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Getting There No Longer Just About Highways and Cars in Detroit

Regional economic transition invites new reckoning with transit

November 15, 2005 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin/MLUI

Are highways and cars emerging as symbols of the Detroit region’s shared vulnerability?

Brent O. Bair is a highway and car guy. Tall, silver-haired, earnest, and big enough to have played tackle on a college defensive line, he’s been with Oakland County’s Road Commission for 28 years, 12 of them as the agency’s managing director. That career, marked by engineering discipline and certainty, has spanned much of the 50-year road construction era that produced two unmistakable results in southeast Michigan.

All that pavement, 2,700 miles of county roads and 230 miles of state highways that Mr. Bair is responsible for maintaining, plus 2,700 more miles overseen by local governments, helped Oakland County attract over 700,000 jobs and become a place of well-to-do engineers and executives tied to the auto industry who enjoy good public schools, beautiful parks, and subdivisions full of expensive homes.

The High Cost of Highways

When it comes to weighing the overall value of expanding southeast Michigan’s road network against constructing a public transit system, the case for roads is not as solid as proponents say. Why? Because roads are tremendously expensive to build, costly to maintain, and don’t last very long. In a state and region no longer able to afford massive road construction it’s a good moment to wonder whether a way of life that continues to be so devoted to building highways is throwing good money after bad.

Still, roads take up an awful lot of political space. For the time being the number one highway priority that leaders of both parties are lining up to support in southeast Michigan is rebuilding and widening an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 75 from 8 Mile to M-59. That portion of the highway was built in the 1960s at a cost of about $1 million to $2 million a mile.

Rebuilding I-75 and adding a fourth lane in both directions is currently projected to cost $30 million to $35 million a mile, or between $540 million and $630 million. The project’s environmental impact statement also describes the need to improve and expand 56 miles of county roads that feed I-75 at a cost estimated at $500 million more. The total project cost, then is over $1 billion for the moment. How close that price tag is to the actual cost in 2011, when the project is scheduled to get under way, is anybody’s guess.

But it’s not at all certain when rebuilding that section of I-75 will occur. Because the federal government requires a 20 percent match, Michigan, which owns the road, would have to come up with at least $100 million in state funds and perhaps much more than that, a formidable sum in a state where road dollars are already scarce, and competition is ever keener. Oakland County and local governments, largely responsible for the feeder routes, would also have to contribute about $100 million for their share of the project.

Higher fuel prices, moreover, are adding to the state’s road-building trouble. Michigan’s gas tax is 19 cents a gallon. The revenue is put in a fund and disbursed statewide for all kinds of transportation investments. As gas prices have increased, people are driving less, and tax revenues are falling. In the year ending on August 30, gas tax revenues totaled $923.7 million, according to state figures, $21.3 million less than in the previous 12-month period.

The Interstate-75 reconstruction, then, is a useful metaphor for an economic development strategy that arguably is running into a dead end.
Oakland County’s freeways and local roads also contributed to the second result: Emptying Detroit and flinging homes and businesses, churches, schools, and everything else across a seven-county metropolitan region. Some 300,000 people who live outside Oakland County drive there to work.  “Our commuting pattern is suburb to suburb and has been that way for a long time now,” Mr. Bair says.

But the great road and highway-building era ended with the 20th century, and five years into the 21st, Mr. Bair confronts a uniquely messy new challenge. Mr. Bair says he has $18 million a year to spend on widening roads — about enough to turn three miles of a two-lane road into a five-lane boulevard — but that he really needs about$150 million a year. That latter sum prompted a county-sanctioned business group to propose raising the money through new sales, property, and gas taxes. Predictably, Oakland County’s conservative leadership hasn’t rushed to the front of that campaign.

Action at Wayne State
Twenty miles from Mr. Bair’s office Kami Pothukuchi, an assistant professor of urban planning at Wayne State, considers issues related to transportation and the economy from a different vantage.  As a planner, Ms. Pothukuchi devotes her time to understanding how and where the things people build influence the way a region operates. In contrast to Mr. Bair, whose responsibility is to construct and maintain roads that move people from here to there quickly and safely, Ms. Pothukuchi asks whether there is coherence to how homes, jobs, churches, supermarkets, and the like are set on the landscape and linked together.

And when Ms. Pothukuchi looks at Detroit and its suburbs, including Oakland County, she sees the geography and the economy in confrontation. The very same conditions that fostered Detroit’s decline and the rise of suburban sprawl – cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes, and massive government spending for roads and water systems – have all been transformed. Gasoline prices are rising fast. Road construction costs have gone out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure.

