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Why Would Yoopers Care About Transit in Detroit?

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Sunday, January 17, 2010

INTRO: Michigan’s Congressional delegation has secured money for transit infrastructure in metro Detroit. It’s the most significant step towards having a light rail system since Congress offered $600 million for it in 1976. At the time, the city and suburbs squabbled over the plans. Now, it appears workers will break ground by the middle of this year. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus is asking “If you’ve never even been to Detroit why should you care?”

Amtrak runs between Pontiac and Chicago. Trains make 3 stops a day in Birmingham. So the area has train service. But Troy Chamber of Commerce President Michele Hodges thinks it deserves more.

“Even though it’s freezing cold at the moment this is one of my favorite places in the region. We’re at the border of the cities of Birmingham and Troy near the Maple and Coolidge intersection which is where we hope to construct a multi modal transit center. Buses, taxis, black sedans. There’s even a pathway plans so folks can walk. And there’s an airport across the street. So we’ve covered every avenue.”

The two suburbs are doing something called TOD. Transportation Oriented Development. You jam a lot of activity into one place, lot’s of people coming and going in different directions. Have them duck in and out of stores, offices and homes. Right now, the train tracks have a single shelter, about 12 feet long, to avoid the rain. And that’s all. The Birmingham side has dozens of new 3 story townhouses. They have narrow streets with sidewalks. It’s an east coast feel. But some units are empty. Michele Hodges says a real station built at the tracks will add the missing ingredient.

“We can acquaint the Detroit region with what transit can do from an economic viability standpoint. It creates jobs. It creates revenue. If you haven’t been to a fabulous place that is dynamic because of its transit then you can’t understand that. It takes vision. So if we can help people understand that and lead them down that path then I think they will be able to understand the benefits.”

In December, Senators Stabenow and Levin, plus Congressman Gary Peters secured $1.3 million for the new station. The cities are kicking in money. But they only have half of the $7 million they need. A developer owns the land on the Troy side. He has the right to take it back if the new transit center doesn’t get built by June. That’s about the same time the light rail project is supposed to start on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

“I think it enhances the entire state.”

Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick is the only member of Congress from Michigan who sits on the Appropriations Committee. That means she has a greater say in where money is spent. Kilpatrick says even yoopers will benefit from the 12 miles of new track.

“The development it will bring to our state. The dollars, the visitors the commerce all has to do with how we move goods and services and people. We’re Michiganders. We move across the state. It’ll help you with your schools. The revenue that’s produced by these local units of government will help the state treasury which will help you in your education and your health care and your housing.”

For years, Michigan’s representatives in Washington have said they would support trains in Detroit. But local governments were never organized enough to send up a clear plan. Some saw trains as a threat to cars.

“Autos fought it for a long time. But for the last decade or so autos have been on board. Economic development that follows transit and commuter light rail systems and development along the way it’s just time for Michigan. We’re really behind time now. Had we done it five or ten years ago we would have been ahead. But better late than never.”

Transit advocates say suburban racism has been a major obstacle to a train line on Woodward. Would Congresswoman Kilpatrick agree?

“Ah, I don’t want to go there. It’s a new day. Our whole state if not our country is really on it’s knees, socially, economically, politically. I think the racism is still alive in America. But we’ll get beyond it. We want better schools for everyone. We want housing and jobs. And we have to work together across racial, ethnic and geographic lines to get that done.”

“If you can put in that light rail capacity now, if you’ve got the money to do it then absolutely do it.”

Bryn Davidson is an engineer an architect from The Dynamic Cities Project in Vancouver. He came to Crystal Mountain near Traverse City recently to talk about peak oil and public transit.

“That’s the thing that’s gonna not only save your emissions but it’s gonna make your economy more resilient because you’re gonna be able to move workers for less cost. You’re also not having to deal with all the parking infrastructure and all the associated infrastructure that goes with having all those cars. I see any additional lane capacity for highways at this point becoming a waste of money in the future. If you build more highway capacity, experience shows that those things fill up.”

Up Woodward and onto Big Beaver, city officials plan to connect their new infrastructure. Bryn Davidson says that’s smart. The car jobs might not help us much in the future and 100 % car oriented lifestyles will be the nails in our coffins.

“We want to imagine what the post carbon Michigan looks like or what it looks like in a world going forward defined by climate policy. These are the investments that are really gonna be the tipping point in terms of whether it’s a successful and vibrant place or a place that get’s folded away into the history books.”

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