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Rogers’ Motion Moves Stalled Transit Debate

Oakland commissioner steps up to Detroit’s 30-year struggle

January 30, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
and Scott Anderson
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Oakland County Commissioner Mike Rogers, here boarding a bus, sponsored a resolution last year declaring regional transit is crucial to metro Detroit. It passed by a surprising 20-to-3 margin.

PONTIAC—Mike Rogers, a Republican from Farmington Hills and a member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, is 38 years old, which makes him too young to personally recall two crucial defeats during the 1976 presidential campaign and election.

The first, of course, was Gerald Ford’s loss in the general election to a Georgia peanut farmer. The second defeat, less well recognized, turned out to be much more important to the economic well-being of Mr. Rogers’ home region and, potentially, to his political career.

President Ford’s strategy to win his native state’s electoral votes focused in large part on securing $600 million from the federal treasury to build a regional rapid transit system that tied predominantly African-American Detroit to its mostly white southeast Michigan suburbs. But political leaders in and around a city periodically engulfed by race riots since the Civil War utterly failed to reach agreement on any crucial aspect of the proposed rapid transit plan. The federal money, worth billions in today’s dollar, was left sitting on the table.

Thirty years later, southeast Michigan remains the largest metropolitan region in America, and one of the largest in the world, not served by a rapid transit system, a fact many observers cite as central to the continuing decline in Michigan’s economy and global competitiveness. For instance, visitors to Super Bowl XL, to be held this Sunday at, ironically, Ford Field, will have to ride a public shuttle system cobbled together from university, local transit agency, and rental company vehicles.

But, in the past few months, the on-again, off-again struggle for good regional transit in Detroit seems to be on again, thanks to a number of local elected leaders, including Mr. Rogers, and despite the continued intransigence of many state lawmakers.

An Outstanding Move
Political careers, particularly the useful ones, are often a study in adept responses to real urgency. Mr. Rogers, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering, decided last fall to make the sort of move young politicians need to distinguish themselves. He and two other Republican commissioners, Greg Jamian and Thomas Middleton, proposed a non-binding, sense-of-the-commission vote on a need in southeast Michigan that ever larger numbers of people see as dire.

Oakland County Miscellaneous Resolution 05245 called for an abrupt change in public investment and transportation policy that nearly 30 other United States metropolitan regions have already accomplished since the late 1980s: “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.”

"We are not going to continue to just build, build, build and alleviate congestion,” Mr. Rogers told The Detroit News before the vote. “Conversely, we're not going to build a transit system that's going to alleviate congestion. Many cities around the country have comprehensive public transportation systems, and while it doesn't get rid of all of the traffic problems it at least gives people options to get out of their cars and alleviate at least some of the headaches with congestion."

Approval and Praise
On October 27, 2005, the county commissioners approved the resolution on a surprisingly strong vote of 20-3. Though the resolution was a small stone thrown into a historically unforgiving political and cultural pond, Mr. Rogers’ measure generated the kind of waves boulders make. Talk radio hosts discussed it. Callers approved. Newspapers editorialized in support. The League of Women Voters of Oakland County and Transit Riders United, an influential citizen organization in Detroit, offered congratulations.

State Representative Marie Donigan, a Democrat of Royal Oak who has emerged as one of the prominent champions of public transit in Lansing, called the vote “a huge and encouraging step in the right direction. I think they are in touch with the public's desire to have more transportation options.”

“It's amazing what you can get done when you don't care who gets credit,” said David Coulter, a Democratic Oakland County Commissioner from Ferndale.

Economic Competition and Transit
Mr. Rogers’ transit resolution comes as southeast Michigan reconsiders a gaping hole in its economic development strategy. A committee at Wayne State University is studying ways to move more students to the school’s downtown Detroit campus, one of the largest in Michigan, via the region’s two existing bus systems. Cities along Woodward Avenue, where more than 1 million people live, are organizing to promote a new transit line from Detroit to Pontiac. And Congress provided $100 million to study and design a new transit line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, with a stop at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

The accumulated work represents the best chance in 30 years for the Detroit region to catch up with its metropolitan competitors and begin building a modern mass transit system.

Mr. Rogers, who lives with his wife and three children in Farmington Hills, a well-to-do Detroit suburb, is also a trained transportation specialist, with undergraduate and graduate degrees in construction and civil engineering.

“I’ve been interested in transit and supportive of transit my whole life,” he said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “My professional training — I’ve been formally educated in transportation issues — gives me some credibility.”

