Detroit Desperately Needs to Vote to Build a Rail and Bus Transit System

(Ed. Note: For more information on this ballot measure, read this article from last week’s issue)

On Election Day, Americans will make critical choices about the economic future of the country. I am not referring to the decision about who should be president. On Nov. 8, hundreds of measures and initiatives will be before voters asking them to support a range of transportation investments in their cities, regions and communities. By our count, there is over $250 billion at stake.

This includes $54 billion in Seattle for public transit, $12 billion for highway projects in Broward County, Florida, and $3.6 billion for a range of investments in Sacramento. There are also scores of smaller proposals, such as expanding a seaport in Rhode Island, a new airport terminal in Durango, Colorado, and bike paths in Grand Haven, Michigan.

But arguably the most important transportation measure to go before voters is in metropolitan Detroit. Residents there will decide on an ambitious $4.6 billion plan to build out a rail and bus transit system for the largest American region without one.

Why does this matter so much for Detroit? It matters because metropolitan areas are labor markets, in that the vast majority of people who live within a given region also work there. Yet commuters routinely cross municipal and county borders within metropolitan areas on their way to work. Roughly 28 percent of workers in major metropolitan areas commute to jobs outside their county of residence. In metro Detroit, the figure is about 34 percent. Metropolitan areas are also housing markets, in that when households move, they tend to stay within their home market.

In this way, Detroit may be worse off than most. Currently public transit there is operated by four separate transit agencies. And despite the fact that they serve over 100 different routes, there are little to no transit links between all four counties and the city. In metro Detroit, buses stop at jurisdictional borders forcing riders off one bus and onto another to continue their journey. With 92 percent of jobs unreachable in an hour’s ride by public transit, the region ranks near the bottom nationally. In Southeast Michigan, for a household to connect to work, school or other services they’d better have a car. The problem is that over 135,000 households have no access to a car, and the vast majority of these households are low income.

That is why it is disturbing that tired complaints from counties in the region about their “fair share” continue to surface. At its heart, the vote in Detroit is about the future of the region, not earmarking projects for individual jurisdictions. That may be how local officials and county leaders think but it’s not the reality about how people travel, how workers get to their jobs and how people access economic opportunity.

A high quality public transit network can allow employers to benefit from the clustering of people and businesses, and thereby raise productivity in metro areas. This is important in metro Detroit where over three-quarters of jobs are spread out 10-35 miles from the central business district; by far the highest share in the country.

Of course, the success of a transit network in reaching workers and helping them to access jobs rises and falls on much more than the transit system itself. Transportation networks interact with the location of employment and housing in complex ways and those decisions take on complicated relationships between places.

Detroit’s vote in November will send a strong signal about how ready it is to think and act like a region, rather than squabbling neighbors. At stake is its collective success. Other regions should pay close attention.

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