The urgent issue facing everybody in southeast Michigan is whether these are temporary trends. If not, Ms. Pothukuchi says, it might be time to ask whether metro Detroit should follow the lead of a number of competing regions and embrace a new economic development strategy.

Students and Staff Call For More Transit
At the very top of the list of priorities, Ms. Pothukuchi says, is building a modern, efficient, safe, and convenient public transit network, like the ones that existed in the Detroit region early in the 20th century. That goal, which is actually being achieved in Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and many more cities, has evaded southeast Michigan. In 1976, Detroit and its suburbs even rejected $600 million in federal transit funds to build a regional system, one of the gravest mistakes Michigan made in the late 20th century. Last June, in a speech to business and political leaders on Mackinac Island, former Republican Gov. William G. Milliken traced southeast Michigan’s flagging competitiveness to that decision. “Construction of a truly regional transportation system would have put Detroit and its neighbors light years ahead of where we are today,” he said.

Ms. Pothukuchi, like other regional transit advocates, hasn’t given up. She’s just decided to take much smaller steps, particularly at her own school, to make the case that public transit can play a crucial role in the region’s way of life.  A Wayne State survey of students, faculty, and staff earlier this year found that 98 percent of the 5,581 people who responded said developing mass transit in the region was crucial, and two-thirds said they would take a bus to campus if it were convenient. The Wayne State Board of Governors considered that finding, and prodded by attorney Richard Bernstein, one of its members, voted unanimously in September to form a transit committee.

Ms. Pothukuchi, who is bidding to be a committee member, says her goal is to help make Wayne State one of the rare Detroit institutions that’s actually involved in developing a transportation alternative for tens of thousands of students and employees, 80 percent of whom commute, primarily alone, in private vehicles. The trip, in cars and trucks that consume pricey fuel on congested highways, is not a highlight of the day. Coupled with Wayne State’s 18.5 percent tuition hike this year, rising commute costs are squeezing students financially like never before.

“In my own life I feel it,” Ms. Pothukuchi says. “It’s getting more expensive to commute. Traffic is getting worse. I spend between two and three hours each day on the road. I don’t really have an alternative. My husband and I were determined not to buy two cars when I first took this job. Living in this region, can you imagine how foolhardy that is?”

Is Economy Obsolete?
As symbols of the shared strength that made the American way of life in the 20th century possible and prosperous, arguably none have been more important than roads, and the vehicles that drove on them.  How a creative people and a restless nation moved around proved to be the essential element of our national identity and the economy. Almost every aspect of the American way tied back to highways and cars because more than any other inventions of the last 100 years, these two tools determined where most of us lived and worked.

But what if in the 21st century something inconceivable is occurring? What if highways and cars are emerging as symbols of America’s shared vulnerability? And what if the Detroit region’s riven highways, slow population growth, high unemployment rate, rash of industrial bankruptcies, and static home values are not indicators of a temporary recession? What if these and other measures of declining competitiveness, like dogs barking before a storm, are really unmistakable signs of an economic maelstrom that is swamping Michigan’s most populous region?

Is the persistent pursuit of a way of life built on highways and cars actually a mad dash to economic decline?        

Oakland County Relies on Cars and Highways

Small Steps Toward Transit

The idea of a regional transit system is making some progress in southeast Michigan.

A transit line planned between Ann Arbor and Detroit, with a stop at Metro Airport, received a $100 million earmark from Congress last summer and is in the early stages of research and planning.  Much of the money is designated for design and engineering.

Communities along Woodward Avenue are forming a committee to take a look at what it would take to build a light rail line from downtown Detroit to Pontiac. The suburban SMART bus system is experiencing steady growth in ridership. 

Wayne State has held two forums on public transit where representatives from the region’s two bus systems and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments talked about alternatives for getting to the campus.

On October 27, by a vote of 20-3, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved a non-binding resolution to support “a solid investment in quality transit in Southeast Michigan as a proven and powerful tool to alter current development patterns and build vitality in our existing communities.”  

Freshman State Rep. Marie Donigan, a former Democratic city commissioner in Royal Oak, has also emerged this year as one of the prominent and ardent transit advocates in the Legislature, where she heads up a bipartisan transit caucus. On Monday this week Representative Donigan held a “tour de transit” along Woodward Avenue. General Motors loaned her a hybrid bus so she could show state lawmakers and civic leaders the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

“We absolutely need better public transportation in southeast Michigan and throughout the state if we have any hope of competing with other states and cities for new industry, good-paying jobs, and an influx of young people and new families,” she said.

