» Developing common goals is more productive than forcing a merger of regional transportation agencies. An authority for Detroit comes closer.
If there’s anything Detroit needs most, it may be regional cooperation, where it finds itself distinctively behind the times. While some major cities like New York or San Francisco are large and wealthy enough to be able to close themselves off politically from the surroundings, Michigan’s largest metropolis benefits from neither of those characteristics, so it must find ways to make agreements with nearby municipalities.
Frequently mentioned is the idea of a regional transportation district, which would coordinate funding and spending activities at the metropolitan scale. A proposal for one is currently being considered in the Michigan legislature. But it’s not clear that the creation of such an agency will resolve some of the structural issues complicating politics in this metropolis.
The biggest problem is the metropolitan area’s racial and class disconnect: While the city is largely poor and black, surrounding areas in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne Counties (the city is a part of the latter), which are its nearest neighbors, are mostly middle class and white. These differences — perhaps the starkest inner city/suburban divide in the country — have resulted in opposing decision-making about issues of metropolitan concern, including land use, the environment, and of course transportation.
The existing public transportation system is particularly balkanized, with inner-city trips being provided by the city’s DOT and connections between downtown and the suburbs by an agency called SMART, originally formed in 1967. This has produced a number of operational and perceptual difficulties, certainly not aiding in matters. To make matters more confusing, the M-1 Rail streetcar line planned to run 3.4 miles from downtown to the New Center along Woodward Avenue is to be built by a private consortium.
Hoping to stave off the further decline of their region — Detroit is one of only six large metro areas (of 52 larger than one million) that actually lost population between 2000 and 2009 — local leaders have called for greater cooperation, notably in the form of a regional transportation district, which would have the power to collect revenues from multiple counties and then be able to spend those funds on upgraded roads and transit. Detroit politicians have noted with interest the success of cities like Los Angeles and Denver in promoting such agencies and the resulting growth in their respective transit systems.
The problem for Detroit is two-fold: one, such a regional transportation district is unlikely to pass through the Democratically-controlled Michigan House, let alone the Republican-held Senate, neither of which have been particularly enthusiastic about increasing local funding; two, neither the City of Detroit nor Oakland County is particularly enamored with the current proposal, the first because of its conviction that the tax should come before the agency, the second because of its criticism of labor protections included in the bill.
Editorial boards for several of the local newspapers have suggested that the region must move past local parochial concerns if it is to find a way to survive the upcoming decades, which are unlikely to be any less difficult for Michigan than has been the recent past. And indeed, everyone, from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing on down, seems to agree that regional cooperation is necessary, and that transit corridors in the city would eventually benefit the suburbs.
But the assumption that the creation of a five-member authority with control over the region’s transportation finances will solve problems ignores the vastly different needs and wants of the inhabitants of different parts of the region. It seems useless to move forward with such a transportation district without first establishing regional, coinciding goals. Otherwise, the transportation district — even outfitted with a large amount of money under its control — could collapse into an infighting monster, certainly not anyone’s ideal outcome.
At the moment, Detroit’s biggest stumbling block seems to be the choice between a variety of potential future transportation modes. While many of the suburban areas are campaigning for a 67-mile “golden triangle” bus rapid transit system, the city has focused its resources on an eight-mile long version of the Woodward streetcar line. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor, 40 miles to the west, continues to campaign for a commuter rail connection. None of these projects seems likely to be fully built out without the support of a new regional transit district and its new revenue source. But the expectation that all programs could be constructed using the funds — as a sort of grand compromise necessary to getting both suburban and urban leaders on board — also seems unrealistic (especially in a time when SMART is seeing serious fiscal difficulties). Someone will have to choose what to prioritize at some point.
The example of Charlotte, North Carolina is worth highlighting. Back in 1998, the city and the surrounding towns in Mecklenburg County joined together in a Metropolitan Transportation Commission designed to eventually allocate funds received from a new 1/2-cent sales tax. A series of rapid transit projects designed by the Commission were supposed to provide services to every town — it was a “let them all eat cake” situation. Like most areas, however, Charlotte has seen a vast decrease in collections over the past few months, and its expansion program has been massively cut, with even the full extension of the popular recently built light rail line likely to be delayed for years.
Now, the city and its suburban partners are stuck in a rut. The city’s priority is an inner-city streetcar, whereas towns to the north want a commuter rail line. Because of the make-up of the regional Commission, those latter interests will inherently win out — because they represent a majority of the votes on the board, and because if they don’t support the transit system’s advancement, they could simply pull out altogether, leaving the center city in an impossible situation with inadequate funds to get anything done. A similar situation is plaguing recession-hit Dallas as well, which has had to compromise a downtown light rail route in favor of one heading towards the suburban city of Irving.
The existence of the regional transit district in itself, in other words, cannot ensure regional agreement about how to proceed with investments when there is a limited budget. Though Charlotte and Dallas have indeed been able to construct major new transit projects over the past decade, their advancement was largely due to a growing economy that made projects throughout the region possible. Adjusting to new fiscal realities won’t be easy for any of these cities; their transit authorities are not guaranteed to stay intact once certain areas of the region are denied funding for their desperately wanted new projects.
Thus, instead of rushing into an inter-municipal compact, Detroit might want to focus on first developing solutions that appeal to everyone involved. Everyone should agree on the same priority list — with funds to be spent in a clear order, if and when money is available. Establishing such a compromise may be an intractable quest, but so may be creating a functional regional commission during tough economic times.
Image above: Downtown Detroit Rosa Parks Transit Center, from Flickr user Buddahbless