Wanted: light rail for metro Detroit II

There has been good news on transit for metro Detroit. M1 –– the light rail line from downtown to midtown –– is going to be a major catalyst for future development of greater downtown Detroit. Thanks to the leadership of the Kresge Foundation and Dan Gilbert and Matt Cullen of Quicken (and other philanthropic and business leaders) its going to happen despite all sorts of barriers put up by state and local government along the way. And the Regional Transit Authority is another big step in the right direction. Particularly encouraging is the appointment of Paul Hillegonds (a Michigan Future Board member) as chair.

That said, there is a long way to go. Primarily breaking through the decades long resistance to rail transit for the region. There are two prime reasons given for no rail transit in metro Detroit. (Lets hope we are beyond race which was the major reason we didn’t get a regional rail transit system in the Seventies despite big funding commitments from President Ford and Governor Milliken.)

  1. There isn’t enough density for rail. Give me a break! Phoenix had density? Most of the regions that have made big investments in rail transit have done so to get density, not to serve density. (For example read this Atlantic Cities article on how rail transit is creating density in Denver.) Buses –– even bus rapid transit –– are primarily to move people. Rail is to stimulate development. High density development. It is the single most powerful lever available to create the kind of high density, mixed use, walkable neighborhoods that every region in American wants because it is where young mobile talent is increasingly concentrating.
  2. We can’t afford it. Of course we can, if we choose to do so. No region which has embarked on rail transit the last several decades –– and that includes nearly every big metro in the country that didn’t already have a rail transit system –– could afford it with current public revenues. But because their business and political leadership understood that rail transit was an important –– if not an essential ingredient ––  to future economic growth, they sold the public, their state and the federal government on the wisdom of new revenue.

What is missing here is widespread regional business and political leadership that understands and is willing to fight for the need for a regional rail transit system. As I asked in my last post the relevant question to ask metro Detroit’s regional and political leadership as well as those state leaders who tell us that the state can’t work unless Detroit works is “how can metro Detroit compete for talent and businesses without a regional rail transit system when their counterparts across the country think rail transit is a central ingredient to regional competitiveness?”



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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.