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Out of State Transit Pros’ Advice

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Friday, February 24, 2012

INTRO: Yesterday at the capitol, Governor Snyder’s office hosted public transit professionals from around the country. They gave advice on how to set up a transit system. This morning from 9 to noon, they’ll hold a second event at the Detroit Zoo. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports from Lansing.

The governor’s staff is focused on bus rapid transit. BRT has dedicated lanes so cars and stop lights can’t mess up the bus schedule. BRT has stations that make getting on and off the bus quicker and easier than with regular bus shelters. Before anything is bought or built, the
legislature will debate a regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan. Joe Calabrese said it’s time Detroit did what his city did.

“It was mentioned that 35 years ago, 37 years ago, the voters of Cleveland voted to form a regional transit authority and consolidate what was then 13 independent systems into one. In doing that the system would operate more seamlessly, efficiently, better for the customers. The thing just makes a whole lot of sense.”

Detroit once had the largest municipal railway system in the country. 300 miles of tracks, nearly all within the city. It didn’t need a regional authority. Thursday, transit advocates brought a busload of people to the capitol. They all got advice from men who manage transit systems in other states. Anna Holden is in her late ‘70’s. She traveled from Grosse Pointe. She asked how a transit system…

“contributes to the economy, economic development?”

Light rail has brought neighborhoods back to life in several American cities. Detroit transit advocates have criticized bus rapid transit because it only moves bodies. But Joe Calabrese says that’s not true. He described Euclid Avenue as the Woodward of Cleveland. It’s the most important road in the city.

“I’m proud to tell you that the economic development that the health line, our BRT project, stimulated was 10 times greater than any other rail system we generated in Cleveland. It’s had a tremendous benefit, over $5 billion in economic development so far along this corridor on bus rapid transit. People feel it’s a superior, first-class rail like service.”

Setting up a modern mass transit system take years and billions of dollars. Jacob Snow manages the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. He says pay attention to details and aim high.

“And so as part of our bus rapid transit projects, we need to act not just as a transit authority but as a bicycle pedestrian authority and put in sidewalks and make the curb cuts compliant so that people can access the system. If they’re not there it’s not gonna happen. We need to look at this from a more wholistic standpoint. It’s really a complete street effort.”

The advocates and the ordinary citizens knocked on lawmakers doors. They asked them to vote yes.  The RTA will include 36 communities in four counties. One advocate said for every $1 million in taxes, the private sector will invest $4 million in businesses along the bus line. State Senator John Gleason from Flint wanted the microphone. He says that jobs and health care are the two biggest problems in his area. And mass transit would solve one of them.

“My greatest hope would be that one day we would extend this to Flint. That’s what I think about it. I’m not only encouraging this. But I’m encouraging an expansion. This is vitally needed. Every single day thousands of people leave my county to go to Oakland County searching for work.”

Some of those job seekers are handicapped. They need sidewalks connecting to curbs up to the steps of the bus. Paul Ecklund came from Kalamazoo and the Disability Network of Southwest Michigan.

“And if you had a more regional system dictating to the smaller companies that this is an expectation, a standard, you could encourage more effective use of the transit system. Is that part of what we’re looking at with the regional authority? Setting standards and not just coordinating?”

Then a woman named Linda McDonald said:

“Do you have power? Is what we’re asking. Does the authority have that kind of power.”

Dennis Schornack answered. He’s the governor’s transit point man. He hosted the event.

“The legislation, I can assure you, puts the A in the regional transit authority and it has sufficient teeth to encourage, enforce, direct coordination and establish high standards for service. So yes and yes are the answers to your questions.”

In Los Angeles, jobs have moved out to the suburbs. Much like they have outside Detroit. Scott Page is with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“Century City, Santa Monica, San Fernando Valley, people are branching out to all these different centers, Warner Center, where downtown is no longer the focal point of employment for Los Angles. Public transit has to get those people there. They can’t do it all on freeways.”

The all freeway plan is about what Michiganders are relying on these days. Bus systems keep getting cut. Jack Gonsalves is a transit engineer from Portland, Oregon.  He’s with the firm Parsons Brinckerhoff.

“Once that inertia gets started, once you have a first starter line, like I think in Detroit, if you had a good BRT or transit starter line that is highly successful it would be easier to get funding for the next line and the next line after that both locally, a local match and with federal eyes looking upon you too.”

The chair of the Senate Transportation Committee is Tom Casperson. He’s from the U.P.  His name is on the regional transit authority bills. He’s doing what the governor and Dennis Schornack are asking him to do. Though he doesn’t sound like he’s been forced into it.

“To me we’re trying to centralize it or localize it to the Southeast side of the state and let them decide their destiny. And so with all that in place if they say yes then let ‘em go. And that’s what I would share with my caucus too. I’m not voting for a tax increase that we’re gonna force on Michiganders across the state and make them take care of Southeast Michigan. But to not let Southeast Michigan decide their own destiny doesn’t seem to be fair to me.”

Senator Casperson hasn’t tried to line up the votes for the RTA yet. He’ll need his fellow republicans and fellow non-Detroiters.

Dave Hildenbrand is a very conservative republican from Lowell. In the morning he told Kent County advocates he was favorable to the RTA bills. Here’s what he said in the afternoon.

“We’re going to get public input from all sides and then I’ll make a decision at that point. So I’m in the study and learning phase right now of the governor’s proposals on both regional transportation issues, funding of the transportation system, public transportation, kind of a larger broader scope of transportation needs in this state.”

The RTA is supposed to be able to get money and lay down tracks or buses at least. But the debates in the legislature will still be a power struggle between city and suburbs and even Southeast Michigan versus the rest of the state. The stakeholders aren’t yet recognizing that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

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Democratic State Senator John Gleason of Flint

Democratic State Senator John Gleason of Flint

Ruth Johnson of Transportation Riders United and Dennis Schornack, Governor Rick Snyder's transit legislation quarterback.

Ruth Johnson of Transportation Riders United and Dennis Schornack, Governor Rick Snyder's transit legislation quarterback.

Scott Page of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Scott Page of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Panel of transit professionals from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Washington, Portland and elsewhere speaking to transit advocates and a few lawmakers at the Senate Hearing Room of Boji Tower, Lansing.

Panel of transit professionals from Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Washington, Portland and elsewhere speaking to transit advocates and a few lawmakers at the Senate Hearing Room of Boji Tower, Lansing.

Bus travel in Michigan is rare. This was a group of high school students coming to Lansing February 23, 2012.

Bus travel in Michigan is rare. This was a group of high school students coming to Lansing February 23, 2012.

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