Transportation Odyssey in review

"After the Greeks won the Trojan War, it took Odysseus about 10 years to get from Troy to Ithaca," says James Bruckbauer, policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "Unless you’re in a car or an airplane, getting around Michigan can often seem as difficult."

Bruckbauer was one of 15 unwavering transportation advocates who embarked on the Michigan Transportation Odyssey, a 350-mile cross-state journey using only public transit. The mid-March Odyssey was conceived as a way to demonstrate both the opportunities and challenges of Michigan’s statewide public transport system. The three-day event was organized by Transportation for Michigan (Trans4M), a coalition created to help make Michigan communities more livable and robust through transportation policy reform.

Day 1

"Let it be known that you can get from the airport to a Coney dog within two hours," tweeted Odyssey traveler Jeff Wattrick, a blogger for MLive.

The Odyssey kicked off March 21 at Detroit Metro Airport, the principle air gateway to state. Though DTW is one of busiest airports in the world, it is one of only a few major airports with no effective public transit system to serve passengers once they land. 

"Getting out of Detroit Metro Airport using ground transportation could have been its own Odyssey," said Haley Roberts, communications director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. "You have to ask several airport employees where it is because most don’t know. When you finally find the airport bus stop--I wouldn’t call it a station--it’s a shelter, there’s no way-finding signage."

The bus route snaked through the suburbs of Detroit, puttered through a Meijer supermarket parking lot, and stopped once in River Rouge.

"The bus comes and it takes you to the city limit, at which point we had to get off of the SMART system, walk across the busy street, and stand and wait for that (DDOT) bus to pick us up so we could get downtown," Roberts continued.

"We’re talking two hours, and two buses to go 30 miles," said Timothy Fischer, Deputy Policy Director at the Michigan Environmental Council. "That’s certainly not something that the Chamber of Commerce or the Convention and Visitors Bureau can market. It was clear that, apart from us, the only people taking this route have no other options."

The group arrived at Rosa Parks Transit Center, grabbed lunch at Lafayette Coney Island, then met with the Detroit News for a press conference to discuss waffling legislation on Southeastern Michigan’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA). An RTA for southeastern Michigan would act as a binding agent between the area’s cities, to coordinate, fund, and improve public transit. According to Odyssey participants, an RTA would be an important first step in breaking the region’s legacy of dissociation regarding public transit coordination.

Following the press conference, Odyssey travelers took a quick spin on Detroit’s people mover to the Financial District. "In the big picture it’s hard not to think of it as a foolish little train, a legacy of poor follow-through in region-wide cooperation," said Fischer. "It was meant to be the final piece of a regional rail system which was never built because of region’s lack of ability to cooperate for common purpose. With this RTA we’ve been pushing, we hope to make that cooperation happen."

The group then boarded the SMART Bus 475 to Birmingham. "Clearly a different clientele," Fischer said. "You’ve got suburban folks going from downtown offices to homes in Royal Oak and Birmingham. The express bus was on time, and fast. Clearly a success story for regional transit."

"People onboard told us the line is on time, reliable, and convenient," said Bruckbauer. "It definitely was that way for us. But, while we headed toward Birmingham, we couldn’t help but wonder why it’s so much easier to leave Detroit than to enter it."

That night Metromode and the Michigan Environmental Council hosted a panel discussion at the Reserve in Birmingham. Panelists explored questions and topics related to Michigan place-making, the future of a Regional Transit Authority, and economic growth and prosperity during a panel discussion titled "Linking Regions in Prosperity."

"Employers looking at Metro Detroit and southeast Michigan have been turned away because of the lack of transit options," lamented Oakland County Commissioner Dave Potts. "Employers have been saying, 'We’re not coming because we can’t get our employees to work.'"

Dennis Schornack, senior advisor for strategy for Governor Rick Snyder, emphasized the need to move the discussion away from the dysfunction of the past toward improved function in the future.

Day 2

Schornack’s comment seemed apropos as the group boarded the Amtrak train and headed west. The Detroit-Chicago rail line has received hundreds of millions of dollars in track improvements over the past two years, and trains are now capable of top speeds of 110 miles per hour--making them the fastest trains in the nation outside the Northeast Corridor. 

But even though the Wolverine train left Birmingham on time, it was running an hour and a half late by the time it hit Jackson, due to track deterioration that cut the speed limit down to 29 mph. 

The Wolverine touts its wifi service, but many of the group’s tweets and blog posts didn’t reach the public until after the group reached Kalamazoo. "Pleased the cafe car is open, but not so pleased that our wifi hotspot is being kinda hotspotty--wish this @Amtrak train had wifi," read one tweet from Trans4M.

