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Can Public Transit Get Detroit Moving Again?

  • Light rail and bus line vote intended to spur economic growth
  • Racial and political polarization loom as obstacle to passage

The curse of the car drives tediously slow through the region that put the nation on wheels. Traffic creeps along on torn-up downtown Detroit streets and multiple lanes clog up on interstate highways leading into and out of this formerly bankrupt city.

To some, Detroit’s traffic woes are a road map to economic self-strangulation, which is why voters in southeast Michigan will be asked in November to approve what most U.S. metropolitan areas have long had – a network of far-reaching public transit. Approval of the $4.7 billion light rail and rapid bus plan presents not only an immediate challenge in this politically polarized region, but an abrupt behavioral shift as well.

No other major metropolitan area spends less per-capita on public transportation than southeast Michigan. In Detroit, the car is the undisputed king.

“We recognize that getting people out of their cars is a big ask,” said Tiffany Gunter, deputy chief executive officer of the 4-year-old Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, which was created by the legislature to coordinate the build out of public transit in the four-county region. "We have a very low appetite for public transit in this region."

Several cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas City, Austin and Atlanta, will go to voters in November asking for tax hikes or bonding authority to expand already existing transportation systems that include subways and light rail.

Seventy years ago the Detroit area boasted one of the nation’s most extensive streetcar systems. What’s left is a 29-year old, elevated monorail called the People Mover that creeps along a jagged, 2.9—mile (4.7 kilometers) downtown circle, making 13 stops.

Balkanized Limits

In southeastern Michigan, mass public transit is limited to two separate bus systems. The balkanized limits of service came into sharp focus last year with news reports that Detroiter James Robertson, a factory worker, had been walking 21 miles round-trip to work for 10 years because bus service didn’t coincide with his schedule, and he couldn’t afford to own and insure a car.

Amid great fanfare, a suburban auto dealership gave Robertson a new car, which solved his problem but, at the same time, underscored the reality that in this region of 4.2 million people, you can’t get anywhere easily without a car.

“We’re the largest city in the country without some form of fast transit,” said Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.

U.S. Public Ridership Rose in the First Quarter (Table)

The proposal in front of voters, which includes $700 million in federal dollars, would create rapid bus lines from Detroit to the suburbs; an express service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport; and a commuter rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Over a 20-year period the average homeowner would pay $95 annually.

The People Mover in Detroit.
The People Mover in Detroit.
Photographer: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Demographic Challenge

About two-thirds of transit tax initiatives across the country were approved in 2014 and 2015, and a similar win rate has been recorded this year, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence.

That may not be the case in Detroit. Part of the challenge reflects demographic changes in metropolitan areas across the nation – the decentralization of jobs, the suburbanization of poverty and the trend of people not owning vehicles, said Joseph Kane, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Sixty percent of Detroiters work in the suburbs, and 70 percent of suburbanites work in the city, according to the RTA. More than a quarter of households in the city don’t have a car. And only five metro areas have longer average commutes than Detroit’s 10.4 miles, a 2015 Brookings study reported.

“The simple fact is that people can’t get to their jobs easily, and some of them can’t even get to the doctor’s office,” Kane said. “Nationally, we’ve been rudderless when it comes to transportation policy, and it’s up to communities to figure it out.”

For Alice Ogadinma, a 21-year-old senior at Detroit’s 26,000-student Wayne State University, the only way to get to classes is to drive 25 minutes from her north-side home and then pay for parking, if she can’t find a free spot. The cost is magnified by the region having the long and dubious distinction of the highest auto insurance rates in the nation.

"Most students don’t have cars, and it’s difficult to get around," Ogadinma said. "We need to get away from this idea of ’The Motor City’ and become ’The Mobility City.’"

Racial Divide

Equally daunting for the transit proposal is the political challenge in a region steeped in multi-generational animosity between 80-percent black Detroit and the majority white suburbs.

As Detroit has shrunk in population and economic dominance, losing almost 65 percent of its population since 1950, state and suburban taxpayers have paid higher taxes to support the city’s museums and cultural institutions serving the region.

"Racial tensions have been so high for so long," said Kevin Boyle, a Detroit native and history professor at Northwestern University.

"They got folded into the economic circumstances as the city got poorer and the suburbs felt they were less and less tied to the economic fortunes of the city," said Boyle,  the author of ’Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age.’ "There’s a long history of animosity and fear to overcome."

Workers put the finishing touches on a section of the M-1 Rail line in Detroit during construction in 2015. It was the first public transit project in Detroit to bring together both public and private funding for its construction.
Workers put the finishing touches on a section of the M-1 Rail line in Detroit during construction in 2015. It was the first public transit project in Detroit to bring together both public and private funding for its construction.
Photographer: Tim Galloway/Bloomberg

‘Angry Mood’

Taxpayers have had enough, said L. Brooks Patterson, the top elected official of Oakland County, the northern neighbor of Detroit and the prosperous economic bookend to Wayne County, Detroit’s home.

"I think the public is in such an angry mood around here and I’d bet the public will say no because it’s seen, once again, as a bailout of Detroit," said Patterson, a frequent critic of the city.

Politics have gotten in the way of a regional transportation consensus for decades, and the area has suffered for it, said Palombo of the Council of Governments. Among the 20 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, Detroit’s grew the least since 2010, 0.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Palombo said he is hopeful, but realistic about the prospect for approval of the transit plan.

"It’s going to be tough to sell in November," he said.

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