A Will for Transit in Metro Detroit

For a decade or more, the Detroit region has talked about building a regional transit system. As it stands today, nothing has been built.

While plenty of money has been offered to a rail project along Woodward Ave through funding from the federal government, questions remain about the physical scope of the project, private financing, and governance. Those working hard to make this a reality should be commended for their effort in making sure the project is done right. Yet, the pace of the project raises the question as to why it has taken this region so long to reintroduce light or commuter rail while other cities around the country have move forward with these projects.

Political will, a stagnant economy, and the influence of automobile manufacturers certainly have played a role in Metro Detroit's slow progress in diversifying its transportation system. The other obvious issue is the immediate return on investment in attempting to retrofit a transit system into a car-oriented, urban and suburban landscape. Our fragmented system of local governments and weak county government do not necessarily work well when it comes to coordinated land use planning that would drive usage of the system. SEMCOG, the region's metropolitan planning organization made up of local government members, lacks the political power and will to push the region in a direction to pool our resources and build consensus around transit development.

So what is the remedy to Detroit's struggles to move forward on regional transit?

First, we need to look beyond transit as a strictly a public investment, driven by the public sector. The Big 3, along with businesses who plug into the electric vehicle economy, should look at the region as an opportunity to demonstrate new methods of mobility. Imagine transit stations servicing as commuter centers and as charging stations for electric vehicles, equipped with solar panels and windmills to power the grid. Government should be working to build consensus with the automakers to invest in the transit system as a value added component of owning one of their vehicles.

Second, our region needs alternative mechanisms to raise funds to invest in transit infrastructure. Most people in our region cross local and even county boundaries on a daily basis, but we are adamant that our property tax revenue be reinvested in our immediate vicinity. But if we spend money everyday in different cities and counties, wouldn't some sort of sales tax make sense for building assets that allow us to access the region better?

Finally, Metro Detroit needs a new, transparent regional governance structure that transcends local interests to push forward a regional transportation agenda. We need a governance structure that is both directly accountable to the region's taxpayers, and that can make decisions efficiently, capture federal funding, and accelerate development of regional assets like transit. As is the case with the M-1 Rail concept, the private and nonprofit sector should play a role in decision-marking to ensure that the system is operated efficiently, and to the maximum benefit of those who will utilize the system.

With so much stacked against us, it is hard to see the end game in sight. Sometimes it takes a trip to another city -- Denver, Dallas, Minneapolis, or Charlotte -- to realize that transit can be successful in a car-oriented environment. Yes, we must certainly invest in our existing transit resources like our bus system, but it is the fixed nature of rail that enables us to build a more connected region and connect our region's existing economic assets like our stadiums and convention centers. We have to start somewhere, but if we stall, we miss out an opportunity to compete with other regions, and that ultimately impacts future opportunities for our citizens.

That's what transit is ultimately about -- the citizens that make up our regional community. This isn't just about luring college grads and young professionals to the region (although transit could certainly drive that). It's about helping people the people who live here access jobs, helping those who don't have a car or can't drive access the region's economy, promoting a healthier lifestyle, and helping sustain economic opportunity in a region that has struggled for so many years.

2011 was a turning point for the region, and it was built from the ground up. It's time to build something new into the ground that lays the foundation for a stronger, more connected economy.