Road to rail

America is a nation on the move. Call it progress, call it freedom, call it frenzy: People are going places in record numbers. But they’re going nowhere fast.

Traffic expands twice as quickly as the population because sprawl forces families to practically live on four wheels. Passengers pack the major airports, with the number of ticket holders expected to soar almost 60 percent by 2010 to 1 billion a year.

Cities are breaking through the gridlock, however, by investing in a proven technology: Passenger rail service. Not the belching steam engines of yesteryear, but whisper-quiet electric trains that weave through downtowns and sleek high-speed commuter trains that whisk between cities.

From the Sun Belt to the snowbelt, cities are lining up to share in new federal funding for urban rail systems. Since 1992, more than 30 metropolitan areas, such as Dallas, Denver, Memphis and Minneapolis have built or planned passenger rail lines. Many have designed train systems as transit backbones, with buses fanning out like ribs. Rail ridership has quickly outpaced projections in many places. Commercial and residential development also is booming along rail corridors as private money follows the public investment and the crowds.

Absent from this rail renaissance, however, is Detroit — the nation’s largest metropolitan area without urban passenger rail. Detroit is also the ninth most congested city in the country. Its idleness, while other cities speed ahead, raises two key questions: Why is Michigan missing the train and how can the state’s largest cities get on track?

Getting on board

To learn how Michigan might catch up and seize the mobility and development potential of rail, the Michigan Land Use Institute interviewed decision makers in other states about their successful campaigns for light rail — electric streetcar lines within cities — and commuter rail, which connects cities and suburbs. We then asked leaders in Michigan: What are the barriers to rail here? How do we overcome them? Who might lead the charge?

The answers point to three main “stops.” Rail can figure in Michigan’s future once: 1) cities start planning for it 2) leaders start selling it and 3) taxpayers respond to its promise of lower transportation costs and new development.

The route to world-class public transit in Michigan covers some difficult ground, such as strong political and economic interests in highway construction and the divide between city and suburban residents. But across the nation, communities have found that efficient, reliable passenger rail service can solve many problems — from congestion to urban decay — at once. It’s time for Michigan to focus on its future and how it wants to get there.

First stop: Agree on a plan

Widespread agreement on what a community’s public transit vision is and why it’s needed is the key to developing a workable, fundable rail system.

The Federal Transit Administration won’t spend a dime of its construction cost-share dollars until cities come up with rail plans that cut commuter travel time, help out low-income residents, reduce smog and fuel use and coincide with policies to bring homes, jobs and services closer together. No plan, no money. No exceptions.

Experienced leaders across the nation say the long, involved outreach and design process required is worth the headaches because the end result is a plan that truly meets local needs and qualifies for at least 50 percent federal construction funding.

“We held literally hundreds of meetings, conducted surveys, made telephone inquiries, and produced a video and countless publications,” said Jennifer Lovaasen, communications specialist for the Metropolitan Council in Minneapolis. The city started its citizen-directed planning in 1998 and is now in line to receive 50 percent federal funding for construction of a $625 million, 11.5-mile light rail line that will connect downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America.

“I joke that the public came to know my face better than my husband does,” she said. “It was a process of educating, listening, negotiating and relying on the public’s ideas as much as possible.”

Rep. Rick Johnson (R-LeRoy), Michigan’s new speaker of the House, says the same public groundwork is also necessary to convince state leaders to put money into expanding transit. “I’m not opposed to giving transit more dollars, but we have to make sure it’s wisely spent,” Speaker Johnson said. “Before you go to the Legislature for more money, you’ve got to have a plan that you’ve sold to the public.”

Michigan’s challenge: Michigan’s two largest metropolitan areas — Detroit and Grand Rapids — have long-range transit plans, but they ignore rail and simply call for sustaining their bus systems for the next 20 to 25 years. The absence of rail projects, which take many years to envision, design and build, means that both cities are literally canceling out trains as an option. “We need a lot of money to maintain the lousy system that we have now,” said Carmine Palombo, transportation director for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). “So when people say we don’t have a transit plan, I would agree with them.”

