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Cover Story

Roads not working

Crumbling highways, snarled traffic and shrinking budgets — why we need light rail

Highway guy: Oakland County's Brent O. Bair.
Pushing transit: State Rep. Marie Donigan.
MT photo: Bruce Giffin
Kami Pothukuchi wants Wayne State more involved with mass transit.
MT photo: Bruce Giffin
SEE ALSO
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Metro Times Online Discussion - Transit Crisis
Keith Schneider hosted an online discussion about the traffic crisis in Southeastern Michigan on November 18. This is a transcript of that discussion.

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Published 11/16/2005

Brent O. Bair is a highway and car guy. Tall, silver-haired, earnest and big enough to have played tackle on a college defensive line, he’s been with Oakland County’s Road Commission for 28 years, 12 of them as the agency’s managing director. That career, marked by engineering discipline and certainty, has spanned much of the 50-year road construction era that produced two unmistakable results in southeast Michigan.

All that pavement — 2,700 miles of county roads and 230 miles of state highways that Bair is responsible for maintaining, plus 2,700 more miles overseen by local governments — helped Oakland County attract more than 700,000 jobs and become a place of well-to-do engineers and executives tied to the auto industry who enjoy good public schools, beautiful parks and subdivisions full of expensive homes.

But Oakland County’s freeways and local roads also contributed to the second result: emptying Detroit, and spreading homes, businesses, churches, schools and everything else across a seven-county metropolitan region. Some 300,000 people who live outside Oakland County drive there to work. “Our commuting pattern is suburb-to-suburb, and has been that way for a long time now,” Bair says.

But the great road- and highway-building era ended with the 20th century, and, five years into the 21st, Bair confronts a uniquely messy new challenge. It’s not just that the very same highway network that fostered Oakland County’s development is cracked with age, jammed with vehicles and blamed for wounding the county’s economic competitiveness. It’s also this:

Bair says he has $18 million a year to spend on widening and repairing roads — about enough to turn three miles of a two-lane road into a five-lane boulevard. He says he really needs about $150 million a year. That latter sum prompted a county-sanctioned business group to propose raising the money through new sales, property and gas taxes. Predictably, Oakland County’s conservative, anti-tax Republican leadership hasn’t embraced that campaign.

Although the GOP’s anti-tax ideology is, for the moment, trumping its business-at-any-cost predilections, the enormous expense associated with all things having to do with roads is inviting a new reckoning about transportation investments. Oakland County and the state, for instance, are united in their zeal to reconstruct feeder roads and widen an 18-mile portion of I-75 from Eight Mile to M-59, at a cost currently projected to be roughly $1 billion.

But late last month, to everybody’s surprise, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, by a near-unanimous vote, approved a resolution urging the county to much more seriously consider spending at a similar magnitude on a regional public transit system. The issue, in a new century of deficit, uncertainty and change is: Which is the wiser investment?

Road warriors

Twenty miles from Bair’s office, Kami Pothukuchi, an associate professor of urban planning at Wayne State, considers issues related to transportation and the economy from a different vantage. Pothukuchi, who is tiny, brainy and brazen in her own quiet way, was 23 years old when she immigrated by herself from Bombay, India, to take a fellowship in architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan. Over the next eight years she earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate, spent time early in her career as a planner in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and then joined the faculty at Wayne State.

As a planner, Pothukuchi devotes her time to understanding how and where the things people build influence the way a region operates. In contrast to Bair, whose responsibility is to build and maintain roads that move people from here to there quickly and safely, Pothukuchi asks whether there is coherence in how homes, jobs, churches, supermarkets and the like are set on the landscape and linked together.

And when Pothukuchi looks at Detroit and its suburbs, including Oakland County, she sees the geography and the economy in confrontation. The very same conditions that fostered Detroit’s decline and the rise of suburban sprawl — cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes and massive government spending for roads and water systems — have all been transformed. Gasoline prices are rising fast. Road construction costs have gone out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure.

The urgent issue facing everybody in southeast Michigan is whether these are temporary trends. If not, Pothukuchi says, it might be time to ask whether metro Detroit should follow the lead of a number of competing regions and embrace a new economic development strategy.

At the very top of the list of priorities, Pothukuchi says, is building a modern, efficient, safe and convenient public transit network, like those that existed in the Detroit region early in the 20th century. That goal, which is actually being achieved in Denver, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis and many more cities, has eluded southeast Michigan.

In 1976, Detroit and its suburbs even rejected $600 million in federal transit funds to build a regional system, one of the gravest mistakes Michigan made in the late 20th century. Last June, in a speech to business and political leaders on Mackinac Island, former Republican Gov. William G. Milliken traced southeast Michigan’s flagging competitiveness to that decision. “Construction of a truly regional transportation system would have put Detroit and its neighbors light years ahead of where we are today,” he said.

