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As state looks to boost road spending, transit advocates want a fair share

Sarah Hulett
Michigan Radio

As state lawmakers look to boost investment in Michigan's roads, transit advocates are calling on Lansing not to forget the state’s public transportation systems.

House Speaker Jase Bolger has proposed legislation that would reconfigure gas taxes and add other measures to raise about $450 million a year for road repairs. On Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Randy Richardville said he wants to triple that amount to about $1.5 billion.

That's much closer to what most experts think is needed to truly fix Michigan’s crumbling roadways. Richardville hasn't yet offered details about how to raise the extra money.

Transit supporters agree the roads desperately need fixing. But they’re concerned Bolger’s proposal would direct less than 1% of new funds to transit, and all other non-road infrastructure like rail lines and bike paths.

Megan Owens, head of the group Transportation Riders United, says this would upset Michigan’s longstanding formula for allocating those funds.

“For most of the past 60 years, transportation funds have gone 90% to roads, and 10% to transit and all of the other modes,” Owens says. “We just want to maintain that basic division of funding, and make sure that transit does not get cut out.

“Our transportation system is not roads alone. We need to fund the entire system.”

Owens points out that Michigan has not increased funding for public transit since 1987, and it’s been nearly that long since there was a bump in federal funding.

As a result, many public transit systems are bare-bones operations. That’s particularly true in Metro Detroit, where hundreds of thousands of people depend on a dysfunctional, fragmented bus system.

Sandra Turner-Handy, with the Michigan Environmental Council, says riders suffer without “reliable and consistent” transit service—and boosting funding would have additional benefits.

“A well-funded public transportation system would take cars off our roads,” Turner-Handy says.  “It will lessen the impact on the roads, and it will also lessen the impact of toxic emissions.”

Bus drivers with the Amalgamated Transit Union also rallied supporters in Michigan Tuesday to push the federal government on transportation spending.

The nation’s current federal highway bill is set to expire in September, and officials say the Highway Trust Fund could run out of dollars for transportation projects by August.

President Obama has proposed a $300 billion transportation bill, and urged Congress to act on it.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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