April 19, 2008

Mass Transit in the Motor City: Railroaded Again?

"The last streetcar tour" rolls down Woodward in 1956. Wayne State Virtual Motor City Collection

From Issue 27 of Critical Moment

Cranes fill the southwest Detroit sky while highway crews work a $230 million road renovation on I-75 at the Ambassador Bridge. A block away the Michigan Central train station sits hollowed out, a monument to the city’s rail heyday. Further east, a new casino, named Motor City, stares through the train terminal, blinking its neon reminders that Detroit remains auto country.

Over a century ago, Southeast Michigan operated the most miles of passenger rail in America, with a streetcar network and interurban links to Flint, Ann Arbor, Toledo, Pontiac and Port Huron. The Detroit Street Railways system even endured the early decades of auto’s rise until 1956, when it was dismantled and replaced by General Motors buses.

As the rails got paved over, Mike Paradise came to Rochester, Michigan, outside the city. He was twelve, he said, when his dad came to take an engineering job with General Motors. “The absence of a real link to the suburbs stuck out, especially for someone without a driver’s license.” Decades after his driver’s test, however, Paradise is still mystified by Detroit’s betrayal of rail. At Cranbrook Art Academy, where he has worked for 14 years as technology coordinator, Paradise invites young innovators to work on the mass transit problem. Without a car, its not an easy trip from Detroit to the suburban Bloomfield Hills school.

“There’s a big hole in the Woodward corridor,” says Paradise. “If Gramma wants to take the kids to Cranbrook’s science center, the SMART bus won’t stop here.” The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, operates the buses between the city and the suburbs. The system is supported by suburban tax levies, but townships like Bloomfield Hills, Livonia, and Novi have opted-out of service. Only 26 of 61 Oakland county municipalities have chosen to participate in Detroit’s only major system of mass transit connecting the city to the suburbs. For a three-mile stretch along Woodward through Bloomfield Hills, the bus runs non-stop past Cranbrook Academy and the country club.

Paradise spent boyhood days biking to Rochester parks and searching for signs of a massive interurban rail network that now scatters its remains in fits and starts throughout Southeast Michigan. The last commuter train route to run on these lines closed in 1982 when the city ceased operations from Pontiac to downtown Detroit. “A few lines still exist from the old system, up Woodward, Michigan, and Jefferson. We could bring trains back there.”

The return of rail might not be so far-fetched. It was a fifteen-minute drive to Dearborn’s Ford Community Center for a public meeting in March of the Detroit Transit Options for Growth Study (DTOGS). The perimeter of the room was lined with tables, high school science fair-style, with photographs and charts laying out a vision for mass transit in the city. A three-minute dvd simulation projected a sunny Detroit onto the room’s remaining empty wall. Computer-generated foot traffickers strolled past new light rail passenger cars zooming into new stations growing from the middle of Woodward, along a route that would begin near Grand Circus Park and Fox Theater.

City and state transportation departments and a handful of regional transit organizations formed DTOGS eighteen months ago to analyze traffic patterns as a first step in the application process for federal money. Now they’ve moved on to preliminary engineering in the hopes of winning a federal New Starts grant to fund about half of the proposed $370 million construction cost. Though Michigan Avenue and Gratiot Avenue are also being considered for eventual light rail or bus rapid transit, Woodward would be the first route. If all goes well, construction on the line could break ground by 2010.

The initial line along Woodward, between Grand Circus Park and the city’s northern limit at 8 Mile, would only be the beginning. Look elsewhere, said Tim Roseboom of the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT): “Of 28 similar projects nationwide, only one did not continue to expand after its initial construction.” The DART light rail system has brought new life to Dallas, Texas, since its inception in 1996. A 2007 University of North Texas study credits the rail system with attracting $4.26 billion of new investment to the city since 1999. Northeast of downtown Dallas, the blue and red lines run to Mockingbird station, a modern day oil-boom town. Just east of Southern Methodist University, the terminal has become a destination unto itself, sporting new lofts, shops, an office park, and an independent film theater steps from the platform.

The people at DTOGS claim that a similar future awaits Detroit once light rail comes on line. The investment and ridership will provide an essential boost for local and state tax revenues to fund expansion to routes along the other major spokes from the city, and importantly, into the suburbs. Add to the mix the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments’ (SEMCOG) proposal for interurban rail transit, and Southeast Michigan has the beginning of a regional rail system.

Picture this: SEMCOG creates commuter routes along existing Amtrak lines from Ann Arbor to Detroit. This would link with the DTOGS light-rail stop at the Amtrak station at the New Center, proposed for renovation, which would take Detroiters to a proposed station at the Detroit International Airport before heading on to Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

Light rail would take a lot of strain off the high-traffic Detroit bus routes up and down Woodward. Yet there is reason to be skeptical of so much future tense, as state and regional governments predict a funding crisis for transportation allocations. The Michigan Department of Transit outlines a steady decline in road conditions after 2007, right as SEMCOG speaks of a 4% rise in the cost of asphalt and cement each year for a decade. Add to this a drop in the federal transit trust fund after 2008, and a drop in MDOT’s proposed allocations in their Five-Year Plan until 2011, and the rosy promises becomes complicated.