The state also remains locked into highway building, which taxes residents with greater congestion, higher road repair costs and a lower quality of life. The haphazard growth that spreads out along its roadways has made southeast Michigan the nation’s third most sprawling metropolitan region, according to the nonprofit Fannie Mae Foundation. It also is the fifth most expensive region in terms of family transportation costs, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. Southeast Michigan families spend more on transportation than they do on food and health care combined.

The Michigan Department of Transportation peddles new and widened roads as a cure for congestion and an engine for economic development. This policy fails to recognize that cars will continue to clog roads faster than the state can pave them and that roads do not meet all needs.

In the city of Detroit, for example, the state keeps widening highways even though a third of households do not own cars. Progressive states have struck a balance by adding buses and trains to their transportation spending to reduce highway traffic and direct growth to urban centers. But not Michigan.

“Our focus is on immediate problems — traffic congestion and safety — and short-term solutions,” said Andrew Zeigler, MDOT’s planner for the Detroit metropolitan region, where the state proposes widening Interstate 75 for $450 million and a seven-mile stretch of Interstate 94 for $1.3 billion. “We’re caught in a box. The highways are out there and are congested. We’re very supportive of transit, but it requires a change in the public mind-set.”

Michigan’s solution: The good news is that, despite current problems and plenty of naysayers, many in metropolitan Detroit and Grand Rapids are planting seeds of better transit planning. SEMCOG last year launched a transit visioning process. In October, it will roll the public’s priorities into its long-range transit plan for the region. If local governments can agree on funding options, then the plan could qualify for federal construction cost sharing and become reality. Citizen groups plan to rally their members to urge Detroit’s mayor and suburban leaders to back the long-range planning and funding process.

Two congressionally sponsored commuter rail studies are under way as well — one to zip travelers between the city and Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the other to connect Detroit and Lansing. Detroit’s business and political interests also are studying a train-like system of rapid buses.

In west Michigan, citizens are leading the way with a fresh, far-reaching rail study and strong working relationships with business and government leaders. “Most of the government’s money goes to planning and building highways,” said Tom Leonard, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), which sponsored the rail study. “We’re working to change the focus from a roads-only approach to a mix of transportation choices.”

Efficient use of taxpayer money and land is a major reason WMEAC and others are adamant about rail despite huge changes required in attitudes and government spending. Transit investments generate more bang per taxpayer buck than roads. MDOT, for example, is considering a plan in west Michigan to spend $600 million to widen roads and build a 27-mile highway bypass around Grand Haven. A regional commuter rail system could cost half as much while reducing long-term road costs by taking traffic off the highway.

Another promising development is the expected arrival in 2003 of high-speed Amtrak trains that will compete with airlines by connecting southern Michigan cities to Chicago and other major Midwest destinations. When they arrive in Detroit and Grand Rapids, Amtrak travelers will expect the same kind of light rail and bus options that cities such as Chicago and Minneapolis offer for getting around town. This added demand for transit, especially from business travelers, could stimulate rail planning. “The more high-level the transit development is, the more private investment there is,” said John DeLora, head of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers.

Making these seeds of rail transit grow into more comprehensive planning is a matter of changing regional and state assumptions that sprawl spells success and that a roads-only policy will keep Michigan competitive with other states.

“If we’re going to have a world-class state and cities, we have to be able to move people more efficiently than we do now,” said state Rep. Kwame Kilpatrick (D-Detroit), Michigan House minority leader. “To develop a highly educated, skilled work force and connect people with jobs in the suburbs, public transit has to be a focal point.”

Second stop: Find a transit champion

Rail projects need one person — or one organization — to capture and command the public’s attention. In other words, a champion.

In Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy Thompson was that head cheerleader. In the mid-1990s, Thompson started rallying for rail and ultimately won $50 million from the state Legislature to help ensure that new high-speed Amtrak trains out of Chicago would roll through Milwaukee, Portage, Madison, LaCrosse and on to Minneapolis.

