American Seating and The Rapid heading to D.C

August 30, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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There’s a lot riding on the efforts to get Congress to renew federal funding of public transportation, including jobs in Grand Rapids.

American Seating Co., a major supplier to companies that build many types of public transit vehicles, has joined forces with The Rapid, and will be represented in Washington Sept. 22 when the American Public Transportation Association meets with members of Congress.

But Dave McLaughlin of American Seating won’t be the only Grand Rapidian in Washington that day: Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid, is also one of the vice chairs on the Executive Committee at APTA.

At issue is renewal of SAFETEA-LU: the Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act — A Legacy for Users. APTA is hoping Congress will allocate $123 billion in funding for SAFETEA-LU over the next six years.

“In my opinion, it’s probably going nowhere until after the midterm elections,” said McLaughlin, vice president of sales at American Seating. He said he believes that no one in Congress wants to address major spending proposals right now — either for or against.

The Rapid, for its part, is counting on a total of $2.5 million in funding for various capital improvement projects and also $2.24 million for the Intelligent Transportation System project.

American Seating was founded in Grand Rapids 124 years ago and employs approximately 400 people. About half of its business is seating and other products for public transit vehicles such as busses and railcars.

The problem facing proponents of renewal of SAFETEA-LU, according to American Seating, is that the Obama administration is focused on other top priorities in the federal budget, and Congress wants to avoid voting on any more major spending proposals this year because of the anti-government sentiment that is getting so much publicity and shaking up re-election hopes of incumbents throughout the nation.

McLaughlin said American Seating and the rest of the industry that supplies public transit has been fortunate in that, for at least 20 years, support for public transit spending has been bipartisan.

“I don’t think anyone associated with the industry, either from an economic or social perspective, has any serious complaints about the funding that has been earmarked (in the past) for public transportation support,” said McLaughlin.

Public transportation, according to statistics supplied by American Seating, is a $48.4 billion industry that employs more than 380,000 people nationwide. Every $1 billion invested in public transportation creates and supports 36,000 jobs.

McLaughlin said that on Sept. 22, he will spend time with as many members of the Michigan congressional delegation that he can reach. He doesn’t anticipate it will be a hard sell to get their support of SAFETEA-LU; the challenge is to get them to persuade their colleagues from other states to take action in favor of the public transportation legislation.

“In our case, the Michigan delegation gets it. They understand the importance of it to our state, and it’s not a hard sell,” said McLaughlin.

“The local funding portion, quite frankly, is the biggest issue that we face today, but we don’t need to complicate that by a lack of federal support,” he said.

“In the case of The Rapid, we are very fortunate in West Michigan to have a community that seems to recognize the value of public transportation,” added McLaughlin.

He noted that on a nice evening in mid-August, he was downtown and noticed public busses bringing people downtown, even at 10:30. That, said McLaughlin, was a “direct result of a community that provides local support to make the federal funding work.”

About half of American Seating sales are seating and securement systems for public transit vehicles, according to McLaughlin. American Seating has successfully developed a product for safely securing wheelchairs on busses and trains, and the Americans with Disabilities Act requires public transit systems to be able to safely accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.

According to American Seating, other local companies that would benefit from support of public transportation include ADAC, Rapid Line and Grand Rapids Foam Technologies. Every job in the public transportation industry leads to six other jobs in the transit supply chain, according to American Seating.

Renewal of federal funding wouldn’t only help The Rapid, noted McLaughlin. “All of the public transit agencies in the state would benefit from it,” he said, adding that would be the case in every state.

According to a spokesperson for The Rapid, it is requesting $690,106 in additional federal funding required to complete the Wealthy Operations Center expansion project. That money, along with a state match of $172,526, will complete the project, which has a total budget of $32,411,587.

The Rapid’s procurement plan for purchase of new buses over the next two years relies on $615,120 in federal funds, which would be matched by $153,780 from the state of Michigan.

Property has been purchased at Woodland Mall for the Kentwood Hub Center, with The Rapid requesting $600,000 in federal funds for the project. The state match is $150,000.

The Michigan Department of Transportation has secured a $3.6 million allocation from the Federal Railroad Administration to move the rail from the current Amtrak station at Wealthy Street to property that The Rapid owns south of Central Station. However, The Rapid requires another $600,000 for the project and has applied to the Federal Transit Administration for it. The state match would be $150,000.

The Rapid is also requesting $2,240,000 in federal funds, with a state match of $560,000, to fully implement the last part of the Intelligent Transportation System project. The request would fund technologies including use of “smart cards” and real time arrival information at bus stops.

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