Bus Detroit Finance Light Rail

Back to Basics for Detroit Light Rail

» A private push to build a short line down Woodward may find itself in official plans once again.

Just three weeks after Detroit leaders announced that they had abandoned efforts to build a 9.3-mile light rail line down Woodward Avenue, the city’s central strip, Mayor Dave Bing revealed on Friday that he would allow a shorter link funded by a private group to move forward if it submitted an acceptable business plan within 90 days.

The project will have to be built right: Even at just 3.4 miles, the line could serve as a quick, reliable connector between the waterfront and the New Center, via Midtown, but that will only be possible if trains run in their own lanes, if they run frequently, and if they are funded with no negative effect on the city’s already under-financed bus system. There is evidence that those conditions will not be met. Yet the project’s design has yet to be completed — Detroit transportation advocates could successfully fight for the appropriate implementation of this first stage of Woodward Light Rail.

But the circumstances in which the project’s reactivation has occurred speak to a continued dysfunction not only in the City of Detroit but in American transportation politics in general.

The rail project was put on hold last month because of the sense that the City of Detroit — already mired in debt — would be unable to afford the operations costs of the corridor (estimated at $10 million a year) without sacrificing bus service. Repeated plans for a regional transportation authority, and associated funding, have been in the air for decades. Only a plan that served the suburbs well would be acceptable, since they would have to agree to increasing financing for transit, and so Governor Rick Snyder, Mayor Bing, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood agreed to refocus efforts and money on city-suburban improvements to the bus network.

The latest move is backtracking at its best. Seemingly overwhelmed by calls from influential congressmen and the executives of downtown businesses like Quicken, Penske, and Compuware, who have already lined up $80 million for a $125 million short version of the line (which they call M1-Rail and which was actually proposed in advance of the longer corridor), the deal from last month will be amended. That is, if business leaders are able to find an effective way to cover the remainder of the capital costs and provide for the continued operations of the line, which they have said they could pay for through a tax-increment financing (TIF) district. They also want to take back the $25 million TIGER grant promised by LaHood in early 2010, then pulled back in December.

Why the sudden change in prospects for the line? Why weren’t these investors — willing to put up a surprising amount of money — consulted before their project was abandoned? What assurances do we have from the mayor and governor that suburban interests won’t be yet again frustrated by the fact that Detroit gets rail and they get rapid buses — and veto a regional transit authority? Where is the communication and where is the consistency in policymaking?

Just as we have seen with the Obama Administration’s high speed rail program, or New Jersey’s ARC rail tunnel, or a variety of maglev projects, this country specializes in spending years studying projects, then partially funding them, then effectively abandoning them. This results in years of delays and extra spending. I have been clear in the past that the Woodward rail line is a questionable priority for the region, but the move back and forth on decisions helps no one. Downtown Detroit’s leaders have been waiting patiently for the rail line, planning ahead around its development; were they forced to reconsider their options last month? Now what do they do?

There is nothing clear, after all, about the future of this project.

Nonetheless, the line does show some promise, because if Detroit is going to grow at all (it lost more than 230,000 people between 2000 and 2010), it will be in the small area bordered by the Chrysler and Lodge Freeways on the east and west, by Grand Boulevard and the waterfront on the north and south — and that’s exactly the neighborhood the short light rail line is supposed to serve. In that area, within 1/2 a mile of the Woodward corridor, are already 123,000 jobs (map of employment density in corridor) and about 20,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census. Most of the city’s major cultural institutions, including Wayne State University, the sports stadiums, and several casinos, are within walking distance. Connections will be possible not only with the existing bus lines and Amtrak but also with the new BRT services proposed by Governor Rick Snyder last month, meant to link Detroit with the suburbs and the airport, via Michigan, Woodward, and Gratiot Avenues.

As I referenced at the start of the article, however, a light rail line within this area could be an appropriate addition to the transportation landscape of the city — or it could be the second coming of the much-maligned People Mover, which makes a quarter-mile-radius circle in one direction downtown. That system attracts few riders. But the Woodward corridor, serving real trip needs, could work — under certain conditions.

Light rail vehicles must be designed to run in their own lanes and be able to take advantage of traffic signal prioritization to ensure that they make the journey between destinations quickly. But the M1 group has been adamant that trains run next to the sidewalk in shared lanes to “boost tourism and redevelopment.” I was not informed that tourists and developers were particularly enamored of slow trains that have the propensity of being stuck in traffic.