In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura wrestled $100 million out of the state Legislature for the first modern light rail line to serve the twin cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. A second light rail line is on the horizon, along with a commuter rail line branching off to St. Cloud in the northwest.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens was so fired up about light rail in Denver that in 1998 he gave his legislative liaison a year’s leave to help direct a ballot initiative to finance a 20-mile light rail addition to the city’s growing electric streetcar network. The Republican governor jumped into the act himself when he strolled down Denver’s central 16th Street shoulder-to-shoulder with its Democratic Mayor Wellington Webb. The enticing photo opportunity was a show of top-level, bipartisan commitment. Call it the little engine that could transcend gridlock: Denver’s light rail proposal passed.

Success in Denver and elsewhere is convincing other cities that rail is a vital transportation tool. In January, the U.S. Conference of Mayors put increased federal funding for passenger rail at the top of its lobbying list. Denver Mayor Webb explained his commitment to rail this way: “Our emphasis is on supporting our downtown, strengthening our neighborhoods and expanding our open space and parks. Light rail helps us meet these goals.”

Michigan’s challenge: Michigan currently lacks a transit champion in the governor’s office. Gov. John Engler’s insistence on building new and wider highways and resistance to increased funding for public transit has been a hallmark of his 10 years in office. He raised gasoline taxes in 1997 to construct and repair highways. Last year he persuaded lawmakers to drain $800 million out of the state’s “rainy day” emergency fund and another $100 million from the general fund to pay for road expansions. Both funding maneuvers bypassed mass transit. Gov. Engler has not opposed funding to develop high-speed Amtrak service but, unlike former Wisconsin Gov. Thompson, he has not been a vocal advocate.

At the regional level, Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie is a lone rail visionary among West Michigan officials. A strong advocate for passenger train service, he sits on the board of the new Interurban Transit Partnership (ITP) and is working to secure planning money for it to conduct a full-scale rail study. “The history of cities the size of Grand Rapids is that they wait until they are in complete gridlock before they seek alternatives,” Mayor Logie said. “I hope we can do better than that and begin planning right now for light rail.”

Other city leaders, such as Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, are struggling with the here and now of deficient bus service. Mayor Archer, who declined to comment for this article, called in January for better maintenance and new bus shelters but has not outlined a vision for rail service to take an improved bus system into the 21st century.

Michigan’s lack of leadership on rail frustrates citizen groups who know they need a powerful spokesperson. “Around the country, regions get state-of-the-art transit when their elected officials step forward and demand it. Ours haven’t,” said Karen Kendrick-Hands, founder of the Detroit-area transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United. “And they don’t care about those of us who either must or would choose to use transit if it were upgraded.”

Michigan’s solution: Michigan’s unmanaged growth and spiraling transportation costs could be just the right catalyst for change and a popular platform on which a transit champion could stand.

Indicators abound that state residents are tired of transportation policies that favor highways, pull apart communities and pave over farmland. Michigan residents are taking action to combat reckless growth and rampant road building. In nearly a dozen townships and counties last November, voters replaced sprawl-as-usual officials with challengers who stressed reining in unchecked development, protecting the environment and reducing traffic. More elected officials, including candidates for governor in 2002, will face the same demands from voters.

Federal officials said they’ve seen public frustration elsewhere in the country turn into citizen coalitions that essentially have become transit champions. In Florida, for example, voters last fall pushed and approved a state constitutional amendment to build a high-speed rail network to connect the state’s five largest metropolitan areas and link with highways and airports. The Florida Legislature is now working to meet the mandate.

“A political champion does not necessarily have to be an individual,” said Brian E. Jackson, community planner for the Federal Transit Administration in Washington, D.C. “It can, for example, be a consortium of local or regional groups and locally elected officials who all have a stake in implementing improvements to a defined transportation problem.”

