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Planes and Trains, Part II

Southeast Michigan's bid to join the 21st century

March 12, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Taubman College of Architecture

 The mobility of people, goods and ideas, is a cornerstone of the 21st-century economy and of Airport City.

With a little luck and a lot of statesmanship, “Airport City,” a planned metropolis of 450,000 residents between Detroit’s two major airports, might have trains to go along with its planes.

A commuter route from Detroit to Ann Arbor, with possible links to the Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run airports is starting to look like a real possibility. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments will complete a feasibility study by June and Congress has designated $100 million to design, engineer, and perhaps start construction on the commuter route.

Efficient public transportation is needed to turn western Wayne County—now a congested mismatch of aging neighborhoods, cracked parking lots, and featureless warehouses—into a modern city teeming with offices and condominiums and brimming with entrepreneurial and technical talent along the park-lined tributaries of the Huron River.

The mobility of people, goods and ideas, is a cornerstone of the 21st-century economy and of Airport City. At a time when news circles the globe in seconds, people and goods need to move fast too. That’s why Mulu Birru, the development director of Wayne County, is focusing his efforts on “Airport City.” He hopes to capitalize on existing and planned transportation infrastructure, to attract and generate 350,000 jobs in Airport City alone.

Wayne County already has the airports to take people around the world. The commuter routes would allow them to crisscross the region, giving them fast, convenient access to three major research universities—the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Wayne State, and Eastern Michigan—two airports, and cities and suburbs from Detroit to Ann Arbor.

Public transportation, insists Mr. Birru, is an economic imperative.

“Airport City won’t work well, and won’t attract the economic development that we envision, without very good public transit," he said in an interview.

Widespread Support, Many Ideas for Regional Rail Transit
The proposed commuter route stems from a 5-year-old rapid transit study by SEMCOG, one of at least nine published by the agency in the last two decades, that identified the Ann Arbor to Detroit corridor as a hot prospect for service in the region. Today, SEMCOG is comparing five specific options—two bus rapid transit routes, two commuter rail routes, and one light rail option.   

The potential to revive commuter service between the two cities – the last train stopped running in 1983 – has generated considerable support. Last summer members the Michigan Congressional delegation, led by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, convinced Congress to commit $100 million for the design, engineering, and possibly some construction for the preferred option.

The Wayne County Airport Authority, which manages Metro and Willow Run, issued a statement saying it “supports mass transit in the greater Detroit area and also supports linking Metro to a future Ann Arbor – Detroit system.”

Architectural students from the University of Michigan, who evaluated the proposal in January, are pushing for fast commuter trains that would use existing Amtrak tracks between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and for a new station near Wayne that could serve Metro Airport with rapid buses, or eventually a light rail system. The students, who participated in a three-day charette to envision Airport City, also called for a separate light rail line from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport, using existing right of way owned by railroad freight haulers.

A hybrid of commuter rail and light rail also is promoted by Transportation Riders United, the  Detroit region’s premier transit advocacy organization. TRU’s proposal combines a commuter rail, stopping in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Metro Airport, Dearborn and Detroit’s New Center, with a light rail from the Dearborn stop along Michigan Avenue to downtown Detroit, then up Woodward Avenue to New Center. They envision extending the light rail line in the future.

TRU suggested that the light rail and commuter lines share a platform at the Dearborn station and New Center station so that riders could transfer seamlessly from one train to the other.

TRU’s technical analysis for the proposed hybrid system was so sound that SEMCOG included the idea as one of the five options it would subject to its feasibility evaluation. “It makes a lot of sense,” said Megan Owens, the group’s executive director. “Commuter rail offers the fastest service between Detroit, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor, which is critical to the line’s success.  Light rail reaches more people, including downtown Detroit. And it will promote jobs and housing and businesses at every station stop.”