Meanwhile, such a short corridor must feature trains running very frequently. While many of the riders will be residents commuting to and from work, a significant share is likely to be made up of people transferring from other transit modes and of people who drove into work and need a downtown circulator. For the latter groups, waiting more than five minutes for a train in the middle of the day would represent a significant impediment to using the system, as they have other options, such as walking or buses. But the tenuous nature of financing for transit in metropolitan Detroit suggests that it will not be easy to fund such services, even if a TIF district is established. Once it becomes clear that the light rail line hasn’t solved the city’s woes, can we be sure that the business lobby won’t switch its interests to funding parks or other amenities?

For the sake of the city’s bus system and its future BRT network, operations funding for the light rail project cannot be derived from expenditures meant to be devoted elsewhere, such as from the proposed regional transit authority, as Mayor Bing and Governor Snyder have already made clear. Making it over this hurdle will be difficult.

Within ninety days, the city should make a very clear, final decision about its interests in the future of the Woodward Corridor, giving the M1 group a definitive answer about the future of the light rail line. The rail project should be built only if it can be funded without affecting bus financing and provide excellent transit service downtown. No more dilly-dallying.

Image above: Detroit’s Campus Martius, adjacent to Woodward Avenue where rail line will run, from Flickr user jodelli (cc)

Bus Detroit Light Rail

In a Failure of Municipal Ambition, Plans for Detroit Light Rail Shut Down as Focus Shifts to BRT

» More people will be served by the bus lines than would have been affected by rail, but new plans are predicated on a regional accord on funding improved regional service.

In early 2010, the U.S. DOT announced that it would award a $25 million TIGER grant to Detroit to begin construction on a new light rail line along that city’s central spine. For two years, hope spread through America’s most notorious shrinking city: This project, perhaps, would provide the boost to resurrect the Motor City.

Last week, just as the latest TIGER grants were being unveiled for other cities, local leaders announced they would reneg on that promise due to a fear that operations costs would be impossible to cover. A less aesthetically pleasing — but far more extensive and regionally funded — BRT program would be inserted in its place.

This situation speaks two realities: First, Detroit continues to be a mess — both politically and financially. Leaders of surrounding counties have shown themselves unwilling to compromise, expressing hostility over the idea that local tax funds might go to aid the transportation system adjacent city rapidly descending into zombie mode. Second, the U.S. DOT rushed its initial selection of TIGER grant recipients and showed that it was incapable of following through. Detroit’s fiscal situation in 2010 was not much better than it is today; how could the government have expected the city to fund the project’s operating costs then if it can’t now?

For Detroit’s civic ambitions, the death of the $528 million light rail plan is devastating news. Over the past two years, as it has become increasingly apparent that the current situation is far from sustainable, business, political, and community leaders have staked their hopes for the future of the city on the rail project. Not only would the 9.3-mile transit line running up Woodward Avenue provide substantially improved access to downtown, they argued, but it would spur a major increase in development in the area. Mayor Dave Bing suggested that the population of the city would be encouraged to relocate to more transit-accessible neighborhoods, especially along the corridor. The light rail line would give the city a competitive advantage.

This outlook was never realistic: No rail project, no matter how nice, can singlehandedly reverse the systematic decline of a once-huge city. Development will come to downtown Detroit when there is a demand for housing units and employment there, not when there are tracks along Woodward Avenue. Moreover, the city’s existing employment-housing imbalance, in which 60% of the city’s job holders go to the suburbs for work, means that a downtown-focused project would likely be ineffective in resolving the commuting needs of many people.

The decision to cancel the project, however, came down to the fact that Washington was worried that the City of Detroit would be unable to subsidize the costs of operation. The city’s existing transit services are in turmoil: The downtown People Mover, a one-way automated elevated loop line, practically shut down this month due to a lack of agreement about funding it. Fewer than half of the city’s buses are in operation, due to neglect and maintenance issues. Suburban bus services, offered by SMART, have declined considerably faced with less-than-expected revenues. To make matters worse, there is little fare or service integration between the three operations.

The Federal Transit Administration expressed concern that the situation could get even worse if the light rail line’s operations costs required the elimination of some bus services. Several months ago, FTA head Peter Rogoff argued that Detroit’s goal to use annual state and federal grants as the primary source of funding was an untenable long-term approach.

