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Last July, in an act that joined equal measures of public interest spontaneity and political serendipity, Democratic state Rep. Marie Donigan pitched a big white tent where Interstate 696 and Main Street converge in Royal Oak, and held a town hall meeting on improving public transit.
Donigan was anxious, and not only because she feared that no one other than the invited speakers would show up. Like newsprint used to line old cabinets, the notion that the Detroit region's transit system needs help is an idea yellowed and flaky with age. Nor was there any evidence that advocating for transit in southeast Michigan was anything other than a confirmed strategy for political burial.
But on the evening of July 11, 2005, something encouraging occurred. As dusk fell, the tent filled. County commissioners and several of Donigan's colleagues from the Legislature attended. Wayne State University administrators and representatives of Detroit were there. Business executives and transit activists listened. Students and grandmothers, whites and Latinos and African-Americans. There also were a few reporters among the roughly 100 people that came to hear Donigan, then a freshman lawmaker, explain why public transit would be the center of her work in Lansing.
"Mass transit brings our communities together," Donigan told the enthusiastic gathering. "If we're serious about boosting southeastern Michigan's economy, then we have to have a workable public transportation system.
"Imagine how much more attractive our area would be if our mass transit system was improved," she added. "The possibilities are enormous."
On Monday night this week, Donigan held a second town hall meeting on public transit, and this time she had more than abstractions to talk about. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is preparing to announce a preferred route and technology for a proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit transit line that is eligible for $100 million in federal funding. The organizers of Detroit's successful Super Bowl week in February are now prominent public transit advocates. Rising fuel prices have helped put alternatives to driving at the top of the list of public priorities in metropolitan Detroit.
And late last month came the most significant sign yet that Donigan's instinct to lead on public transit was on the mark. On April 20, Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm and the Republican leaders of the state House and Senate completed weeks of negotiation and reached a signal agreement on building roads and financing rapid transit.
For the first time in Michigan's history, the governor and the lawmakers tied rapid transit financing and road and highway construction together. They reached agreement on an infrastructure development pact that saw highways and transit as equally critical pieces of the state's development strategy.
It's unlikely, said public interest advocates, that the transit provisions of the accord would have been nearly as strong without Donigan's work.
"She's done a good job," said Megan Owens, director of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy organization in Detroit. "For too long transit has been ignored by most politicians. It's been a low priority. It isn't anymore. Marie has joined with many other groups and individuals. She's done impressive work to help raise the profile of transit and make it be seen as an important issue that must be addressed."
The first half of the novel agreement calls for the Legislature to amend and pass a House proposal to allow Michigan's local transit agencies to raise money for rapid transit projects. By approving the original version of House Bill 5560, introduced almost a year ago by Grand Rapids Republican Rep. Jerry Kooiman, Michigan preserves $100 million in federal funds to design and help build a proposed new rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and keeps $14.4 million more federal dollars earmarked for a streetcar or light rail line in Grand Rapids.
The public transit provisions of the agreement also include providing $1 million in state funds to maintain existing Amtrak passenger rail service in Michigan, and reinstating eight jobs in the state Department of Transportation connected to improving local bus agencies.
The roads and highway portion of the pact calls for spending $68.1 million in state funds on various projects throughout the state. Southeast Michigan will get $11.8 million to build new interchanges along Interstate 96 at Wixom Road, and at Latson Road in Livingston County. And there is $10 million to keep studying the proposed expansion of Interstate 75 in Oakland County, an investment that several state officials said in interviews was designed to mollify Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and essentially keep the disputed project alive.
Granholm and the Republican leaders House Speaker Craig DeRoche and Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema framed the accord as an economic stimulus package, an addition to the $400 million highway construction program announced earlier this year that Granholm said would generate some 7,000 jobs.
Donigan and other Democratic lawmakers were quick to note the partisan dimensions. Transit financing is seen as aiding Michigan's biggest cities, where most of the governor's supporters live. The road construction dollars, meanwhile, are being delivered to heavily Republican suburban districts.
There's nothing novel about relying on highway construction to generate jobs and votes, especially in a gubernatorial election year. But in the joint statement announcing the agreement, the negotiators broke new ground. In making such a big deal about mass transit, say transit agency professionals and advocates, Michigan crossed an ideological threshold to join Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, Oregon, North Carolina, Texas and other states that are strengthening their economic competitiveness by pursuing a strategy of simultaneously modernizing existing highways and building new rapid transit lines.
"The governor wants to make sure our state's economy has the maximum benefit of the best possible mobility options available," said Ben Kohrman, Granholm's transportation adviser, in an interview. "One of her priorities has always been to improve public transit all across the state, and southeast Michigan is a particular focus."
"Transportation infrastructure is a critical component of economic investment and growth," added Sen. Sikkema.
Though she's reluctant to take credit, Donigan played an important role as the deal took shape. She rallied Democratic colleagues in her party's legislative caucus meetings, urging them to focus on making sure that the $114.4 million in federal funds did not vanish, as they did in 1976 when metro Detroit rejected a regional rapid transit system that Washington would have paid for.
She had a long meeting with the governor's chief of staff, pushing him to consider the Detroit-Ann Arbor line a political and economic necessity. Donigan joined transit advocates in a meeting in Lansing with Granholm's transportation advisers, a gathering meant to display the expertise and influence of the statewide civic movement that supports rapid transit service in Michigan. And she spent a lot of time talking about the economic value of rapid transit to the media, in public appearances, in the Legislature.
The agreement that Granholm and the Republicans reached included everything that Donigan asked for. But like several other transit advocates in Michigan, when the details were made public, she wasn't sure what to think. Initially Donigan was disappointed because of the $10 million set aside for expanding I-75.
"My constituents don't like it. We don't need to expand I-75," Donigan said. "What we need is money for a light rail line up Woodward Avenue. That will do more to relieve congestion and expand the economy in this region."
But as she weighed the list of 20 road projects against the rapid transit provisions, her view changed. All of the road projects, she noted, have been in various stages of planning for years. Much more telling about the highway side of the agreement is what's not considered. There are no proposals to revive old and very expensive highway projects killed in the 1990s by citizen activism. The era of major new highway construction in Michigan ended in the 1990s, and the April 20 agreement did nothing to bring it back.
Instead, the governor and the legislative leaders took an essential step to open a new era of rapid transit construction in Michigan. "It moves us in the right direction," said Donigan. "In this state, that's what we need."
Keith Schneider is a journalist and deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute. See his other articles on transportation and rapid transit at mlui.org.