Dumb on transit again

It goes from bad to worse when it comes to transit in metro Detroit. First the city and state walking away from the Woodward light rail, now the city of Troy refusing to take federal funds for a transit center. What makes Troy worse is that the vote is only partially about not valuing transit, it also is about keep “them” out.

In each case the cancelled projects were strongly supported by the business community. They understand – as apparently our elected officials don’t – that transit is an economic growth asset. This is becoming a pattern that goes far beyond transit. Business leaders are far ahead of state and local officials when it comes to what matters in a knowledge-driven economy. As I have written previously businesses understand that welcoming to all is an economic imperative in a world where talent – which comes in all of human varieties – is the asset that is the most important to economic success. On gays, immigrants and affirmative action, as well as the importance of quality of place public investments like transit, they are far ahead of policy makers.

As readers of these posts know I often ask “what planet are they living on?” for folks who advocate positions that are so clearly out of line with what is going on in the real world. It may be that the more appropriate question is “what century are they living in?”

In an insightful, must-read Free Press column entitled “In Troy, an all-too-familiar fear of the other”, Brian Dickerson makes this case as well as I have read anywhere. Dickerson writes:

To be a hick in 2011, then, is to be in a state of denial — which is why “hicks” is precisely the right word to describe Troy Mayor Janice Daniels and the like-minded elected city leaders who’ve sent Troy reeling backward in time, grasping for a past that is not so much racist or unsophisticated as it is, well, past. … Daniels & Co. invoked a series of spurious arguments to defend their decision, including the claim that they were striking a blow against federal spending. … But their real motive was transparent: the fear that outsiders currently disinclined to visit Troy may do so if enticed by a modern train station and convenient parking, at an incalculable cost to Troy taxpayers and their way of life. To dismiss this sort of thinking as bigotry is almost beside the point; it’s simply bad policy, predicated on a world that no longer exists. There may have been a time when communities could compete effectively for residents and employers by making themselves less accessible to surrounding municipalities, but that time is a distant memory. The era when the absence of public transit was a boon to property values may never have existed at all.

Dickerson quotes a lobbyist for Magna International, a huge multi-national auto supplier who is a big employer in Troy, as saying that he would encourage the company to reduce its footprint in Troy and look elsewhere for expansion opportunity. So much for the claim from policy makers that we need to be more business friendly and jobs are priority 1!

Andrew Basile Jr., an owner of the Young, Basile law firm in Troy, in a letter to the Troy Chamber – a strong supporter of the transit center – forcefully makes the case that these kind of actions are anti-economic growth. Basile wrote:

… I believe her (Mayor Daniels) whole “debt” rationale is disingenuous.  If it were federal money for a hospital or a highway overpass, I cannot imagine her turning it away.  This may be therefore really an attempt to thwart transit for motives that, in my opinion, are closed-minded. … One might be ready to overlook one or two bad decisions by the mayor were they not coming on the heels of her disgraceful handling of the controversy surrounding her Facebook post on gay marriage.  From her post itself through her response to the public outcry, she seems wholly unconcerned with the economic wellbeing of Troy, at least insofar as it may impinge on her freedom to publicly display herself as a classless, tasteless bigot.  It’s bad for business for Troy to have a mayor who harbors (much less publicly voices) anti-gay perspectives.  She might as well have taken out a full page ad in the Detroit News admonishing corporations not to locate in Troy.  That she does not appear to understand this is both telling and troubling.

Michigan policy makers need to learn quick what Michigan employers know: being welcoming to all and making public investments that create places where talent wants to live and work are economic growth imperatives.

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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.