Commentary: The transportation environment

Nov 29, 2012

Someone once said that Americans will do anything for the environment except read about it or spend money on it.

I thought of that yesterday, when the governor delivered the latest in his series of special messages, this one on the environment.

Rick Snyder said we had to make better use of the resources we have, and called, among other things, for better recycling and for Michigan to develop a strategic national gas reserve.

Pretty much everyone nodded politely at most of what the governor said,  though not when he appeared to endorse fracking, at least so far as natural gas recovery is concerned.

However, I would be surprised if anyone in the legislature was still thinking about, much less talking about, what the governor said about the environment a week from now. In fact, the governor’s main priorities seem to be elsewhere, at least for the lame duck session.

But something else is going on in the Capitol that could be highly beneficial to the economic as well as the natural environment: Transportation reform. More than a year ago, the governor proposed a high-speed bus system for Metro Detroit. It was, and is, a great and politically brilliant idea. More than a third of the population of Detroit has no access to reliable private transportation, meaning cars.

The city bus system is creaky, unreliable and old, and doesn’t mesh well with the suburban bus system. Attempts to take on the task of merging both systems has always bogged down before.

Governor Snyder wants to bypass all that by creating a new Regional Transit Authority that would run a new style of rapid and flexible buses throughout the area, putting jobs in reach of workers.

Two days ago, a bill creating the governor’s regional transit authority finally won passage in the State Senate. Now, it moves on to the House. Passage is anything but certain. But on an encouraging note, Representative Paul Opsommer, the chair of the House Transportation Committee, said he would work hard to get this though. Again, passage isn’t certain. There are legislators who aren’t willing to do anything to help Detroit. There are also lawmakers from the city who seem almost as skilled in the art of self-sabotage as Detroit City Council, and who may oppose this simply because they can’t completely control it.

That would be a disaster. If this bill is passed, millions of dollars will flow in from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Some of that money is earmarked for a future light-rail line on Woodward, though that’s something that is probably decades away. We can get a system of fast and efficient and affordable buses running almost immediately, if the lawmakers approve the authority and if voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties sign on and approve the money needed to get things rolling.

There is, by the way, an unlikely hero in all this. State Senator Tom Casperson, a conservative Republican from the UP. He went to Detroit in the winter, tried to get around by bus, and nearly froze.

After that, he became the main sponsor of the Regional Transit Authority bill. More of our lawmakers, and more of us, should try seeing the world from someone else’s perspective more often.

That might just change all of our lives.  

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.