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New Motion in Motown

As their dream moves forward, many business leaders and transportation activists say the proposed regional system is a direct route to a metropolitan renaissance

February 17, 2003 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Kimberli Bindschatel
  The Spirit of Detroit: the Motor City's business, political, and civic leaders are making better public transportation a centerpiece in reviving the city's economy and quality of life.

As their dream moves forward, many business leaders and transportation activists say the proposed regional system is a direct route to a metropolitan renaissance

Metropolitan Detroit is an amazing landscape of contradiction: Compuware’s new downtown corporate headquarters tower over a backdrop of abandoned office buildings. Booming suburbs expand sharply as the urban core contracts. While other regions across the country pull together to increase their economic advantage, metro Detroit continues to come apart.

But the region is witnessing the beginnings of a sea change. In 2001, many of the area’s civic and business leaders started pushing the state Legislature hard for what local transit activists — from faith-based groups such as MOSES to the citizens organization Transportation Riders United (TRU) — have demanded for years: Quality rapid public transit throughout metropolitan Detroit. Officials lobbied Lansing vigorously for 18 months, insisting that business people and local governments gain just as much from a regional, well-funded public transportation system as people with disabilities or without cars.

“Better public transit is critical to moving the region out of economic stagnation and on to prosperity,” Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who championed public transit as a state representative, said last year in testimony to Michigan’s Senate Transportation and Tourism Committee. “The number one reason people don’t have economic independence is not education but transportation.”

The Legislature finally approved the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority (DARTA) late last December.

On the last day of his 12-year governorship, however, John Engler broke a promise and killed the hard-fought legislation. Yet, even as they bemoaned Engler’s shocking veto of this vital first step in establishing regional rapid transit, many DARTA proponents rallied around it. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm proclaimed DARTA her top legislative priority and Republican House Speaker Rick Johnson promptly promised to reintroduce the bill. The regional transportation authority would bring badly needed oversight to the metropolitan area’s two, chronically uncoordinated bus systems — Detroit’s DDOT and the surrounding suburbs’ SMART — and attract up to $1 million in federal start-up funding for designing a new regional system.

Necessary Speed
Many DARTA proponents support a proposed new regional rapid bus system called SpeedLink, researched and advanced by the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition. But as the arduous struggle first to establish DARTA demonstrates, building SpeedLink or any other new system will present an even tougher challenge: Paying for it. Detroit has been on the brink of developing regional rapid transit before, most promisingly in 1976 when President Gerald Ford offered southeast Michigan a $600 million down payment on a regional rail system. But, as before, the process derailed over squabbles about who pays and who benefits.

The metropolitan region’s coalition of business leaders, politicians, and community organizers must convince regional voters that quality public transportation is a good investment for everybody. To make their case, they point to other cities that have invested in truly rapid regional transit and then seen business investment grow, new jobs materialize, and urban neighborhoods revitalize.

Texas Pride
One example is the Dallas area, where a permanent, dedicated, one-cent regional sales tax installed in 1983 raises about $350 million annually to fund trains and buses. The region’s 20-mile light rail “starter system” has spurred $922 million in private investment along its tracks since it was built in 1996, including the construction of a $150 million hotel — the state’s largest. Today, as ridership exceeds expectations — nearly doubling since light rail service began — more communities that were initially skeptical about regional service now clamor for it. 

“Many thought transit was something for people in other parts of the country,” said Margot Massey, public transportation director for the Texas Department of Transportation. Referring to Texans’ well-known love of their pickup trucks, she added that even good old boys and everyday families are using the system now. “It’s part of the fabric of people’s lives. It’s not just for poor people, the elderly, or people with disabilities. It makes Dallas a world-class city. There’s a certain amount of Texas pride in it. The business community loves it, and now the Dallas transit agency is having trouble delivering the service fast enough to suburbs without it.”

Rapid transit proponents will need every penny-pinching argument they have to sell the system to area elected leaders and taxpayers. Fortunately, SpeedLink is a real bargain.

Dick Blouse, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has pushed for better public transit for more than 30 years, is well aware of the economic improvements that sound public transportation investments have triggered in Dallas and elsewhere. Detroit, he said, must build SpeedLink, and quickly.

“For any community or region to be competitive on a global perspective, an integrated public transit system is essential,” Mr. Blouse asserted. “We don’t have anything close to it here. We need to do this from an economic development standpoint. It comes down to our ability to move people, to get them to jobs.”

Because 78 percent of the jobs in metro Detroit are 10 or more miles from the city center, DDOT and SMART’s inadequate service puts the regional economy at a serious disadvantage. That problem is particularly acute for African Americans in the region: A recent Brookings Institution study says metro Detroit leads 20 major cities in the distance its black residents must travel to get to jobs. With the city’s population more than 80 percent black, and its unemployment rate of 9.7 percent the country’s third highest, little can be done to expand the local economy until a transportation system effectively connects people without cars to locations with jobs.

