Saturday, October 2, 2010

Vote Yes on writing a new Michigan Constitution

Michigan voters have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean this fall when they are asked if the state should rewrite its constitution through a constitution convention. I think it is absolutely necessary that we start from scratch. Besides the obvious problems associated with business taxation, there are too many things that are built into the law that make our state uncompetitive and unable to adapt. Below are a few suggestions and reasons why we need a new constitution.

1. Restructuring of Michigan’s government, its bureaucratic structures, and its agencies so that it can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century. These challenges include sustainability, land use planning, protecting our environment, transportation planning, delivering services electronically, and building an economy that is immune to the busts and booms of the automotive industry.

2. Reducing litigation and incentivizing mediation. – Michigan is one of the highest litigated states in the country. Our progress is slowed by lawsuit after lawsuit. We have stalled in reforming our state for too long. It’s time to restructure our laws so that the costs (in time) of resolving legal disputes are minimized.

3. Bring back eminent domain – Detroit isn’t the only city that needs it. There are too many barriers in place to assembling land into larger parcels, and too many parties that can claim some piece of property. We’ve sprawled so far out and left too many pieces of land in ruins. We cannot think about land parcel-by-parcel, or even block by block. We need to think about smart growth on the regional level.

4. Reduce the size of Michigan’s legislative body. A well compensated, full time, two house legislature that takes until the last day of the year to complete a budget doesn’t reflect streamlined decision-making.

5. Roll back home-rule or mitigate the impact of municipality by municipality planning and bureaucracy.

6. Identify new tax revenue streams to fund new infrastructure.

7. Empower regional governance and regionally elected leaders.

8. Merge city and county governments where possible.

I am no expert on the law, but in my short time understanding how our state is structured, these are some of the reasons why we need to play a new game in Michigan.

Detroit Works Project, Phil Cooley, Rail, and articles

I attended the final open house of Detroit Mayor Dave Bing's Detroit Works Project initiative. I can say that the hearts of Mayor Bing and those leading the initiative are in the right place. I wish the timeline for decision-making was more aggressive (because our region has waited too long for a comprehensive plan and strategy to address abandonment in Detroit), but this effort is more organized than anything every before. I submitted several suggestions to the Project team. I have some friends and colleagues on the 55 member Task Force, and I wish them luck.

I attended a speech at the Collaborative Group with Slow's Bar BQ founder Phil Cooley. Phil's community building efforts in Corktown are nothing short of awesome. As a member of Bing's Task Force, it will be cool to see how he can apply what he has done at the neighborhood level, and duplicate it on a mass scale across Detroit. Literally, how do you motivate people and a neighborhood to build something together with few resources?

Finally, I attended a public information session on the "Michigan State Rail Plan" - MDOT's efforts to promote passenger rail and high-speed rail. I was completely unimpressed. Basic questions about funding, why there wasn't a proposed corridor between Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids, and other basics of the whole effort were answered with a bunch of "I don't knows" or saying that progress and vision were dependent on political will. The whole effort speaks to Lansing's inability to get anything done. When billions sit on the table from the feds for high-speed rail, we can't get the basics together. I have little faith in MDOT's leadership or vision. Why these folks get paid salaries not to move Michigan forward boggles me.

Still have to watch "Detroit Lives" - the Johnny Knoxville piece.

Here are some interesting articles I've found. More comparative perspective and thought.

Driven Apart: How Sprawl Is Lengthening Our Commutes and Why Misleading Mobility Measures Are Making Things Worse - CEOs for Cities

Liberals, planning and trains - The Economist

Find ways to repair dysfunctional Legislature - Detroit Free Press

Windsor rail link 'vision' unveiled by Al Teshuba - The Windsor Star

Right-Turn Signal: Privatizing Our Way Out of Traffic - The New York Times

The Power of Density - The Atlantic

Reimagining Detroit - Wayne State University Press

How to shrink a city - Boston Globe

Reinventing Detroit: The road from ruin - National Post

There is Still No Way to Fund Sustainable Infrastructure in America - Huffington Post

Sunday, August 8, 2010

It’s a start, but rail transit in Michigan must go bigger

Yay, transit!

This week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised to help Detroit and Mayor Bing develop light rail along Woodward from downtown to 8 Mile Road. This plan (if implemented) is the right step for our region in developing transportation alternatives.

It should be some time before this project gets off the ground. In addition to identifying matching funds to capture federal transit dollars, environmental and infrastructure engineering is still needed to make this project “shovel-ready.”

Making Woodward rail an economic success story
This project has the potential to drive economic growth for Detroit and the region if the light rail is properly aligned with other characteristics of transit-oriented development. Planners should focus on building walkable transit districts, park and ride near major connecting corridors (with electric car charging stations), and full integration with the automobile. Put these together, the plan will maximize the economic value for the citizens of this region and this historic corridor. Coordinated economic development is needed to make this a win for Detroit, and this an excellent opportunity for the public sector, investors, the creative economy, and real estate to work together for our common economic future. The Woodward Rail Corridor could become a project that unites our automotive/manufacturing engineering talents, green energy, new urban planning, and wireless information technology. Let’s hope that decision-makers take all these factors into mind as they plan this project and solicit ideas from the public and private sector.

It took us like 50 years to get here. Can we work a little faster now?
Despite its merits, the Woodward Rail project is still just the beginning of a long road ahead to truly connect our sprawling region. Reintroducing rail long Woodward Ave is somewhat like bringing back the lines along Woodward from the mid 21st century, except that our region is much farther spread out now, and much more built so that we are dependent on our cars. The DTOGs Rail will not cross any city or county boundaries, and the number of stops on the rail will make it less time-competitive than driving. Does this match our daily commuting patterns? Our daily commute possibility involves interstates and crossing several city boundaries, so unless you live accessible to Woodward, you may not use this transit system. Yes, the Woodward Rail will help unite Detroit and that corridor, but what comes next for building transit to unify this region?

Barrier 1: Money
The major barriers to a more robust, multi-modal transportation system are money and governance. We have few ways to raise funds as a region for major transportation projects, and we have few institutional mechanisms so that we can invest in regional assets like transit. We are mostly dependent on property taxes, the revenues from which have declined due to the region’s economy, sprawl (equalization of values), and out-migration from the region. Other special taxes (liquor for example) are already spoken for. Additional income taxes are not politically feasible for these types of investments, and our region can’t levy any type of regional sales tax under state law. So we are stuck scrounging for what little money is available at the county or local level, and governments aren’t always willing to see their local taxes leave to be invested elsewhere. So we need to find a way to raise revenue as a region (new tax), and we need to get mandate from our citizens on a regional level (referendum) to make the investment.