Without a doubt, new forms of public transit can attract investment. Longtime public transit advocate and state representative Marie Donigan agrees. “This will make money and create jobs. We just need to sell the idea of this investment in transportation, even when it seems like the wrong time to spend any money at all.” Mass transit doesn’t thrive on functionality alone, but also on cultural appeal. A light-rail project, however limited at first, could foster excitement enough to weather the stigma that plagues Detroit’s bus system. There are ways, according to Donigan, to access the suburban tax base for a regionally funded system. “One option is a local option sales tax that would funnel money into transit, but our constitution would have to change to allow it.”

But could a DTOGS project become a new version of the People Mover, without its once proposed spokes? The initial Woodward line is exciting, but its initial costs might not bring the expected return if it doesn’t create connections to the suburbs, where two-thirds of the city office space resides. “It would serve a purpose if it’s expanded and gets people downtown from, say Pontiac,” says Paradise. While any massive new project like this will undoubtedly bring development to the central corridor of the city, it could well create another self-referencing exclusive space dislocated from the neighborhoods. Paradise is skeptical too: “If it remains as proposed it sounds more like entertainment than efficiency.”

Megan Owens, of the citizen advocacy group Transportation Riders United, defends DTOGS as a solid start, citing Denver and St. Louis as success stories. “No transit system is built all at once. Most new rapid transit systems start with an initial line of 3 to 10 miles.” Given the funding constraints, Owens argues that Detroit needs something now in order to get more later on. “While the slow progress may be frustrating,” she says, “it’s a necessary process, not a band-aid.”

Both Owens and Paradise can agree that the auto industry destroyed a gem of a rail system. “They were pro-bus because they could get people to see it’s no fun to ride one,” said Paradise. “They didn’t put enough behind the bus system, and it re-affirmed that you need a car in this city.” But the Big Three automakers are now an essential ingredient for any new mass transit system. According to Owens, the auto companies aren’t opposed to mass transit reform, but not actively engaged either. “They’re a little busy trying to survive to actively work on transit, but they are supportive politically at least.”

People will ride mass transit, if it gets them somewhere. The American Public Transportation Association’s recent study shows that Americans took 10.3 billion trips on mass transit systems nationwide in 2007, the highest volume in 50 years. Since 1995, the use of public transit has risen 32% nationally. But if the public interest doesn’t motivate the auto companies, transit projects could well salvage their bottom line.

By transforming themselves into transit companies, the auto sector could find their way to sustainability, an idea that’s been in the hopper for a while. “I remember going to these GM open houses with my father, and seeing the concept cars,” Paradise reminisces. “And, inevitably there would be a mass transit display. Some engineers in there might dust off those old concepts.”

You can see the General Motors downtown headquarters from GM’s technical center in Warren, Michigan at Mound Road and 12 Mile. With this sight line, Paradise envisions the beginnings of a new era in the auto industry: investment in mass transit. “Why don’t they connect the two? Then Ford could construct something from the Airport, and Chrysler could go from Auburn Hills south. It could be friendly competition.”

To overcome the historic gridlock between the suburbs and the city that has created so many false starts in Detroit’s plans for mass transit, the state government needs to form a regional transit authority to raise funds from the entire metropolitan area for a system that serves the region fully and seamlessly. The Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority came closest, though it had limited tax-levying authority and allowed oppositional suburban governments to opt-out of any regional transit plan it proposed.

Bills are back in the Michigan Senate after the initial formation of DARTA was vetoed by Governor Engler in 2003 and then struck down in the courts after Governor Granholm attempted to revive it in 2005. “You can expect to see some DARTA-like proposal in the next year or two,” says Ms. Owens, and Donigan agrees. “We are working hard on a bi-partisan plan for a transit authority that can ask people for tax dollars and coordinate services. Nothing else is set up to handle this right now.”

An egalitarian mass transportation system is the vital step needed to connect the five million Detroiters in the city and in the suburbs, who form the tenth largest metropolitan space in the country. This re-connection of fundamentally intertwined space and people can best begin with a transit plan that envisions the city limits not as gates but gateways. Now, the forces that destroyed Detroit’s once-touted public network of mobility are the same forces needed to help resurrect it.

April 07, 2008

Labor Notes Conference, April 11-13th

Less than a week until the Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan! Register here.
Here are the keynote speakers who will be at "Rebuilding Labor's Power" 2008.

The conference brings labor organizers from around the world, including a track devoted to Chinese labor struggles this year. But also figuring prominently will be the efforts just down the street at Hamtramck's American Axle plant, where auto workers have been on strike for nearly two months fighting the company's proposed %50 wage cuts.