According to the Detroit Free Press, in 1945 Detroit”s transit system carried 492 million riders, most on electric trolleys. In contrast, some 70 million use Detroit”s public transportation system today and have only one choice: Buses.
Why? In 1932 and 1936 General Motors (in collaboration with Standard Oil, Firestone, Mack Truck, and Phillips Petroleum) formed two private companies, United Cities Motor Transit and National City Lines in order to buy urban streetcar lines, tear them up, and substitute buses the company manufactured. Between 1936 and 1956 National City Lines bought, dismantled, and replaced 100 electric rail systems in 45 cities with buses. Detroit was among the places National City Lines targeted.
In 1949, the U.S. found G.M. and their cohorts guilty of anticompetitive behavior under the Sherman Antitrust Act. What the court called a “criminal conspiracy” proved to be a splendid business investment for the perpetrators. G.M., Standard Oil, Firestone, Mack Truck, and Phillips Petroleum have since realized hundreds of billions of dollars in product sales connected with motorized transportation.
It seems these same business interests are up to their usual schemes, this time with the support of The Michigan Daily (“Connect Metro Detroit,” 12/11/01). By advocating the use of so-called Rapid buses, the Daily fails to recognize the overwhelming environmental, economic and social benefits of a regional light rail system, instead catering to the same business interests that helped create Detroit”s transport problem in the first place.
Rapid buses look and act like trains, with multiple loading doors and travel in express lanes or separate corridors removed from other traffic.
Since Rapid bus systems rely on tires and not on rails, it appeals to the big three automakers who are part of the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, sponsor of a study beginning a project for increased public transport and pushing the Rapid bus system. There are neither environmentalists nor local businesses involved in MAC. MAC is not an accurate representation of the community riding the buses but rather serves the needs of businesses benefiting from construction and maintanance of the system.
The real negative effect of Rapid buses is the infrastructure roads and pavement. Keeping Michigan”s overcrowded roads in decent condition is an expensive process and the federal government discourages spending on highway infrastructure. Real money from the federal government, according to the Michigan Land Use Initiative, is in rail. Policy Director Arlin Wasserman notes “since 1990 the Federal government has shifted away from chiefly automobile to rail funding. Within the pool of federal dollars, rail has gone up and roads have gone down. Instead of going after the rail money like many progressive states, Michigan decides each year to go after a shrinking pot of road dollars.”
Michigan is the nation”s eighth most populous state yet last year the state received less than one percent of $2.6 billion in federal funding for bus and rail. Detroit spends only $19 per person on public transport while San Francisco spends $139 and Cleveland and Pittsburgh spend $70 to $80 per person. With rail-based transport, Michigan can get more federal funds and increase spending on public transport. According to Wasserman, the state simply needs to find different solutions then road maintenance and expansion of buses. “You”re never going to be able to build enough lanes, and if you could, you wouldn”t like the landscape you”d end up with.”
A regional commuter rail network in Southeast Michigan would cost a fraction of widening a single Detroit highway just $130 million could build 30 train stations and upgrade 100 miles of track along three routes connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor, Pontiac and Mt. Clemens. A 1997 study by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) found that the rail system would serve 19,000 passengers a day, with 14 daily trains on each line, and would cost only $23.4 million to operate annually. This is in comparison to $1.3 billion needed to widen just 11 miles of I-94. According to MDOT, a commuter rail system in Southeast Michigan would create nearly 2,500 jobs related to building and operating the railsystem. In addition it would generate $1.1 billion in economic benefit while enhancing business values and property values throughout the region. A 1999 study by Cambridge Systematics, a transportation-consulting firm, estimated that every $10 million of capital investment in public transit creates more than 300 jobs and a $30 million boost in local sales.
The commuter rail system would reduce congestion on Detroit”s overburdened highways while the Rapid bus system worsens the problem. Yet the state continues to proceed with plans to widen, extend, and improve existing roads rather than rail. Why? According to a study in October 1998, lobby groups including Automobile Club of Michigan Political Action Council, Michigan Road Builders Association PAC and Michigan Trucking Association PAC contributed more than $730,000 to state politicians. The highways lobbies apparently outspent public transportation and railroad interests by a ration of more than 10-to-1.
The Daily has noble intentions in endorsing plans for regional public transportation around Detroit. However for the system to be economically, environmentally and socially effective in the long term, Michigan needs to look toward rail and stop our unsustainable over-reliance on roads.
Jeremy Menchik is an LSA senior.