With winter just around the corner, the nerve-rattling, wheel-bending state of Michigan’s derelict roads and bridges will soon be even harder to ignore. Simply put, a substantial increase in transportation funding is unavoidable.
Nearly everyone wants state lawmakers to pass a transportation funding package this fall. But even with time running out, our legislators would be wise to remember that their decisions in the next couple of months will affect our state for decades to come. That’s why they must seize this opportunity to invest in our complete transportation system, not just roads and bridges.
Frankly, our state has been too slow to recognize a new reality: A modern transportation system is a necessary ingredient for a thriving economy. To attract and retain a talented workforce — which Gov. Snyder has said is “probably the single most important issue” for Michigan’s economic future — we need to provide 21st-century transportation options.
That means making communities more walkable and bike-friendly, and making public transit more reliable and accessible. It means creating places where today’s workers want to put down roots or launch a business.
Two thirds of millennials say access to reliable public transportation is among the top three criteria they would use to decide where to live. Having a car simply isn’t as important to them as it was to other generations. Demand in Michigan for public transit and passenger rail is growing each year. MDOT statistics show rail has seen an increased annual ridership of 78% between 2002 and 2013.
Unfortunately, we haven’t made the investments needed to meet that growing demand. Last time Michigan passed a substantial transportation funding increase, back in 1997, all the revenue went to roads. As a result, the state’s Comprehensive Transportation Fund (CTF) has missed out on more than $15 million every year since—a total of $259 million in lost opportunity.
That’s a huge blow to our economy and quality of life, because the CTF pays for programs such as passenger rail and public transit, which we must support to become a more appealing place for young professionals. The fund opens new opportunities for Michiganders without personal transportation—in both urban and rural areas—by supporting Michigan’s 78 public transit agencies, which last year provided more than 260,000 rides per day.
In part because of that 1997 mistake, Michigan is quickly falling behind our Midwest neighbors in providing the convenient, modern public transportation we need to stay competitive. Meanwhile, talented workers are flocking to Minneapolis and Cleveland — and businesses are following. Along Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue, the Healthline bus rapid transit line has catalyzed over $6.3 billion in private development, while boosting transit ridership along the corridor. In Minneapolis, the revitalization of Nicolet Mall — a corridor open only to pedestrians, bikes and transit — has boosted development and spurred population growth.
There are some hopeful signs at home. The new Silver Line bus rapid transit system in Grand Rapids and construction of the M-1 Rail in Detroit are major steps forward. Two commuter rail projects and several bus rapid transit projects in the works have the potential to greatly enhance the quality of life in metro areas across the state. A funding package that supports our full transportation system will help move those exciting projects forward and add to the $1.3 billion in economic output public transportation already provides for our state.
And there’s more at stake than how we move people. If lawmakers use the traditional funding formula to support our full transportation system, they’ll boost the freight rail system that is crucial for Michigan’s agricultural economy. They’ll support improvements to the waterways that each year move more than 200 million tons of cargo, supporting 65,000 Michigan shipping and storage jobs. And they’ll bolster the harbors, marinas and public boat launches that pump $3.6 billion into the state economy annually and are responsible for 50,000 jobs.
So, yes—the Legislature needs to get the job done. But they also have a rare chance to lay a solid foundation for Michigan’s economic future by supporting our full transportation system.
Lawmakers, please do transportation funding right, not just right now.