Michigan, Dallas and transit

A friend recently attended an urban development workshop in Dallas. Lots of content on retaining and attracting Millennials. She was surprised (me too when I heard about it) when in a session on transit oriented development the architect of the award winning Mockingbird Station started his talk by thanking the State of Michigan pension fund for financing the “home run” project.

You read that right! The State of Michigan pension funds investing in light rail transit oriented development in Dallas, Texas. This happened years ago. (A case study on the Mockingbird Station and the pension fund’s role is part of a 2007 report prepared for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority which you can read here.)

To be clear what is worthy of a post is not that our state pension fund invested in Dallas. If it was a good investment its what the pension fund should be doing. What is worthy of a post is that more than a decade later Michigan policy makers and most metro Detroit policy makers still don’t understand the important of transit in general––and light rail in particular––to economic development. Not only is it a key ingredient in retaining and attracting young talent but it also is a major stimulant of economic development at light rail stations. What is so frustrating is that in 2015 our state pension fund still does not have the opportunity to make an investment in one of those projects here in Michigan, particularly Detroit.

We are told often by political and business leadership that we should look to Texas as a model. But hardly ever is rail transit on their list of lessons we should learn from them. It should be.

Metro Dallas is all in on rail transit. They now have the longest light rail system in the country; 90 miles. Funded by a regional sales tax approved by voters in 1983. (You can check out more about the Dallas light rail system here.) Here’s how DART (the region’s transit agency) describes their impact on economic development:

From the beginning, part of DART’s mission has been to build a transportation system large enough to stimulate economic development. The voter-approved 1 percent sales tax that funds DART makes that possible. Developers generally are looking for good transportation infrastructure when they are deciding where to build that next office tower, residential complex or shopping center.

Ride past any number of DART Rail stations and you’ll notice construction. The visual clues offer anecdotal evidence: The number of privately developed structures being built within walking distance of DART Rail stations appears to be on the rise. The proof came from the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. The center’s latest study found that more than $5.3 billion in private-capital transit-oriented development projects have been built, are under construction, or are planned near light rail stations since the debut of DART Rail in 1996.

“Investing in DART has expanded transportation options and attracted corporate, residential, retail and cultural facilities to our city,” said Richardson City Manager Dan Johnson.

Dallas is not alone in making transit a central component of their economic development strategy. As we explored in a previous post regions across the country are investing in light rail systems. Many in the South, many in red states. And in nearly every case it was the business community that took the lead in making rail transit a priority including in most advocating for a regional tax increase.

Its time that Michigan––metro Detroit in particular––learn that successful 21st Century regions have a comprehensive transportation system that provides convenient alternatives to driving anchored by rail transit.




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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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