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Detroit Draws Closer to Regional Transit System

Speedlink rapid bus system advances

January 4, 2002 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Detroit’s Speedlink rapid bus system could look at lot like the one planned for Eugene, Oregon, shown here in a computer illustration.

One of metropolitan Detroit's remarkable qualities is its resiliency. The region's automobile industry, downtowns, and even its professional sports teams have gone through deep downturns only later to attain world-class status. 

Likewise, southeast Michigan is strengthening its global competitiveness with plans for a 21st-century public transit system. Officials have gained substantial ground in advancing a regional rapid bus proposal that promises to better connect workers and employers, cut through congestion, and keep a lid on the escalating costs of maintaining roads and relying so heavily on cars.

The initiative calls for double-length buses running in express lanes, weatherproof shelters, and on-board technology to turn traffic signals green as buses approach. The challenge before leaders of the seven-county area is to stay onboard rather than halt progress out of funding fears and concerns about political control.

The rapid bus proposal, known as Speedlink, comes at an opportune moment in southeast Michigan and in Lansing. In the days before the state Legislature adjourned in December 2001, lawmakers in both houses approved several proposals that promote transportation options aside from cars and should improve Speedlink’s chances of being built. One measure, approved by both chambers and signed by Republican Governor John Engler, adds $7.5 million to the state budget for public transit. A second measure, which was approved by the House, would establish a southeast Michigan regional transportation authority to join the Detroit and Oakland county bus system and better coordinate public transit in the region.

Economic power — nationally and globally — is a key reason why the state and metro Detroit's political, business, and grassroots leaders have reached the final phase of the complex and promising initiative to build a rapid bus line. There really is no other choice, say many business leaders, if Detroit and its suburbs hope to remain economically competitive with other urban regions.

Indeed, cities across America have steered around thorny political obstacles and crafted convenient and cost-effective rapid transit systems to become more attractive to the world's workers, entrepreneurs and tourists. In the Midwest alone, Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and even Racine, Wisconsin, have built or are developing express bus or train service.

Detroit, however, remains the nation's largest metro area without rapid transit. As a result, the federal government transfers about $100 million of Michigan's annual federal transit taxes — paid by everyone who buys gasoline — to cities in other states that are building or expanding rapid transit lines.

Still, politicians in Oakland and Macomb counties worry that if property taxes become the only funding source for the proposed bus system, then the high-end suburbs would pay a disproportionate share. Early concepts, however, move away from a property millage and suggest some combination of local income, sales, and payroll taxes to get things rolling. Plus, voters in southeast Michigan will have the final say on any new taxes. With so much to gain economically and socially, suburban leaders have no reason to slam on the brakes.

Nearly everyone else sees the promise of the metro Detroit transit plan. The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition — an alliance of labor, government, and prominent businesses — are architects of the rapid bus initiative. Detroit's new mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, was a strong transit advocate during his state legislative career. Even the Big Three automakers have endorsed the campaign.

Much of the credit goes to citizen groups — such as the Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES) and Transportation Riders United — who have promoted top-flight transit to revitalize neighborhoods and city centers.

Building a metro Detroit rapid transit system would cost about $2 billion over 25 years, plus $200 million annually to operate. The federal government would pay 50 to 80 percent of construction costs. The state and local communities would contribute the remaining amount to build and run the system. With the funding issue as the last major hill to climb, southeast Michigan is well on its way toward reaching its transit destination and solidifying its place as a world leader in taking people where they want to go.

In the last century, Detroit's fortune rose and fell with the strength of General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrylser. That interdependence indeed might thrive for another 100 years. It's all the more reason to heed this statement by the Big Three automakers:

"We want to reiterate our support for public transit in Southeast Michigan. An effective regional transit system is important in connecting workers with jobs, serving a rapidly aging population, and in reducing traffic congestion, which has a positive effect on the environment."

Kelly C. Thayer, an environmental journalist, is transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. A version of this article was published by the Detroit News on December 16, 2001. Kelly is reachable at kelly@mlui.org. For more insightful reporting and commentary on land use and transportation, see the Institute's Transportation Index.

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