“I will build roads where jobs are and where jobs will be.” That is the one of many deliberately ambiguous headers in Dick DeVos’s “Economic Turnaround Plan” – and it scares the bejesus out of me. It is alarming for two reasons. First, it reveals Dick DeVos’s commitment to building more roads. In his section entitled “Building a Transportation System that Encourages Job Growth,” DeVos doesn’t mention public transportation once. He rails against how much money we lose through gas prices and traffic congestion and yet proposes to solve these problems by building more efficient highways.
I am among those who believe that bringing mass transportation to the more than five million people in the Metropolitan Detroit area is critical to revitalizing Michigan’s economy. Detroit is one of only a handful of major cities without public transportation, and young Michiganians often cite this shortcoming when they leave for Chicago. Unfortunately, from the debilitated DARTA to the pathetic People Mover, mass transportation in Southeastern Michigan has become the frustrating Holy Grail of Michigan politics. Contrary to popular belief, the biggest opponents are not the automakers – they would love the added manufacturing work – but, as DeVos displays, Michigan’s public officials.
However, if Michigan were able to muster the necessary political and financial capital to create a mass transit system, where would it likely be built?
Why, Grand Rapids of course.
This brings us to the second part of why DeVos’s statement is so frightening. Where does DeVos think jobs will be in the future if not where they are now? Although not explicitly stated, the Grand Rapids native would probably answer his hometown. After all, it is where the Amway heir’s office is located and where more roads and public transit would make his commute a whole lot easier.
In April, after some political brawling, Governor Granholm and the Republican leaders of the Legislature announced a major transportation package. The bill allows residents of Grand Rapids and Southeastern Michigan to vote to approve 25 year tax levies that would be spent on proposed mass transit projects in each of those areas. Such long-term millages are vital because local funds are required to gain access to the $114 million in federal funds that are earmarked for Michigan mass transit projects.
Originally, the $114 million was meant to fund a light rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit. However, these funds were hijacked by an entrenched Republican contingent in the State House that wanted those federal funds to go exclusively to a different Michigan city and its suburbs – yep, Grand Rapids. They passed a transportation bill that was thankfully vetoed by Governor Granholm last December precisely for its exclusion of Southeastern Michigan.
I had the privilege of listening a state representative speak to a group of students recently. Most of us had just spent the summer commuting from Ann Arbor to Detroit, and the status of the rail line quickly dominated the conversation. He was surprisingly candid about the legislative fisticuffs and explained how there is a growing Republican notion in the state Legislature that Michigan’s second-largest city should become the new linchpin of Michigan’s economy and cultural identity.
As the saying goes, that would be funny if it weren’t so serious. Detroit is the center of Michigan’s vitality, and strengthening the connection between Ann Arbor and Detroit would strengthen Michigan as a whole. Imagine being able get out of a class and hop on a train to a Tigers’ game, or being able to drink at one of Detroit’s many bars or casinos and safely come back home to campus while sufficiently inebriated to not remember how much money you lost.
If both the Grand Rapids and Detroit areas passed transit millages, how the federal funds would be allocated between the two cities is still up in the air. Now call me cynical, but I don’t foresee the two projects being able to share the funds nicely. My skepticism over the chances of either project being built aside, the troubling part of the debate is that it points to a larger right-wing mentality that any funds put towards revitalizing Detroit are wasted. DeVos’s reluctance to pay attention to Detroit is one of the most important gubernatorial election issues that nobody is talking about.
Southeastern Michigan had better gear up for an upcoming political fight over those federal funds. SEMCOG is busy with an alternative analysis, but it needs input on what kind of line from Ann Arbor to Detroit potential users would enjoy. As the campaign season revs up, we should express how willing we would be to visit downtown Detroit. I encourage students to contact the good people at Transit Riders United, a group at the forefront of this issue. We should let legislators and SEMCOG know that a rail line from Ann Arbor would help Detroit get back on the right track.
Butler can be reached at email@example.com.