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Detroit's transportation future

Jul 3, 2015

A few days ago, I went to see Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in his downtown office. I’ve visited a lot of mayors in that office, and generally they have a large picture of their families in the space behind their desk.  Duggan doesn’t.

Instead, he has a picture of the famous civil rights march down Woodward Avenue in 1963, the place where Martin Luther King first gave a version of the “I have a dream,” speech.         

Duggan wasn’t there then; he wasn’t quite five years old. But it shows black and white Detroiters working together, which is what he sees his job as being all about.

I wanted to talk about transportation. I thought he would have been an enthusiastic supporter of the Regional Transit Authority, which is seeking to build special lanes for a special breed of buses that would crisscross the tri-county area and take people to the airport.

But he was lukewarm at best. “They’re talking about a tax for a handful of routes, and so far I have not seen a plan that I think would be likely to be approved by the voters.”

Likewise, he isn’t pushing to merge SMART, the suburban bus system with DDOT, the city system. The mayor said he would be in favor of that if the money was there – but it’s not.

“If you merge two underfunded systems, what you have is one big underfunded system,” Duggan told me, and reminded me that he tried to merge them in the 1990s.  “We got an agreement, and then Governor Engler reneged on the funding commitment,” he said.

But Mike Duggan is positively giddy about the potential of the M-1 rail streetcar project under construction along Woodward. “I was a believer that it would absolutely spur development along that corridor, and it’s already doing it,” he said. “I think you are going to see couples who live along that route who have one car between them, and one of them rides, and the other takes M-1 rail to work.”

Some have been skeptical because it stops well short of the suburbs. But Duggan is convinced that’s coming. “As soon as this is done, we need to figure out whether to next extend it east on Jefferson or further north on Woodward.”

Duggan is convinced that regional transit is coming, but ever the pragmatist, he cautioned, “We’re not going to get there in a big bang, we’re going to get there incrementally.”

The mayor did cause some uneasiness among supporters of the new Detroit River bridge when he announced a deal this spring swapping land with Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

What was going on? Duggan told me it was just a smart deal for the city. “I’m a hundred percent supportive of the Gordie Howe bridge,” he said. He also made it clear without saying so that he thinks the idea of Moroun twinning the bridge is a pipe dream.

“If I were guessing, it would be that ten years from now, you are going to hear a conversation about a replacement, instead,” he told me, adding that he thinks the region needs two bridges.

What’s clear is that the mayor is thinking about a multiple track transportation future. Which seems, realistic to me.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essay are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Michigan Radio, its management, or its licensee, the University of Michigan.