“Detroit is the only major metropolitan area in the country that doesn’t have a regional transportation system,” said Ray LaHood, U.S. Transportation Secretary, at a press conference two weeks ago with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. They urged the Michigan State Legislature to approve a regional transportation authority (RTA) that would facilitate federal funding for both light rail and expanded bus service. Will Detroit overcome its history of regional political fracturing, form an RTA, and build a transit system the region is proud of?
Regional cooperation is the holy grail of urban planning, talked about in high regard, but often just out of reach. Regionalism has the potential to reduce congestion, diminish economic disparity, and improve air quality, but political parochialism and short-term thinking make it nearly a non-starter. However, in regards to transit and federal funding, there are some success stories. One of the most significant examples of regional cooperation is the Washington, DC Metro system, which, according The Great Society Subway, happened despite many events and personalities that could have derailed the project. The Metro system has generated numerous region wide environmental and economic benefits, including land values near Metro stations that created $2.8 billion annually in property tax revenues, households in the region reaping the equivalent of $705 million per year in time savings, and households saving $305 million per year on costs related to owning and driving cars.
In Detroit, the lack of regional transportation cooperation means that many residents have to switch buses when making trips as some jurisdictions operate their own systems. Also, as the new report Losing Ground documents, not having transportation choices is costing the middle class. Since 2000, the combined costs of housing and transportation in the nation’s largest 25 metro areas have swelled by 44% since 2000 while incomes have failed to keep pace.
One of the keys to sustainable development is creating a transit system that everyone wants to use, even if bus and train riders represent different demographics. While the debate over light rail vs. bus rapid transit continues in Detroit, the secret to high transit ridership isn’t really hidden; it involves having expanded and improved service, attractive fares, regional and intermodal cooperation, car restrictions, and compact and mixed land uses near transit stations. If regional cooperation is the next step in fortifying Detroit’s economic future, hopefully they will take it soon.