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Climb Aboard the Rubber Tire Railroad

Detroit a prime candidate for innovative system

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

The sleek train stops, its many wide doors slide open, and ticketed passengers climb aboard at once and are whisked onward toward home and other destinations.

Sound like New York, California, or anywhere else but Michigan?
Good news. It's a vision for metropolitan Detroit in as little as a year or so. It's a bus system so advanced it's more accurately called a "train on wheels." And it's gaining traction with lawmakers and transportation officials as they prepare this year for the rewrite of the state's primary law on transportation funding, Public Act 51.
Advocates for world-class transit in Michigan's largest cities increasingly are eyeing one such innovative bus system from Curitiba, Brazil. Last November the Detroit Department of Transportation hired a consultant to study the Curitiba bus system as an option for the Woodward Avenue corridor.And this spring, a private coalition that includes the DaimlerChrysler corporation will oversee a second study of Curitiba's buses for southeast Michigan.
Why Curitiba? While Michigan's traffic soared nearly 25% in the last decade, Curitiba's traffic has declinedsince 1974 by 30%, even as its population more than doubled to 1.5 million.

Link Land Use with Transportation
Faced with an influx of residents and a stack of new road proposals, Curitiba in the early 1970s foresaw a land use crisis. More roads promised more driving and highly dispersed settlement patterns in Curitiba, a regional capital in southern Brazil. Instead, local leaders enacted a growth plan to concentrate development along five broad avenues that flare out from the city center like bicycle spokes. Then came the inventive bus system, using "feeder buses" to serve neighborhoods, and high-frequency "express buses" to link the outskirts to the downtown.

In addition to the land use component, several other elements speed up the Curitiba system. Just like with commuter rail, passengers buy tickets beforeboarding, then enter a 40-foot-long bus stand. The double-length bus arrives, multiple doors swing open, and pre-paid riders step aboard and are shuttled away in just moments. Moreover, the center lanes of Curitiba's main avenues are reserved for the express buses, leaving cars and trucks behind.

Timely Opportunity in Legislature"I think the Curitiba system is a wonderful model for our big-gest cities," said State Rep. Judith Scranton (R-Brighton), chair of the House Appropria-tions Subcommittee on Trans-portation. Rep. Scranton recently hosted screenings of a video on Curitiba buses for her Capitol colleagues. She said the bus system delivers the efficiency of light rail with much faster start-up time, at perhaps one- tenth the cost. "Without even looking at the statistics, a rational human being has to see that every person we get out of cars means less roads we have to build," she said.

Rep. Scranton's focus perfectly frames the mounting debate over the rewrite of Public Act 51: How best to spend taxpayer dollars to combat congestion. Akey provision of the voluminous law, which expires this September, is the method for funding transit and the formula for funding state and local roads.

In its pitch for amending Public Act 51, the Michigan Department of Transpor-tation argues for more money for its state road system and less for city, village, and county roads. Meanwhile, in his State of the State address last January, Gov. John Engler asked for $1 billion for new roads and road repairs, on top of the $3 billion in new roads already proposed by MDOT.And MDOT is lobbying to cut the state share of funding to bus agencies that do not meet new standards, such as limits on expenses per passenger served. bus systems. And at best, it would do nothing to improve transit. Some question whether MDOT is requiring the same standard of performance from a road system that costs the public additional billions of dollars a year to cope with traffic accidents, air and water pollution, illnesses and injuries, and an economy slowed by congested and pothole-ridden roads.

Likewise, activists say MDOT's new-roads agenda would trigger more driving and sprawl, and lower the quality of life for communities statewide.

"Building more roads obviously will not reduce traffic in metropolitan Detroit. An efficient bus system will," said Janice Joseph, staff organizer for MOSES, a faith-based community organization seeking urban revitalization in Detroit and its suburbs. "In addition, providing transit is a moral issue. Athird of the households in Detroit don't own cars, so they cannot get to the growing job market in the suburbs no matter how many roads we pave."

Detroit's two bus systems -- one primarily serving the city, the other the suburbs -- are under financial pressure from state lawmakers to merge to save money and provide better service. But some regional transportation officials have said that combining two under-funded systems will bring little benefit. They add that MDOT's "improve or lose cash" approach to transit also misses the point.

"We favor the position that the transit systems need to be efficient," said Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the regional planning organization for the seven-county metropolitan Detroit area.

"But if we want to do anything more than scramble with our current transit system in Detroit, we need more money," said Mr. Tait, who also heads the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition studying Curitiba buses for southeast Michigan.

Better ChoicesTogether with MOSES, the Institute and its statewide Michigan Transportation and Land Use Coalition are seeking to increase transportation choices for all of Michigan. The coalition's number one priority is directing 10% of state transportation funding, the limit currently allowed under the state Constitution, to transit.

The Coalition also is asking lawmakers to create a "demand management" fund that would ease congestion by annually redirecting 10% of MDOT's road and bridge money toward trains, buses, carpooling, bicycling, walking, and Smart Growth programs. The coalition agenda amounts to a vision for a future of better mobility, a stronger economy, less sprawl, more open space, and cleaner air.

Well-funded transit can serve not only those without cars but can attract people who no longer wish to confront congestion, aggressive drivers, and bad weather, said Albert Martin, director of the Detroit Department of Transportation. Mr. Martin sees the Curitiba bus system as a potential stepping-stone to regional rail service in southeast Michigan. He added that the federal government will fund 80% of start-up costs for transit projects, if the state and local governments pay the rest. "It's an opportunity to recoup some more of the tax dollars we send to Washington," he said.

CONTACTS: Janice Joseph, MOSES, 313-838-3190; Albert Martin, DDOT, 313- 833-7670; Rep. Judith Scranton, 1-800-295-0066; Paul Tait, SEMCOG, 313-961- 4266; Kelly Thayer at the Institute, 231-882-4723, ext. 13, e-mail: kelly@mlui.org.

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