MI Gov. Granholm Goofs Transit

Lindsay Davis, a 23-year-old former ballet dancer, recently left Cincinnati to take a job at the Cleveland Clinic. She loves that life in C-town is so affordable. But one of her least favorite things about the metro region is "how dependent people have to be on their vehicles. I wish Cleveland had a better public-transportation system," she recently told the Plains Dealer.

Less than three hours north in Michigan, there's a debate raging about how the state urgently improves it's ability to attract and retain young talented workers just like Ms. Davis. One reader wrote into a Detroit Free Press forum on the topic to say "if I had the opportunity for a job in Michigan I would take it. However, my current locale in the Northeast supplies me with ample subsidized public transportation. If Michigan really wants to come back, first thing that needs to happen is a public train system."

These two comments, I'm convinced, represent the attitude of the younger generation of citizens and workers now taking the stage in American life. Elected leaders and public officials in the greater Great Lakes, then, can no longer claim to support the economic revitalization of the Rust Belt without an aggressive and well-honed platform to maintain, enhance, and expand rapid mass transit service in central cities.

Like roads and highways to the Industrial Era, light rail lines, streetcar circulators, and commuter trains are essential instruments of any legitimate strategy to pursue prosperity in the Digital Age.

That's one reason why Governor Jennifer Granholm's performance in the Rebuilding Michigan's Motor forum was so dispiriting to anybody with a vision of Michigan 3.0. The governor, who has made urban revitalization a centerpiece of her economic development initiative, had several opportunities to claim leadership on the transit issue during the one-hour forum. Not once did she respond with the urgency, clarity, and resolve the issue now demands.

Sure Gov. Granholm's responses acknowledged, in a superficial sense, the proven link between good transit and a city or state's competitiveness in the modern economy. But, instead of bravely affirming the bold and specific steps Michigan must take to even begin building a basic urban public transportation system, she cravenly bowed to the status quo with veiled answers that steered away from the transit issue and, in one instance, even devolved into a rambling diatribe about the lack of road funding and the abundance of pot holes.

"As we talk about diversification of transportation options and bringing people into Michigan, what is your vision for the connectivity issue and developing a statewide public transportation policy for rail lines, streetcars, connecting cities and suburbia, the Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula," Grand Rapids resident Casey Dutmer asked Gov. Granholm.

"Seventy-seven percent of [new economy] companies take the availability of mass transit into account when they're deciding where to locate," Dutmer continued. "But Michigan has no statewide transit policy. We have federal funding approved for a bus rapid transit system here in Grand Rapids. We hope that you will support the state funding we need to match the federal funds."

"The most vibrant states and the most vibrant cities are the ones that have a robust public transportation system. There's no question about it," Gov. Granholm responded. "Michigan has our heritage with the auto industry [which] has obviously caused us to grow up and be reliant on vehicles. But as we as a nation move toward other solutions, like alternative and renewable energy, but also to create cities that are compact and dynamic, we must have transportation solutions that meet our needs.

"I've appointed a transportation task force which is supposed to come back to me with suggestions on public transit as well as how we have better roads in Michigan, how we fund the roads, and how we make sure that our roads are smooth. We do not have enough money right now in our transportation system overall. Certainly that's true on public transit. And it's true as well on the roads. We can't operate in the same way we have."

Stop. At this point, it seemed, the governor was well positioned to explain that, while Michigan has budget troubles, the state has plenty of money. It spends billions of dollars each year, in fact, on a variety of economic development programs and infrastructure. The problem is that the current investment strategy is fundamentally out of alignment with the needs of a modern economy. The pattern of government spending is programmed for 1950, not projecting toward 2050.

The state, for example, is considering new coal plants when the future is in wind turbines. It facilitates sprawling development out into the corn fields when 21st century wealth and innovation seems to concentrate in high density urban centers. And, as the price of gas skyrockets, climate concerns mount, and traffic grows increasingly congested, Michigan is focused exclusively on building more and bigger roads instead of diversfying its transportation system with alternatives like light rail lines that we know generate far greater economic, environmental, and social returns on investment compared to roadways.

So instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to widen that highway through downtown Grand Rapids Mr. Dutmer, the governor might have said, we are going to modernize fiscal spending, identify the critical state funds necessary for that bus rapid transit line, and give people in Grand Rapids more mobility options.

An out-of-the-box response like that would help transfigure the entrenched thinking about transit in Michigan. It would shine a bright light on Michigan's archaic development strategy, change the very nature of the state's mass transit debate, and arguably pick up the pace towards economic recovery. Instead, the governor opted for the easy and familiar talking points. She continues...

"I know alot of people care about the roads and the potholes and all of that. When I became governor, 72 percent of our state roads were in good condition. And I said we have got to get it to at least 90 percent. It's now 92 percent, although you'd never know because you probably travel along a lot of local roads and end up getting jarred all over. People don't know the difference between a state road and a local road."

"The local units of government need the funding to be able to repair those roads, too. And that's why the current method of funding transportation systems in Michigan is not adequate. I don't think we should go to a gas tax but I think there are other solutions and I'm waiting for the experts to come back and tell me the best way to do it."

That road raging response, remember, was the answer to a mass transit question.

The people of Michigan, meanwhile, hunger for leadership in a changing world.