Barrier 2: Regional Institutionalization
Detroit is far behind other regions when it comes to making regional transportation investments, and we are even farther behind when it comes to regional institutionalization. SEMCOG, the region’s de-facto regional planning agency and de-facto regional transportation planning agency, really has no planning authority (because of Michigan “home rule” which makes all planning and zoning a local government function), and it doesn’t actually control or operate any transportation systems (like SMART Bus or even the roads). SEMCOG is only accountable to its member governments (those who pay in), so it doesn’t reflect the will of the entire region, and it doesn’t encourage fundamental institutional structure doesn’t unite all of its communities tend sometimes reflect disjointed geographic communities. SEMCOG’s leadership isn’t necessarily focused on strengthening connectivity and accessibility to the urban centers of our region. SEMCOG’s purview covering member governments in seven counties in Southeast Michigan doesn’t necessarily ensure that our region focuses on creating density and higher property values at the core.

There is a bill in Lansing to create a regional transportation authority. This is the next baby step to making regional transit investments. I don’t know the full politics, but I think these elected officials need to be encouraged to pass these bills. If they don’t, let’s make sure our new governor pushes regional transportation cooperation forward. Detroit isn’t the only urban/suburban region in Michigan that should receive funds or be empowered to make transit investments.

Barrier 3: Politics, Culture, Will
What it is. I’m not getting any younger. Let’s progress as a society. We have lost so much by not working together.

But, our region CAN revolutionize transportation, again
Our region can revolutionize transportation again. We can show the world how the auto fits with all other forms of transportation. We can unite wireless technology, GPS, and ecommerce to build an on-demand transportation system. It starts with building regional transportation assets like the Woodward Rail, but it also entails thinking of the next economic investment that will unite our region and its economy.

Only through regional cooperation, coordinated planning and decision-making, and robust public-private partnership can we move forward in the transportation evolution. We have found ourselves without money to repair the infrastructure we have, and we have endured too many booms and busts by focusing solely on the car-dependent model. Bottom Line - It’s time to think differently about transportation in our region.

It’s also time to think differently about our standard for regional institutionalization. The citizens of our region deserve regional leadership that acts with unity, with urgency, and that can push forward regional investments. Our leaders don't have to work alone. There are plenty of nonprofit and private institutions willing to help and ensure regional investments are delivered efficiently and that they are made to maximize the economic benefits to our citizens. We must institutionalize ourselves differently, and work with the State of Michigan and the federal government to make our urban/suburban regions competitive on an international level.

Michigan’s new governor has a role in this transformation as well. I hope that our new governor, whoever it may be, pushes forward with an agenda to empower our regions and diversify our transportation system. Michigan needs to go big as well, and consider changing its laws to empower regional cooperation and regional venture capital.

I hope that someday we stop playing with the hand we were dealt and instead define the rules of a new game so that we don’t have to wait decades to make smart investments like rail along Woodward Ave. Our regional leaders need to come together and embrace a progressive agenda; regardless of the laws that stop you, regardless of the past, and regardless of any other forces that hinder the evolution of the region we are proud to occupy. We have waited too long and wasted too much effort to isolate ourselves at the cost of our common economic well-being. It’s time to go big, together, and invest in our common future.

Thanks for reading.

Personal Note
Life has been busy, so I haven't been able to write in awhile. I love my job and my employer, and I love my life. I will try and contribute more policy ideas and solutions soon.

I love working in this region because it an experiment that could go anywhere if we all find a way to work together. There is a role for everyone – every person, every nonprofit, every business, every government. The knowledge and dedication of the people I know that care about Detroit is humbling, and I want to be a part of the solution more as I invest my life here for the long-term. This blog is just a policy experiment for me for now, but I hope that I can turn it into action or that it inspires thought in others.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Transit Map 3

Let's call this the Western Wayne County corridor. I thought of 275 and places like Ford Rd and Ikea, Laurel Park, 12 Oaks mall, Rock Financial Center in Novi, and Lansing. This emerged from Aerotropolis and a way to alleviate traffic along 275, connect to another convention center in Rock Financial, and then connect to a regional corridor between Detroit, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. That way people from the western part of the state can get to Detroit Metro airport.

I think this was also inspired by the traffic coming east on 96 near the 275 juncture. What ridiculous gridlock. This might alleviate that if planned right with very connected car commuter centers at the north end of the corridor.

Transit Map 2

As a follow up to Transit Map 1, Transit Map 2 connects the Detroit / Oakland County transit line and loop to an east-west Detroit-Ann Arbor line. Like Transit Map 1, I assumed no cost or development boundaries, and built the system along rail, road, and interstate corridors between Detroit and Ann Arbor. You see there is also a spur that could be built going east from downtown Detroit out to Oakland County. At some point, I will post that long-winded graduate school paper that forms the basis of these designs.

These maps are just food for thought. They do not take into account costs, and they are not perfect in terms of the corridors. My approach to these transit maps is to connect people with destinations and existing clusters of development (like Ford in Dearborn). They all require strong integration with on-demand shuttles, commuter car lots, buses, and other forms of transportation that will allow users to reach their final destination. If you build the system smart and seamlessly integrate it with other forms of transportation, the more robust and useful the system could be.

Sorry for the poor quality. MS Paint isn't the best, and I'm looking for volunteers that have the capability to truly plot this all out.

Like always, food for thought.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Open Source: Regional Collaboration SWOT Analysis

With the help of some colleagues, I created this Powerpoint of a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) related to regional collaboration here in Metro Detroit. Thought I would share with others as food for thought (and nothing else).

Monday, April 12, 2010

Transit Map 1

I created this map a few years ago as a way to connect Oakland and Wayne County with a transit corridor that loops around downtown and defines the central business district. Ideally, the system would have "right-of-way" so that it was separate from traffic (like the Chicago "L" and would allow the trains to operate faster from Oakland to Wayne County.

While I support the M-1 rail, especially as a way of truly defining the central business district, I think that regional rail will require something more than simply putting trains along the main arterial roads (Woodward, Gratiot, Grand River, Michigan, etc.). In my opinion, the solution requires use of all rights of way including interstates, service drives, and existing rail corridors. And if it were maglev technology, it might be cheaper to operate in the long run. Wouldn't it be great if our auto manufacturers teamed up with a company like GE and built a system like this in Detroit with the support of citizens and governments?

Articles on Density, Transportation

As you may or may not notice, I am trying to create a dialogue about issues that are often ignored by our region's business and government leaders, mainly urban sprawl and the social, economic, and environmental impact of geographic sprawl. I see physical connectivity as crucial to economic sustainability and vitality in Detroit, and that our lack of regional planning as a central cause of our economic stagnation.

So when I post articles that have nothing to do with Detroit, there is still a message involved. For example, these articles from the Natural Resources Defense Council speak to the benefits of density and the impact of density on the overall cost of living. In Part II of the blog, the author shows examples of smart growth developments.

Now I'm not saying people shouldn't have choice in where they want to live. Yet there are things that our business and government leaders can encourage that will result in economic benefits and efficiencies without compromising market share (see automotive industry) or control (see government planning and zoning).