Visionary Investment Bargain
Backers say SpeedLink could break this cycle at a bargain price. The system uses rubber-tired “rapid buses” that mimic trains without requiring costly rails. Running on major thoroughfares, the buses — with their multiple doors, infrequent stops, pre-pay system and ability to turn red traffic lights green as they glide along dedicated lanes — could bring effective rapid transit to the largest metro region in the nation that’s still without it. Operating along 12 main traffic corridors, SpeedLink and its “feeder” buses would interconnect central business districts and urban and suburban neighborhoods from Flat Rock, Dearborn, and Farmington, to Pontiac, Mount Clemens, and downtown Detroit.

SpeedLink buses would stop only infrequently, at new stations, which could spur development of newsstands, coffee shops, small businesses, and apartments. Similar station stops built along Pittsburgh’s seven mile East Busway line have generated $302 million in new investment — most within a five-minute walk of the stations. A refurbished heavy rail line on Chicago’s west side has helped generate more than $100 million in investments in the West Garfield Park neighborhood alone.

Besides providing the twin economic stimuli of new investment and job access, SpeedLink could help reduce the congestion that’s overwhelming the region’s roads and polluting its air. Compared to the Michigan Department of Transportation’s (MDOT) favored solution — building still more roads — SpeedLink is a real bargain. For example, MDOT has proposed spending $1.5 billion to drastically widen and repair seven miles of I-94 in the center city, and another $1 billion to widen a 30-mile section of I-75 north of the city. SpeedLink proponents contend the same money could build their entire system over the next 20 years and cover two-and-a-half years of operating costs.
Another way of appreciating the proposed system’s efficiency, says Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the regional planning authority, is to compare it to the price of a full-blown rail system.

“For the cost of two rail lines we can implement the 12-corridor SpeedLink system,” he said. SEMCOG supports Speed-Link as part of a four-tiered transportation system that would also enhance service on existing bus routes that would feed into SpeedLink, upgrade services for the elderly and people with disabilities, and interconnect the two existing bus systems.

Funding: The Final Frontier
Rapid transit advocates will need every penny-pinching argument they have to sell the system to elected leaders and taxpayers. Fare box revenue and available state and federal aid could pay for about half of building and operating the proposed system.
The rest would have to come from local funds, such as a regional service or sales tax, an income tax, a payroll deduction tax, or a property tax. But Jerry Poisson, assistant deputy Oakland County executive, says a property tax is simply not on the table. His county’s high land values mean residents would pay more transit taxes than their neighbors in Wayne and Macomb counties.

Land Transit District
Making the Connection: Detroit's proposed SpeedLink plan could bring rapid buses, like those in this visual simulation, and higher employment to the entire region.

“Our concern is that we don’t want to put our businesses at an economic disadvantage,” he said. “Looking at the donor status of Oakland County, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dollar for dollar, but a significant portion of any tax should go back to our community.”

Unfortunately, Michigan’s Constitution forbids one of the most common transit funding mechanisms in other states — regional sales taxes. Changing it would first require either a ballot initiative or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to bring the question to a statewide vote.

“There has to be authorization for regions to look for some type of sales tax,” said Paul Hillegonds, president of Detroit Renaissance, Inc., and a former state representative. He notes that once activists and business leaders have convinced the state to change its Constitution they still must convince regional voters to tax themselves.

Mr. Hillegonds suggested that a transit-only proposal cannot pass unless it also funds some other essential utility, such as water and sewer systems.

“It will be necessary for the political leadership to come together on a strategic plan to address quality of life issues,” he said.

Unity Begets Prosperity
Vicky Kovari, MOSES’ transportion project coordinator, believes economic growth is a powerful argument for rapid transit, but says it goes beyond that. “Transportation is an issue that cuts across racial, age, and geographic lines,” she said. “If we ever want to build regional unity, transportation is the way to do it because it is in the best interest of all different kinds of people.”

After a century of almost exclusive focus on the automobile, it is evident that the very industry and lifestyle that brought Detroit its fame and fortune has also contributed to the region’s urban decay. As problems arose, those who could afford it left the city for suburbia’s open spaces. The pattern that ensued — abandoning the city’s excellent public transportation system and bisecting neighborhoods with highways — undermined the quality of life for many in southeast Michigan.

Metropolitan Detroit — which since 1957 has seen public transportation ridership plummet from 492 million a year to barely 10 percent of that even as its population more than doubled — has reached a critical point.

Will the region that built its livelihood on the automobile continue to invest almost solely in roads to move it forward? Or will rapid transit become a new way to rebuild metropolitan Detroit’s once-healthy economy?


• Dick Blouse, dblouse@detroitchamber.com 

• Vicky Kovari, 313-962-5290

• Paul Hillegonds, Hillegonds@aol.com

• Paul Tait, 313-961-4266

• Jerry Poisson, poissong@co.oakland.mi.us

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