Recap: Kent County Legislative Lunch on Transit

More needs to be done to secure long-term funding for public transportation and to improve transportation options for all users, Grand Rapids area legislators and transit advocates agreed this past Monday at the Kent County Legislative Lunch on Transit

The event was put on by Trans4M member Disability Advocates for Kent County (DAKC), along with Concerned Citizens for Improved Transit, Faith in Motion, and the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force. It focused on funding a transportation system that promotes economic development, vibrant communities, and access for all users.

Panelists included State Representatives Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker), Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), Ken Yonker (R-Caledonia), and Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids). They fielded questions from moderator Chaka Holley, Pastoral Care and Justice Coordinator at Hearthside Michigan, and members of the audience.

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Sarah Green educated attendees on The Rapid’s Travel Training program and other services.

When asked about the adequacy of transportation funding in Governor Snyder’s 2014-2015 budget, VerHeulen was the first to say that transportation funding must be a higher priority. The governor’s transportation budget is status quo, and our transportation system needs greater investment. Representative Brinks agreed. “Costs are getting worse as we do nothing. This is fiscal irresponsibility not to address it.”

Several questions asked by the audience addressed House Speaker Jase Bolger’s (R-Marshall) $500 million road funding plan. Funds in Bolger’s plan would not flow through the Act 51 formula, and would thus fail to include any substantial funding for public transit.  Dillon expressed concern that this would lead to legislators picking projects rather than transportation professionals at the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). “It is critically important that we don’t let the process be handled by politicians,” Dillon said to much applause.

Yonker said that the concern that many of his peers have is that if we go through the Act 51 formula and give the money to Lansing, money might go more towards administrative costs and highway projects. VerHeulen dismissed these concerns, noting that MDOT’s expertise makes them the most capable of putting funds where they are needed. Legislators agreed that this funding plan was a good first step, and could lay a base for future funding packages.  Dillon again said that any new money will have to include funds for public transit.

Conversation also covered transit and non-motorized topics, including the creation of a universal ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) card for transit riders with disabilities. Currently, each service provider has its own ADA card which provides eligibility for paratransit services, and in some cases reduced fares. These cards are not transferable between service providers, and a person’s eligibility status may not travel with them. Having a universal card would allow greater access to our transportation system, and a greater freedom to travel for these individuals.  Brinks carried the sentiment of the panel when she said it was a fantastic idea, and a great opportunity for every person to be able to participate fully in society.

Bicycling discussions were also a hot topic at the event, led by Tom Tilma, Executive Director of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition (GGRBC). GGBC, a Trans4M member, works to make Metro Grand Rapids more bike friendly and bring biking benefits to all parts of the community. After noting several community, economic, and health benefits cycling provides, Tilma mentioned some recent bicycling successes in the legislature, including the right-hand turn legislation and Complete Streets legislation. “Representatives VerHeulen, Dillon and the others demonstrated a solid grasp of alternative, or active, transportation issues. They also articulately expressed their concern about adequate state funding for maintenance of our basic transportation infrastructure, and their belief that having quality roads enhances our state’s economic competitiveness,” Tilma said.

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Tom Tilma and Tricia Boot of the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition.

Priorities going forward include the vulnerable road user legislation, the Pure Michigan trails package, and a safe-passing distance proposal. These issues and more will be the focus of the 2014 Lucinda Means Bicycling Advocacy Day on May 21, hosted by the League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB), Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, Michigan Mountain Biking Association, and Programs to Educate All Cyclists (PEAC).

Legislators were asked about ways to make the road safer for bicyclists and other non-motorized users. Representative Brinks mentioned devoting more time to these rights and responsibilities in driver’s education classes, one of the goals of LMB and Trans4M’s Share MI Roads campaign. She also mentioned education efforts within the bicycling community. Yonker, who identified as a frequent biker, mentioned targeting state-wide TV media as we get into bicycling season.

The Legislative Lunch continued the dialogue on public transportation in Michigan, especially concerning state funding, non-motorized transportation, and ADA access between systems, but work remains to be done. “This was a good next step in the process- it’s not the first time we’ve met, and it won’t be the last. Regular meetings like this help keep the conversation going,” Dave Bulkowski, Executive Director of DAKC said.

By: Jeff Prygoski, Fellow, Transportation for Michigan

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