And since we have such a huge opportunity to rebuild in Detroit, we can incorporate connectivity and accessibility in how we develop our land and our transportation systems. Our citizens deserve these options if the outcome is a lower-cost of living, greater accessibility to the market, and more disposable time and income to spend in that market. We can make that happen here in Metro Detroit.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Urban Farming Articles and Thoughts

There was an Urban Farming event hosted by Crain's today. I didn't get to go, but I'm hoping that I get some feedback from someone who did go. Sounds from a couple articles that things got a little bit heated.

My take, as Al Fields (City of Detroit) speaks to in the article, we should explore all types of land uses, and Hantz talked to diverse ownership models: private, common, nonprofit. And we must recognize that all economic development and property enhancement is a positive thing at this point in Detroit. Why shouldn't we diversify how we commoditize abandonment in Detroit to generate more tax revenue for the city and the state (expanded services for residents), and generate disposable income for those who get jobs?

It requires a diverse set of ownership models, and a master plan for maximizing the benefit to residents who invest in their community. We should explore enhancing the position of neighborhood nonprofits as direct subunits of government, and give them tools and direct incentives to execute a plan that is developed in common with city planners.

The master plan will drive organic development that maximizes accessibility to goods and services. In other words, Detroit (and Metro Detroit) has a huge opportunity to plan itself right so that the cost of accessing goods and services for our residents is decreased (leaving more money for enrichment).

Again, its all about plugging people into a system that they see direct value back from. As long as the system is audited against fraud, and there is strong communication and network building, everyone - citizens, nonprofits, and residents- should be able to plug into the redevelopment and ownership of Detroit and realize direct economic benefits. It takes a master plan so that people know where to invest, what they own, and put their money and energy into taking ownership of our community.

Great cities were not created by a single person - they are a collective expression of the will of their people who chose to locate around and support one another. Individual + Family + Community = City, and the citizens of Detroit can recreate the city together. Private investment (in the case of Hantz farms) is a positive variable in the equation.

A few more articles on urban farming:

Policy side thoughts:

Side thought 1: Could neighborhood nonprofits and citizens be incentivized in some way that would result in a tax increment returned directly to the community (a defined geographic area, perhaps to pay for say mowing the law, recycling)? (inverse property tax break). What could be done in real time that has positive community benefit and results in direct monetary reimbursement?

Side thought 2: Governments and nonprofits need to share common informational and accounting tools and build networks for real time communication (see nonprofits). The city of Detroit should work with the private sector to build a Detroit-customized nonprofit ecommerce system that will also serve as an informational network for nonprofits. Peoplemovers may be it if it can take on a true tool for government ecommerce. Trust is key, and auditing is crucial.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Free Press Editorial Supporting New State Constitution

The Detroit Free Press published an editorial today urging legislators to start planning for the possibility of a Constitutional Convention to rewrite Michigan's Constitution. Good for the Free Press for raising the issue. Too bad our legislators are on vacation.

We need a new constitution in Michigan. If the past has taught us anything it's that our laws produce regional fragmentation and too much dependency on the State government. Our regions must be empowered to forge their own economic destiny, period.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Detroit in 2020

Some excellent articles / editorials today in the Detroit Free Press about the future of Detroit. It's great to see things visualized. All we need to do now is connect the dots, fill in the space between, and allow all stakeholders to plug-in to the larger vision.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Schematic - A new MPO for Metro Detroit

As a follow up to my blog entry from January called Why Metro Detroit needs a new MPO, I decided to share this schematic which attempts to lay out a very bold vision for what this might look like. Again, this is somewhat modeled after Portland, OR which has the only elected Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in the United States. We may not need an MPO that is this robust or comprehensive (hey, I will take a regional transportation district like Denver at the very least), but if we want to get toward some sort of regional institutionalization where decisions are made with the region in mind, this is what it might look like. I put the feds at the top of the chart as the source of matching funds, and I laid out how a regional sales tax might be incorporated and allocated.

Just food for thought, and nothing else.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Articles (4/2): The New Urban Landscape

There was a great article that appeared on yesterday called Americans Rebuild for the new urban century that talks about how transit-oriented urban centers and shorter car commutes are becoming more popular, and endless sprawl is becoming unpopular. I think one interesting thing to note from the piece is that Charlotte, North Carolina realized that suburban growth was unmanageable 30 years ago, yet our region still struggles with that notion.

The article was linked to PBS's series Blueprint America which created an excellent piece about Detroit a few months ago.

I was really happy to see an article on called Washtenaw County officials question worth of investment in SEMCOG. The article says "Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith said he thinks SEMCOG needs a change in leadership and governance reform."

Thank you Conan for being bold. I nominate you to lead and reform SEMCOG.

A few other articles about dealing with sprawl in Los Angeles, in Tampa, the growth in poverty in the suburbs by the Brookings Institution, and a good article from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Welcome to

I created this blog as a means to express my opinion and potential policy solutions for Metro Detroit and Michigan. The blog discusses issues from transportation, to taxation, to sustainability, to governance, and more. The blog also includes several links to organizations and initiatives in Detroit, so I hope it provides a resource to the different projects going on in Detroit. So remember when you want to read and learn about Detroit.

Some of you have already read some of my policy posts in my Notes section on Facebook, many of which I have incorporated into this blog. Some of you receive daily news items from me via email. My attempt will be to post some of those in here as well. I really invite people to read, share your ideas and, if you would like to contribute, send me an email. This blog is designed to be a resource to policymakers, the media, and others who want to read about different options on how to move our region forward in a positive manner.

Again, this blog is about ideas and solutions, and not about assigning blame. At times, we all need to express our frustration about how things are, and I am not innocent in this regard. I just continue to remind myself that we are all in this together, and that if I plan to stick around this region the rest of my life, I'm determined to help leave it a better place. For me, that comes through sharing my ideas with others, being bold in my convictions, and being compassionate for those who are also frustrated by the "hand they were given."

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views of my employer, coworkers, or colleagues, and should never be understood in the context of "right" and "wrong." These are just ideas and opinions, and nothing else. Nobody is to blame for the struggles of our region. Things are just the way they are, but that doesn't mean that we can't change it.

I want to thank Landmark Education for inspiring this endeavor. I want to thank those who have listened to my ideas (and rants) in the past, and for those who have taken a stand for me in my life - my family, my friends and my fiance, my bosses, coworkers, and colleagues, and everyone else I have the pleasure with interacting with on a day-to-day basis.

Thanks for taking the time to read and contribute. "We're all in this together..."

Why Michigan needs a New Constitution

This fall, Michigan voters will be asked if we should have a constitutional convention to rewrite Michigan's Constitution. Michigan voters are asked every 16 years if we should rewrite our constitution, but this measure has failed several times. Michigan's current constitution was written in the 1960s.