Pothukuchi, like other regional transit advocates, hasn’t given up. She’s just decided to take much smaller steps, particularly at her own school, to make the case that public transit can play a crucial role in the region’s way of life. A Wayne State survey of students, faculty and staff earlier this year found that 98 percent of the 5,581 people who responded said developing more mass transit in the region was crucial, and two-thirds said they would take a bus to campus if it were convenient. The Wayne State Board of Governors considered that finding and, prodded by attorney Richard Bernstein, one of its members, voted unanimously in September to form a transit committee.

Pothukuchi is working hard to influence the committee, which has yet to be formed. She drafted a proposal urging the university to appoint students, faculty and staff to the panel, and charge it with figuring out how to make it easier to take public transit and share rides to the campus.

Pothukuchi, who is bidding to be a committee member, says her goal is to help make Wayne State one of the rare Detroit institutions that’s actually involved in developing a transportation alternative for tens of thousands of students and employees, 80 percent of whom commute, primarily alone, in private vehicles. The trip, in cars and trucks that consume pricey fuel on congested highways, is not a highlight of the day. Coupled with Wayne State’s 18.5 percent tuition hike this year, rising commute costs are squeezing students financially like never before.

“In my own life I feel it,” Pothukuchi says. “It’s getting more expensive to commute. Traffic is getting worse. I spend between two and three hours each day on the road. I don’t really have an alternative. My husband and I were determined not to buy two cars when I first took this job. Living in this region, can you imagine how foolhardy that is?”

Driven to decay

As symbols of the shared strength that made the American way of life in the 20th century possible and prosperous, arguably none have been more important than roads, and the vehicles driven on them. How a creative people and a restless nation moved around proved to be the essential element of our national identity and the economy. Almost every aspect of the American way tied back to highways and cars because, more than any other inventions of the last 100 years, these two tools determined where most of us lived and worked.

But what if in the 21st century something inconceivable is occurring? What if highways and cars are emerging as symbols of America’s shared vulnerability? And what if the Detroit region’s ravaged highways, slow population growth, high unemployment rate, rash of industrial bankruptcies and static home values are not indicators of a temporary recession? What if these and other measures of declining competitiveness, like dogs barking before a storm, are really unmistakable signs of an economic maelstrom that is swamping Michigan’s most populous region?

Is the persistent pursuit of a way of life built on highways and cars actually a mad dash to economic decline?

Bair, and most of his executive colleagues in Oakland County’s government agencies, view such questions as impertinent, if not plain old foolish. The county has the fourth highest per capita income in the nation and, after losing 52,000 jobs from 2001-04, has attracted 17,000 new jobs and added a few thousand new residents. Bair notes that in 1981, Michigan’s laid-off autoworkers migrated to Texas to look for jobs in the oil fields. Lee Iacocca asked Congress to bail out Chrysler.

“Talk about tough times!” Bair says, noting Michigan’s deep Rust Belt recession a generation ago. “Will things change? Sure, they always do. But other states are not as closely tied to a single industry as is Michigan, and thus are weathering this time better.”

As for building a modern regional transit system, Bair says Oakland and the rest of southeast Michigan are too spread out and “beyond the point of being able to build a transit system,” a contention that is much in dispute, judging by the success in building new transit lines in many other spread-out regions (Sacramento, Calif., St. Louis, and Atlanta, among a few).

Can Oakland County be successful without a much better transit system? “Oakland County got as successful as it is without an extensive transit system,” Bair says. “Oakland County can continue the way it has for the next 20 or 30 years and be the state’s economic engine. I don’t think anybody will take that away from us.”

Listing badly

Pothukuchi is like thousands of people — citizens, business execs, local elected leaders — who aren’t nearly as bullish about Oakland County’s prospects, or the region’s. By almost every major measurement of economic and social well-being, southeast Michigan is either at the top of lists it doesn’t want to be on, or at the bottom of lists it does. Some measures are familiar. The region has the highest unemployment in the nation, the highest rate of racial and economic segregation, the highest rate of out-migration by young, educated adults, one of the highest rates of sprawling development. It also has the slowest rate of population growth of any the country’s largest metropolitan areas; there are roughly 4.8 million residents in southeast Michigan’s seven counties, just 100,000 more than in 1970. And, according to the May issue of Forbes magazine, only seven other metropolitan regions in the country were doing worse in attracting new jobs. Two of those, by the way, also were in Michigan.

Last February, L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County’s outspoken executive, took a look at those very same measures, and insisted in a public appearance that they had nothing to do with his community’s well-being. “The state of Oakland County is excellent and our future is blindingly bright,” he said.

Outside of county government, business executives wonder how he can reach that conclusion. The auto industry’s continued decline is a big concern. So is a slowdown in the real estate market. It takes an average of 80 days to sell a house in the county, and home prices in many communities are falling. In interviews, executives say they’re having trouble recruiting bright young people to the region. And the need for an alternative to getting around in private vehicles is often cited as a chief concern.

