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Original article URL: http://bridgemi.com/2016/10/vote-yes-on-the-metro-detroits-mass-transit-proposal/

Phil's column

Vote yes on the metro Detroit mass transit proposal

For nearly 50 years, I was owner and publisher of newspapers serving the Detroit suburbs. And if there has been one constant during all those years, it’s been the repeated failure – 23 times, according to a Bridge story earlier this year – of the region to develop a reliable, efficient and flexible mass transit system.

We’re one of the few metropolitan regions in the country without a comprehensive mass transit system. The arguments for having one are so compelling they hardly bear repeating.

Metro regions with good mass transit systems (Portland, Seattle, Toronto) are thriving exactly because they are attractive to the young, highly educated, productive folks who want to live in a metro area they can get around in. Conversely, poor people living in the inner city, often trapped by sky-high auto insurance costs, cannot get to the suburbs where the jobs are located without reliable, affordable mass transit.

The Detroit metro area from the 1950’s through much of the rest of the century was the most racially segregated region in America. Even today, the inability of the region to pull together as a unified and collaborative force has been the single most important factor in our persistent inability to punch at our economic and political weight. Without a mass transit system to help pull people in the region together, there is little to counteract the centrifugal forces pulling us apart.

So when the newly formed Regional Transit Authority finally succeeded in getting on next month’s ballot a proposal to create a regional transit system serving Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, including Detroit, many thoughtful people said, “It’s about time!”

Why? Simple. Ninety-two percent of the jobs in southeast Michigan require more than an hour’s commute under the current transit system, according to Paul Hillegonds, the chairman of the RTA. That statistic lies behind the calculation that every tax dollar invested in regional mass transit yields at least $4 in economic return – a significant return on investment.

To get to and from work, the thousands of people throughout the region need either a reliable car or an effective transit alternative. Someone living in Detroit who uses the regional bus “system” to get to their job at the Livonia Costco better figure on taking at least two hours getting to work and another two getting home at shift’s end. Taking four hours (on a good day) to get to and from work is a pretty significant disincentive.

Of course, there are some legitimate arguments advanced against a regional transit system.

The population density of the Detroit metro area is relatively low, which raises questions about whether the costs of serving efficiently such a diffuse market area are just too high.

Moreover, historic political and labor relations realities lurking in the background prevented what otherwise would have been a cost-saving move to consolidate two presently separate transit systems, SMART serving the suburbs and DDOT for Detroiters.

More significant is that RTA’s emphasis on “mass transit” (i.e. buses) runs the risk of being left on the wrong side of mobility history as expressed by ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. A transit system that doesn’t address how to get individual customers the last mile between their bus and their home isn’t as customer-focused as it should be.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d like to see individual ride-sharing welded onto the mass transit proposal now being proposed. An easy way to do this is for the RTA to negotiate redeemable vouchers coupled with ride-sharing services. A careful look at the RTA proposal suggests there is no reason why this cannot be done in the near future. Such a plan would provide in mass transit the spine of a regional mobility system, while ride sharing could be regarded as the fine muscles of a hand.

After 50 years of fruitless efforts to achieve a mass transit system for Southeast Michigan, the time has come to recognize that the perfect is too often the enemy of the good. The RTA proposal as it stands represents what may well be our last, best chance to create the foundation for a comprehensive and evolving metropolitan-wide transit system. For area voters to turn it down would inflict terrible damage to the future of a thriving economic region in southeastern Michigan.

Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes Bridge Magazine. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at ppower@hcn.net.

Editor’s note: Paul Hillegonds, chair of the Regional Transit Authority, and University of Michigan associate dean and public policy professor Elisabeth Gerber, vice chair, are members of the steering committee for The Center for Michigan, of which Bridge Magazine is a part.

13 comments from Bridge readers.Add mine!

  1. Dick Hooker

    Voters, please heed Phil Power’s words and recommendation. As an appreciator of mass transit in other urban communities such as Denver, Portland and Chicago, someone who was new to the Detroit Metropolitan Area 12 years ago, and a lake dweller who works in downtown Detroit every day, I believe it imperative we vote for the RTA initiative.

    1. duane

      Do you believe Detroit metropolitan area is the same as those that currently have successful mass transit systems? If they aren’t then how can you be so sure that basing of spending other people’s money on systems that serve different communities will work in southeast Michigan?

