Michigan Governor Ignites Spark in Transportation Reform

From the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service:

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Governor Rick Snyder’s special message last Wednesday for a new transportation strategy in Michigan is receiving positive reviews from those seeking reform in the state because he’s not just trying to fix roads and patch potholes, but is instead proposing a long-term solution for transportation funding and improving public transit.

“The challenge is simple. Michigan’s infrastructure is deteriorating from a lack of investment,” Governor Snyder said. “If we are going to reinvent Michigan’s economy, we have to reinvest in Michigan’s infrastructure.”

Snyder said the state needs to raise $1.4 billion to fund transportation projects, and raising the money, he said, will help fix the state’s crumbling roads, contribute to rebuilding the state’s economy, and attract young talent to Michigan.

“(Transportation) is a critical issue when you are talking about jobs,” the governor said. “We know that in the reinvention of Michigan, one of the fundamental issues is more and better jobs, and that’s why infrastructure is on the top of the list.”

The idea of investing in transportation to attract young people and to help revitalize Michigan’s urban centers is a message that aligns very well with a new diverse coalition of more than 15 groups called Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M) that seeks increased investments in public transit and non-motorized options.

Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the coalition’s members are very upbeat about the governor’s message on transportation.

“It was a very positive message — one that recognizes that we need to make investments in not only improving the condition of roads and bridges, but also public transit including bus rapid transit for southeast Michigan and creating a Regional Transit Authority,” Mr. Kolb said.

The Michigan Chamber of Commerce is a member of the Trans4M Coalition. Chamber President Rich Studley tells the Michigan Land Use Institute he was encouraged by Snyder’s comprehensive approach to fixing the long-neglected transportation infrastructure in Michigan. He sees fixing the funding problem and diversifying transit options, including developing public transit, as necessary steps to strengthen the state economy.

“The focus was on our entire transportation system,” Mr. Studley said. “When he talks about good roads, he clearly wants to fix roads and bridges….but he also sees public transit as a priority.”

“We also like the idea of the local option (for increasing revenues via vehicle registrations,)” Mr. Studley said. “There are some parts of the state where there is a need for more and better public transit…while other parts of the state have critical roads and bridges in need of repair. I saw that as adding a meaningful option for funding with lots of flexibility.”

The Trans4M coalition’s guiding principles call for smart investments in transportation that can, like the governor said, help revive Michigan’s urban centers, reconnect people to opportunity, and reduce the state’s environmental footprint. Megan Owens, Executive Director for Transportation Riders United in Detroit, said the governor deserves credit for finally getting the state to pay attention to transportation.

“I’m very excited that the governor recognizes the importance of investing in transit,” said Ms. Owens. “As Trans4m has been calling for, he highlighted the need for a Regional Transit Authority and dedicated local funding options. I do think the governor was right in saying that most people shouldn’t have to think about transportation or infrastructure issues, but because Michigan has neglected transit for so long, people don’t have the options that they need to get around, and hearing what we heard from the governor is a critical step to providing Michigan more affordable and attractive transportation options.”

To pay to fix roads and to support both public transit and new rail, the governor floated several innovative ideas including: increasing vehicle registrations by $120 a year to raise $1 billion; allowing local governments and regions to increase vehicle registration fees by up to $40 per year to raise up to $300 million more; shifting the state’s gas tax from a retail-based tax to a wholesale tax; allowing counties to absorb local road commissions; establishing a Regional Transit Authority to develop new high-speed transit options in Southeast Michigan; and perhaps most importantly, increasing the state’s commitments to rail and public transit.

Rep. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) has been a vocal supporter of rail and transit, as well as road improvements.

“I was glad to hear him include support for public transit,” Rep. Schmidt said. “You’ve got to get people to work, and transit is a good way to revitalize the economy, especially in southeast Michigan.”

Regarding whether there could be support within the Republican legislature for increasing revenue through a registration fee hike, Rep. Schmidt said, “This has more possibilities and might be a better long range funding system than just raising the gas tax. A registration increase is less regressive than the gas tax. He got the conversation started and this (funding idea) is probably being talked about more than others. This truly has more merit than other proposals.”

Mr. Snyder clearly voiced support for improving public transit in southeast Michigan. He talked of shifting the debate from old, existing issues to “a fresh start” that includes a key transit corridor that could be served by a high tech rapid bus line that is convenient and reliable.

“A new transit system in southeast Michigan,” Governor Snyder said. “That’s a discussion that’s been going on for almost as long as I’ve been alive and it’s not been a positive or constructive dialogue. We’ve spent way too much time arguing about legacy systems. The starting point I believe is to start fresh…The fresh start I would propose is a key corridor system based on Southeastern Michigan within the city of Detroit, and the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw and anyone else who wants to join. But (what we really need) to focus on is the key corridors to create a really good rapid transit bus system, or other transit system, connecting those communities that would be on the main corridor, on the corners of Woodward, Gratiot, Michigan Avenue and M-59 –  and promoting that. The good part is we’ve got positive encouragement from the federal government.”

The governor also offered strong support for rail, saying it could be used to better serve the agricultural economy and become another transit option for passengers.

“We also have the opportunity with passenger rail and commuter rail…and there is an opportunity to seek commuter rail potentially from Ann Arbor, all the way around Detroit, to Pontiac,” he said.

In 2009, a special Transportation Funding Task Force was assembled by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. After months of study, the task force concluded in its final report that Michigan had a crisis on the horizon and that immediate action to double the state’s investment in transportation was necessary.

“What the Task Force ultimately determined, after months of hard work and much public input, is that if Michigan’s transportation system is to continue to serve the state adequately, our investment in transportation must increase significantly,” the task force said in it’s final report.

“The one choice we cannot afford is to do nothing,” the Task Force said.

MEC’s Kolb said the Trans4M coalition is committed to help the governor follow through on the proposals and for the state as a whole to have an informed public debate on the solutions proposed by the governor.

“One of the things we know is that we need to be providing our residents with transportation options because not everyone can or wants to get around using a personal vehicle,” Mr. Kolb said. “If you look around the country or world, a 21st century community has those type of options — bus, light rail, and young people like them. If we are going to retain and attract new and young talent, we need to provide those options.”