But an alternative providing a steady revenue source would require regional cooperation, and indeed the government hoped that the Detroit region would integrate its transit offerings into a single regional authority. Yet disagreements across county lines have imperiled the concept of a regional transit authority repeatedly; a $600 million effort to build a regional rail system in the 1970s, for instance, was scuttled when surrounding counties refused to join in. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson argued against a regional transit tax this summer and in fact has been a stated proponent of, as he says it, sprawl.*

The new bus plans, serving surrounding Macomb and Oakland Counties as well as Detroit’s Wayne County, apparently will relieve that tension because, unlike the light rail efforts, they would not be focused on the central city’s downtown. The regional transit authority is again being promoted, this time by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

Four BRT corridors would run 83 miles between the region’s largest destinations (local leaders say “110 miles,” but maps revealed by the News only show 83). 34 stations would connect downtown with the airport, Birmingham, Troy, and Selfridge, primarily along Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, Michigan Avenue, and M-59. The extensiveness of the network as proposed will provide a level of service an order of magnitude more significant than would have the light rail.

The project is in the earliest stages of planning, so the levels of service to be offered by this BRT network are unclear. How many exclusive lanes will be provided for the buses, for example?

This proposal is similar to the 67-mile “Golden Triangle” announced by suburban leaders in Spring 2010. Yet while that less-lengthy plan would have cost about $800 million, Governor Snyder has suggested that this new BRT network, referred to as the “Metro Connection Tri-County Triangle,” could be built for $500 million. That price seems too low for 83 miles of exclusive busways — and it certainly would not allow for particularly ornate stations. Meanwhile, the state legislature must still approve a regional funding plan if the project’s operations costs are to be covered.

Let it be clear: Even if the BRT project provides a lot more services than the light rail for a similar capital cost, its operations costs will be far higher. Under the existing legislation, in which the federal government is prohibited from providing operations support for transit services, the only way this project will get off the ground is if the suburban counties agree to massive increase in transit funding. That may seem like an unrealistic prospect, but it is probably more feasible than assuming suburbs would agree to fund the operations costs of a city-only rail line.

None of these funding dilemmas have prevented private and non-profit supporters of the rail project, who had collectively submitted $100 million for the line, from complaining about the needs of the downtown. They suggest that a 3.2-mile line, costing $225 million and running from the river to New Center, could be funded with federal New Starts funding. Yet the U.S. DOT seems to have made clear that there will be no dollars for light rail in Detroit.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bing, unfortunately, continues to use fantastical rhetoric when it comes to promoting the BRT system: “With Detroit’s rich history of innovation,” he wrote in the Free Press, “There is no doubt we can build a system that competes with other successful BRT lines in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.” Yet the development of the BRT plan should have little to do with competition; its primarily purpose must be to serve the transit-dependent population of the city. Will it get the chance to do so, or relegated to the dustbin like most other transit plans for Detroit?

* Though Patterson has said that he would allow citizens to vote on such a tax if it were put up to referendum.

Chicago Detroit Social Justice Urbanism

Local Neoliberalism’s Role in Defining Transit’s Purpose

» Must transit capital projects be construed either as for capitalist development or social welfare? Can the two goals be reconciled?

Detroit has staked its development hopes on the creation of a light rail line down Woodward Avenue in the heart of the city. For the past few years, public and private groups there have banded together to suggest that this project, more than any other, would provide the kind of spark necessary to spur economic growth in this city that is losing population so quickly. Thanks to government grants and private donations, the project is mostly financed and may enter construction this year.

Yet the city’s budget situation is so bad that the mayor has suggested that if the city council moves ahead with cuts it approved this week, he will have to shut off bus service at nights and on Sundays — and eliminate service on the People Mover, a semi-functional one-way automated rail loop. This is in a city where a third of people are impoverished.

Detroit’s example is only the most extreme of what is becoming a meme in the American transport discussion, that we continue to engage in the construction of expensive new projects even as we are incapable of paying for the appropriate service on and maintenance of the system we already have. Why is this? And how can we fight the pernicious effects of these policies?

Writing recently in Environment and Planning A, Sociologist Stephanie Farmer argues that the rise of neoliberal ideology in local and national politics has encouraged a “retreat from social redistribution and integrated social welfare policies in favor of bolstering business activity.”* This, she writes in reference to Chicago, has specifically affected public transportation, which “is increasingly deployed as a means to attract global capital as well as enhance affluent residents’ and tourists’ rights to the city.”

This trend, she states, stands in opposition to the mid-century “Fordist strategy of territorial redistribution mobilizing public transportation to enhance economically disadvantaged groups’ access to the city.”**

Farmer’s approach provides something of an explanation for Detroit’s experience: Rather than concentrate on the needs of its most impoverished denizens through the assurance of basic bus service, the city’s business and political elite has instead put its resources into the construction of a light rail line whose primary purpose is to stimulate economic development by creating “place-based advantages for capital.”

