INTRO: Better Transit: Better Business. That’s the message from the Metro Coalition of Congregations. It’s a project of the Harriet Tubman Center in Detroit. They held a panel discussion at the Detroit Zoo Wednesday morning, June 4. They chose the Zoo because it has 1.4 million paid visitors a year. It’s the biggest tourist destination in the state. Zoo officials believe it could get bigger if better public transit could serve it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus has the story.
Reverend Louise Ott is pastor of the Congregational Church of Birmingham. She opened the workshop.
“We must move past our history of division otherwise we will miss the rewards of economic cooperation and continue to lose economically socially, culturally and ultimately be historic losers.”
Dave Woodward is a longtime transit advocate, former state representative and currently an Oakland County Commissioner from Royal Oak.
“I would say to my neighbors and friends in the north end of the county that we’re all in this together and the only way we move forward here is we abandon the Swiss cheese approach to transit. We say that we’re all in and we’re going to cut the best possible deal as we move forward to save this region and that’s what’s at stake here.”
Oakland and Wayne County don’t force their towns to have mass transit. Many towns have opted out. Taxpayers and politicians think they’re saving money. But they’re losing it. Across the country, for every million dollars spent on mass transit $6, 7 or 8 million follow from the private sector. Businesses will pump money along transit routes if you the taxpayer contribute first.
Metro Detroit has lost out for 40 years. In 1976, President Gerald Ford told Governor Bill Milliken, both outstate republicans, he would send $600 million to Detroit for a new mass transit system. But the city and suburbs kept fighting. And they all got poorer. In that same year Washington D.C. built the first leg of its subway system. Look at it now. $600 million times 8 adjusted for inflation? That’s $20 billion in today’s dollars…. mainly from businesses earning profits and investing. Not from government. Metro Detroit has thrown that away.
Larry Page grew up in East Lansing and took his University of Michigan degree to invest in California. He’s helped grow their economy not Michigan’s.
Dave Flynn is the chair of the Macomb County Commission. He’s 28 and a Michigan State University graduate. He says most of his close friends have moved to big cities with mass transit.
“There’s no bigger issue in my mind that can change the landscape, economic activity and change the culture of metro Detroit.”
Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner thinks Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are models for other towns. They promote multi-modal transit: bike lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks and light rail.
“So it seems like maybe our challenge is a cultural one throughout the region just to get people not just saying hey give the bus a try or give mass transit a try but try looking differently at approaching transportation choices on a day to day basis.”
In the 1950’s, freedom meant driving a car. But not anymore. If Detroit wants to prosper it will need mass transit. ‘Job creators’ don’t want their hands on the wheel. They want their hands on their smart phones. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson has heard this before. But he’s not worried about that demographic. Patterson sent his deputy to the transit talk. His name is Matt Gibb.
“How do you go to communities like Addison Township? Addison Township pays right now into the North Oakland Transportation Authority. They have a small population, 3,500 residents or so. So how do you convince Bruce Pearson, the good township supervisor, to be part of this. I think there is room to do that. Too often you come to north Oakland County and tell the local leaders in the far reaches, Springfield Township and Rose Township, places that will likely never ever be served by this regional transportation authority, at least in my lifetime. You go to those communities and say hey you need to lose your ‘opt-out rights.’ You need to be part of the system and get on board. That heavy handedness will not work with those leaders. They are accountable to their constituents as well.”
WDET’s Craig Fahle was one of the moderators of the event.
“Let me follow up with this question. There are tons of services we all pay taxes for that we’re never going to use. I hope for the rest of my life I never rely on food assistance or I never have to be on welfare. Or I never drive on a road in North Oakland County but the tax dollars have gone to pay for it. At what point does the greater good trump whether or not somebody feels they’re going to use something?”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel sent his deputy Melissa Roy.
“So we are much more powerful if we are united and we work on keeping those tax dollars here. We get the same feedback from the northern end of Macomb County. ‘Oh I don’t want my tax dollars going here or there I want to keep them.’ Well guess what. They’re going all over the state. This is about keeping those dollars here in SE Michigan. The more we cannibalize each other the more those dollars will leak out to the rest of the state.”
50 years ago, the State established the Michigan Transportation Fund. Since Oakland County has the highest per capita income it will always be sending out money.
Melissa Roy wonders why “people don’t complain about the road dollars that go hundreds of miles away from home, but transit dollars going 10 miles down the street?” She has heard them say… “that is unacceptable.”
The Senate Fiscal Agency studied counties’ contribution to the state treasury. There were eleven donor counties, one of which is Oakland. 25% of their money went to other counties. Hence, Melissa Roy’s point: residents will benefit when they agree to fund projects in their own county but they will benefit little from the funds they’re obligated to send to counties at the other end of the state.
Reverend Louise Ott of the Congregational Church of Birmingham closed the event at the Detroit Zoo.
“Who do you know who can build a coalition, political will and economic investment with you? Who do you know among your families, communities and networks who will not be in Michigan anymore unless we start building our belief and answering with our actions.”
Detroit has gotten smaller and poorer. Mass transit could change that. The Metro Coalition of Congregations and the Harriet Tubman Center are urging voters to support the tax increase for the SMART bus system. That happens in the primary election August 5.