I wholeheartedly support a NEW Constitution for Michigan. Some of my reasons include:

1. Home rule: The economic inefficiencies resulting from strict and explicit "home rule". Home rule in Michigan means local governments control just about everything including land use planning and zoning. As a result of strict home rule, planning is uncoordinated, land and buildings are underutilized, local governments are more competitive with one another, which has led many to build infrastructure to lure new business and residents without doing a long-term cost benefit analysis on whether the infrastructure costs more than the tax base produced from building the infrastructure.

2. Regional self-determination: Counties and regions, especially those with an urban/suburban makeup, need greater control over their economic destiny and greater ability to raise money to invest in regional assets. This not only includes the Metro Detroit, but also the regions around Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Ann Arbor. These regions have different needs that the rest of the State, and should be less dependent on state funding mechanisms and the existing taxation mechanisms to invest in common assets.

These are just the two main reasons why we need a new State Constitution. Others include the provision that mandates that 90% of all transportation funds spent in Michigan must be spent on roads (I'm guessing this one was put in by the auto industry).

It is time for Michigan to reinvent itself, and that means reinventing our laws to confront the challenges of the 21st century. The past 50 years of an up and down economy along with slowing population growth shows that we are not always set up to succeed. It's not that Michigan was dealt a bad hand. It's that we are playing the wrong game. Our citizens deserve better options and our counties, regions, and our citizens deserve more options in controlling our economic destiny.

I invite others to share their ideas in support of a new Michigan Constitution.

Ann Arbor - Detroit Regional Rail Project Delayed Indefinitely

When I first started graduate school back in the fall of 2005, I attended an event hosted by SEMCOG at Washtenaw Community College. The topic was the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail service, and SEMCOG presented several different corridor designs. SEMCOG promised that service could be operating within a couple of years.

Well, a couple of years past, then another year, then another year. They then said that service would begin in 2010.

SEMCOG recently announced that the Ann Arbor to Detroit regional rail service would be delayed indefinitely due to lack of funds. Other articles -, Crain's.

SEMCOG has been openly criticized by Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick for spending several million dollars on studying the project without results.

Here's my take on this whole situation.

1. If you read my earlier post about SEMCOG, you will know that I have issues with SEMCOG's role in our region. I think it either has to be empowered and given real authority, replaced with a type of regional governance structure with more direct accountability to the elected people, put directly under the oversight of our region's existing government leaders (counties, large cities), and/or shrink its geographic scope (from 9 counties to fewer) so that the tri-county, Metro Detroit region has greater control over its own destiny as an urban-suburban region.

2. The Ann Arbor to Detroit service was only really supposed to operate 8 train rides per day: 2 in the morning and evening from Detroit and from Ann Arbor, and 2 in the morning and evening from Ann Arbor to Detroit. Well, what about people that have a business meeting mid day in Detroit and may stay for dinner or a baseball game? What about people who have a flight in the middle of the day or late afternoon at Detroit Metro airport? How would this service accommodate them?

The reason for this lack of regular service is

a. lack of funding
b. Norfolk Southern owns the track along Michigan Ave.

This corridor would not only serve the commuter rail service, but also Norfolk Southern freight and existing Amtrak service.

This begs the question - why not use a different corridor?

In my own opinion, I think the corridor selection was done on the cheap, and that a better method would be to not only utilize the right-of-way of Norfolk Southern, but transform road corridors into transit corridors. Grade separation (meaning the train doesn't have to slow down or stop for car traffic) and dedicated track is the real long-term solution, although there are increased cost involved with such infrastructure development. And if we were to consider total grade separation and right-of-way, we should think of this corridor in the same context of high-speed rail between Detroit and Chicago, and perhaps Detroit and Toronto.

3. While SEMCOG's website speaks of a stop at "Metro Airport," the stop would actually be along Michigan Avenue, which is 4-5 miles NORTH of the Airport terminals. So if you wanted to access the airport and you didn't have a car, and you didn't want to pay $50-70 or more for a cab or Metro Car, you would have to find a way to get the commuter rail line (walking, bus, car drop off, commuter lot), get on the rail, and then transfer into a bus to get down to the airport.

The question here is why can't we have a transit line that allows you to walk out of the airport terminal and get right on the train? That's the situation in Atlanta, Chicago, Amsterdam, Dubai, Washington D.C., and countless other cities across the world. We have a world-class airport - why not connect it the region with world-class transit service? And when you do the cost benefit analysis, a half hour trip to the airport in a car has to be compared to an hour and a half trip to the airport, so what is the value of your time?

4. MONEY - The federal government New Starts program, designed for new transit systems, is a smaller pool of money than the general transit funding mechanisms (which support the transit lines of New York, Chicago, D.C., and elsewhere). So our chances of getting that money, or getting a different appropriation from the federal government are somewhat small. The pilot Ann Arbor to Detroit project was supposed to demonstrate demand along this corridor so that we could receive regular federal funding, but again, we are still somewhat dependent on the federal government for transit in this region.

Cities like Denver, through RTD (the regional transit authority), forged their own economic future by putting down money through a .4 cents (that's 5 cents on $10) regional sales tax. Unfortunately, Michigan law doesn't allow a regional or local sales tax. Instead, we are dependent on property taxes, which we all know are decreasing due to the economic downturn. So we don't have the mechanisms as a region to invest in this project on our own. We are also hurt by not having a regional transit authority, which lawmakers are working on in Lansing through new legislation.


Representative Kilpatrick, who championed the huge allocation from the federal government to study the Ann Arbor - Detroit line, has now taken a different view on the project, stating that she thinks that the corridor should be considered alongside high-speed rail development, a priority of the Obama administration. I agree that this corridor should be considered in a larger mega-regional context, but that if we do go that route, we must still be able to provide more frequent and unique service offerings along this corridor. Flexibility will ensure that the system is operated with economic efficiency, offering service based on demand.

Yet the potential for this project to happen lies behind the will of the public and our political leaders and business leaders. We need to come together and establish a regional transportation authority, and ask Lansing (and D.C.) for greater self-determination in raising capital for these projects. But it doesn't stop there.

GE recently set up shop out in Van Buren Township to build energy systems for alternative energy and home appliances (they are also setting up a new operation in Ohio that focuses on aerospace). GE is playing a greater role in the high-speed rail business. The idea is that GE could partner with auto engineers and suppliers to build and demonstrate the next generation of high-speed trains (or even maglev).

If our region's political leaders and business leaders could come together in partnership around the development of a new generation of transit service - operated in a more profit-driven, public-private model - we might see the kind of investment in Ann Arbor-Detroit as we saw in the M-1 rail project.

