PWIR: On Track to a More Modern Michigan

A weekly update on environmental policy happenings from Ryan Werder, Political Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Twitter: @rjwerder).

High speed rail is coming to Michigan. On Friday, the Lieutenant Governor signed a bill that flew through both chambers in a widely bipartisan fashion that will provide high speed rail from Dearborn to Kalamazoo and dramatically cut down on the length of trips from Detroit to Chicago.

Welcome to a special transit edition of the Political Week in Review!

What is so conservation-y about mass transit, anyway?

The short answer is that mass transit cuts down on toxic air emissions and also leads to smarter land use. For example, let’s say you and ten friends live in Kalamazoo and all really want to get to the University of Michigan football game to watch the Wolverines crush Minnesota. (Sorry, MSU fans, but as grateful as I am that Sparty beat the Buckeyes, I’m going with my Wolverine bias here). You can all pile into three cars worth of fumes and hit the road…and the traffic. Or, you can jump on Amtrak where you are responsible for only a tiny fraction of what you would have created driving separately.

As public transit becomes more practical – which I’ll touch on in regard to the Michigan Transit Odyssey, below – these kinds of scenarios can become even simpler for the average traveler. Plus, think about avoiding the awful post-game traffic. And the stops for gas. And parking fees. And wear and tear on your car. This is why it’s such a fantastic idea; it’s about more than just saving you from air pollution and kids from asthma attacks, it’s about saving families money, too.

In terms of land use, public transit across the country has proven time and again that dense, thriving communities spring up around affordable mass transit. As people begin to value efficient transit options – like the Rapid in Grand Rapids or the upcoming Woodward Ave project in Detroit – new businesses and residences will grow around the routes. Mass transit ties communities together and gives them cleaner air to breathe in the process. This is why we invested so much time and energy intosupporting, and winning, the RapidYes! campaign in Grand Rapids this year.

At present, we are proud to be a part of the Trans4m coalition that supports victories like these and includes partners ranging from the Disability Advocates of Kent County to the Michigan Environmental Council to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. You can get involved, too.

There are also jobs to be won. As Michigan moves out of our pathetically antiquated approach to mass transit we will see construction jobs emerge for retrofitting rails and bus lanes, building construction around those rehabbed routes, and even manufacturing around trains and buses.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that mass transit is central to any vision of a modern, clean, and vibrant Michigan. This recent victory on high speed rail is a key step toward that vision.

A big high speed rail victory

The section above explains why high speed rail is one of the top legislative priorities of the environmental community in Michigan, but doesn’t answer how it actually came about.

Clearly, there were a number of complex negotiations behind the scenes with Governor Snyder’s team – and especially former Congressman andMichigan LCV Board member Dr. Joe Schwarz – working with the railroads and Department of Transportation.

Overhanging all of their discussions, though, and making any of this possible was the $161 million in federal grants for high speed railwaiting for the state to unlock by providing some matching funds.

After receiving some private money from one of the rail companies, the state had to put up just under $20 million to make $161 million. It was a sweet deal and one that not even this famously stingy 2011-2012 Legislature could pass up. The bill passed the House and Senate with near unanimity and was signed into law by the Lieutenant Governor without even waiting for Snyder to return from China.

Take Action! Thank your State Rep and State Senator for High Speed Rail

The concept of “accountability” isn’t just about targeting bad actions, it’s also about recognition for good ones. This is one of those times to recognize this important investment in high speed rail in Michigan.

Please click here to tell your own elected official how important high speed rail is to Michigan. Let’s encourage more positive action of this kind by letting them know we care, we’re watching, and we want more.

Taking an “odyssey” to answer the question of “what’s next?”

Is it possible to go from Detroit Metro Airport to Traverse City using only mass transit? Yes… but only very slowly. I was personally curious about this question, so I joined up with dozens of other organizations and individuals to actually try it out. I joined the Michigan Transit Odyssey.

You’ll have to forgive my poor narration of the trip in advance, as Homer was unavailable to be a guest writer. My piece of the voyage was actually at the very beginning of it, starting off at Metro Airport bright and early.

The Detroit airport must have the worst transit connection to its namesake city as compared to any other airport in the world. No exaggeration. The bus stop is hidden, the bus itself travels through strip malls, and the trip takes close to an hour. We desperately need a quick and efficient alternative connecting the airport with Detroit and Ann Arbor.

Once in Detroit, we boarded a bus and went down Woodward – tracing the future route for an upcoming new light rail line – and got to the Amtrak station.

From there it was chugging, slowly, to Ann Arbor. That piece of our trip, however, will be much improved due to the high speed rail improvements just signed in Lansing. In Ann Arbor, we were met by Mayor John Hieftjewho was appropriately excited for funding for an improved Ann Arbor train station and transit hub that is also a very real possibility by virtue of other federal dollars now available.

This was only a fraction of the broader Odyssey, which you can read about in real-time on Twitter or Facebook. I was happy to participate in this experiment because it not only highlights the areas that will soon be approved, but an array of other transit areas in vast need of improvement.

The next chapter of this odyssey will be written by Governor Snyder when he gives his infrastructure speech in late October. I have little doubt our state’s journey toward clean and modern transportation will continue to be quite the epic with both tough challenges and more inspiring victories.

Until next week,

Ryan Werder
Political Director

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