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.