For Release Thursday, December 27, 2012
No, it’s not the state’s controversial new right-to-work law, as full of implications as that may be. It’s not the latest maneuvers over Detroit’s finances, which may lead to a bankruptcy episode in the coming year.
The answer lies in what might appear to be a minor structural change in how one piece of government is organized. On Dec. 19, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA). Over a whole generation of attempts – 24 in all – various coalitions had tried to put together something regional for transit – a system taken for granted in virtually all other major metros of America. Such a measure even passed once, in 2002, but Republican Gov. John Engler vetoed it, almost literally on his way out of office.
The RTA goes live in March and gets full financial authority in October 2013. It effectively merges the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which has long run a bus system serving Macomb County and the outer portions of Wayne and Oakland counties.
Serious transit in Motown? Like a wind farm on a coal mine? In reality, Detroit’s transit history dates to 1863, when the city had a horse-drawn streetcar system. By 1900 the streetcar railway, electrified by then, had expanded to offer inter-urban service to Ann Arbor, Toledo, Port Huron, Flint and Jackson – only to die a slow death in the 1920s.
Detroit’s downtown monorail circulator, dutifully running a 2.9-mile loop since 1987, was an early urban experiment. Though never a model of efficiency and often the butt of derisive humor, it soldiers on. Today, with downtown filling up again – spurred by investments by Quicken Loans’ Dan Gilbert and other entrepreneurs – the People Mover may not be lonely much longer.
Still, spend any time in Detroit and it’s clear the automobile’s century-long hold on the transportation system lives on, accommodated by a labyrinthine network of wide streets and boulevards and swaths of parking. History buffs will recall that Henry Ford tested his first gasoline-powered car in June 1896, and by 1922 so many people bought cars that the transit system had to become a municipal holding to remain in service.
Today Detroit and Copenhagen are about the same size in population and have similar weather, but Detroit uses 10 times as much energy, in large part due to cars – their making and their use.
Over many decades, transit users in the Detroit region have nearly exhausted all hope of having a real regional system. SMART buses were limited by regulation as to whom they could pick up and where, especially those headed to Detroit destinations. The city system, after one try in the mid-1990s at extending service into the suburbs, concluded it could not afford to continue. Users learned to distinguish between the system mostly by colors: Detroit buses were striped green and yellow, SMART buses red and orange.
For the long run, the new RTA puts Detroit on the road to metro-wide public transit integration – the only rational long-term approach. But the most immediate impact of the new RTA is quite different – how quickly it pried open the previously closed door for federal participation in the construction of the first segment of a light-rail/streetcar system.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in pondering an initial federal contribution of $25 million, had been impressed by local investors and philanthropies ponying up the entire local share so that no state or city money would be required. He was further encouraged, seeing that these investors promised to turn over $50 million to cover the first decade’s operating costs. But turn over to whom, the secretary asked? His warning: get your organizational act together or no federal money.
Called M-1 after the state’s designation for Woodward Avenue that runs from the Detroit River up to Pontiac, this first line is set to run from downtown Detroit to New Center, the cluster of employment at the northern edge of the sprawling Wayne State University campus, where the old General Motors headquarters stood, about a 3-mile trip.
Now, under the new RTA, there will be a home for the funding and for fresh accountability for better transit. People cheering for a Detroit comeback can see the appearance of the RTA as encouraging.
Construction on the rail project could begin as early as next spring.
In the meantime, the RTA must also make a better regional bus system. Buses remain the workhorses of most transit systems; they don’t stimulate real estate development, and they don’t entertain. Bus service is essentially a retail business. It has to offer, to people who need to get somewhere, an experience they will readily choose on any given day – a challenge just as large as building a rail line.
Curtis Johnson is president of the Citistates Group.
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