Push For Mass Transit Gears Up

March 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Improvements in public transportation in metro Grand Rapids have decreased congestion by 2 percent since 2000, which has translated into 20 fewer minutes on the road for commuters during rush hour traffic.

Nationwide, public transit saves 3.4 billion gallons of oil annually, prevents 541 million hours of traffic delay, and reduces global warming pollution by 26 million tons each year. Demand for public transportation is rising across the country: Transit trips have far outpaced the growth of automobile-driven miles, as well as the growth in population since 1995.

Those are among the findings of a just-released study by the Public Interest Research Group that looked at the challenges faced by the country’s transportation system and underscored the value of existing rail and bus projects in Michigan and elsewhere.

The report indicates that investments in mass transit lead to the reduction of a lot of undesirable things: traffic congestion, carbon dioxide emissions, road expenditures, consumer transportation expenditures, traffic accidents and parking expenditures. As a result, each dollar the nation invests in transit yields approximately $2 in cost savings, said Amber Finkbeiner, PIRGIM program associate. At a news conference Thursday at Grand Central Station, Finkbeiner said the report clearly shows that transit saves Michigan residents energy, time and money, and highlights the need for greater support for public transportation in Michigan. Finkbeiner also noted that in national public opinion polls, 53 percent of commuters said they’d use public transportation more often if it were more available near their home and workplace. Some 75 percent of those polled indicated that “transit is the best way to fight traffic congestion.”

Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid, said the report puts clear numbers on the benefits public transportation provides — not just to riders, but to the broader community. He said a multi-modal transportation approach and significant investment in Michigan’s public transportation infrastructure will help lead to a more successful state economy.

Varga said if Michigan wants to create an environment that’s attractive to those much sought-after “knowledge workers,” a robust public transportation system will help drive them here. He also pointed out that The Rapid has experienced record-breaking ridership over the last three years. Last year’s total surpassed 8.1 million rides and the demand for service keeps growing, he said. New modes of transportation are being eyed for the area: Plans for a bus rapid transit system are well underway and a downtown streetcar system is under study.

“I only see more potential for economic development spurred by new and better public transit,” he remarked “Whether the goal is to reduce congestion by providing more efficient travel or to encourage development — or  both, public transportation is a key component.”

Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, was scheduled to be among the keynote speakers but was unable to make the press conference. He briefed Rapid spokeswoman Jennifer Kalczuk on the points he wanted to make at the conference. On Harder’s behalf, Kalczuk noted that public transit is a statewide issue, not just one for the state’s urban cities. She said various studies reveal that every $1 spent on public transit generates anywhere from a $3 to $9 return on investment. She said all the studies agree that “you get more out than you put in.”

Local communities are increasingly supportive of public  transit in terms of passing millages, Kalczuk noted. There are 60 millage-supported transit systems in Michigan and their success rate is about 80 percent, which is higher than the national average. When local residents see it working in their community, they’re very likely to support it and use tax money to support it, she said.

The issue, Kalczuk explained, becomes the state and whether it is willing to be a partner in funding it. Funding for public transit operation has remained relatively flat, but because it’s an expensed-based percentage reimbursement, transit systems are able to rely less and less on state funds.

“Traditionally, there has not often been enough capital match provided to bring in the federal dollars that could be available to the state,” she observed. “But there are a number of ways the state could be more involved in public transit.”

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