If the numbers paint an accurate picture, development of mass transportation in Michigan is picking up steam.
A series of announcements this week look promising for light rail and other transportation options for Southeast Michigan. Earlier this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced $46.7 million in funding for 16 projects across the state, several in Detroit and surrounding suburbs.
Besides about $7 million for the city of Detroit to replace buses and make other improvements, metro Detroit will see $2 million in funding for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, which will study transportation alternatives between 8 Mile and 15 Mile Roads.
Part of that research will focus on connecting to a light rail line to run along Woodward Avenue in Detroit, starting in downtown and ending at 8 Mile. That project got $25 million in federal funding last year and a promise of continued support from LaHood this week, who is also encouraging local officials in southeast Michigan to look at a regional approach to the light rail line.
The latest funding comes as a regional transportation task force headed by Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has formed so that counties in Southeast Michigan will look at transportation advancements and opportunities as a united entity, rather than completing projects piecemeal.
And if there is question as to the interest from the public in mass transportation such as trains, record ridership numbers on Amtrak show there is. According to the Michigan Department of Transportation
, which released the ridership numbers this week, there has been an increase on its three lines for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
Ridership of the the Wolverine line, which runs between Pontiac and Chicago, increased by 4.9 percent from last year for a total of 503,290 riders. The increase might have been larger but for track work and freight slowdowns, according to the Michigan Department of Transportation.
The Blue Water line from Port Huron to Chicago increased 18.6 percent, up to 187,065 passengers, and the Pere Marquette route between Grand Rapids and Chicago saw a a gain of 4.7 percent, with 106,662 passengers.
In addition, SMART
, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, will receive nearly $5 million to replace unusable buses with hybrid biodiesel/electric models.
Tie in the decision in recent weeks by the state of Michigan to take on the Amtrak corridor between Dearborn and Kalamazoo and upgrade to 100-mph-plus high speed rail, and Michigan's mass transit improvements appear to be picking up steam.
There are two important lessons in all of this," says Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United
, an advocacy group for mass transit.
"One is there is a huge interest and demand for better transit in our community. Whether you're talking city, suburb, business communities, individuals, politicians, there's a huge interest in having better public transportation," Owens says. "While it's great the feds are supportive, the other side of the story is we are dramatically under-investing in a system."
"We are so lucky to have incredible federal support. They've highlighted Michigan and Detroit as a special focus, but they can only do so much. We have to step up ourselves."
Owens shares her thoughts while attending a conference in Washington, D.C. this week on transit-oriented development. In other states, she says, tens of thousands of jobs have been created and billions of dollars invested in light rail, public transportation and in communities along the routes, with success achieved only after committing sales tax or other funding sources to their projects.
She also points out that for all the talk of high speed trains and light rail, buses, the backbone of a transportation system, can't be forgotten. The latest federal dollars do go toward improving DDOT and SMART buses, but again, she says, the commitment locally needs to be greater.
"It's absolutely fabulous we're seeing big investment in this area, but we have to not only maintain but improve the core services."
Source: Michigan Department of Transportation and Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United.
Writer: Kim North Shine