Detroit’s moment in the Super Bowl limelight was a much-needed morale boost for a troubled city in a troubled state. Coney dogs were eaten, footballs were kicked, parties were rocked. Everything went spectacularly, right down to the Steelers’ big win. Everything except for the city’s under-funded and generally insufficient bus system, which left thousands of fans – more than 300,000 on Saturday alone – waiting hours for a trip downtown on the Park and Ride. The lack of mass transit in the Detroit area means big pains both for out-of-town tourists and local commuters, and it’s about time that lawmakers put aside their regional differences and got serious about building a transit system for the Detroit area.
Chicago has its scenic El; New York has its bustling subways; Washington has vast subway stations of precast concrete that stretch like cathedral vaults beneath the city. Detroit has a plastic breadbox that runs in a circle. It’s not just about the city’s image; thousands of residents endure hours of commuting hassle in Southeast Michigan each day. Reducing traffic on the roads by routing some of it through mass transit would boost productivity for local industry and increase opportunities for lower-income residents by giving them greater mobility. It would also bring local businesses new customers, help reduce pollution and aid regional integration.
And it would improve residents’ quality of life. Given a choice between the Mad Max experience of Michigan’s crater-pocked, kamikaze-packed roads and a cozy seat on a train, many residents would choose the latter. A commuter can spend at least $15 in gas to get from Ann Arbor to Detroit and back, and parking fees shoot up to $15 during special events. With gas prices on the rise and little hope of seeing a gallon hold below $2 ever again, it is becoming increasingly perverse not to invest in mass transit.
Congress has already allocated $100 million to study rapid transit in a 50-mile corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit. All that is needed to begin the project is $20 million in matching funds from the region. This asks a lot from cash-strapped Detroit, but it would be plausible with the help of Washtenaw County. Extending the plan to include other counties could make the financial burden of building a system more manageable and bring us closer to the sort of wide-ranging mass-transit system that Southeast Michigan needs. This is not a time for the state to twiddle its thumbs – other metro areas are competing for the same federal grant money.
It’s time to put aside suburban small-mindedness, partisan bickering and the ego-driven provincialism that has choked past attempts to build a better future for the region. Whether from Bloomfield Hills or Highland Park, residents are in this together. If the region doesn’t start making these investments in its future, residents won’t have to worry about waiting for buses to the Super Bowl, because the next Super Bowl-sized opportunity will have passed the region by.