Metro Detroit’s street car tracks were ripped up in 1956. Some transit advocates consider that as destructive as the ‘67 riots.
Tuesday, about 300 people planned to right that wrong. They gathered inside the banquet room of Ford Field in Detroit to ask how to build mass transit. Many applauded the M1 Rail project and the passing of the Regional Transit Authority.
But the RTA is two years old now with its only acquisition being a newly hired director. And M1 will only go up to Grand Boulevard. DDOT service has been cut in half over the past decade and SMART by about 20%. That means more than 100,000 city riders and 50,000 suburban riders need to help with their daily lives now. Now.
According to the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., Detroit has the highest level of job sprawl in the country. People commuting from Pennsylvania to New York City or across Houston might spend longer in their cars. But metro Detroit is the worst on average. If the bus made you an hour late for work you get fired. Your boss has no choice.
The Harriet Tubman Center, a non-profit group with offices in the old Kresge Building next to the Masonic Temple, spent months planning this mere two hour event. They called it Build Business/Build Transit.
From 9 to 11am, they learned, pledged and prayed for buses and trains. Many exchanged business cards and promised to meet again. At the end pastors and a couple rabbis had encircled the room, about 30 clergy in total, right hands above their heads, palms pushing outward. The Reverend Louis Ott of the Birmingham Congregational Church presided.
“All of us together ARE Greater Detroit.
We are those who will choose to build
or not to build a transit future with economic promise.
We all are the champions called to this task today
and in the days, months and years ahead.
May future generations call us blessed for the choices we make,
the relationships we build, the future we create. Amen.”
Reverend Ott represents the Metro Coalition of Congregations. It grew out of the Tubman Center. The women and men of the cloth made a moral force field around the group. Transit is social justice issue. Some consider it a human rights issues. Others, like Dennis Cowan, the former mayor of Royal Oak and current partner in the law firm of Plunkett Cooney, say they’ll make the business case for transit.
Cowan and five others involved in planning Tuesday’s event stood up in the front to face the room. “We’re going where the money is,” said Cowan. “We’re going to the banks.” The audience cheered.
Transportation planners think in decades. So today’s task it to ask metro voters for money in the November 2016 election. Yet even more immediate is the money needed to launch the campaign to ask the voters.
According to Jason Jordan, Director of the Center for Transportation Excellence in Washington, D.C., and a main speaker Tuesday at Ford Field, a cheap campaign would be $500,000. Otherwise count on a couple million. Jordan said raising property taxes has been the most successful revenue source around the country. Say you own a $200,000 house and you already pay $5,000 a year in taxes. Would you agree to pay an extra $200 a year for a transit system that you might not ever use?
Transit advocates will try to convince you it’s worth it because your $200 will bolster the economy and get your friends and neighbors better jobs. “At the end of the day,” said Jordan to the audience, “you have to convince people to pay.”
Denver Colorado is considered a model for the way it found the money and then built a practical system of light rail and buses. They raised $5 billion for transit with a sales tax. The Michigan Constitution, however, prohibits any region from raising its own sales tax. Therefore, in the plan to get voters to support mass transit, organizers will have fewer strategies. Other than property taxes, vehicle registration price increases could be on the table. Governor Snyder has mentioned this in the last couple years.
Lawyers service businesses and when businesses lose money lawyers lose business. Attorney Cowan said banks are looking to earn more money and grow. That’s logical. That’s why they exist. But this is Detroit. The history of destroying transit and deepening dependence on cars has blocked funding. John Engler, who governed from 1990-2002, said Michigan is a car state. On his last day in office, he vetoed a regional transit authority bill that took another decade to get passed.
Ronald Reagan launched the war on taxes in the 1980’s that has made taxes the national allergy. The era continues with bumper stickers on the cars of state legislators parked at the Capitol reading …’Friends Don’t Let Friends Raise Taxes.’ The state continues to fund roads, necessary evils for commerce. Anyone with a car can drive on the roads. But funding transit is socialism. Having anyone get on a bus or train and pay a fare…that’s socialism.
The American Public Transit Association says for every $10 million of public investment $30 million of private investment will follow.
The state spent more than $3 billion on transportation during the 2014 fiscal year. $281 million went to public transit. Highways got nearly all the rest. November 13, the Michigan Senate passed a bill to add $1.2 billion a year for road repairs. Public transit will get a paltry increase.
The new CEO of the RTA is Michael Ford, 52, an African-American and longtime transit professional. He spent most of his life in Seattle and Portland before running the Ann Arbor Transit Authority for five years. He was applauded for getting voters this spring to approve a millage increase. More than 70% said yes. Ford will have to do it again in metro Detroit. He’ll have to flex his muscles and get the head of DDOT, Dan Dirks, who was in the room, and the head of SMART, John Hertel, who was not in the room, to coordinate their services. Ideally, they would become RTA employees of one transit system. Ford didn’t mention butting people’s heads together. He did recognize this area’s ugly past.
“Things don’t always have to be the way they are. We can work together.”
M-1 Chief Administrative Officer Tim Fischer was in the room and pleased with the vibe. “We’re going to work with him,” said Fischer of Ford. “We’ll work to make this a reality in the metro area.” Fischer has been in the transit choir for years. No one needs to convince him.
Marie Donigan, the former state representative from Royal Oak, was the chief organizer of Build Business/Build Transit.
“The reason we organized this event is to bring people together to work with the RTA to get the transit system we need and want are willing to pay for. And when that happens, the region’s leaders, including Brooks Patterson, will support it.”