Bottom line

This isn't to say that the Ann Arbor-Detroit line may not be successful under the current model (if it ever gets going), but the lack of progress on this project suggests that the direction and approach may be flawed. If we, as a region, want this and other transit projects to happen, we need be bold in our conviction for it, creative in our vision for it, and be willing to pay for some of it. In my opinion, it is a worthwhile investment for the future of this region.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Other interesting articles

'Smart Growth' Taking Hold in U.S. Cities, Study Says - New York Times

World’s High-Speed Train Makers Set Sights on U.S. - New York Times

Declaring a spirit to improve Detroit - Detroit Free Press

Ann Arbor-to-Detroit rail line delayed due to funding shortage -

A New York Transportation Guru on How L.A. Can Solve Its Transit Mess - The Infrastructurist

Investors are buying up Detroit and turning it into farmland - Natural News

EDITORIAL: City needs tax policy to boost farm plans - Crain's

Cultivate Detroit's significant farming opportunity - Detroit Free Press

Sharing Woodward Ave - Metromode


A Dignified Reshaping of Detroit's Landscape

I believe in the open source model, of sharing ideas to provoke thought about the issues facing Metro Detroit. I've even promoted the idea of a "Policy Prize" conference that brings together the nonprofits and neighborhood development groups of this region and allows people to vote on creative ideas to revive the Detroit region.

Today, I'm sharing one of my flow charts as food for thought. I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not an expert on land use or really comparative forms of real estate ownership. But I put what I did know on paper for others in the hopes that it will help create that actionable plan to address abandonment and environmental degradation in Detroit.

As you know, the "right-sizing" of Detroit has received a lot of press attention lately. Some of the more notable articles have appeared in the Economist, New York Times, ABC News and other sources. Today, in Crain's (subscription needed), there was an article about nonprofit and community groups desiring a greater role in reshaping Detroit.
There have been a few conferences on this topic as well, most notably last week at Wayne State.

In general, Bing needs to present an open source, plug-in model for every group to get involved and provide value to a larger plan for the city. Our region has a tremendous opportunity, but the Mayor needs to present that A to Z, actionable plan and show how all groups - government, nonprofits, corporate sponsors, foundations, neighborhood groups - can be a part of the reshaping of Detroit. I know that is difficult to do with so many stakeholders and so many people to please, but it isn't impossible. It will take bold leadership, human talent, venture capital, creative legal mechanisms, unique branding and marketing, and ample room for public input.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The RTCC’s Proposed Plan for Regional Transit

I’m not an urban planner by training, but I did take an urban planning class or two as an undergrad. One class, taught by Dr. Jonathan Levine of the Taubman school talked about the relationship between transportation and land use. The connection between transportation and land use should be pretty clear to people in Detroit. Our roads will take you there, but transit may not – at least not in a time and cost competitive manner. The lack of a fixed guideway transit system has led to urban sprawl, suburbs without sidewalks, and abandonment in our urban core. Because we are so spread out and auto dependent, things are less accessible by other forms of transportation. Connectivity and accessibility of places was a central focus of Dr. Levin’s course.

In early 2009, the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council (RTCC) – an entity funded by monies once made available to DARTA (a regional transportation entity that former Governor John Engler vetoed right before he left office), unveiled a transit plan that was the work of a consulting firm based out of Kansas City. The RTCC is led by former Wayne and Macomb County commissioner John Hertel. The plan, proposed some light rail, a lot of bus rapid transit, regional rail, and something they called “arterial rapid transit” (ART) which is nothing but a fancy way of saying buses that don’t necessarily follow single road corridors. ART, as proposed in the plan, would connect key destination points in the region like malls or pockets of commercial density. Most of the RTCC’s plan involved using existing north-south, east-west road corridors, as well as main corridors like Gratiot, Woodward, Michigan, Grand River, Jefferson, and Fort for enhanced transit lines. The RTCC plan covered a 30 year period into the future, and is generally accepted by the “Big 4” (Mayor of Detroit, Oakland County Executive, Head Commission of Macomb County, and Wayne County Executive) as the plan for transit in the region for the future.

Unfortunately, (and this is my own opinion and not that of my employer) there seems to several problems with the plan itself.

1. There was some public input on the plan, but perhaps not enough. There was some input after the plan was designed by outside firm. But do we really want to say in 30 years that our transit system was designed by a firm based out of state? I think the final transit plan for this region provides for greater public input on corridors and amenities.
2. How often do you really know of people who commute from mall to mall? Yes, we do need to connect destinations to one another (like the airport to our convention centers), but how does the connecting of malls really help?
3. Following existing road (NOT INTERSTATE) corridors places some limits on the speed of these systems because of the mix of uses along the corridors and because there would be too many stops along the corridor to make the system really time competitive with driving.
4. The traffic congestion in this region isn’t along those main roads. It’s along the interstates, which implies that “regional” commuting involves interstates more so than roads. Roads are good for local and interlocal commutes, but not for getting from Detroit to Novi or Detroit to Troy.
5. Buses don’t necessarily create density. Using buses only to try to create density is akin to retrofitting our region with an enhanced version of the old interurban trolley lines. They aren’t going to necessarily create the density around stops like transit system in Chicago, D.C., or New York. Bus rapid transit does have potential, but it doesn’t have the permanence of some sort of rail system.
6. There was no consideration for use of interstate corridors as light rail corridors. If these corridors are what people are using and where the congestion exists, why were they not part of the equation? If Denver can build light rail along their interstates and then supplement stops along the rail line with bus and commuter car lots, why can’t we do it? I think we have a good amount of underutilized service drive corridors that could be used, and again, interstates already serve as regional transportation corridors, so why not utilize them.

Now I’m very pleased that the RTCC has tried to advance the development of regional transit, especially with their efforts to create a single transit authority through legislation in Lansing. But the plan that they have put out for the public is soft and doesn’t offer the public a true regional alternative to how we get around now. A new regional transit plan for our region needs to be more robust and involve commuter lots, bus / transit hubs, walkable areas (the median of Gratiot is far from a walkable area), and high-density development. Add real time intelligent transportation systems and the ability to pay for all aspects of the system electronically or with a cell phone, and then we might be on par with Europe or Japan. Simply trying to recreate or extend the rail lines of Detroit’s past is not going to create the density that is needed to increase our property values or persuade more people to use transit. Our region deserves something more modern, more robust, more flexible, and more oriented with the automobile if we are to move people on a regional level in a manner that is time and cost competitive with the automobile.

Furthermore, if we are to increase connectivity and accessibility, we need to closely integrate our region’s key destinations with a modern transit system. Residents in Oakland County should be able to drive to a transit center, hop on a regional rail system, and walk into the auto show at Cobo. Residents should be able to get dropped off at the transit system, get on a train, and walk into the terminals at Metro Airport. Residents should be able to park their car at a transit station, take the train directly to the Palace or Comerica Park or Ford Field or the Joe, and then get back on the train, get their car, and go home. We need to focus on connecting our region’s assets with transit seamlessly, not simply putting a light rail or bus rapid transit or bus line along main roads.

There is no reason why we can’t do this, but it will take bold leadership, the ingenuity of our region’s planners and engineers, and a sustainable revenue source to make it a reality. If Japan, China, and Europe can build modern systems that will last for generations, and New York, Chicago, and D.C. can build systems that create density and property wealth, certainly Metro Detroit can do the same.

