ourselves and nothing will happen — and, unfortunately, that’s been far too long the case,” Owens said. “But if we partner together and understand the benefits we both achieve by either of us growing, we’ve got Lansing surrounded.”

Supporters of mass transit can start their own grass roots campaign by encouraging state and federal legislators to maintain the funds already dedicated to mass transit and by encouraging them to seek additional funding sources for transit system improvements and expansions, said Rep. Tom Pearce, R-Grand Rapids. 

“You’ve heard the vision. You’ve heard the challenges. We can attract many more dollars through collaboration,” Pearce said.

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