Lazarus Lives in Troy, Michigan

by NARP Vice Chairman John DeLora, also President of the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP) [From the
NARP Blog
]

The back-and-forth fight over a new intermodal transit center in Troy MI has turned up interesting information about the federal High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail grant program (part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, ARRA). It also contains lessons on how to combat Luddites who oppose public transportation.

In 2009, Congress passed the ARRA act, calling for major infrastructure improvements which would lead to high speed rail in the U.S. Shortly after enactment, the Federal Railroad Administration held a series of public conferences to explain the program and what it would do, and what it wouldn’t do. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) conference for the Midwest was held in Kansas City, MO. Key points were:

States which applied for funds had to show a continuing commitment to passenger train service. Applications would be graded on an objective basis to eliminate charges of political influence.

MARP warned several Michigan legislators that the practice of partial-year state funding for the Amtrak Blue Water and Pere Marquette (which had been done for several years, with supplemental funding when the first tranche was exhausted) would not be acceptable to FRA. The legislature went ahead with partial year funding anyway, and many were stunned to find that FRA had denied all Michigan applications.

The following year, the legislature passed a full-year appropriation, and Michigan was awarded money for new stations for Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Birmingham-Troy, plus funds to renovate and expand the Battle Creek station.

In November, 2011 Troy citizens elected a mayor and two council members who ran on a pledge to stop all wasteful spending. Even though no City money would be involved in the construction of the new Troy/Birmingham Intermodal Transportation Center, the Council voted to kill the project on the grounds that it was “wasteful” government spending. The grant for Troy has a stipulation that the project must be completed by October 1, 2013. The council voted down the grant on December 19, 2011, the last apparent date for which approval would have allowed for completion by the 2013 deadline.

On January 17, 2012, the council reversed itself and approved the center.

What happened is a lesson for public transportation advocates everywhere.

The “antis” thought of themselves as Tea Party conservatives standing up against waste despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. MARP made a presentation to the City Council at its December meeting in which council members were given contact information for the mayors and Chambers of Commerce for every Amtrak city in Michigan, and were asked to contact those cities and find out if any of them regretted their decision. MARP also worked with Michelle Hodges, President of the Troy Chamber of Commerce, who worked tirelessly to unite support from the business community behind the project.

The Troy Council was surprised by the national attention it got (all negative) about its vote, and major employers advised publicly they had advised their corporate boards not to make further investment in such a backward-looking city.

If there’s one group Republicans listen to, it’s the business community. The Troy Chamber had made a strong enough case that one Council member said he would change his vote if the cost could be reduced, and the $30,000 annual maintenance budget were not to be borne by the city.

After a series of sessions, the architectural firm reduced the project cost by $2.3 million; the Troy chamber made a commitment that it would find funding for the annual maintenance cost. FRA also agreed to a short extension of the completion deadline. With that, a special meeting was called, and the project was approved.

Lessons learned:

The business community knows transit is essential for getting employees to work and is willing to fight for transit
The business community also recognizes that bringing large numbers of people into an area makes that property a more attractive place to live, work and invest, which in turn leads to higher property tax revenues.
Train and transit advocates need to have a firm grasp of the requirements set out in legislation. For example, most of the “antis” believed that money was appropriated to Troy and would go back to the federal treasury.
Congress appropriated the Recovery Act funds to FRA, not to individual state projects. The FRA was directed to find worthy projects for the money through reviewing and accepting grant applications from state Departments of Transportation.
Since the money has already been appropriated, Congress treats it as money already spent. They could rescind the unspent money, but remember: to do so would require new legislation being passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President—not very likely.
If a project were disapproved locally, the funds would not go back to the federal treasury, but to another city.
Every advocacy organization needs to have contact information for the mayor, the local economic development corporation, Chamber of Commerce, and Visitors and Convention Bureaus in their city. These are allies who can really shake the gratings of either party, and virtually all of them understand the value of public transportation.

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