The Transit Idea Box

Idea 1: Make Cobo a regional transit hub
With the possibility of the Red Wings building a new arena in Detroit, a lot of real estate will open up near Cobo Center. Cobo’s new authority is also actively putting together plans to expand Cobo for the auto show. Why not make Cobo a regional transit hub that connects to the airport and to Oakland County, following the corridors of Michigan Ave/I-94 and I-75 respectively? Taking it a step further, if Cobo were a transit hub that allowed people to access not only downtown and the region, could Detroit build a gondola across the river to Windsor so that Canadian residents can better access our facilities and jobs?

Idea 2: Integrate Toronto – Chicago High Speed Rail with new Border Crossing and Old Train Station along Michigan Ave.
Detroit occupies a unique geographic position between Toronto (Canada’s largest city) and Chicago (the 3rd most populous city in the United States). Why not integrate high-speed rail between these two corridors through the development of a border-crossing that will accompany such trains? Why not utilize the old train station along Michigan Ave as a hub for high-speed rail? If you can also integrate Detroit Metro Airport into this corridor to create an “airrailtropolis” (a term I credit to Rick Sheridan of Menlo), the importance of our airport to the Midwest will only grow.

Idea 3: Jefferson-Conner-Outer Drive to 8 Mile Bus Rapid Transit
If you look at an overview of where density is on Detroit’s eastside, it is along the Connor-Outer Drive Corridor. Why not build a bus rapid transit system that goes from downtown along Jefferson, turns left at Connor, and then follows Outer Drive all the way to 8 mile where it connects with another regional transit corridor? This type of system could create more density along this corridor and truly unite the eastside of Detroit.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let's Save Michigan Open Letter to Secretary LaHood

The Let's Save Michigan campaign has posted an open letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, criticizing him for shorting Michigan on transportation funds. While it is true that Michigan often doesn't get its fair share of transportation funds, it's not because the federal government doesn't like Michigan. It's because we don't have the ability to come up with a federal match for transportation funds. We risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in federal transportation funding because we can't come up with the 20% match this year. In fact, because Michigan doesn't have an established fixed guideway transit system, our tax dollars go to subsidize transit systems in New York, Washington D.C., and elsewhere.

The bigger issue at hand here though is the entitlement mentality of Michigan - that we somehow deserve something from the feds. This mentality has been expressed in statements by Governor Granholm and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing over the past few months. Instead of complaining about our fair share (which implies a dependence on the federal government for economic prosperity), we need to come together as a region and a state to help ourselves. This means finding a way to raise funds for critical infrastructure, living more densely, reducing the amount of infrastructure per population served, and coming up with an overall master plan to reduce sprawl. It also means diversifying our economy to reflect a permanently contracted automotive industry. We must focus on being leaders in all forms of transportation innovation, not just automobiles, and in turn present a new model for living, commuting, connecting, and accessing the market - and then sell that model to the world.

Fortunately, there are other people thinking like this in Michigan. SMART (Sustainable Mobility & Accessibility Research & Transformation) is an initiative of the U of M Transportation Research Institute. Each year, SMART puts together a conference dedicated to alternative transportation models. Participants have the opportunity to learn about how cities around the world are dealing with traffic congestion through technology and alternatives to the automobile. If cities in India, Columbia, and South Africa are adopting the latest and greatest technologies ans strategies, certainly Michigan, with its wealth of engineers and creative minds, can come up with solutions to address our transportation challenges (including lack of transit and lack of transportation improvement funds).

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Property Tax Collections down in Metro Detroit

The Detroit Free Press lead with an article about declining property values and the impact on local governments. This further shows that property taxes are not adequate to fund regional projects. Our region must identify a way to raise revenue for regional projects if we are to compete with other cities around the United States.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Why Metro Detroit Needs a New MPO

First, how this was inspired. Detroit Declaration. Awesome. Now let’s build it.

In graduate school, I had the opportunity to participate in a group internship that attempted to find a statistical relationship between the structure of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) and how they used federal transportation funds.

For those of you who need a quick background on MPOs and federal transportation funding:

MPOs are essentially regional government bodies that serve larger urban/suburban areas. They come in many structural forms, pretty much anywhere from a local government membership-based structure, to a transportation authority, to regional planning commissions, to elected regional governments. MPOs tend to focus on regional issues like transportation, planning and land use, environment, information-sharing, and economic development, but can actually do a variety of things depending on where you live.

MPOs have existed for decades but were really empowered through legislation in the late 80s and early 90s that gave them the ability to capture federal infrastructure funding more directly, rather than having funds filtered through state governments (what I recall is that because federal funds were filtered through state governments, many state governments overemphasized rural interests rather than urban interests, and urban and suburban areas were simply not getting their fair share of funds).

Alternative models or similar models would be combined city-county governments (Denver, Louisville).

SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments) is Metro-Detroit’s MPO serving the 7 county “Metro Detroit” area including Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, St. Clair, Livingston, Monroe, and Washtenaw counties. (Reminder – SEMCOG has no wiki entry) SEMCOG is a membership based-MPO of local and county governments in the 7 county SEMCOG geographic area. Some local governments are members, and some are not (kinda like SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation), the suburban transit operator / authority for Detroit).

Now about federal transportation funding. States or MPOs or counties or local governments need to put down 20% (minimum) for road or transit projects and the federal government puts up 80% (funded by your income, fuel, and other taxes). Transit projects often require a bigger match, and there is definitely a bias towards funding existing transit systems rather than supporting larger capital investments in new systems (which is why there is a program called New Starts for transit, but the match and the criteria to quality is still high). There are lots of different federal transportation funding categories for different transportation purposes, which is an issue in of itself. (See Bipartisan Center Transportation Study).

In terms of federal transportation funding, SEMCOG combines the population of its member governments and receives a portion of federal transportation funds allocated to the State of Michigan. Other local governments who are not members of SEMCOG go after other state-filtered federal transportation funds.

Unfortunately, the State of Michigan is struggling financially. Property taxes are down as are other revenue sources including gas taxes because people are driving less. This hurts Michigan because it means it is harder for the State to match funds for federal transportation dollars, and if we miss out (like we have several times before), we either lose those funds or we have to compete for federal earmarks. This problem doesn’t help Metro Detroit build transit or roads or maintain what we already have. It doesn’t help that the federal government must also address declining transportation funds (from gas taxes) due to fuel economy improvements and people driving less, so states are competing for an even smaller pool of funds.

How this relates to SEMCOG, the region’s MPO.

SEMCOG has no taxing authority to raise money to come up with a federal match, which means it still depends on the State of Michigan to come up with a match for the entire state based upon Michigan’s population. SEMCOG is funded by membership dues only, which isn’t enough to come up with federal matching funds. SEMCOG it is not closely aligned with DDOT or SMART (the region’s transportation authorities) to invest in them anyway. So there is a clear disconnect between the region’s MPO and the region’s “regional” transportation authorities.