Similarly, Farmer is very critical of Chicago’s approach, arguing that that city’s investments have repeatedly favored “business elites over everyday users by excluding public transit investment in areas outside of Chicago’s global city downtown showcase zone.” Her evidence for this trend is primary in former Mayor Richard Daley’s obsession in constructing a premium-fare, limited-stop express rail link to the airport (including his willingness to construct a station for said service without providing the funds to actually operate the trains) and the transit authority’s Circle Line plan, which she argued would “effectively redraw [and expand] the downtown boundary,” with little benefit for the city’s most transit dependent.

The repeated delays in extending the Red Line south of 95th Street into some of Chicago’s least prosperous neighborhoods suggest that there is no political will to invest outside of the wealthiest areas.

Farmer’s argument is revealing of the one of the peculiarities of transit promotion: Those who engage in it simultaneously argue for the social welfare benefits of providing affordable mobility for as many people as possible while also suggesting that good public transportation can play an essential role in city-building — essentially for the elite. After all, one of the primary arguments made for investing in new transit capital projects is that their long-term benefits include raising the property values of the land parcels near stations.

This creates an uneasy pro-transit coalition in many places where development and real estate interests align their lobbying with that of representatives of the poor to argue for the construction of new transit lines (usually rail), under the assumption that projects will benefit each group.

This produces an identity crisis for transit. For whom is it developed? Can its social mobility goals be reconciled with the interests of capitalists in the urban space?

Identifying the value of a transportation project is an essential element of the planning process, so asking these questions is essential, since there are limited resources. When it comes to transit, this seems particularly relevant, since most funds invested in bus or rail projects are provided by the public sector.

Ultimately, this means that the promotion of almost every transit project is defined by political ideology. Do we invest our funds in a project to connect downtown with the airport, under the assumption that economic benefits will flow down from the top, as conservatives might suggest? Is spending government money on ensuring the efficient transportation of the elite effective because it grows the economy as a whole and eventually aids the poor? Or should public dollars be reserved for redistributive causes, focusing on the needs of those who are least able to provide for themselves?

Of course there are many examples in which these questions appear to have been resolved. Even in Chicago, it would be difficult to argue that the subway and elevated lines that run into to the Loop are unhelpful for the poor, since many of the city’s greatest resources even for the impoverished are located in Farmer’s “downtown showcase zone.” Nonetheless, ponder this question next time a transit project is proposed: For whom is it being built, and why?

* Farmer, Stephanie. “Uneven public transportation development in neoliberalizing Chicago.” Environment and Planning A. Volume 43. 2011. 1154-1172.

** I should note that in terms of transit, the Fordist conception of the use of public resources for the benefit of social redistribution itself replaced an entrepreneurial approach towards the provision of transportation. Many, though certainly not all, transit systems in the U.S. were funded and developed by private groups. Were these investments able to straddle the competing goals of expanded mobility and economic development?

Detroit Light Rail Streetcar

Alignment Questions for Detroit’s Rail Line, Almost Ready for Construction

» Light rail or streetcar approach for a project whose proponents claim would restore the health of this city’s core?

Unlike similar projects in nearby cities like Cincinnati, Detroit’s planned light rail line for Woodward Avenue has near-universal support from just about everyone in local and state government — even though it is being constructed in a city that is shedding population quickly. The $528 million route, which would by 2016 extend 9.3 miles from downtown to the city’s borders at 8 Mile, has been the priority of regional transportation planners for years. And with federal support for the first phase of the corridor announced in February 2010, construction is supposed to begin later in 2011, at least for the 3.4-mile section from Hart Plaza to Grand Avenue.

Aligning the project with other transit offerings in Downtown Detroit, however, has become a contentious issue. The Detroit DOT, which is running the Woodward Rail project in cooperation with a private entity called M-1 Rail (which has contributed much of the funds for the start-up line), will recommend later this month the preferred alignment — and decide whether it will run in its own lanes in the median of Woodward or along the street’s edges.

The first controversy — just where the line should go once it reaches downtown — is the result of years of indecision and missteps about just how transportation planning should evolve in the Detroit region. The much-maligned People Mover, an automated rail line that since 1987 has been circling aimlessly around downtown in a one-way loop, was built  to distribute passengers coming in from a Woodward rail line decades ago, but the latter project is of course only being built now. In the meantime, the city constructed the (beautiful) Rosa Parks bus transit center in 2009, but neglected to put it along Woodward (despite the fact that rail was being planned at the time), instead locating it a few blocks away in Times Square. On the other hand, the metropolitan area transportation plans suggest a bus rapid transit line along Gratiot Avenue that would terminate at Campus Martius Park, right on Woodward.