Mr. Bair, and most of his executive colleagues in Oakland County’s government agencies, view such questions as impertinent, if not plain old foolish. The county has the fourth highest per capita income in the nation, and, after losing 52,000 jobs from 2001 to 2004, has attracted 17,000 new jobs and added a few thousand new residents. 

As for building a modern regional transit system, Mr. Bair says Oakland and the rest of southeast Michigan are too spread out and “beyond the point of being able to build a transit system,” a contention, judging by the success in building new transit lines in many other spread out regions (Sacramento, St Louis, Atlanta, among a few) that is much in dispute. 

“Oakland County got as successful as it is without an extensive transit system,” Mr. Bair says. “Oakland County can continue the way it has for the next 20 or 30 years and be the state’s economic engine. I don’t think anybody will take that away from us.”

Ms. Pothukuchi represents thousands of people – citizens, business executives, local elected leaders – who aren’t nearly as bullish about Oakland County’s prospects, or the region’s. By almost every major measurement of economic and social well-being southeast Michigan is either at the top of lists it doesn’t want to be on, or at the bottom of lists it does. Some measures are familiar. The region has the highest unemployment in the nation, the highest rate of racial and economic segregation, the highest rate of out migration by young, educated adults, one of the highest rates of sprawling development. It also has the slowest rate of population growth of any the country’s largest metropolitan areas; there are roughly 4.8 million residents in southeast Michigan’s seven counties, just 100,000 more than in 1970. And according to a May issue of Forbes Magazine, only seven other metropolitan regions in the country were doing worse in attracting new jobs. Two of those, by the way, also were in Michigan.

Last February, L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s voluble executive, took a look at those very same measures, and insisted in a public appearance that they had nothing to do with his community’s well-being. “The state of Oakland County is excellent and our future is blindingly bright,” he said.

Business Groups Weigh In
Outside of county government, business executives wonder how he can reach that conclusion. The auto industry’s continued decline is a big concern. So is a slowdown in the real estate market. It takes an average of 80 days to sell a house in the county, and home prices in many communities are falling. In interviews, executives say they are having trouble recruiting bright young people to the region. And the need for an alternative to private vehicles to get around is often cited as a chief concern.

Those views are shared by the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, two heavyweight business organizations that four years ago introduced the idea of a regional rapid bus system called Speedlink. The system would use modern buses that resemble light rail cars, run fixed routes on existing roads, and could be built for $2 billion. The idea, though, has languished just like other regional transit ideas, a disappointment to its promoters. J. Terry McElroy, the chairman of the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, called the need to think differently about regional transportation and the economy a “critical imperative,” and added this warning: “Work together regionally or fail together regionally.”

In southeast Michigan public opinion polls have found very strong support for a building a modern public transit system. A comprehensive survey completed in 2004 by the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning found that 46 percent of Detroit suburbanites surveyed “would be strongly in favor” of making public transit available in their neighborhoods, and another 39 percent would be “somewhat in favor.” An earlier opinion survey of 2,000 citizens by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments three years ago found residents were very dissatisfied with public transit service and wanted improvements.

Which Way To Go?
Still, conservative lawmakers from the region have made it clear they have no interest in promoting public transit. State Senator Shirley Johnson, a Republican of Troy, leads the Legislature’s work to cut public transit funding. House Speaker Craig DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, calls any transportation investment other than roads “social engineering.”  Mr. Patterson, the Oakland County executive, called the research dollars spent to study the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit transit line a “waste of money” that would be better spent on roads. 

A student of history can follow the story line. In a prior century a rich country and a wealthy region develop a culture and an economy distilled by two inventions: highways and cars. Miles of new highways are built, an armada of private vehicles uses them to move from city to suburban home to suburban jobs. Prosperity abounds.

Then things change. Roads get old. Costs go up. Society’s willingness to pay goes down. The old development strategy steadily erodes a region’s well-being. A new one is needed.

That is where Detroit and its suburbs are today. For the first time since Michigan and its largest metropolitan region launched the road-dominated transportation and economic development strategy six decades ago, two critical questions have become priorities:

  • Is Michigan's roads-only transportation system obsolete?
  • And is a policy that gives short shrift to alternatives flexible and creative enough to keep the state's economy and quality of life competitive in this century?

Based on the conditions in southeast Michigan, and the experiences of other metropolitan regions that are fast developing new designs for growth, the answer to the first is probably. The answer to the second is a clear no.

Keith Schneider, a writer and editor,  is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute (www.mlui.org), a nonprofit advocacy group in Beulah. A version of this article was published in the November 16, 2005 edition of Metro Times in Detroit. Reach Keith at keith@mlui.org

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