DDOT and SMART are funded by property taxes just as most things are in this region. Property taxes are down, so there isn’t money there either. And county and local governments are struggling financially as well, so it is tough to come up with venture funds for major road or transit projects when you are trying to provide other basic services at the county and local level.

Bottom line here: We have no money, and we don’t have any new revenue streams to make several major investments in our transportation system including a regional mass transit system, expansion of I-94 through Detroit (a project we’ve spent the money on for planning, but never built) or a border crossing. It’s unfortunate, and it shows how Metro Detroit has very little control over its destiny when it comes to making these things happen.

Home Rule and Tax Revenue

The primary mechanism to raise money for everything in Michigan including transportation and schools (not necessarily private or higher-education) is local property taxes levied on your house and property.

Home-rule is strong in Michigan, which means local governments are very strong compared to county governments and even the State government. Local governments in southeast Michigan have control over zoning and planning which means they control land use (this is different than other regions where land use could be controlled by the county, MPO, the state, or even the federal government.

It can be said that many local governments in Southeast Michigan often have a self-serving incentive to put more of their land into development (rather than keeping it rural or open space). When local governments change their zoning pattern from rural parcels to commercial or residential use, you collect more taxes on it, which supports a wealthier local government and expanded services to maintain new development and the population.

Unfortunately, because there are so many local governments in Metro Detroit, all competing for new economic investment, and because of abandonment of the city of Detroit, we have an abundance of underutilized land that has been put into commercial use for a declining population (that’s why you see abandoned strip malls in the suburbs as well). In other words, because there are so many local governments making decisions on how land, transportation, and infrastructure is being built in this region, there is less overall control over how much new development is really needed to support the population and the economy. Local governments are competing for your population and your business. There’s nothing wrong with local self-determination except…

The overall impact is an oversaturation of houses and office space in Metro Detroit, which acts to flatten out property values (more equalization) which is why it is cheaper to live here than in Manhattan where lack of space drives property values and buildings up. The net effect for Detroit is OVERALL less money in property taxes for governments to invest in things like transportation or even schools. And if there is less money at the local level, then why would a local mayor or council want to invest more local money in regional projects (like transit) where the property taxes actually leave the local jurisdiction and are invested somewhere else? Moreover, why would a homeowner or property who pays the taxes on their land, house, or building want to see more of their income leave their local jurisdiction to support projects and services that they may not utilize on a daily basis?

This is a fundamental challenge not only for Detroit, but it is part of the competitive nature of personal and government economics, and not just in terms of local or regional economies, but state and national economies as well. Yet it also gets to why property taxes are not always the best way to fund projects that are regional in nature (like transportation and transit). And local and county governments are limited (by law and because of political pressure) in their ability to raise revenue in other forms of taxes that would produce enough money to make expensive investments in transportation.

Bottom line

So we’ve established that revenue-sharing across local governments to invest in projects that are regional in nature is a problem for Metro Detroit. This begs the question of “are there flaws in how we are set up institutionally as governments in Metro Detroit when it comes to investing in regional projects, and does this institutional structure hurt our competitiveness as a region?”

And my conclusion is, yes. Government fragmentation in Metro Detroit hurts us overall as a region. Is it the root cause of our overall economic struggles? No, not necessarily. Clearly, the struggles of our region are as much rooted in race, culture, history, and geography. Yet I strongly believe our inability to investment in regional transportation assets today is rooted in Michigan law and how we are set up as a region to make decisions and raise money for regional projects and services.

Which is why I believe we need new regional governance structures including a new Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

So what does SEMCOG do?

SEMCOG is required by the federal government to submit the region’s Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP), which is essentially a wish list of infrastructure projects submitted by local and county governments. SEMCOG must also come up with long-term regional transportation plans that take into account changes in demographics, where people live, and what major infrastructures will be needed in the future. SEMCOG also collects a plethora of information on land use and zoning, utilities, population statistics, and development information. They also host and sponsor a lot of informational programs for member governments including how to take advantage of different federal funding programs.

So what doesn’t SEMCOG do?

Well, we already established that SEMCOG doesn’t represent every local government in the 7 county area. So one local member government could lobby for a transportation project in their jurisdiction that could impact their neighboring government who is not a member. That’s not the best scenario for regional planning.

SEMCOG doesn’t have the ability to raise money for regional transportation projects although it does have some influence over these projects and is influenced by local and county governments in terms of what projects get implemented.

So what little influence and authority SEMCOG does have is driven by those local and county governments who are members and are very active members. Local governments weigh the cost of membership against the ability to go after transportation funds at the state level or raise them on their own. And since SEMCOG is accountable to its members, which are local governments, and is not necessarily to the entire southeast Michigan region, it’s influence over transportation is often driven by the individual demands of local governments and not necessarily “regional” interests.

What else is wrong with the way SEMCOG is structured?

SEMCOG may have too large a geographic scope covering 7 counties. In a given week, I will definitely visit two counties, and I probably visit a third county every other week, but it is only once a month or even less that I venture as far as Monroe County or Livingston County or beyond. So my immediate “region” is limited to 3 or 4 counties at most. I suspect a lot of people who live in Metro Detroit think of the “region” as the tri-county region made up of Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties (although land sprawl is constantly changing that dynamic).

What are the alternatives to the way SEMCOG is structured?

As I said above, combined city-county governments are another model being used in cities like Louisville and Denver (and I think Indianapolis). If the combined population of the city-county government is high enough, it could easily serve many of the functions of the region’s MPO (like raising revenue for multi-jurisdictional projects), which can reduce the need for a strong MPO. These cities are somewhat more homogenous in nature and don’t have the long history of our region. A combined city-county government structure in Detroit would be a huge political challenge because of Michigan’s long history of home-rule and political differences. And if the cities of a certain county in this region did rally behind this kind of model, it’s unclear if such a structure would be enough to address issues that are multi-county in nature.

Another model is Portland, OR. Portland’s MPO, known as “Metro” is the only regionally elected MPO in the United States. The MPO has an elected president (council president) who is elected region-wide, and six council members, which are elected by district (districts are based on population and geography). Portland’s MPO does a number of things including controlling land use (planning and zoning), parks, and transportation including overseeing the operation of the region’s transit system. They also engage in sustainability issues related to energy use and the environment. You can learn more about “Metro” through Wikipedia.

As I said earlier, there are tons of different structures to MPOs across the country. Some are strong and some are weak based on the level of directly accountability to the people and services that they provide. With the case of Portland, you can see the potential for greater accountability to the region’s interest through the direct election of leaders at a regional level. The other big advantage of Portland’s MPO is the multitude of functions it performs from transportation to operation of a major convention center (think Cobo) to controlling green space. The clear advantage for Portland is that regional planning brings about certain efficiencies in how land is developed, and there is definitely a biased toward density, transit-oriented development, accessibility, and connecting green spaces. This also helps to explain why real estate can be very expensive in Portland because when you create scarcity and density, you raise property values (and in turn tax collections).