Citizen groups in Michigan are working to build momentum and set the stage for a transit champion to step up, speak out and leverage grassroots, business and federal interest. “We’re working to create enough pressure and a strong enough base of support for a politician to emerge as a leader on transit,” said Vicky Kovari, chair of the transportation task force at the faith-based, southeast Michigan citizens group Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, or MOSES.

Business interests also are key players in such social movements. In Detroit, executives have started to fill some of the business leadership vacuum on transit. Their public-private Metropolitan Affairs Coalition plans to release a rapid-bus study in April and possibly follow it up with further implementation planning. A business leader from the group could spearhead this project and lobby for transit in general.

In Grand Rapids business leaders are joining a growing citizen push for better mobility. Big contributions from business last year helped win a property tax increase in Grand Rapids for expanded bus service. Howard Sutton, vice president of corporate relations for Steelcase, Inc., the $3.4 billion-a-year manufacturer of office furniture, said his company has identified transportation improvements as key to both its own and the region’s future. “Improving public transportation is an environmental issue. It’s a traffic issue and land-use issue. It’s a key component to make a better region to live in.”

Third stop: Raise the money

Rail systems are among the largest public infrastructure projects around, in a class with highways, runways and sewer systems. The federal New Starts program will fund at least half the cost to build a passenger train line but will not pay to operate it. Cities across the nation have been pulling off the daunting task, however. They’ve convinced politicians, corporate leaders and local residents to support moving some money from roads into transit projects and to back new taxes for well-planned rail investments. Local, state and federal money, and some private dollars, have flowed into rail projects once cities started planning and champions got busy selling the cost savings and development benefits.

Portland, Ore., for example, soon will add a $350 million light rail project to its extensive system with $30 million from the city budget, another $30 million in federal funds that the state shifted from its highway program and about $35 million from a dedicated employer payroll tax. New Starts will contribute $257 million, or 74 percent. In Memphis, a $30 million light rail extension project is in line to receive 80 percent from the federal New Starts program, 10 percent from the Tennessee Department of Transportation and 10 percent from the city.

Successful cities have seized on the broad appeal of transit to attract financial support. “There really is something for everyone with a light rail project,” said Denver City Councilwoman Joyce Foster. “We were able to build a coalition of cities, counties, environmentalists and the chamber of commerce. That kind of public-private support is exactly what Washington, D.C., wanted to see.”

Michigan’s challenge: Michigan, the nation’s eighth most populous state, last year received only $20 million, or less than 1 percent of $2.6 billion in federal funding for bus and rail. Why? Because federal funding is heavily weighted toward launching train systems — and Michigan isn’t planning one.

The state instead has a policy of shortchanging transit while stuffing more money into road construction. Michigan directs only $230 million of its $2 billion state transportation budget to local transit agencies each year. Transit is eligible under the state Constitution to receive twice as much. Gov. Engler has not only blocked attempts to move any money from roads to transit but also cut transit out of new funding.

Local governments are doing what they can to support state-neglected transit systems. In west Michigan, residents and businesses pulled off a big win last year when their campaign for a property tax increase to improve the metropolitan Grand Rapids bus system passed with an impressive 65 percent approval. Still, the added funding was only enough to add some Sunday service and extend evening hours to 8 p.m.

In 1998, residents in Macomb County and portions of Wayne and Oakland counties overwhelmingly renewed a property tax that raises about $20 million to support SMART, suburban Detroit’s bus system. For its part, the city of Detroit directs about $60 million a year to transit from its general fund.

Metropolitan Detroit’s overall transit funding, however, is far behind that of other major cities. San Francisco spends $139 a year per capita on public transportation. Dallas spends $100 per person. Cleveland and Pittsburgh spend $70 to $80 per resident. Detroit spends $19.

Transit planners and public officials in both west and southeast Michigan have been unwilling to press for a major hike in property taxes to vastly overhaul bus systems or launch rail. “Michigan is the only state that relies on property taxes to the extent that we do to support transit,” said SMART General Manager Dan Dirks. “A regional sales tax might be a better bet to raise more money than we do now.”

