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Mass transit at last?

Mar 1, 2016

Metropolitan Detroit is famous for many things, but one we haven’t heard much about lately is the near-total lack of anything resembling mass transit.

I can’t think of another major city in the country that has no regular mass transit of any kind from the airport to the downtown.

The reason for this, of course, was that in the Motor City, everyone was supposed to own a private car as a matter of civic patriotism. Today that is badly outdated.

Every survey shows millennials aren’t nearly as enamored of cars as earlier generations were.

Perhaps more importantly, a third or more of Detroit adults can’t afford a car and have no practical way to get to a job, which are mostly in the suburbs.

The city and suburban bus systems have few regular, reliable interconnections. Establishing some form of mass transit is absolutely essential if the city is ever to become prosperous again.

Well, this November will present the best chance Southeastern Michigan has ever had for practical mass transit.

Three years ago, the legislature created the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, the RTA.

Michael Ford, the authority’s CEO, told me last week it has made the decision to put a proposal on the ballot in Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties for a millage that would be used for establishing a bus-based mass transit system.

The costs of subways or light rail are beyond anyone’s means, and would take years to build. What the RTA has in mind instead is a fleet of snazzy new buses, which would, in many cases, have dedicated lanes and stations aligned in the center of the road.

The International Institute for Transportation and Development Policy says Bus Rapid Transit systems of this type offer many of the conveniences of a light rail system while being cheaper and usually faster. Consumers would pay at the station, or with a fare card.

The bus schedules would be set to mesh nicely with both the existing bus systems, for maximum commuter convenience.

Ford, a Seattle native, knows winning voter approval in the age of the anti-any-tax Tea Party may not be easy. He has helped build and run transit systems in Washington, Oregon and California.

He then came here to run the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, and successfully led a drive for a millage that expanded service to Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

What the board hasn’t yet decided is how much millage to ask and for how many years. My guess is that it will need to be at least one mill for no less than a decade.

They need to set it high enough to qualify for matching federal funding, but not too high to win voter approval.

They’ve been holding a series of forums across the area to try and explain why this is needed. Personally, I think they need James Robertson to tell them. He is the Detroiter discovered last winter to be walking 21 miles to work every single day.

Someone bought him a car, but there are many thousands like him.

Building a system to connect employers with employees ought to be a top priority for both labor and management – and could well be worth its weight in buses to the entire state.

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