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The spotlights in downtown Detroit had just been turned off. It was three days past the big Super Bowl XL weekend and Roger Penske, the host committee chairman, addressed a genuinely impassioned crowd of executives at a packed Marriott luncheon. He told his business peers that he was devoted to "continuing the momentum" of Detroit's revival, and he described his enthusiasm for what he believed should be the city's next big project: constructing a modern rapid transit system.
"I'm here to tell you today that I'm ready to join the effort," Penske said. "Right here and right now."
Since 1981, when San Diego built the new light rail line that started its remarkable downtown resurgence, 39 other cities have opened new streetcar, light rail and commuter rail systems in the United States. Jobs, housing, businesses and economic opportunity blossomed. And every city that built a new rapid transit system, and in the 40 more cities that are planning to build one, a leader stepped forward as the principal advocate. Minneapolis' two-year-old Hiawatha line wouldn't have been built without independent Gov. Jesse Ventura's advocacy. Denver's new 154-mile rapid transit system turned on the support of Joe Blake, the conservative chief of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
It is not known whether Penske's public challenge was followed by private advocacy for rapid transit with the Democratic governor or Republican leaders. But for the first time in generations, Detroit and the state appear to actually be drawing closer, instead of running desperately away from a commitment to join the rest of the country by pursuing new transit lines.
Negotiations between Gov. Jennifer Granholm's administration and Republican legislative leaders have been under way since February over a bill that would give local governments the authority to raise money for new transit systems, a requirement to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal engineering and construction funds.
Detroit's city government, according to one of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's top aides, now views improving its bus lines and building a regional rapid transit system as top priorities for economic development.
And during Super Bowl week, Kilpatrick invited House Speaker Craig DeRoche to Detroit to talk about transit funding. Days after the game, DeRoche, a Republican from Novi and archopponent of public transit, displayed an uncharacteristic cooperative streak. DeRoche told reporters he and the mayor agreed to work together on transit issues. "While we don't have anything to announce immediately," said DeRoche, "I hope to be able to find solutions that work that we can both get behind."
By no means does election-year talk ensure that new transit lines especially those on the table in Grand Rapids, and between Detroit and Ann Arbor will be built. But the gestures and words of support, along with new body language displayed by Democrats and Republicans, is an important departure from the automatic rejection that proposals for new rapid transit systems in Michigan have received since World War II.
"What people are saying now is a change," said Megan Owens, the director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group in Detroit. "The words sound better. It's especially good that Detroit is getting active in fighting for transit and itself."
Last week, Lucius Vassar, Detroit's chief administrative officer, appeared before the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments general assembly to inform members of the regional planning group that Kilpatrick was determined to improve existing bus service. The mayor, said Vassar, also wanted to build the proposed new transit line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Vassar urged SEMCOG, which has completed at least nine transit studies but has also been a reluctant transit supporter, to help.
Also last week in Lansing, Rep. Chris Ward, a Republican from Brighton and the House majority floor leader, met with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Cherry. It was the latest negotiating session over a pending House bill that is essential to any statewide progress on rapid transit. The bill, House Bill 5560, is sponsored by Kent County Republican Rep. Jerry Kooiman. It would give the Grand Rapids-area transit agency the authority to levy taxes for 25 years to help pay for the proposed new line, and make the city eligible to collect $14.4 million from the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program.
The federal government requires communities to show a 25-year financial commitment. State law prohibits levying such taxes for more than five years.
Whether Kooiman's proposal can remedy that is the focus of the negotiations between the Legislature and the governor's office.
Last June, when Kooiman first introduced it, the bill was structured to provide long-term transit financing authority to 22 transit agencies, including those served by both of southeast Michigan's major bus systems. But Republican House leaders amended the bill so that only Grand Rapids could enhance its taxing authority.
Speaker DeRoche said at that time that he did not trust Detroit's capacity to operate a rapid transit system and opposed granting southeast Michigan permission to pursue a new regional tax. In limiting the bill to just one city, though, DeRoche seemed also to be motivated by an opportunity to box in Granholm, and force her to make a decision that was sure to anger thousands of voters whatever she did. If Granholm signed the bill, it would hurt her in Detroit. If she vetoed it, voters would be annoyed in western Michigan, where she gained considerable support during the 2002 election.
Granholm did veto the bill on Dec. 27, asserting that its benefits should apply to other transit systems, including Detroit's. Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, fearful that the federal funds and the streetcar line would vanish, issued a blistering critique of the political gamesmanship: "I'm sick of the partisanship that is immobilizing our state," he said. "Every citizen of Michigan ought to be enraged."
Kooiman, a 44-year-old former aide to Republican U. S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra and a veteran lawmaker, was not deterred. He reintroduced the Grand Rapids-only version of the bill in January. It sailed along toward House passage, and another Granholm veto, when Kooiman stepped in the way on Jan. 31. He convinced DeRoche not to hold a final vote and urged his leader to negotiate with the governor. "I stalled it on the floor and I kept it there," said Kooiman in an interview. "The decision was made between myself and the speaker not to move the bill to the Senate."
The legislative and administration negotiators are using the Kooiman bill to leverage road construction projects Republicans want like widening several metro Detroit interstates against transit projects in Grand Rapids and Detroit that the administration supports. Along with the $14.4 million that the Federal Transit Administration has committed to Grand Rapids is $100 million more that Congress secured last summer for a proposed line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. SEMCOG is scheduled to complete a feasibility study and announce a preferred route between the two cities by June.
The second issue is jobs. Every $10 million spent on transit capital investments, like those proposed in Grand Rapids and Detroit, yields an average of 370 new jobs. Every $10 million spent on running a transit line yields 570 jobs, say economists. In other words, leaders of both parties are being challenged to stifle partisanship in an election year and come up with an agreement that secures thousands of jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in transit-related business investment, and start a new development strategy that makes Michigan more economically competitive.
If they fail, and Kooiman's proposal still only applies to Grand Rapids, Granholm has said she will again issue a veto. If that happens, say federal and state authorities, the money will disappear, just as it did in 1976 when southeast Michigan could not agree on a transit plan, and $600 million that President Gerald Ford secured for a southeast Michigan regional rapid transit system melted away.
Ward said Monday that, despite even more items being laid on the negotiating table, the players know how much is at stake and progress is being made. "We're getting closer," he said. Those forward steps are crucial at this point.
"As long as negotiations move forward," said Kooiman, "I'm willing to hold off and not move the bill to the Senate."