Finally, Michigan Gets A New Start

Clearing the way for the design, engineering, and eventual construction of the most advanced public transportation system yet in Michigan, the Federal Transit Administration approved greater Grand Rapids' application to build a highly sophisticated rapid bus line through one of its busiest urban corridors.

The decision, announced today by Congressman Vern Ehlers, ultimately could trigger more than $29 million in federal funding to build a nearly 10-mile bus rapid transit route and modernize the transportation infrastructure in Michigan's second largest city. It's also expected to expand mobility choices, leverage a new wave of private real estate investment, and boost quality of life in the central city.

But the implications of the approval likely will extend far beyond the Grand Rapids region. Michigan is the 8th largest state in the union. Yet the state has been unable to tap into the federal government's primary funding program for mass transit projects known as New Starts.

Dozens of cities across America are planning, building, or expanding bus, street car, light rail, and other public transportation projects. So competitition, in other words, is brisk for New Starts funding. What's more, the process favors states and communities that have successfully jumped through the program's hoops in the past. Michigan, the Auto State, isn't one of them.

Until now. Grand Rapids becomes the first Michigan city to secure New Starts approval, and that presents a powerful opportunity to accelerate transit projects across the state, including a proposed light rail project in Detroit. The next step for Grand Rapids and, more importantly, the State of Michigan, is to come up with the local dollars necessary to match and bring home the federal funds.

Peter Varga, CEO of the Rapid, the regional transit authority serving the Grand Rapids region, is confident state and local leaders will find the $7 million in the next couple years.

"We don't want to stop this," Mr. Varga said. "If you say 'no' to this, you're saying 'no' to everything in the future whether it's transit project in southeast Michigan, Traverse City, or wherever."

"Michigan has to move into the future and be able to attract new businesses, technology, and knowledge-based workers and that kind of recruitment and developmentall requires advanced transportation systems," Varga added. "What we've done is demonstrate that we can get a [major mass transit] project rated by the Federal Transit Administration and that we can fund it under the federal program. Other systems [in Michigan] can do the same."

"We'll be the first one, but I never envisioned we'll be the only one."

In other FTA news that affects the Great Lakes region's maturation in the 21st century, the agency announced on December 11, 2007 a $156 million commitment to the 40-mile commuter rail line project in Minnesota. The funds cover approximately half the total construction costs.

"After a difficult year, there’s a new star rising on Minneapolis’s transportation horizon and it’s lighting a path to faster trips to the office, to the ball game, and back home," said the US Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett.