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Slower Motion in Motown

Political battle over costs, vision threaten transit progress

April 25, 2003 | By Johanna Miller
and Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kimberli Bindschatel/MLUI
  The Motor City's campaign to make better public transportation a centerpiece in reviving Detroit's economy, quality of life, and competitiveness is threatened by conservative suburban state legislators who favor more concrete and cars.

Metropolitan Detroit is an amazing landscape of contradiction: Compuware’s new downtown corporate headquarters tower over a backdrop of abandoned office buildings. Booming suburbs expand sharply as the urban core contracts. While other regions across the country pull together to increase their economic advantage, metro Detroit continues to come apart.

Business and political leaders in southeast Michigan recognized the economic and social costs of that trend and have begun to focus on public investments that add value and pull people together, particularly more investment in public transit. Last December, they succeeded in convincing the state Legislature to approve legislation to establish the Detroit Area Regional Transportation  Authority (DARTA) to oversee and manage public transportation in Michigan’s largest metropolitan region.

Progress Stopped by a Clash of Values
But in the months since, DARTA and the state’s commitment to public transit has been whipsawed by a lingering political clash in Lansing over where Michigan should invest public dollars for transportation. Republican lawmakers oppose Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm’s approach to tame road building and invest more in public transit. Instead conservatives are pressing to build more and wider roads, slash public transit, and end the state's ability to provide matching funds for local improvements to dangerous pedestrian crossings.

The dustup, which threatens the progress Detroit leaders have made, began on December 31, 2002, when on the last day of his 12-year administration Republican Governor John Engler broke a promise and killed the hard-fought DARTA legislation. Gov. Granholm almost immediately proclaimed DARTA her top legislative priority.

Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson moved the bill, but it emerged from the House in February in a much weaker condition than when it started.  House lawmakers added a provision at the urging of suburban leaders that allowed communities to easily opt out of the regional authority. The change is a substantial threat to the regional intent of the system and would replace it with a checkerboard service area. In the Senate, DARTA remains stalled in committee while lawmakers wrangle over the same regional issue.

The battle over DARTA has now spilled into the state transportation budget debate, where a Senate subcommittee last week approved substantial cuts to statewide transit funding and mandated that the existing Detroit and suburban bus service receive the minimum amount of state aide allowed by law. (see Take Action box). No other bus system in the state faces such a punitive requirement. The state Senate Appropriations Committee, and its chairman, Republican state Senator Shirley Johnson, takes up the transportation funding bill on May 1. The House Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee begins its deliberations on April 29. 

Transit, Detroit Regional Economic Well-Being in Jeopardy
Supporters of DARTA are now torn between accepting a bill with the opt-out risk or no improvements at all. Gov. Granholm has threatened to veto a bill that fails to actually regionalize and improve Southeast Michigan transit.

Detroit-area leaders who supported the regional transportation authority bemoan the legislative tampering with a proposal that would bring badly needed oversight to the metropolitan area’s two chronically uncoordinated bus systems — Detroit’s DDOT and the surrounding suburbs’ SMART — and attract up to $1 million in federal start-up funding for designing a new regional system.

“Better public transit is critical to moving the region out of economic stagnation and on to prosperity,” Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who championed public transit as a state representative, said last year in testimony to Michigan’s Senate Transportation and Tourism Committee. “The number one reason people don’t have economic independence is not education but transportation.”

Necessary Speed
Before DARTA’s fate took its troubling legislative turn, many transit proponents supported a proposed new regional rapid bus system called SpeedLink, researched and advanced by the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition. But as the arduous struggle first to establish DARTA demonstrates, building SpeedLink or any other new system will present an even tougher challenge: Paying for it. Detroit has been on the brink of developing regional rapid transit before, most promisingly in 1976 when President Gerald Ford offered southeast Michigan a $600 million down payment on a regional rail system. But, as before, the process derailed over squabbles about who pays and who benefits.

The metropolitan region’s coalition of business leaders, politicians, and community organizers must convince regional voters that quality public transportation is a good investment for everybody. To make their case, they point to other cities that have invested in truly rapid regional transit and then seen business investment grow, new jobs materialize, and urban neighborhoods revitalize.

Texas Pride
One example is the Dallas area, where a permanent, dedicated, one-cent regional sales tax installed in 1983 raises about $350 million annually to fund trains and buses. The region’s 20-mile light rail “starter system” has spurred $922 million in private investment along its tracks since it was built in 1996, including the construction of a $150 million hotel — the state’s largest. Today, as ridership exceeds expectations — nearly doubling since light rail service began — more communities that were initially skeptical about regional service now clamor for it. 

