According to last year’s Regional Policy Conference, one of the most important aspects of attracting and retaining young professionals to an area is to offer world-class transportation options. That said, the economy in Michigan is not particularly conducive to building that infrastructure.
“What’s changed since the conference in 2008, clearly, is the economy in Michigan has gone further down,” said Jared Rodriguez, senior vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber.
“As far as our conference goes, this is the only item we’re focusing on under that broader heading (attraction and retention).”
Transportation emerged from the Policy Conference as a high priority because it is known to be one of the things the millennial generation values highly.
“Members of the millennial generation often seek out places to live before they look for a company to work for. Often those places they choose to live have great transportation systems,” said Rodriguez.
“We’ve said through our task force that we need to invest dollars and create a state with those types of characteristics that are going to attract that next generation. In our mind, that is a world-class transportation infrastructure as the core foundation.”
Rodriguez said the region’s transportation infrastructure “is in crisis.”
“Clearly, we don’t have adequate roads,” he said. “Our roads are consistently worst in the nation. You can blame it on the climate; you can blame it on the lack of funding; you can blame it on the weight limits that are on our roads. There’s a multitude of things you could blame it on, but the reality of it is, we’re still worst in the nation. We see this as decades of underinvestment in the maintenance and repair of our infrastructure.”
Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid, Grand Rapid’s public bus system, said that funding for the improvement of West Michigan’s transportation infrastructure is tied up in government.
“The Regional Policy Conference had five major objectives they wanted to achieve. One of them was the restructuring of transportation funding. Really, that is dependent on the state’s side passing a series of transportation bills to put into effect part or most of the recommendations of the transportation funding task force last year,” said Varga.
“Not much has happened. There have been a few bills that have been introduced (and) some that have been talked about being introduced, but it really requires a package of about 13 to 16 bills, but that also includes the funding elements.”
Varga said that the funding elements are the biggest missing link. Michigan has an opportunity to gain matching funds from the federal level, but those funds have yet to be secured.
Another major issue Varga cited was that the revenues that are coming into the comprehensive transportation fund are being taken into the general fund by the legislature to balance the budget.
“That means that there will not be enough capital funds in the state budget to match federal money. There’s about $120 million of federal money that could come to Michigan in a year that requires a 20 percent match,” said Varga. “We’re talking about $30 (million) to $32 million that needs to be available. … They’re using remaining bond money and that’s not going to be available. At some point, there’s going to be a crisis and there’s not going to be any state match to federal money.”
Varga said that Michigan could be missing out on roughly a billion dollars worth of federal money unless transportation funding is resolved.
“For years on the appropriation side, they say they’ve held us harmless. That means they’ve appropriated the same amount of money, about $166 million, for transit operations. Every year, if it’s the same amount but our costs increase, we’re not keeping pace,” said Varga.
“Every year, we get less of a percentage. That means we lose money over time, in a sense, because they don’t appropriate to keep up with inflation. A few years ago, we were at 33 percent; then we went to 32 percent. We anticipate now we might be as low as 28 percent of our expenses are covered.”
Greg Northrup, executive director of West Michigan Strategic Alliance, believes that, although the issue of quality transportation can be a solid value to gain intellectual capital in the region, there are other pressing issues to address.
“I think the first value is, we better make sure we have jobs for them, because whether I offer them great quality of life or good transportation, if I don’t have jobs, then the other becomes kind of a moot point,” said Northrup.
“You have to have those, but ultimately our focus on job creation should probably be our No. 1 priority. Then, how do we help the businesses that are creating jobs actually be successful and make sure that they make decisions to reinvest in Michigan or locate their new investments here in Michigan?”
Northrup said that the competition is fierce when it comes to vying for new talent.
“There’s lots of competitors out there in terms of regions that are trying to do the same thing we are, and so when I look at the attributes of the region, we need to make sure we have competitive assets that people would expect,” he said.
George Bosnjak is business development manager for The Right Place Inc. and has been keeping his eye on the issue of attracting and retaining talent for several years.
“We’re certainly well on our way to getting some neat programs in place,” said Bosnjak. “This topic is gaining traction, but it’s been top-of-mind with a lot of people for the last five years or so. It’s not a new topic, but there are a lot of organizations who are starting some really positive things.”