‘Vital streets’ funding plan gains support in Grand Rapids

By Chris McCahill

The City of Grand Rapids has set in motion a plan to repair its aging roads and make its streets better public spaces, but it will be counting on the State of Michigan to meet it halfway. The plan hinges on a local income tax extension that will raise $9.9 million per year through 2030. If approved by Grand Rapids voters, that money will go toward the city’s proposed “vital streets” program and toward making improvements to the sidewalk network. The City Commission recently promised to contribute another $500,000 per year from general funds and the city expects to get some additional grant money. However, it will still need near-matching funds from the state to meet its goal of bringing 70% of its roads to a state of good repair by 2030.

Vital streets, which will receive close to 85% of the income tax revenues, are described in the plan as “accessible, attractive, environmentally responsible and safe; serving all people of our community,” including both residents and businesses. The concept and the plan stem from recommendations by the city’s Sustainable Streets Task Force. The plan has earned support from the City Commission and an endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce. The tax extension will be up for a vote in May.

A key selling point of the plan is that it promises to fund preventive maintenance to keep roads from deteriorating further and help the city avoid much larger replacement costs later. If a proposed city charter amendment passes, the city will assume responsibility for sidewalks from landowners and incorporate sidewalk enhancements into its asset management program. Additionally, the City Commission has outlined steps that it will take to ensure transparency, oversight, and stakeholder involvement in implementing the plan.

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, has emphasized repeatedly that MDOT, like Grand Rapids, must spend money on preventive maintenance up front if it wants to keep costs down over the long run. However, neither MDOT nor the city of Grand Rapids has gotten the support they hope for from the state. The legislature is considering allocating a small, one-time infusion of transportation funds, but it is nowhere near enough to cover the expected long-term costs. Meanwhile, the state ranks lowest in the nation in terms of per capita spending on roads and bridges.

Chris McCahill is a Senior Associate at SSTI.