Regional rapid transit isn’t exactly the sexiest topic to bring up at party. (I have found that few policy debates actually help me “bring sexy back” on a typical Friday night). But with the Aug. 2 announcement that the Obama administration will begin an environmental impact study on a light rail on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, I have a hard time containing my excitement.

The environmental impact study almost assures that not only will construction begin relatively soon, but there will also be federal support to match the private donations already collected for the project. This is an incredibly large and tangible step that is satisfying to those of us who have hoped for rapid transit in the Metro Detroit area but have been left only with empty promises. We will no longer be left with the People Mover, an overly glorified monorail that goes in a circle, or a bus system that takes an hour and half to go four miles.

But the light rail isn’t without obstacles. Even with the combined public-private dollars, the backers don’t have enough money to actually make the light rail regional. As of the current plan, the rail begins in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit and ends at the vacant state fair grounds at 8 Mile and Woodward. The previous regional light rail project extended all the way to 11 Mile and Woodward.

While it’s fairly simple to understand that without more funds there can be no more expansion to the rail, this is an all too beaten path for those from Metro Detroit. Too many times have good ideas seemed to dwindle and die in the graveyard that is the 8 Mile divide. Too little cooperation and compromise between Detroit’s city leaders and suburban officials has left the region trailing behind every other metropolitan area. Transit is no exception. Simply look at the fact there are two different bus systems that run in Metro-Detroit: Detroit Department of Transportation, the Detroit city bus system, and Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation — more commonly known as SMART — which is the suburban system. These exist separately not due to any sort of financial, legal or rational restriction, but because of purely cultural divides.

Some contend that the plan must start somewhere and that this is as good as it gets at the moment. However, as John Hertel, general manager of SMART, explained a non-regional light rail “doesn’t maximize what good it could do for Detroit… When you’re talking about $500 million to go the extra miles, its not a whole lot of money, but it’s a gigantic leap for the region to go that extra three miles,” according to an Aug. 11 article in Crain’s Detroit Business.

There is a solution that could possibly fix both the financial and cultural problems plaguing this project — A Regional Transit Authority. An RTA would not only commit itself as a source for securing funding to extend the light rail to suburban cities like Royal Oak and Troy, but it would also force Detroit and its suburbs to begin a foundation of sustainable regional cooperation. In 2000, Michigan had put a plan in motion to create the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority. Unfortunately, a judge ruled that the plan overstepped its authority in 2003. More recently, there have been bills in the Michigan State House to create a new RTA to serve these functions, but opponents inside and outside Detroit’s city limits have since defeated these plans.

Regional cooperation with regards to transit is the key to a revitalized Metro Detroit, as well as a revitalized Michigan. This is true not only because it pools resources and funds, allowing for greater efficiency at a lower cost, but also because transit spurs business growth. With more business growth, students, who educate themselves in Michigan but then leave for jobs in other cities, may now find new economic opportunities in the state. It’s sad to realize that due to the region’s prideful yet misplaced self interest, the Metro Detroit area is losing out on a wonderful opportunity to connect itself, both physically, economically and culturally.

Will Butler is an assistant editorial page editor.

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