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Detroit Takes Big Transit Step

August 1, 2001 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Americans long ago realized that some public officials will promise just about anything to keep their jobs: Tax cuts, better jobs, sunny days. So the trick becomes when to listen and when to laugh.

In metropolitan Detroit, few are laughing these days at the prospect of better public transit. That’s because the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is talking about a new tax to fund rapid buses or trains. In other words, business leaders are actually offering to help pay for it.

Indeed, the 13,000-member Chamber is also working to organize it. The Chamber’s “Campaign for Regional Transit” reached a milestone in May when leaders of the city of Detroit and Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties agreed in principle to create a single, regional transit agency.

Media statewide trumpeted the event but also warned of a bumpy road ahead. Questions of cash and control have stalled past plans for regional transit coordination. This time the momentum keeps building, however, because:

• Citizen groups are documenting the need, elevating the discussion, and growing stronger.
• The Chamber and regional leaders are openly discussing funding ideas.
• The public-private Metropolitan Affairs Coalition has developed a rapid bus plan.
• The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments has reached out for the public’s ideas.

The complete picture, however, also includes suspicion and power plays. Leaders of Oakland and Macomb counties are worrying aloud that they might pay the most and get the least. Officials have not offered citizen advocates an equal role in deciding key questions, such as whether buses or trains are best. Ideas for a new transit tax have swelled to include money for sewer and road repairs that could collapse the whole deal if the public balks at the bill.

But these arguments are predictable debates about details. The big idea they grow out of — that metro Detroit needs world-class rapid transit — is no longer in question. That’s proof that a critical mass has climbed aboard and there may be no stopping this train … or was that a bus?

Kelly Thayer, the Michigan Land Use Institute’s transportation policy coordinator, co-manages a statewide coalition that is working toward more efficient state transportation spending, including new funds for public transit. Contact him at 231-882-4723 ext. 13 or email <kelly@mlui.org>.

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