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.