Detroit and Grand Rapids: Fellows Not Foes

In an otherwise sharp column yesterday about Detroit's exhausting mass transit pickle, Free Press editorial writer Jeff Gerritt suggests that Grand Rapids, Michigan's second largest city, is competing against the Motor City for federal transit funding no different than Denver, San Diego, or Portland.

But a closer look at the situation reveals that, at this moment, greater Grand Rapids actually is one of the biggest allies in the campaign to finally put modern public transportation on the ground in Detroit. In fact, one of the more strategic moves transit leaders in Southeast Michigan can make right now to advance their own efforts is to support a proposed permanent Bus Rapid Transit line in West Michigan.

How's that? Well, in December 2007 metro Grand Rapids became the first city in Michigan history to gain access to the federal New Starts Program, the nation's primary funding mechanism for major mass transit projects.

The program is exceptionally difficult to tap into because the process is rigorous, dozens of cities are in line for funding, and the program tends to favor states and cities that have previously filed successful applications. Detroit, for example, has yet to break into the fund.

But greater Grand Rapids cleared the high hurdles. In a decision that could trigger as much as $29 million in federal funding, the feds approved Grand Rapids' application to build a $40 million Bus Rapid Transit line serving one of its busiest urban corridors.

By doing so, Grand Rapids now stands on the verge of not only building its own permanent public transportation line, but also putting Michigan and its major cities on the official federal transit funding radar for the first time.

Put another way, Metro GR is poised to open the door to hundreds of millions of dollars in future federal funding for the long stalled light rail train on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, for example, or commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit.

This is the break Michigan's mass transit movement has been waiting for.

The immediate challenge is to prompt Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and the Legislature to identify approximately $8 million (over the next three years nonetheless) in state funding that enables Grand Rapids to "match" the generous federal grant. That would gain the entire state official membership in the New Starts Program and position places like GR and Detroit to start modernizing their mass transit infrastructure.

State leaders, however, are short on both funding and leadership when it comes to public transportation.

So you'd think Detroit, acting in its own self interest, would stand shoulder to shoulder with Grand Rapids in the State Capitol advocating for the vital state appropriation and a standing process to do it more often.

But few people in the Motor City recognize the significance of what's happening in Grand Rapids. And those that do, as Mr. Gerritt's column reveals, view the city as out-state competition rather than a cross-state colleague.