Between Jackson and Kalamazoo, higher speeds and better track conditions had cut the delay to just a few minutes, and the tone of the group’s messages and posts took a positive upswing.

"We got off Amtrak, walked through the station and caught a bus on the other side of the door," Roberts said. "Immediately when you come to a place that’s more connected, you see it’s not rhetoric and it’s not about transit for transit’s sake. It’s about getting you where you need to go and creating viable, vibrant places."

The transportation center in Kalamazoo is one of the best stations in the state in terms of connectivity. The station is a beautiful, 140-year-old sandstone building that acts as a gateway to the community. From the building, passengers can walk straight from the train and onto a bus.

"This sort of multimodal connection is exactly what we want to see," said Fischer.

Right before lunch, Odyssey travelers met up with ISAAC, a community advocacy group from Kalamazoo, to discuss transportation issues. Local citizens exchanged thoughts on how for new riders, public transit can be intimidating with its lack of signage and unfamiliar rules. Others just didn’t understand how people could possibly be against public transit.

Later, the transit trekkers grabbed lunch and brews at Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo before heading to Grand Rapids. Their afternoon ride would be aboard an Indian Trails bus--which turned out to be a rather luxurious contrast to what Odyssey participants had experienced thus far.

"Indian Trails is a 100-year-old company based in Owosso, with on-time service and nice, clean buses that have free wireless service and electric plugs," said Fischer. "Amtrak has a lot to learn from them."

Mayor George Hartwell of Grand Rapids greeted the travelers and kicked off the meeting alongside Peter Varga, CEO of Grand Rapids’ transit system, The Rapid, and a handful of other speakers. Among them was Thomas Carper, Amtrak’s chairman of the board. Carper touted strides toward high-speed passenger rail in Michigan.

Carper said ridership on Michigan’s three rail services, including the Grand Rapids-to-Chicago Pere Marquette line, has grown 60 percent since 2000. "The economic development and community development benefits to passenger rail, you can see it in the ridership numbers," Carper said, citing a record 30.2 million Amtrak riders nationwide in 2011.

"The next steps will be a second Amtrak train from Chicago to Grand Rapids, and a multimodal facility," said Mayor Heartwell.

Other speakers went on to tell of Chicago suburbs with the highest property values being those that are served by a transit. Recurring throughout the panel was an emphasis on appeal and awareness.

"How do we make transit relevant to everyone?" asked Dave Engbers, a co-founder of Founders Brewing Company. "Make it sexy. Some people have no idea even how to do it or how to ride."

"You should be able to still get back to campus. So buses may not be sexy but they are cool," Varga added. "Young people move in tribes. Tribes don’t want to move around in vans, they want transit."

Day 3

After a stay in City Flats Hotel, a LEED-certified hotel, Odyssey travelers hopped aboard Rapid Bus #1 to head downtown for the Kent County  legislative panel on Michigan’s transportation budget. Western Michigan state representatives showed up to discuss transportation funding and other challenges.

"We need to change the way we design our communities," said Representative Brandon Dillon from Michigan’s 75th house district, "and transit should be a large part."

Representative Dillon and Representative Thomas Hooker concurred that western Michigan doesn’t have enough money to keep up with the demand for improving transit. 

Of the panelists in attendance, Rep. Dillon, Rep. Roy Schmidt, and Rep. Mark Jansen expressed support for Michigan’s pending RTA legislation.

"We need to link safe, affordable housing and transit," Rep. Jansen said.

Following the meeting, the travelers detoured to Brewery Vivant, led by the Greater Grand Rapids Bicycle Coalition. Afterwards, the pack of voyagers hopped on an Indian Trails bus for the last stretch of their trip to Traverse City. 

Three and a half hours later, the Michigan Transportation Odyssey reached its finish line, North Peak Brewing Company in Traverse City. Over the course of the trip, tweets were sent, blog posts were penned, and transit enthusiasts got a taste of Michigan’s public transit big picture.

Bruckbauer said the Odyssey led to three basic observations about public transit in Michigan: "First, it’s mind-boggling to us that another minute will pass without a well-coordinated regional transit system in southeast Michigan. Second, with bus and train ridership levels increasing rapidly, decision-makers must ensure that we continue to invest in our transit systems. Third, and most surprisingly, there’s a strong connection between Michigan’s economic competitiveness, transit stations, and beer."

Tom Clynes is transportation editor for Issue Media Group in Michigan. Photos by Gary Howe. 
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