      I grew up using the buses along Michigan Ave into Detroit, my wife used them from Moross and Mack into Detroit, the reality is that the metropolitan area is changed from then and more dynamic. Are people traveling farther or are employment developing where they live. Aside from Quicken Loans uprooting all their jobs developed over the years how many businesses are moving downtown? It seems that clusters of new businesses/jobs have been developing outside the Detroit hub. The old manufacturing facilities that were built for economy of size and benefited from being centrally located are a dwindling part of Detroit/Michigan.

      The quality of family life, the growing affluence is more dispersed in southeast Michigan than in the cities you use as models for Detroit.

      Another consideration you seem to ignore is the changing social behaviors in the communities. Look at Netflix, look at mobile access, at the decrease in restraunt traffic while home delivery is rising. Look at Domino’s of Ann Arbor and why it is glowing globally. Consider the deline in social organizations [the Elks, Eagles, the athletic teams]. People with all the mobility are staying home and waiting for things to come to them.

      Simply looking at history, in our dynamic environment, is not a justification to believe that it will predict the future.

      Portland has a different terrain, it has a different employment model, it has a different culture, so why are you so sure the people of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw should believe that the Portland experience will happen locally?

      Denver is different, even Chicago is different. They may have effective technology but that does not assure they a model for ridership that would sustain a Detroit mass transit system.

      If I were to use a model for assessing the potential success of a Detroit metroplitan mass transit system, I would look at the current systems in the Counties, in the Cities and see what their successes are and why and if their experiences are local or whether they could be applied across the area. Though the most difficult model for the area I would use is the quality, the quantity, and the spirit of service currently being provided in the area. I would ask which of these system will be providing the transportation service and why should people believe it will provide the service necessary to sustain a new area wide system.

      People need to make their own choices in how their moneys are spent, so rather trusting to successes in different communities I would encourage them to look to their own experiences and needs to see if they will benefit from other people spending their money.

  2. Rich

    Traditional mass transit will not work in Detroit. Portland, Seattle, and Toronto are all focal points of both jobs and population. Detroit is just the opposite. It is the end of a spoke, not the hub. The bulk of jobs and residents in the metro area are spread from Howell to Mount Clemens, and Pontiac to Monroe.

    Before Detroit can become a hub to support mass transit, there are other more pressing problems that need to be solved such as the high illiteracy rate in Detroit, the dysfunctional education system, and even the segregationist attitude of the region.

  3. Matt

    So what will your definition of success be for this program? What will be done if this system fails to meet your or any definition of success? How will this be prevented from becoming another failed mass transit system layered on top of other previous programs? I like that you say you’d like to see this system use ride sharing as a auxiliary service but how do you really make sure this happens? Grand Rapids has the “Rapid”, a smaller type bus maybe could carry 20 24 passengers, (usually carries one!). It is connected with GRATA and carts elderly and disabled from door to door around GR. It costs a ton and could be easily handled by Uber. But does this matter??? Hell no! These things, and what you advocate, are not about cost savings or efficiency and never will be run that way. What do you propose if /when it doesn’t achieve projections? This is never discussed.

    1. Michigan Observer

      Matt, as always, asks the crucial question. He says, “So what will your definition of success be for this program?” Exactly. That is the downfall of discussions about public policy. Whoever makes, or advocates for, a public policy proposal should also explicitly set forth the criteria that determine success or failure. How else are we to hold advocates and opponents accountable? How else are we to learn who is wise and who is a well-intentioned individual whose advice should be heavily discounted in the future? Good intentions, although admirable, are insufficient. A five year old kid can have good intentions.

      What future events or conditions would Mr. Power accept as evidence of success? Most mass transit systems stimulate, over a period of years, the development of high density housing along their route. How much such development would constitute success for Mr. Power? He says, “Ninety-two percent of the jobs in southeast Michigan require more than an hour’s commute under the current transit system, according to Paul Hillegonds, the chairman of the RTA.” How much reduction in that percentage would he consider success? He also says, “every tax dollar invested in regional mass transit yields at least $4 in economic return – a significant return on investment.” Over what time frame is that supposed to occur? How is it measured?

      I voted for RTA, and I hope that Mr. Power is right, but he didn’t offer any criteria to determine whether or not he is.

  4. Kevin Grand

    And everything gets short-circuited right here:

    “More significant is that RTA’s emphasis on “mass transit” (i.e. buses) runs the risk of being left on the wrong side of mobility history as expressed by ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber. A transit system that doesn’t address how to get individual customers the last mile between their bus and their home isn’t as customer-focused as it should be.