Thus three options for the rail line’s downtown alignment are being considered, as shown below. In response to the Detroit DOT’s insistance that the rail line serve the bus center, the first two options would loop from Woodward onto Washington Street and then turn along Congress and Larned Streets to form a two-way loop running from the Cobo Convention Center to the Municipal Building. The fact that this route would parallel the People Mover almost directly — eliminating its very limited raisons d’être — should be bothersome to anyone who is paying attention.

The other possibility, which would run trains directly down Woodward, would be cheaper and faster (because of a shorter track length), and it would at least attempt to provide a downtown service that does not duplicate the People Mover. Though it would not connect directly to the bus station, it would allow transfers to the future BRT. And it would serve to highlight Campus Martius, which has been the focus of downtown revitalization.

Also raising challenges in Detroit has been the question of how the rail line meets the street downtown: Will it run in the median of Woodward, in its own right-of-way (as planned for the sections of the route further out), or will it run along the curb in lanes shared with automobiles, like a streetcar?

The M-1 financiers, whose $100 million downpayment on the initial line’s construction was more than the city’s $73 million or the U.S. government’s $25 million, have suggested that putting the trains adjacent to the sidewalk would, in the words of the Detroit Free Press, “boost tourism and redevelopment.” This claim is based on the highly questionable assumption that people are afraid to cross the street (a logic that denies the fact that riders would of course have to cross the street on the way back) and the assertion that packing eight stops on the 3.4-mile trip between Hart Plaza and Grand Avenue would be more beneficial than installing five there. Stations every half mile or so are considered standard for light rail lines in the centers of U.S. cities.

To a group of local enthusiasts who have created a Lego-based video advocating “trains down the middle,” the answer is obvious: The median alignment would be safer, faster (by 2 minutes 30), and less likely to be encumbered by automobile traffic. Their logic is sound. The fact that the route would remove two lanes for automobiles does not seem to be the issue, fortunately, so it is quite possible that they will get their way.

The bigger question, though, is the importance of this line for the future of Detroit.

In a city that lost 240,000 inhabitants between 2000 and 2010, the necessity of this project must be evaluated. The city is overbuilt — ready for its 1950 population of 1.85 million, not the 700,000 that reside there today. What is the point of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new transit project in a place that has few issues with traffic congestion and where transit ridership has declined from 136,000 daily users in 1996 to 121,000 today, despite the much-heralded completion of the new transit center and the supposed revival of the city’s downtown?

Those who doubt the importance of new infrastructure for Detroit have a point — there might be some value in simply redirecting the funds appropriated for the rail line towards poverty alleviation. Yet there is no clear mechanism by which to do that: Poor residents of Detroit cannot simply be handed checks because they live in the Motor City. That would be unfair to the impoverished people everywhere else. Investing in affordable housing is unnecessary in a city with extremely high vacancy rates and the lowest housing prices in the nation. The U.S.’s lack of state-owned enterprises means direct public job creation is almost impossible. But simply abandoning government efforts to aid the city would be a cruel endnote for a city that has suffered half a century of neglect.

So transportation improvements like the light rail line act as an indirect approach in an attempt to remediate this city’s ills. It will not work alone, but perhaps it is worth the effort, especially if the city builds it in coordination with the densification of areas along the line, a process that is currently being planned.

Moreover, despite Detroit’s long downfall, the signs of its resurgence (or at least plateauing) are perking up. Though the city lost a huge percentage of its population in the last ten years, several areas along the Woodward rail line actually gained population between 2000 and 2010. Those included parts of the downtown and the New Center — the two places to be served by the first phase. And just off Woodward, the two mini cities-within-Detroit of Hamtramck and Highland Park, saw some growth in areas near the avenue.

Nor is city revival impossible. Between 1970 and 1980, we should remember, New York City lost 820,000 inhabitants. Gotham is now bigger than ever. Though a changing global economy and increasing interest in urban living likely played an important role in producing that turn-around, investments in that city’s public transportation system, which began wholeheartedly in the early 1980s, likely produced significant change as well. Who says the same approach cannot work in Detroit?

Image above: Strolling down Woodward Avenue, from Flickr user Jodelli (cc). Maps above: Potential downtown Detroit light rail alignment options, from Detroit DOT.

Charlotte Dallas Detroit Finance

Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide

» 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