Mass transit plans confront financial realities

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Capital News Service
LANSING – The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has plans to encourage residents to use mass transit to get to work more efficiently, but it needs to get beyond a $1.8 billion shortfall first.
“Across the board in terms of transportation, we have more than a 50 percent shortfall,” said Jennifer Evans, a transportation coordinator for SEMCOG. “Our long-range transportation plan needs about $2.8 billion a year to do everything – that’s pavement in good condition, a full transit plan, use of non-motorized systems, addressing congestion and so on.”
Its long-range transportation plan includes new projects along 12 corridors in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, making what the Regional Transit Coordinating Council calls the “Golden Triangle.”
A 2008 SEMCOG report anticipates that some initiatives will be established or in substantial planning stages by 2012.
These include: M-59 between Gratiot and Telegraph Road; M-59 between Van Dyke Road and Williams Lake Road; Gratiot Avenue between 9 Mile Road and M-59; Woodward Avenue between Grand Boulevard and M-59; Michigan Avenue between Woodward and Telegraph; Telegraph between M-59 and Michigan; and Telegraph between 8 Mile Road and Summit Place Mall.
Two of those initiatives are already underway: a light rail transit line along Woodward between Jefferson Avenue and Grand and a commuter rail between Detroit’s New Center and Ann Arbor.
But with its budget shortfall, SEMCOG acknowledges that planning isn’t the same as taking action.
While space exists for the proposed new facilities and transit routes, Southeast Michigan ranked 23rd among 25 comparable regions across the United States in money available for such projects.
“One of the biggest obstacles is funding and recognition that transit is just as high a priority as, say, pavement or bridges,” said Evans.
The study also found that transportation in many comparable regions receives a higher level of financial support from local and state governments than Southeast Michigan governments offer.
“Compared to roads, there’s less federal contribution toward transit so you have to make up for that on the local side. In most cases it comes from some sort of tax that’s dedicated to transit,” Evans said.
Beyond funding, the agency says it must increase interest among taxpayers and integrate a variety of ideas from county residents and officials.
“Southeast Michigan has a lot of visions going on,” said state Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle.
Alex Bourgeau, a transportation coordinator with SEMCOG, said, “One of the first steps is a service analysis to determine what kind of service to provide, what to do on these corridors, what is most cost-efficient and how to provide those revenues.
“You can’t do that until you actually outline what you want to do,” he said.
Still, Steudle said he’s optimistic, “There’s a lot of interest and we’re the closest we’ve been in maybe 30 years to aligning those visions.”
Robin Boyle, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at Wayne State University, said one of the problems Southeast Michigan must overcome is finding the best way to connect existing transit systems on a regional scale.
Boyle said that although the region does have mass transit, it’s predominately bus-based and people don’t use it for many reasons. They include complaints that it isn’t well-maintained, doesn’t service the areas where the public needs it and doesn’t run frequently enough.
Boyle said investment in the existing transit system is one of the key starting points for the future of mass transit.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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