MINNEAPOLIS — I decided to take a short vacation home before starting my internship. When I arrived in the Twin Cities, I first took the train to visit family, rode the light rail to Target Field to watch a rare Twins win, and finally took the commuter rail 70 miles to visit my undergraduate university in St. Cloud. It was a great trip, but in the back of my mind, I was still stressed out because I didn’t know how I’d be able to travel the 30 miles daily from Ann Arbor to Dearborn without owning a car for my internship.

Living in Ann Arbor without a car is easy because of the great bus systems. However, the rest of southeast Michigan’s mass transit system needs improvement. The culture of animosity between Detroit and its suburbs has hurt the region’s mass transit system, but Michigan’s partial takeover of Detroit via the recent consent agreement could offer an opportunity to improve this system.

Detroit’s mass transit system consists of two separate bus systems with many redundant routes. One is managed by the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), and the other is managed by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART).

Both systems are inefficient. A trip from downtown Detroit to Detroit Metro Airport by car takes less than 25 minutes. But by bus, it takes at least an hour and 30 minutes. Last week, The Detroit News published a letter by DDOT’s new CEO Ronald Freeland in which he admits that, before he took over, there were days when only 67 percent of DDOT’s scheduled routes ran.

By merging duplicate routes, replacing two management structures with one and replacing the DDOT and SMART with a single mass transit system that coordinates city and suburban busses, the Detroit metro area citizens would have a much more effective transit system that operates with fewer subsidies.

There have been attempts to consolidate the two systems, but a lack of leadership and an abundance of absurd reasoning have resulted in a broken system. One of the most ridiculous arguments against consolidating is that it would cost some DDOT and SMART employees their jobs. That’s true, but cash-strapped Detroit can no longer afford to pay for two managers, maintenance workers and bus drivers, when one will serve the public just as well. Using the logic of this argument against consolidation, southeast Michigan should create a redundant third bus system or have a train that drives in a pointless three-mile circle around downtown Detroit in order to create jobs.

Just kidding, that train already exists, and a third bus system may be on its way. Mismanagement and squabbling between the suburbs and the city in the ’80s led to a system that serves almost nobody rather than the regional subway system that was originally envisioned. Some Detroit leaders wanted a system that would only serve Detroiters, which begat the People Mover. Ironically, the People Mover mostly serves suburbanites who ride it for novelty’s sake during weekend events.

As for a third bus system, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed bus rapid transit system may very well end up as Detroit’s third bus system.

Currently, DDOT’s pension obligations are the main obstacle in merging the two systems, as suburban leaders are unwilling to take on any of Detroit’s legacy costs. As I have written in previous columns, Detroit has promised its retired employees more retirement benefits than it could afford, and fixing Detroit is not possible without reforming these legacy costs.

The current consent agreement between Michigan and the Detroit city government gives Gov. Snyder, Detroit Mayor Bing and Detroit City Council the opportunity to make necessary reforms to retiree benefits. If these reforms remove the possibility of suburban communities ever paying for DDOT’s pension obligations, a merger of the DDOT and SMART systems would be possible. This merger would save Detroit money and better serve southeast Michigan.

Southeast Michigan’s desire for mass transit is obvious. Ann Arbor now has convenient and cheap express bus service to DTW, while Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) recently touted her support for commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Many of the most successful urban areas like the Twin Cities, Denver and Portland have attributed some of their success to excellent mass transit. There is no reason that mass transit cannot play a huge part in southeast Michigan’s revival if leaders have the will.

Matthew Zabka can be reached at mzbka@umich.edu.

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