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Atlanta’s Lessons For Detroit Transit

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Friday, July 5, 2013

INTRO: Detroit is getting a new transit system right? That’s what many people think since the regional transit authority law was passed last year. But the only plans in place are for a street car that runs for 3 miles downtown. There are no solid plans for anything else.. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports on Atlanta’s failed campaign to improve their transit system and the lessons for metro Detroit.

Detroit and Atlanta have a lot in common… including a woman named Che Watkins.

“At the very beginning we tried to make it as big of a tent as possible. Anybody that wants to come and help or get information just come. Anybody is welcome.”

In 2010, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce hired Watkins. She grew up in Southfield, got an MBA from NYU then worked at Wachovia and Bank of America. She could make the business case for building a better mass transit system. She could make the case to the average Joe.

“Our messages were jobs, jobs, jobs. Less traffic, more jobs, get home faster. One of the things you realize about Atlanta is that you manage your day, your week, your month your life around traffic. What time do I need to leave work? What time do I need to leave the house? What time do I need to get my kids to the ball game? And you manage your entire life around traffic. That’s not natural. And that’s what we were trying to get across to people.”

Metro Detroit traffic isn’t bad compared to other areas of the U.S. Freeways have grown while the population has shrunk.  But Michiganders understand the need for jobs. Mass transit has a multiplier effect of 8 to 1. For every tax dollar put in, $8 dollars of private investment follow. Che Watkins got 300 corporations to spend $9 million on a media campaign. She describes a cartoonist she paid for.

“You’ll see the metro Atlanta transportation hell entrance. And the line says that the penny sales tax increase would pay to get out of hell…hopefully.”

Michigan law doesn’t allow new transit money to come from sales tax. But the new regional transit authority can put a measure on the ballot in metro Detroit. Che Watkins was speaking to recently to the transit planners who want to do that. Here’s what Atlanta asked voters in July of 2012.  Pay a extra cent in sales tax for more than a hundred projects: roads, sidewalks, interchange build ups, even fixing an airport tower. Half was for rails. Half was for roads.  But then the campaign was attacked from three sides.

“The Sierra Club, their argument was that all that road improvement increased sprawl. The Tea Party liked the road improvement part and hated the transit. So you have that dichotomy. And then the NAACP, certain chapters, said there’s not enough minority participation, minority contracts. A dismally low percentage.”

And another spoiler looms above any campaign to build mass transit.

“Keep it simple. Work as proactively as possible with the media. Unless they feel they’re in it from the beginning, they could be your worst enemy.

“When you go through this process and think about how you want to accomplish this think about when is the best time to do an election. What works best for your area. Look at who your voters are going to be and make sure you bring them out to vote.”

Che Watkins joked about billing the Detroit folks for the therapy she’ll need after they made her bring up the pain of her failed campaign. And she said look you in Detroit are farther ahead. You have a regional transit authority. But Detroiters would respond with hey Atlanta has a basic light rail system. Detroit has nothing.

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Randy Rentschler, legislative and public affairs director for San Francisco's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Tom Shrout who led the campaign for light rail in St. Louis, Che Watkins and transit workshop host Scott Benson. They formed a panel at University of Detroit Mercy.

Randy Rentschler, legislative and public affairs director for San Francisco's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Tom Shrout who led the campaign for light rail in St. Louis, Che Watkins and transit workshop host Scott Benson. They formed a panel at University of Detroit Mercy.

Che Watkins grew up in Southfield. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce hired her to run a campaign to expand the public transit system. Watkins spoke at the metro Detroit Transit Advocacy workshop May 17, 2013. She told participants why Atlanta voters rejected the referendum last year.

Che Watkins grew up in Southfield. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce hired her to run a campaign to expand the public transit system. Watkins spoke at the metro Detroit Transit Advocacy workshop May 17, 2013. She told participants why Atlanta voters rejected the referendum last year.

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