    In the best of all possible worlds, I’d like to see individual ride-sharing welded onto the mass transit proposal now being proposed. An easy way to do this is for the RTA to negotiate redeemable vouchers coupled with ride-sharing services. A careful look at the RTA proposal suggests there is no reason why this cannot be done in the near future. Such a plan would provide in mass transit the spine of a regional mobility system, while ride sharing could be regarded as the fine muscles of a hand. “

    If an existing ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft is being considered, why use them so sparingly (especially for that “last mile”)? You can take a ride with those existing services for as far as you want with them…not just for around a mile.

    Have the individual user arrange for their ride and then have them pay for it when they reach their destination.

    No muss. No fuss and no need to throw good money after bad on the RTA.

    1. Michigan Observer

      Mr. Grand and Mr. Power make good points about integrating ride sharing services such as Lyft and Uber into RTA. Fortunately, the innovative use of technology has provided an ingenious response to their suggestions. There is an app available in, I believe, Philadelphia that takes care of all the details for the commuter. After the commuter punches in his starting and ending points, the app works out the best combination of transit modes, makes the appropriate reservations and pays for his trip with his credit card.

  5. Lois

    Taxpayers in Michigan are undoubtedly unaware that we already pay a substantial amount in property taxes for the “mass transit” that we already have. A freeway lane dedicated to mass transit, meaning buses, will back traffic up during rush hour to a maddening degree. Plus, over the course of the implementation of this tax, tens of thousands of dollars will be added to the tens of thousands Michigan taxpayers are already paying for mass transit through property taxes. This added tax is simply throwing good money after bad. Just VOTE NO.

  6. erwin haas

    We frequently have to take a taxi to the airport in Grand Rapids. It costs $13.40. I give the cabby 15 dollars, if I can find it as it’s often dark and worst yet, raining. Awkward.
    Then the people at the airport decreed that Taxis bringing folks to and from Kentwood had to charge a minimum of 15 dollars. I don’t know how the airport can write a rule like that or even enforce it. The city commission should investigate.
    I rebelled and downloaded Uber. We have had an excellent experience. The price is $7.30, so half of a taxi, it automatically goes on my credit card and so is a recorded as deductible cost of doing business, the cars are uniformly interesting (two Priuses) and the drivers are all fascinating (a guy who sold art, several retired executives escaping their wives at home, an African American who was damned if he would work for somebody.) In unguarded moments I calculate that if Uber can get us to the airport for 7 dollars, that they can get us to Meijers for 5; Maybe get rid of one of our cars……
    Then the Economist threw a bomb. It devoted a recent issue to the Uberization of transportation. It’s not what our Uber drivers had envisioned. Uber wants to get rid of all their drivers and instead operate a fleet of self drivers.-enough self drivers to replace most car functions as Americans now use them. They would operate a large fleet, cars constantly in motion, and warmed up that would pick people up at their front doors and deliver them to their places of work, doctor’s offices, bars and at Aunt Tillie’s. The cost would be minimal, safety high, efficiency nearly perfect.
    Wow.
    Then Uber announced that they were testing 4 Focus Ford cars that had been modified to be self drivers in Pittsburg. Pittsburg! There is only one straight street in the whole city. They had to build the airport 20 miles out of town where it was flat enough to land a DC4 back in the day. It’s ice and snow, steep grades, intersections where 5 streets come together, narrow, 1900s built streets. Everything is lined with worn out brick or cement. No one would test drive a self driver in that environment.
    Unless he knew that his product could handle the job. (I would have said “Had the “calm confidence of a Christian holding 4 Aces” (Twain) but I couldn’t fit it in.)
    Then daughter from Pittsburgh came to be here with us, so we ask about the self drivers; Yep, she’s seen more than one. They exist, ugly, but distinctive enough and have been around for a year or more.
    Uber is quietly announcing the rollout of its replacement of its drivers; it’s no longer test driving. They would avoid being seen to fail publicly. Another article claims that they are modifying 100 Volvos as self drivers since that is the company whose technology that they are using
    I’d guess that we’ll know that self drivers are viable, efficient, attractive and cheap enough to go commercial by next spring. How long before you can buy one, or before Uber orders a 100,000 Volvos, modified to self drive, another year, maybe 2? These 100,000 cars will replace a million personal cars in people’s garages and on the parking lots.

