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Detroit Transit Vital to the Whole State

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While Traverse City area residents frequently complain about traffic, we know that it is nothing like that endured by our downstate friends in the Detroit area. And it’s easy to think that their issues don’t affect us: That’s their problem, and we’re glad we live here.

But economists know that Michigan’s future, including Traverse City’s, is inextricably connected to the fate of Detroit. And Detroit cannot succeed if Michiganders don’t stop the terrible, twin trends of public disinvestment and population loss from our state’s largest city.

Perhaps the most glaring example of disinvestment is the lack of a regional public transportation system that can move people between city and suburbs. Realtors, developers, and demographers confirm that cities without effective transit systems are not attractive to the young knowledge workers who are driving the new economy.

So it is encouraging to note that right now the Michigan Legislature is considering several bills that would allow southeast Michigan to create a regional transit authority. Without such an authority, which shares funding between suburbs and the city, southeast Michigan will never receive the necessary federal transportation investments to build a world-class public transportation system.

The history of regional transit in Detroit—or the lack of it—began in the 1970s, when Governor Milliken made the first unsuccessful attempt to bridge the divide between Detroit and the surrounding suburbs. There have been nearly two dozen failed attempts since. But we are again seeing leadership from northern Michigan to finally resolve this critical issue. State Senator Tom Casperson from Escanaba introduced the bills to create a regional transit authority and Traverse City state Representative Wayne Schmidt is an outspoken supporter of public transit statewide, including in Detroit.

These leaders know that Michigan can no longer afford to send our college graduates away to cities such as Portland, Seattle, and Chicago, which offer more housing choices, social and recreation opportunities—and public transportation. We need to re-establish Detroit as a world-class city worthy of attracting new economy workers from around the globe. Effective public transportation is a critical element.

Governor Snyder’s administration has proposed a regional system of rapid buses that function similar to light-rail—with dedicated lanes, stations and platforms, and the ability to quickly and relatively inexpensively initiate a world-class transit system. But the Legislature first must create this new authority.

The legislation would allow the southeast Michigan region to fund and administer a regional transit system that would coordinate three systems now managed by three independent services: DDOT (Detroit’s transit agency), SMART (a three-county suburban transit agency), and the independent People Mover authority.

If this regional authority succeeds in southeast Michigan, it would make it more likely that similar agencies could be created for other regions of the state, including ours. And that will make Michigan even more attractive to entrepreneurial knowledge workers.

Please tell your Senator to support the three Regional Transit Authority bills for southeast Michigan – because they will benefit all of Michigan.

Jim Lively is Program Director at the Michigan Land Use Institute. You can contact him at jim@mlui.org.

A version of this post also appeared the Traverse City Record-Eagle on April 6, 2012.

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