Ride or fly

By Andy Balaskovitz

Mayor, Council president and business community — in defense of airport — line up against federal grant for Michigan Flyer. One supporter calls for a grown up in the debate.

Tension between the Capital Region Airport Authority and Michigan Flyer has been rekindled in recent weeks as the private bus service seeks local approval for a $595,680 federal grant to expand its service between East Lansing and Ann Arbor.

The last time it needed approval by a regional planning commission for grant money in 2011, Michigan Flyer was denied it mainly because opponents thought the company was choking off business to the airport.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and City Council President Carol Wood — unlikely allies — oppose the new grant. It needs approval by the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, which is chaired by Wood. Michigan Flyer wants to increase the number of daily trips between East Lansing and Ann Arbor from eight to 12.

Right now, all eight of the buses running between East Lansing and Detroit Metro Airport stop in Ann Arbor. Additionally, four buses run between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro. Those four buses are operated by a partnership between Michigan Flyer and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

Supporters, including the state Department of Transportation, say the move expands transportation options for tri-county residents and improves connectivity between the state’s two major universities. Opponents call it a subsidy to cart people to Detroit Metro, which is the stop after Ann Arbor.

The project must be added to the planning commission’s Transportation Improvement Plan in order to qualify for the funding. A committee takes up the proposal tonight. A final vote is scheduled for May 29.

“It’s what people in the tri-county region want,” Tim Fischer, deputy policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, said, citing evidence from planning studies. “They said they want more mobility options that go through the region. This is exactly what people are talking about.”

But Bernero argues otherwise.

“I’m all for transportation between cities. That’s not what this is about. This is about shipping people to Detroit Metro Airport,” he said. “This is insanity. This is a no-brainer.”

As Ingham County taxpayers subsidize millions of dollars of the airport’s revenue through a millage, Bernero and Wood agree that the main focus should be to promote the airport.

“We have an airport here that affects the economy for the tri-county region,” Wood said. “It’s important we’re doing things that don’t detract from that. I don’t begrudge Michigan Flyer, I just don’t think it’s appropriate for a great project to detract from our county.”

While other opponents say federal tax dollars shouldn’t support private business, Wood said she’d make the same argument “if it was CATA,” the local taxpayer-subsidized bus system, seeking the grant.

At the heart of the issue is whether Michigan Flyer’s success limits that of the airport’s. While the airport also has backing from the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, the state of Michigan supports the grant because it says it would expand transportation options.

In an April letter to the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, Sharon L. Edgar, administrator for the Office of Passenger Transportation at the state Department of Transportation, wrote: “Please consider the possibility that the transportation options make an area more competitive.”

According to Edgar’s letter, public subsidies for private transportation companies are nothing new. In fiscal year 2012, the state and federal government combined gave nearly $1.7 million to subsidize intercity routes of Indian Trails Inc., Michigan Flyer’s parent company. “MDOT also expends yearly about $2,520,000 in federal funds matched with $630,000 in state funds in grants to both Indian Trails and Greyhound Lines, Inc. to replace motor coaches used in Michigan service,” the letter says.

In 2011, the planning commission declined support for a $1.5 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration for the same reasons this grant is opposed. That money would have created a new Michigan Flyer route along Interstate 96 between East Lansing, Howell, Brighton and Detroit Metro. It never came to fruition. Michigan Flyer officials said the two proposals “differ substantially.”

Over the past two weeks, the airport and Michigan Flyer have argued with each other in separate letters to the planning commission.

Airport Authority Executive Director Robert Selig, in a letter dated May 3, accused the bus service of masking its attempt to shuttle more people to Detroit Metro Airport by saying the new grant money would be used between Ann Arbor and East Lansing. Yet, the “primary objection” is federal money for a private company.

“This form of operational subsidy could be considered by some as a discriminatory practice that gives one private passenger transportation operator an unfair advantage. If the State of Michigan desires to subsidize passenger transportation between Lansing and Detroit Metro Airport, then it should promote programs to equally subsidize the operations of all such private commercial airline operators as well,” Selig wrote.

Five days later, Michigan Flyer President Gordon Mackay and Vice President Ody Norkin signed a joint letter in rebuttal. It accused Selig of making a “false and defamatory” statement that Michigan Flyer causes $150 million in harm to the regional economy annually.

As for the subsidy: “Capital Region International Airport — which receives roughly $5 million a year in taxes on Ingham County residents, plus federal tax dollars — frequently uses such public funds as incentives to entice and support selected private commercial airline carriers,” Michigan Flyer counters.

MEC’s Fischer said recent transportation surveys of tri-county residents indicate support for more transportation options. The MEC supports approving the grant money, in part because it’d be “foolish” to see it go elsewhere in the state or country, he said.

“The airport has been disingenuous with its argument saying it will negatively affect its ridership. We’re not at all convinced this will have a negative effect on ridership at the airport,” he said. “We see it operating well in regions around the world: There needs to be a variety of transportation modes that interact with each other.”

Instead of fighting, Fischer said the airport and Michigan Flyer “should really be forced to work together,” such as coordinating routes to and from the Lansing airport.

“There needs to be a grown up in the room that forces that coordination,” he said. “At this point, we don’t have that. It’s a problem for the region if we can’t get our transportation providers to cooperate.”