Transit: Time to chart our mass-transit progress

by Marie Donigan for Crain’s Detroit

When I became a state representative, transit planning in the region was stalled. That changed in 2006 when Detroit began planning transit on Woodward; the Legislature and local officials helped, too.

Legislation to support transit-oriented development and to include transit routes and facilities on municipal master plans was signed. The Certificate of Need Commission agreed to consider access to transit when locating hospitals and health care facilities. Also approved was legislation to enable rapid transit on Woodward, along with the Private Infrastructure Investment Fund to allow private investment in public infrastructure.

Railcars were purchased and agreements were reached for Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail; the Midwest Regional Rail Initiative will buy new track and stations between Detroit and Chicago to support improved train service. New zero-emission buses were put on the road.

But the “comprehensive regional” part of the Comprehensive Regional Transit Services Plan is being ignored. This plan, approved in 2008, supports thousands of jobs but isn’t part of the current planning process, nor is it part of Gov. Snyder’s “jobs” agenda, as far as we know.

Ongoing funding disputes among SMART, DDOT and the People Mover still impede progress; technology that would let riders track buses in real time has not been installed on SMART buses but could happen this year. SMART’s limited two-year millage and DDOT’s financial challenges threaten regional bus service, and communities that “opt-out” of SMART in Oakland and Wayne counties hurt us.

Our leaders can’t agree on a regional authority to operate and plan a transit system — or if we even need one. The Legislature didn’t fund transportation projects last term, though the governor’s DRIC deal might help if the Legislature agrees, but public-private partnership legislation did not pass the state Senate.

We’re stranded at the airport unless we have access to a family car — you can’t even find the bus. Lions fans have game-day buses running on a limited schedule. And people who do use transit? Pre-tax commuter benefits worth $230 a month aren’t offered to many Michigan employees. Most cities and states and many corporations offer this benefit, but not in Michigan.

Money could be saved if public school transportation and nonemergency medical trips were coordinated with public transportation. And we don’t have seamless statewide transit that connects population centers, or people to jobs.

A big obstacle — aside from money — is that planning is from the top down; the public’s never really been engaged. Most people here don’t know what a good transit system would mean to their lives. Age-old myths abound and regional conflicts continue to rule the day. But changes in land-use policies, the engagement of local officials and a Legislature who seemed to care add up to real progress.

Marie Donigan is a consultant at Donigan McLogan Consultants LLC in Royal Oak.

[crainsdetroit.com]

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