How do these examples apply to Detroit?

Now is the goal to make Metro Detroit an expensive place to live by creating density through an MPO that has the authority and scope of Portland’s MPO? No, not necessarily. Would some local and county government leaders here in Metro Detroit like to see property values rise so that they can have more money to invest in services for their citizens or give a tax break to their citizens? You betcha.

My point is to establish a connection between a strong regional government structure with strong authority over transportation and land use and investment in regional assets. Regional economic integration is another benefit. Quality of life is generally high in Portland, and building vacancy rates are likely lower, and when you create density, it can be cheaper in the long run to maintain infrastructure like transit, roads, sewers, etc because there are fewer miles of it is to maintain. It’s something for Metro Detroit to consider as we look to roll back sprawl and adjust to a declining population.

What a new MPO in Metro Detroit might look like.

This is where the issue of new MPO gets politically sensitive, so even if I propose something, it needs buy-in at all levels of government in Michigan. Keep in mind that even if I propose something, it isn’t necessarily the best or only way to achieve regional outcomes. SEMCOG and entities like the Michigan Suburbs Alliance and countless other interlocal entities achieve regional results on a daily basis. Again, the question we must ask ourselves is if the current structure serves to address the region’s issues or accelerate the development of the regional assets?

In my opinion, a possible scenario would be to have the ability to elect leaders on a level greater than the local or county level and charge this new entity (or entities) with addressing issues of regional significance. To take a step further, this regional body would need a source of revenue, other than property taxes, to invest in regional assets. Counties and local governments would continue to exercise control over the majority of government services within their jurisdiction, but this new entity would be charged with issues that remain unaddressed due to the structural nature of our region’s governance.

This newly elected body would serve an executive function while current elected officials would serve on a larger, more legislative body. This would maintain a strong degree of influence by county and local government over regional decisions.

Many existing authorities (transit, transportation, water, sewers, bridge, etc.) would fall under the umbrella of this new MPO, but the boards and operations of these authorities would remain in tact. Authorities would continue to operate in a very public-private model (to avoid too big of government control), but the MPO’s new revenue stream would supplement the existing revenue streams of these authorities in the case of a large capital investment (transit line, border crossing, port terminal, etc.)

The MPO would have several committees dedicated to different regional issues, and these committees would be mostly filled with local and county elected or appointed leaders, but members of the business and nonprofit community (the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Detroit Renaissance, utilities, etc), could also play a role in decision-making. Committees might include transit, land use, information, arts, transportation, economic development, etc. Committees would serve to recommend action and investments by the MPO.

Local governments would continue to control things that they always have like schools, local parks, fire and police, local roads, and things that should continue to be determined at the local level.

Local governments would be encouraged to work together as sub-regions (i.e. Downriver Communities, Southern Oakland County communities, Western Wayne County, Greater Ann Arbor, etc.) to address issues that span across local boundaries in their areas (like joint planning commissions and interlocal development corporations). They too would play a role in this new MPO structure and help define the regional assets needed by their communities.

And sublocal organizations like neighborhood nonprofits, downtown development authorities, and other economic development corporations would also have some role within this larger structure.

The revenue stream and revenue-sharing issues are tricky and very political in nature. One possible solution is a multi-county sales tax that would be distributed into local projects, interlocal projects, countywide projects, and multi-county projects. The structure of this tax would have to ensure that those governments (and citizens) from where the sales tax is generated get a fair share back of what they put in, while also leaving a certain portion of funds for projects of regional significance. The benefit of a sales tax is that in a given week, I may spend money in several cities and counties, and use regional resources (like roads) to access those goods and services I’m consuming. So if those taxes are then put back into a pool of funds to invest in regional assets, I am less tied to exactly where those taxes are spent (whereas I would rather see my property taxes be spent closer to my property). Another way of looking at the local option sales tax is that it taxes more of what you spend rather than what you own (like your house) which you already paid for. Local governments will continue to exercise jurisdiction over local property tax levels and spending.

Transparency is key to any new regional government structure.

Bottom line: The new MPO would be inclusive of all the organizations that currently exist in Metro Detroit, but it would go a step further in addressing and raising revenue for projects and services of regional significance.

How would one create such a structure?

Obtain buy-in by existing elected officials and the public, change Michigan law (likely rewrite the constitution), finalize the internal decision-making structure of the MPO, hold a referendum to create a new MPO, and hold several referendums to create a new stream of revenue and identify spending priorities.

What can be done now?

In the short term, Michigan’s legislators need to find a way to come up with money to obtain federal matching funds for transportation. We cannot continue to lose out on money that we deserve and we put into the federal system. Michigan’s legislators also need to continue to promote and support existing laws that support regional cooperation and create additional incentives for local governments and counties to invest in projects that cross jurisdictional boundaries. This is essentially what we did when they formed the Aerotropolis Development Corporation – use existing statute to bring our local governments together.

State legislators are also considering the creation of a unified transit authority and alternative funding mechanisms for transportation including using tax-increment financing (property taxes). They need to get these bills adopted, but they should not pass anything without fully understanding our fundamental institutional shortcomings, and they should not ignore the larger goal of enhancing regional cooperation in other areas besides transit and transportation. They need to address the law as it is currently written, and ask themselves if the law needs to be changed or rewritten altogether.


There are lots of holes in this proposal and lots of details to be filled in, but it is something for folks to consider. I just put this out there because it’s my opinion, and not necessarily the opinion of any particular elected official or leader. This proposal is NOT designed to make anyone wrong for how things are. It is simply an effort to put an alternative idea on the table for people to consider.


In a larger, interdependent urban-suburban society, doesn’t it make sense to develop a structure that is self-serving to the region’s interest, not just a collection of local interests? Haven’t we already proven to ourselves that our political isolation and the economic status quo has gotten us into a bit of and economic bind where we can’t raise money for regional projects?

The point of this blog entry is, as much as the problems of this region are rooted in history, race and culture, the status quo is also very much the product of a lack of regional institutionalization and decision-making. Now I know that the barriers to change are enormous, but I have a lot of pride and faith in the awesome minds of this region, of all races, of all educational backgrounds, who care about this region and want things to change. We have a lot of advocacy groups, business groups, nonprofits, local governments, but we all want the same thing. There is a place in a properly functioning MPO for every interest group in this region, but we must find a way to sit at the same table and do more than talk about what we want. We need to build it, together.

If you made it this far, thank you for reading. I welcome feedback and criticism from everyone who took the time to read this long entry (geoffyoungmi at

We’re all in this together….

Monday, January 25, 2010

Farming in Detroit - Time's Assignment Detroit

Can farming save Detroit?

In case you haven't seen it, a wealthy Detroiter is planning on building a huge farm on the eastside of Detroit. I personally think this is a great idea. We need to show the many ways to transform land in Detroit and rezone Detroit for new uses.