“We have so much congestion,” Mr. Rogers observed. “We need an option other than to just jump in your car and make things work. Having mass transit as an alternative helps in the long run. We’re behind the curve. Most major cities have a viable mass transit system and we don’t and we’re suffering because of it.”

Not everyone on the Oakland County Commission is so convinced. Sue Ann Douglas, another Republican commissioner, was one of three who voted “no” on the resolution. She represents part of the Rochester area, where taxpayers chose not to support the county’s transit buses, which are part of SMART, the public transportation system for Detroit’s suburbs.

“While you may read some meaning into the resolution that the board passed, it was really a meaningless resolution,” she said. “I know that it got some hopes up but it simply didn't accomplish anything. My communities appear to be happy not funding SMART and I will continue to support their decision.”

Mr. Rogers, though, is sure his advocacy for public transit reflects a core conviction of other political leaders and prominent business executives.

“Public transportation is an issue that affects us all, and the county is absolutely where these issues should be initiated,” he said. “We should start something or at least get the conversation going and start to make some recommendations.  The county is where it starts. If the county spearheads the effort, then we have enough juice to take it to the Legislature, especially if you can get the three [metropolitan Detroit] counties all together.”

Politics and Business Not As Usual
That last point is what has eluded southeast Michigan political leaders for more than a generation, even as the economic benefits of rapid transit became unmistakable elsewhere around the country. Fast and convenient transit has proven in other metropolitan regions, including Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas, to be a powerful catalyst for new housing, business construction, and jobs. Transit stations emerged as nodes of economic activity.

Dick Blouse, president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, has sought to bring that message to Lansing for more than a decade.

“Our belief as economic developers is that the lack of a functioning regional system has impacted and will continue to impact our ability to attract businesses and people,” he said in an interview, “particularly young people that want other transportation options besides just having to drive a car all the time. The Oakland County Commission vote is a positive step.”

“The problem,” Mr. Blouse added, “is in Lansing. The state Legislature is entrenched in this old way of thinking. If five million people in the region want something, and the state won’t even let them decide on it, that’s not right.”

But the inability to marshal political support for rapid transit is not confined to the Legislature. Under Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who entered office assuring voters that she supported public transit, state investment in transit has actually declined.

Gerald D. Poisson, the deputy Oakland County executive, joins other senior county officials in the conviction that the region’s commuting patterns and population movement make a large-scale transit investment difficult to justify. He says it would be better to improve the service provided by the existing bus systems.

“The region isn’t built in a way to support a traditional mass transit system, where you have everybody commuting into the central city. Our jobs are dispersed. People commute in many different directions now,” said Mr. Poisson.

Mr. Poisson noted that taxpayers in Livonia, a Detroit suburb, voted last November to stop paying for SMART bus service. But others point out that Farmington Hills, which Mr. Rogers represents, also considered opting out of the SMART system but decided last week, by a one-vote margin on the city council, to stay in. A Detroit Free Press editorial reported that ridership in that community is increasing steadily and that voters have showed strong support for the system at the polls.

Beyond Mere Improvements
Mr. Blouse doesn’t think merely improving the Detroit and suburban bus agencies is sufficient. “We believe there are three necessary pieces to such a system: You need rapid transit, line haul service, and community transit,” he said.

“The issue comes down to how to pay for the necessary improvements,” Mr. Blouse continued. “But too often we get caught up in that and we never get around to talking about the financial value of such an investment and how it could improve the region overall. One of the difficulties is that people here have never lived in other regions and have never experienced transit choice—the idea that public transit is good enough that you might use it even if you have a car.”

Mr. Rogers is well aware of the shaky condition of the political track he is traveling. Leading on public transit in southeast Michigan is the political equivalent of coaching the Detroit Lions: Good people with vision and clear goals have labored in vain for rapid transit and then completely disappeared. Perhaps, he says, the need is so urgent now that a political tipping point is approaching.

“I think we can agree within this region that public transportation is important,” he said. “The disagreement might be who pays, how do we pay, and where does it go once it’s built. Part of our problem is we keep focusing on details instead of coming together and agreeing on a concept. Get the concept. Then let the engineers do public meetings and let people voice their concerns and opinions.

“The important thing,” he concluded, “is developing a consensus that you need to do something. That was the purpose of the resolution, to make a public statement that Oakland County thinks an improvement of some kind is necessary to help out our region.”

Keith Schneider is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute. Scott Anderson teaches at the University of Detroit Mercy. Reach them at keith@mlui.org, and anderssc@udmercy.edu.

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