“Many thought transit was something for people in other parts of the country,” said Margot Massey, public transportation director for the Texas Department of Transportation. Referring to Texans’ well-known love of their pickup trucks, she added that even good old boys and everyday families are using the system now. “It’s part of the fabric of people’s lives. It’s not just for poor people, the elderly, or people with disabilities. It makes Dallas a world-class city. There’s a certain amount of Texas pride in it. The business community loves it, and now the Dallas transit agency is having trouble delivering the service fast enough to suburbs without it.”

Rapid transit proponents will need every penny-pinching argument they have to sell the system to area elected leaders and taxpayers. Fortunately, SpeedLink is a real bargain.

Dick Blouse, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has pushed for better public transit for more than 30 years, is well aware of the economic improvements that sound public transportation investments have triggered in Dallas and elsewhere. Detroit, he said, must build SpeedLink, and quickly.

“For any community or region to be competitive on a global perspective, an integrated public transit system is essential,” Mr. Blouse asserted. “We don’t have anything close to it here. We need to do this from an economic development standpoint. It comes down to our ability to move people, to get them to jobs.”

Because 78 percent of the jobs in metro Detroit are 10 or more miles from the city center, DDOT and SMART’s inadequate service puts the regional economy at a serious disadvantage. That problem is particularly acute for African Americans in the region: A recent Brookings Institution study says metro Detroit leads 20 major cities in the distance its black residents must travel to get to jobs. With the city’s population more than 80 percent black, and its unemployment rate of 9.7 percent the country’s third highest, little can be done to expand the local economy until a transportation system effectively connects people without cars to locations with jobs.

Visionary Investment Bargain
Backers say SpeedLink could break this cycle at a bargain price. The system uses rubber-tired “rapid buses” that mimic trains without requiring costly rails. Running on major thoroughfares, the buses — with their multiple doors, infrequent stops, pre-pay system and ability to turn red traffic lights green as they glide along dedicated lanes — could bring effective rapid transit to the largest metro region in the nation that’s still without it. Operating along 12 main traffic corridors, SpeedLink and its “feeder” buses would interconnect central business districts and urban and suburban neighborhoods from Flat Rock, Dearborn, and Farmington, to Pontiac, Mount Clemens, and downtown Detroit.

SpeedLink buses would stop only infrequently, at new stations, which could spur development of newsstands, coffee shops, small businesses, and apartments. Similar station stops built along Pittsburgh’s seven mile East Busway line have generated $302 million in new investment — most within a five-minute walk of the stations. A refurbished heavy rail line on Chicago’s west side has helped generate more than $100 million in investments in the West Garfield Park neighborhood alone.

Funding: The Final Frontier
Rapid transit advocates will need every penny-pinching argument they have to sell the system to elected leaders and taxpayers. Fare box revenue and available state and federal aid could pay for about half of building and operating the proposed system.
The rest would have to come from local funds, such as a regional service or sales tax, an income tax, a payroll deduction tax, or a property tax. But Jerry Poisson, assistant deputy Oakland County executive, says a property tax is simply not on the table. His county’s high land values mean residents would pay more transit taxes than their neighbors in Wayne and Macomb counties

“Our concern is that we don’t want to put our businesses at an economic disadvantage,” he said. “Looking at the donor status of Oakland County, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dollar for dollar, but a significant portion of any tax should go back to our community.”

Unfortunately, Michigan’s Constitution forbids one of the most common transit funding mechanisms in other states — regional sales taxes. Changing it would first require either a ballot initiative or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to bring the question to a statewide vote.

Unity Begets Prosperity
“There has to be authorization for regions to look for some type of sales tax,” said Paul Hillegonds, president of Detroit Renaissance, Inc., and a former state representative. He notes that once activists and business leaders have convinced the state to change its Constitution they still must convince regional voters to tax themselves.

Mr. Hillegonds suggested that a transit-only proposal can not pass unless it also funds some other essential utility, such as water and sewer systems. “It will be necessary for the political leadership to come together on a strategic plan to address quality of life issues,” he said.

Vicky Kovari, MOSES’ transportation project coordinator, believes economic growth is a powerful argument for rapid transit, but says it goes beyond that. “Transportation is an issue that cuts across racial, age, and geographic lines,” she said. “If we ever want to build regional unity, transportation is the way to do it because it is in the best interest of all different kinds of people.”

Johanna Miller is the Institute's special assistant to the director, and Kelly Thayer manages the Institute's transportation program. Reach them at joey@mlui.org, and kelly@mlui.org


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