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Bill Johnson
Bill Johnson

The Fast Track to a Fiscal Train Wreck

November 2, 2012

Mayor Dave Bing, Gov. Rick Snyder and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood are naïve to think the only reason state legislators won’t approve a transit authority for Metro Detroit is because they are obstructionists. Far from it.

Evidently they see the ominus possibility of a fiscal train wreck. But more importantly, the lack of regional support for an expensive mass transit system should kill the idea.

The M-1 advocates, a private group of Detroit business people, have been trying to get $25 million in federal grants for a $137 million light rail project that actually doesn’t come close to being rapid transit. The “streetcar” system would travel about 12 mph up Woodward from Congress north to Grand Boulevard, a distance of about one mile longer than the 2.9 mile Detroit People Mover, only slower.

Another $25 million in federal funding is tie-barred for a new-age regional bus system that would incorporate the costly and inefficient Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) with the costly and inefficient Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). M-1 would like its “streetcars” to one day connect downtown Detroit to Macomb and Oakland counties.

It is not surprising that the governance structure for this business rapid transit merger –known as a BRT– hit a bump in the road in Lansing. Representatives from Detroit have reservations that the city will lose control of its transportation apparatus, such as it is. Suburban lawmakers have concerns that the proposed merger will be a bottomless financial pit that won’t be of much use to suburbanites.

The cold, hard lesson of publicly supported bus and rail systems over the last 40 years have exposed the promises of a merged system as a lavish illusion.

A shiny new multi-million-dollar bus system, for example, won’t divert significant numbers of drivers from their cars and, therefore, not reduce road congestion.

It won’t revitalize Detroit or reverse flight from the downtown core. Ridership studies show that the poor are not heavy users of such systems. Neither are suburbanites.

The dominant commuting pattern is suburb to suburb, not from downtown to the suburbs. Buses and trains are only efficient in high-density corridors where a large number of riders begin or end their trips in a concentrated area.

Detroit’s population drain takes the city out of contention for sufficient density to make a case for a destination end-point. Census estimates now show Macomb County has emerged as the No. 1 destination for out-migrating Detroiters, which further decreases the demand for transit from the city to the outer reaches. And the stampede of residents occurs in cars, not buses.

Most cities that constructed expensive new transit systems in recent years have dramatically overestimated ridership. That’s what Detroit did with the People Mover. That’s what the M-1 group has done with the “mini-streetcar” line. There’s also a good chance construction costs also were jacked up.

The inescapable truth is that the metropolitan area is tailor-made for cars, not for fixed-route public transit. And there’s no hard evidence that commuters are willing to park-and-ride on a bus.

Something else to consider: Before Congress created the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) in 1964, later to become the Department of Transportation, most transit systems were privately owned and operated. Federal grants doled out in the ensuring years essentially squashed the development of efficient and cost-effective private urban transit programs.

The better policy option for Lansing is to remove all barriers that prevent the development of localized, unsubsidized, private transit. Then allow private jitneys and private bus operators to compete with the existing subsidized systems. Competition will help meet the mobility needs of regional residents by offering greater convenience at lower costs.

The Legislature should punt on the discredited bureaucratic transit authority concept. Taking into account the complex regional and fiscal realities, it becomes clear that under this proposal it will be taxpayers who are taken for a ride.

Bill Johnson is founder of Bill Johnson Group, a public affairs, public relations and media consulting firm. The former Wayne County administrator is an award-winning journalist who formerly worked for The Detroit News and Detroit area broadcast news organizations.

November 2, 2012 · Filed under Johnson

27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 pete hall // Nov 2, 2012 at 6:19 am

    bill,you are right on point,the government (local and state) need’s to stop trying to be all things to all people and focus on the “best way” to deliver the core services that it is charged to provide. to look at detroit is to see the best example of a government that is out of touch with reality and unable to grasp the concept of “Quality of service’s rendered”.

  • 2 Bob Cowen // Nov 2, 2012 at 8:26 am

    Regional Transit Authorities have turned out to be bad ideas elsewhere; a better alternative exists. It’s easy to see a disastrous future if you search the Internet for RTA problems: huge cost overruns, long construction delays, broken promises about stops/stations, missed deadlines, service cut-backs of routes & hours, price increases, poor maintenance, overestimated ridership, underestimated operating costs, politicization and cronyism in-spite of the best intentions, due diligence, assurances and oversight. See what happened in Denver, Cleveland, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, Portland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Do your own research! Does anyone in Michigan really believe that a Regional Transit Authority can avoid these types of problems and properly serve the public and the taxpayers?

    Years from now, don’t say that you were not warned or didn’t conduct your own due diligence. It’s your money they’re spending!

    A much better solution is to permit entrepreneurs to offer unrestricted transportation services (shuttle, van, taxi, jitney). Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, introduced a measure (HB 5724) that would prohibit cities from banning the establishment or use of jitneys as a means of public transportation. Social media will very quickly spread the word about who is good and who is not. Low income & seniors can be given vouchers or a BRIDGE type of card. It’s worked elsewhere and well worth a two year test. Put the brakes on a Regional Transit Authority before entwining three or four counties with their layers of politicians into an even bigger SMART type of mess. Unshackle the free market; you’ll be surprised at how quickly two good things happen: much better service for customers and much lower cost for taxpayers! Tell your Lansing Representative to endorse HB 5724.
    Bob Cowen
    Farmington Hills

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