Many U.S. passenger rail systems raise operating revenues by levying a regional increase in their state’s sales tax. But metropolitan areas in Michigan cannot levy their own sales taxes without a constitutional amendment to allow higher sales taxes, which requires a major campaign just to get on the statewide ballot.

Michigan’s solution: Despite the financial hurdles, Michigan can take many small, significant steps to boost current transit funding sources and work its way toward better bus service and rail lines.

It’s a matter of momentum and vision. Bus systems that serve more people more reliably will build public awareness and support, which generates demand for expanding bus networks with rail options. Once a city starts planning for rail, federal New Starts money becomes a possibility.

Promising initiatives that could trigger the public planning and federal funding chain of events include the current SEMCOG visioning process, proposed commuter rail lines between Detroit and Lansing and from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to downtown, as well as the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition’s rapid bus study for Detroit.

Alone or together, these efforts could generate the kind of transit plan that Michigan’s congressmembers must have in hand by 2003 to compete for New Starts study dollars. If Michigan misses the 2003 mark, it will have to wait until 2009 when New Starts begins another funding round. The timing is critical because cities must first obtain federal money to complete feasibility studies before they can get in line for design and construction funds.

Newly elected U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow backed initial funding for the Lansing-to-Detroit rail study as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Now Sen. Stabenow is in an even stronger position to support transit with her appointment in January to the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees transit policy. “In Michigan, the senator sees a lot of need for public transit. Detroit needs new buses, for instance. And the senator clearly is interested in rail as well,” said spokesperson Dave Lemmon.

But Michigan’s success with the federal government depends on whether the state does its part to improve transit and move away from sprawl. Greater state transit funding and land-use planning can reduce congestion now and move Michigan toward advanced rail networks later.

This is the message that the Michigan Land Use Institute and the Michigan Environmental Council are sending lawmakers and local residents through a statewide coalition of transportation and environmental advocacy groups, disability rights organizations and transit agencies. The coalition’s first priority is to increase state gasoline tax funding to local transit agencies by more than 10 percent, or about $25 million per year. The coalition also is working with State Rep. Judith Scranton (R-Brighton) to pass her House Bill 4002, which would redirect a portion of the existing use tax on auto leases to transit for an estimated annual boost of $23 million.

“We’re putting too much money into roads to serve too few people,” Rep. Scranton said. “Transit serves everybody’s needs, whether you’re young or old, don’t own a car, or would rather read and relax and think instead of fight traffic.”

Forward motion

The future of Michigan’s cities rests on whether local and state leaders account for the great cost of relying so heavily on roads for everyday transportation and forcing air travelers to put up with the 1-in-4 odds of flight delay or cancellation.

Rail networks expand and energize bus systems, give taxpayers more transportation for their money, revitalize neighborhoods and local businesses and spare farmland and clean air from the effects of sprawl and untamed traffic.

The vision of a better Michigan begins with lessons from Denver to Dallas and Portland to Pittsburgh. Citizens, politicians and planners in these cities reached consensus that passenger rail service brings higher quality of life and greater prosperity. They now are reaping the benefits of years invested in planning, championing their cause and raising the money to set it all in motion. Michigan would do well to look down the tracks and catch the next train.

Kelly Thayer is transportation project coordinator for the Michigan Land Use Institute. A version of this article appears in the spring 2001 issue of the institute’s Great Lakes Bulletin. The Michigan Land Use Institute is a 2,400-member, nonprofit organization that works to expose the costs of sprawling development and to promote alternatives to growth as usual. The Institute’s statewide Transportation and Land Use Coalition of 30 organizations is focused on increasing public support for broader transportation choices and alternatives to wasteful and damaging highway spending. Reach MLUI at, at 845 Michigan Ave., PO Box 228, Benzonia, MI 49616, or at 231-882-4723.

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