Transit is an Economic Asset; Conservatives Claim It’s a Waste of Money
Just how vital rapid transit systems are to a metropolitan region was the focus of a study in the 1990s by the Transportation Research Board, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences. Economist looked at the Philadelphia region – similar in size to the Detroit area – where conservative critics asserted, as they do in Detroit, that the commuter rail network was a waste of taxpayer funds. Economists analyzed the effects of shutting the system down and concluded that business sales would decline $2 billion annually in 1990 dollars, 26,000 people in the metropolitan region would lose their jobs, personal income would decline by $1 billion annually, and that 58,000 people would leave the region.

Even with those kinds of numbers Detroit’s progressive political leadership has not risen to either promote or defend the Ann Arbor to Detroit transit line. That’s probably because advocating for public transit is the infrastructure equivalent of coaching the Detroit Lions. Good men and women of wisdom and energy have tried and then disappeared…forever.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, aware of the history of the issue, goes so far in an interview as to say he “likes the idea of a new Ann Arbor to Detroit line,” but in nearly the same breadth acknowledges that he won’t publicly advocate for it because he’s “waiting for the business plan.”

The region’s conservative leaders are far less demure. The usual suspects, among them Republican Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi, and the editorial page of the Detroit News, have all come out strong against a new regional line.  

They ask who will pay for it. And, without any supporting documents and ignoring evidence from every city that has built new rapid transit capacity in the last 30 years, conclude that no one would ride the new line, and that money used to build it would be better spent on highway construction.

Both points are refutable. Since 1981, when San Diego built the new light rail line that started its remarkable downtown resurgence, 39 other cities have opened new street car and light rail systems, among them Kenosha, Wisc. (2000), St. Louis (1993), Minneapolis (2004), Baltimore (1985), and Dallas (1996). In every case critics said residents wouldn’t ride, yet ridership vastly exceeded projections. Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line transports nearly one million passengers a month.

In addition 40 other major commuter and light rail projects are in various stages of planning, engineering, design and construction, according to the Light Rail Transit Association, a Texas-based research group.

And if highway construction were the secret to success how come the Detroit region -- where three Interstates and a legion of other freeways converge -- doesn’t look, function, or feel like Paris?

Missing the Boat?
At the moment, the most influential critic of rapid transit in southeast Michigan is Mr. DeRoche, who is leading a charge in the House to block any southeastern Michigan city from qualifying for any more federal funding for a new rapid transit, an initiative that could doom the Ann Arbor to Detroit line. Matt Resch, the spokesman for Mr DeRoche, said that the Speaker feels he is justified in his attack because he lives in Oakland County where he sees buses every day that he asserts are ineffective, inefficient, and a waste.

“Southeast Michigan needs infrastructure improvements,” Mr. Resch said in the same month that bus ridership in suburban Detroit reached a new record high. “The Speakers’ priorities are filling pot holes and expanding roads and bridges to relieve the traffic congestion problem.”

Paul Tait, SEMCOG’s normally cautious executive director, was apparently so irritated by such sentiments that he rose uncharacteristically in February to publicly defend his agency’s transit studies.  “A downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor corridor can and should be an incremental piece of an overall regional system,” Mr. Tait said. “The corridor includes four of the region's 10 most populous cities, three of the top five employment centers, 103 large retail centers, and 135,000 students at 10 universities and colleges -- all factors in projected ridership.”

Alvin Toffler, the futurist and author of The Third Wave, which predicted the development of new markets and human habitats like Airport City, once told an interviewer that the common bond that would link failing communities and struggling regions in the 21st century was a dearth of statesmanship. He put it this way: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Toffler could have been thinking about southeast Michigan. At its heart, Airport City represents a classic Michigan entrepreneurial and creative response to an extraordinarily difficult problem: how to thrive in a new century. The issue is whether southeast Michigan will allow such an important idea, a vision of a globally significant community, to just fade away. Do Detroit and its suburbs have the capacity to relearn how to innovate and prosper?

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah, and a frequent contributor to Metrotimes, where a version of this article appeared in the edition of March 8, 2006. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

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