Are You Ready for a Regional Transit System?

Good News -- Metro Detroit may soon join the rest of the major metropolitan areas in the country and have its own regional transit system!

Yes, I know this is Motown and Detroit is synonymous with the automobile, so why would any self-respecting resident of this region exchange the convenience of a car for public transportation?   

Perhaps the answer can be found by looking at other large metropolitan areas, where economic mobility and progress has grown alongside regional transit systems.  Metro-Detroit is the only major metropolitan area in the country without a workable, reliable regional transit system.    Our inability to make these adjustments has put us behind not only Chicago and New York, but Cleveland, Denver, and Portland, OR.   Even Los Angeles, as addicted to the auto as Detroit, realized that an effective transit system was required for future development.     

The good news is that we are on the cusp of a new day in this region.  Perhaps it won’t be that long before the residents of Troy can get on an express bus and head to midtown Detroit and take in a Tigers game or attend a concert at one of the venues in that part of the city.  Or young adults, like my son who plans to transfer to Wayne State next fall, can catch a bus and head down to WSU for classes.  Yes, maybe that day isn’t as far off as some might think.

It’s perhaps providential that on the day that the City of Troy broke ground for the new Multi-Modal Transit Center, the State Senate passed a bill (SB909) setting up a Regional Transit Authority.  This is a major step in the right direction, because it authorizes the creation of a system that can coordinate mass transit across the region, as well as serve as an agency that can pursue the kind of financial support, both private and public that can create an effective transit system linking the entire region.   

One of the groups that has been pushing for access to quality, dependable mass transit is the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations, an advocacy organization of which I am a founding member. The task force that is focusing on this effort is led by two young women from my congregation.  It’s no accident that the leaders of this effort are young adults.  That’s because they’re among those most eager to develop systems like this.   Many young adults desire to live and work in an urban environment, where the cost of owning and housing autos is difficult.  In addition there is a growing trend among youth and younger adults to delay or forgo a driver’s license.  Many of these young adults will leave this area for places like Chicago and Washington, DC, which has the kind of transit system that meets their needs.   But they’re not the only ones desiring such a system.  Thousands of people from across the region depend on mass transit to get to school, to work, to medical treatment.  Unfortunately, at this point we don’t have good reliable options.  That makes this a justice issue, an equity issue.

One of the co-chairs of this task force, spent several years after graduating from Michigan State, working in the Washington, DC area.  She lived with family in Northern Virginia and took the Metro into the city where her job was located.  I have another young adult in my church that spent the summer interning in DC, she too took advantage of this transit system to get back and forth from where she and her family was staying.   Their testimony is an important one; one that I can echo from my own travels to DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland.  If we want to keep young adults in our region, then we must start listening to their voices – whether spoken, written, or demonstrated with their feet.

Again, the good news – the state legislature has authorized the creation of this Regional Transit Authority.  Getting there hasn’t been easy.  SB 909 was stalled in the State Senate for months, but fortunately it made it out of committee and to the Senate floor, where a positive vote was achieved.  The MCC has been active in pursuing this plan.  In October we held a forum on Regional Transit that included presentations by the Governor’s point person on regional transit, Dennis Shornack, along with a number of civic and political leaders.

Knowing that SB909 was stalled in committee, the Regional Transit Taskforce next set up a meeting with State Senator John Pappageorge to seek his support for this effort.  A sizable group of people, old and young gathered at a local a Deli to meet with the Senator and have a frank heart to heart talk.  I want to commend Senator Pappageorge for his willingness to listen and to embrace this project.  He was among those who voted yes on Tuesday.  But this vote is only the beginning.  The outline of a structure is in place, now members need to be appointed and work needs to get started on the project.  The two major players – SMART and DDOT need to begin to work together.  This RTA doesn’t merge the two entities, but it will seek to coordinate their efforts.  There will be need for cooperation.  I have faith that this will happen, but only if we work together to bring this to pass. 

Why don’t you join me and others in building a coalition to encourage work on this opportunity to build a better future for our region?  We’d love to have you join with us in the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations, an interfaith/ecumenical organization pursuing the common good.  For more information you can contact me or Luke Allen, our Organizer at luke.allen@tubmanorganizing.org.   

Yes, I have faith that if we’re willing to listen to each other and recognize that there is benefit for large numbers of people, people we know and love, young and old alike who would benefit, we’ll get behind this effort.  It can be an important economic engine, not only because the system itself will create jobs, but because will allow people from across the region to get to places of employment affordably, reliably, and quickly.  Even if you don’t intend to use these expanded transit opportunities, consider the needs and desires of your neighbors from across this region.   

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John David December 03, 2012 at 05:42 PM
Dale, Your sample is beyond minuscule. Ridership on the DC Metro is very high. I've used it on business and leisure trips to DC and VA. I took the Metro buses to and from DC when I commuted there and they were always crowded. The key was routes that were useful and a unified system. The DC area has grown, particularly the private sector, unrelated to government. The systems are used heavily for sports and other entertainment. The system took years to develop, starting in at least the 60s, and decades to build. While that region has grown and attracted residents and businesses, this area has stagnated and shrunk, and will continue that way with your myopic vision. One other FYI, I have a severely disabled relative who what's been able to live independently and commute because they were able to live near a Metro station and get to work and do shopping. They would not have been able to do that in this region. We need to start.
Dale Murrish December 03, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Are you John Kulesz?
John David December 03, 2012 at 10:38 PM
Dale Murrish December 03, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Detroit and Washington DC are completely different cities. You can drive downtown from Troy in a half hour and park for $5-10 at a sporting event. Rush hour takes perhaps 45 minutes. All day parking is supplied by employers or costs $5-15. Washington, DC is very congested and expensive even as a tourist. Parking is very expensive. Commuting to work downtown by car makes no sense, so people ride the train and read the paper or a book. I didn’t have a large sample size, but the people I talked to on mass transit in DC all preferred to drive their own cars when it was cheaper and more convenient.
Dale Murrish December 03, 2012 at 10:49 PM
Same goes for the Detroit area. I know a guy who doesn’t own a car (he said improving the service would help) and have talked to a few people who ride the bus. One guy getting off the bus at Woodward and Square Lake had never heard of the Troy Transit Center controversy and said building it wouldn’t help him anyway. My point was that leaders should survey riders and others who use the system and not listen to someone’s grand vision of what might be possible, copying other more crowded cities. Detroit has steadily lost population and needs redevelopment. Solving the crime and education problems (key reasons for the population loss) are needed first, in my opinion. The solutions for these are simple, but not easy. Getting people where they want to go quickly without a car won’t help if there are no jobs and no one wants to live here. A transit system does not attract workers. I agree that regional cooperation would have helped the rider I talked to at Woodward and Square Lake who was riding to work from Detroit to Waterford, I think. But you don’t need a lot of expensive infrastructure like bus and train stations to make it happen. We already have roads and bus stops. And lots of large empty buses. Transportation is about personal freedom: getting where you want to go, when you want to go at the most reasonable cost. People will make their choices on price and convenience, as Mark described. Everything else is nice-to-haves and “visionary.”


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