I have a friend who lives on the Wayne State campus in midtown Detroit, and his 21st birthday party was last Friday. I really wanted to go, but, lacking a car, I had to sit down and consider my public transit options. This is what I came up with: I could take the Ann Arbor Transit Authority bus to Ypsilanti, stand on the shoulder of I-94 for a couple hours and eventually hitchhike to Romulus. From there, I could hop on the SMART bus to Detroit, where I’d need to switch to the Detroit Department of Transportation system, which, if I time it right, should take me to midtown.

There are places where it wouldn’t be a problem to travel fifty miles across a metropolitan area without a personal vehicle, places where such a trip requires no more than a simple subway ride. There’s something missing in Metro Detroit, something that state and local officials overlooked during decades of highway construction and maintenance. According to the American Public Transportation Association, Detroit is the only large metro area in the U.S. without a regional transit network.

Hopefully, that’s about to change. In December 2009, two bills were introduced to the state legislature — House Bill No. 5731 and No. 5732 — which provide for the creation and funding of a regional transit authority. According to the Michigan legislature’s summary of the bills, the transit authority would replace the existing SMART system that serves Detroit suburbs and the DDOT system that serves the city of Detroit (as well as the entity that oversees them, the Regional Transit Coordinating Council). This regional transit authority would have the power to take all steps necessary to implement and manage a regional transit system.

The benefits of such a move are clear. A unified transit authority would be able to create a public transportation system that conveniently links the city and the suburbs, instead of the current situation in which one system (SMART) serves the suburbs and another (DDOT) serves the city. For some people, it will make visits and outings more convenient. For others, it will make the difference between employment and unemployment. With many businesses following the trend of urban sprawl to the suburbs, city residents who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive face a huge disadvantage in the job market. Currently, the bills only affect Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties. However, a provision in the bills allows for adjoining counties to become members of the transit authority, meaning that Washtenaw County could easily benefit from the regional system.

Despite the advantages, both the Detroit government and Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson oppose the bills. Each party is nervous about having adequate representation on the authority’s board, and the city of Detroit voiced concern that the creation of a regional transit authority would stall current plans for a light rail system on Woodward Avenue. Now, the fact that the city of Detroit and Oakland County agree on something is surprising in itself. But they agree on closely guarding their own interests out of a fear that, if they compromise with other stakeholders, they will lose. This is why, a decade into the twenty-first century, Southeast Michigan still lacks decent public transit. For decades, every city, county, township, organization and company has looked out for its own citizens, its own members and its own profit, all the while ignoring the greater good of the region.

The nonprofit organization Transportation Riders United has been fighting against this fragmentation and supporting public transportation in Metro Detroit since 2001. Last week, I spoke to the executive director, Megan Owens, and asked her whether the two stakeholders had valid concerns. She asserted that the RTA would not significantly alter the plan for light rail on Woodward, and she expressed support for the method of representation on the board of the RTA. Despite the difficulty of satisfying every party’s desires, Metro Detroit “can’t let regional squabbles destroy progress yet again.”

The bills have come up for a vote in the State House of Representatives, after which they will have to pass through the State Senate and be signed by the governor. Their passage would be the first step towards catching up with the rest of the country on convenient, equitable mass transit. There’s certainly a lot more work to be done. Ms. Owens identified a couple further steps in the near future, including establishing a dedicated public transit funding source, such as a percentage of fuel or motor vehicle-related sales taxes, rather than being indirectly funded via the Comprehensive Transportation Fund. Still, these bills will mean that after decades of mistrust and selfishness, Southeast Michigan is finally making progress.

Carolyn Lusch can be reached at lcarolyn@umich.edu.

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