Rapid Transit system support is needed now


    The federal stimulus package passed last week with the addition of $8 billion for high-speed rail initiatives was certainly heralded by our fellows in Southeast Michigan, where several plans have been debated but unconsummated for a decade.

    And it is likely to be confusing to voters in Kent County who will be asked to consider a millage request from The Rapid on May 5 for the Bus Rapid Transit line, now officially given the name of the Silver Line. The Grand Rapids-based transit authority will receive some of the stimulus funds, but the entity is limited in how those funds can be used. Executive Director Peter Varga told the Business Journal the funds will be used to renovate the Wealthy Street station, work that has been scheduled for 2011. “It just gives me the opportunity to move that renovation up and have it completed now,” Varga said.

    The bigger issue — for the entire state — is the final leg of a 10-year journey that will provide nine miles of Bus Rapid Transit through an area with the highest commuter volume in the region. That nine-mile stretch from 60th Street SE paralleling U.S. 131 into downtown Grand Rapids connects hospitals, research facilities on the Medical Mile, five college campuses and downtown entertainment venues like the arena and convention center.

    The long odyssey for funding of this project became Michigan’s first victory for federal New Start funds. The $32 million from the federal transportation administration hinges on two required elements: the Michigan Department of Transportation has to provide a 20 percent match, and local residents have to guarantee the service can be sustained long-term by approving a millage for the service.

    The Rapid and leaders throughout the county waited nervously through years of state budget cuts for the state match, which was finally indicated late last year by Sen. Bill Hardiman, R-Kentwood.

    If the 0.16 millage does not pass, the region loses $40 million in funding and the state loses its first New Start grant, widely seen by Michigan Municipal League and other state leaders as opening the door to federal funding for other communities for such initiatives. The tax would not be collected until 2012 (which may also be confusing to voters) and raises the average tax bill about $12 a year.

    The issue is a part of the foundation of sustainability being laid in West Michigan. This region’s thought leaders have already shown initiative: Both Kentwood and Wyoming city officials have held charettes that anticipate the known interest in development along the Silver Line. Both cities believe it offers opportunity to reinvent themselves, and that’s especially welcome news in Wyoming where General Motors is shuttering its plant and laying off 1,500 workers.

    Since The Rapid is legally prohibited from any lobby effort to pass the millage, it is a task left to Friends of Transit, whose members widely represent the business community. That group should grow to the proportion of Grand Action to assure voters are well informed of how much is to be gained from their affirmation for this region’s future.

    The effort has been hard fought, a collaboration between Kent County communities, and offers a major opportunity for mass transit in a land developed under automotive influence since the 1950s and left barren of such public transportation.

    The vote is barely more than two months away. Support must be given today.

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