    Some thoughts.
    The cars likely will not be built in Michigan, or if they are, the mechanical parts will be mere commodities lacking attractive pricing markups that would stimulate competition and creativity. Self drivers are computers and software with some metal attached.
    Public transit in all it’s forms is doomed. Taxis and buses cannot compete with personalized pickup and delivery in a warm (or air conditioned in the summer) car. Passenger railroads (why do we support Amtrack? This company regularly kills and maims the elite (let’s be honest) in the NY to Washington corridor; there’s been death and over a hundred injured in Hoboken NJ just 2 weeks ago.) cannot defend their expense. Intercity buses will be replaced in moving people a few hundred miles to other cities or even to Florida in the winter. School buses- kaput.

    Will parking lots, parking spaces on streets and the width of roads be affected? If so, what do we do with the extra space; more buildings next to the malls? Parks that never get used?
    Will shopping for groceries, clothing and minor purchases be abolished since things can be ordered on the internet and the delivered cheaply when the resident is at home and ready to receive the goods. So what happens to malls, big box stores and strip centers? It will no longer be necessary for a warehouse full of dry goods and staffed by robots to be located on our main streets.
    Will plunging transportation costs encourage people to live further out in the country? I can’t think of any arguments that would support them wanting to live closer together, so scratch the New Urbanism and Smart Cities mumbo jumbo.
    Do good street lighting, traffic lights and signs mean much to a robot? No, but there will be many years before human drivers no longer struggle with steering wheels and brakes. How important will street maintenance and snow removal be in this pending storm of change?
    The accidents that are reported for self drivers in Palo Alto where these have been standard for years are almost all caused by humans disobeying the law while the self driver is scrupulous in heeding the law. The patrolling for and punishing speeders, drunks, and unlicensed drivers will have to disappear, so there go lucrative traffic fines and busybody drug courts and the fill in the hours work for police. Also, we should anticipate fewer accidents with their fires and injuries that occupy the fire department. Maybe we should cut budgets and recruitment.
    The latest fad in policing is DDACTS, in which our police concentrate on known high crime areas (African American) looking for minor traffic violations and vehicle defects that serve as an excuse to “stop and frisk” the drivers without ruffling constitutional feathers. Gone. Those old Pontiac and Toyota beaters will be soon retired and the traffic in poorer areas will resemble that of the wealthiest suburbs. And all the self drivers will soon have traces of cocaine and marijuana detectable, just as it is on our US currency.
    Will municipal fleets of cars, fire engines, plows, utility trucks self drive? Quite probably, to some extent so we’ll get some cost savings.
    I think that air traffic will be relatively spared, so Kent County’s airport will be an advantage.

    1. Matt

      Don’t worry Erwin, the left in this country and elsewhere is doing everything they can to smother the Sharing Economy in its crib (in spite of their lip service). We can’t have people with their own initiative and resources being allowed to make it their own instead of being dependent on someone else now can we? The current push is to make all Uber drivers employees instead of independent contractors and destroy their business model is driving their interest in self- driving cars. Don’t get me started on how the leftists running City of Grand Rapids are killing Air B & B!

  7. Rich

    I really love the investment analysis. In truth, it is for every dollar taken from me (or you, or another property owner), someonelse pockets $4. If the RTA is such a good investment, then why not finance it with bonds. Now that I could invest in. But financing it with a property tax millage is just reaching into my pocket and giving the gain to someone else.

  8. Michael Bedard

    Any suggestion that this is efficient from a Transit Costs POV is half baked if it doesn’t acknowledge SEMI residents already pay a solid 30-40% more than other areas of the county with mass transit on transit.

    This is courtesy of our single state debacle of auto insurance. Worth about $4.3bn a year in MI dollars going to auto insurance… about 9% of all income in the state goes to Auto Insurance – normal states? 3%.

    So before we start to tack on additions…. how about we fix what has become a complete goat f’ing disaster in MI and utilize those savings to fund this operation while also returning dollars to the residents.

  9. Ken

    A bus or something will drive to my House address in the vary north west Washtenaw county and take me to my job in Ann Arbor for less then what it cost me? Then there is the time factor will this be done in less then 45min each way. I really don’t think so. So if you want this mass transit – JUST keep it out of my county. I pay quit enought NOW to Washtenaw country.

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