Those views are shared by the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition, two heavyweight business organizations that four years ago introduced the idea of a regional rapid bus system called Speedlink. The system would use modern buses that resemble light-rail cars, run fixed routes on existing roads, and could be built for $2 billion. The idea, though, has languished, just like other regional transit ideas, a disappointment to its promoters. MAC chairman J. Terry McElroy called the need to think differently about regional transportation and the economy a “critical imperative,” and added this warning: “Work together regionally or fail together regionally.”

While many political leaders resist that idea, southeast Michigan’s competitors across the country are wrapping their arms around regional economic development strategies designed to make them better performers in the national and global markets. In almost every case, the new regional economies are based not on adding new highways, more vehicles and sprawl, but on building nodes of commerce and housing around the station stops of new public transit systems.

Take the 10-county Salt Lake City region, the largest metropolitan area in the most conservative state in the country, and one of the most prosperous. Eight years ago a steel industrialist named Robert J. Grow co-founded Envision Utah, a regional, not-for-profit, “quality growth” planning organization intended to introduce the Salt Lake region’s 1.6 million people to two big ideas: First, the hypergrowth that overtook Utah in the 1990s would continue until 2050 and push the region’s population to 5 million people. Second, it was up to the citizens of 10 Wasatch Front counties, where 80 percent of Utahans live, to figure out how best to accommodate all of those new people in ways that will make their communities more beautiful, prosperous, economical and neighborly.

But it’s not just in places with booming economies that this is happening. Mass transit has also been added in areas like St. Louis and Cleveland, which face demographic and economic situations similar to those of the Detroit region. St. Louis built a light-rail line in the early 1990s and is expanding it now.

Progressive ... Utah?

In October, Grow spent a day in Michigan to explain how Salt Lake City is achieving its mass transit goals. The region has built 19 miles of light-rail transit lines, is constructing 44 miles of commuter rail, and has purchased enough rail right-of-way for a 300-mile regional transit system. Dozens of communities have rewritten their master land-use plans, and several have new zoning requirements that prompt builders to construct new homes and businesses within walking distance of planned transit stops.

Businesses are building in lively centers of commerce that not long ago were car-choked runways of fast food and big-box sprawl. New parks are appearing. New programs are conserving thousands of acres of farmland and open space. And communities are mixing homes the working class can afford with those for the wealthy. Salt Lake City is doing this by steadily replacing the market incentives and political decisions that produced the 20th century’s suburban sprawl with new incentives and more thoughtful government decisions designed to bring people closer together. The benefits, Grow said, are self-evident.

Utah-commissioned studies showed that building public transit instead of highways, designing more walkable communities around transit stops, and building many more-affordable apartments and townhouses, would reduce the average housing lot from .37 acres to .29 acres. Just that one, tiny, .06-acre change saved more than 125 square miles — or 80,000 acres — of land across the region, much of it farmland. Taxpayers also expect to save $15.5 billion by 2025 because they decided to invest in new rail and rapid bus lines and are reining in expensive, high-maintenance, sprawl-spreading water, sewer and road construction.

Residents liked those numbers so much that in 2000, voters in the three largest counties approved a sales tax increase — an extra 25 cents for every $100 spent — to generate $43 million annually. The local money is leveraging billions more in federal dollars to build the transit lines.

“Land use and transportation defines the way people live and how communities grow,” Grow told his audience in Grand Rapids. “We looked at what was happening in our region and asked ourselves, ‘What are we doing to our children’s future?’ We were laying on the backs of our children the responsibility to pay for all of this. We’re dooming our children to not live near us.”

Denver on board

Salt Lake City isn’t going alone in using this approach. Denver is 10 years into building what Joe Blake, head of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, called “a city of the future” — one that follows the routes of a new public transit network.

From 1994 to 2001, the Denver region built 16 miles of light-rail line. Next year, 19 more new miles of light rail will connect the downtown to its southeastern suburbs. And last November, by a 58 percent-42 percent margin, the region’s voters approved a new, $4.7 billion sales tax that will vastly expand the system, adding 119 more miles of light and commuter rail, 18 miles of rapid bus routes and 57 new stations.

The success of Denver’s new growth strategy — investing billions in its modern FasTracks public transit system — is a lesson in governance, economics, social values and politics. Achieving anything close to a similar result in southeast Michigan requires a kind of dual regional psychology that understands the urgency of Michigan’s economic condition, but uses statesmanship and patience to improve it.

In interviews, Denver leaders said swift population growth, congested freeways and out-of-control sprawl provided the urgency. The seven-county Denver region is likely to grow to 3.5 million people in the next 20 years, 1 million more than today. But translating that urgency into action took 12 years of patient, hard work. A galvanizing event was a 1992 report by the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the region’s primary planning agency. The comprehensive study on growth and congestion recommended that Denver follow the lead of Portland, Ore., St. Louis, and San Diego, and build a mass transit system.

The technical competency of the Regional Transit District (RTD) — the public transit agency — also helped. Widely regarded as one of the country’s best-run and best-managed operators of bus and train systems, the RTD spent $100 million of its own money in 1994 to build a 5.3-mile downtown starter rail line on time and on budget. Six years later, with $35 million more of its own money and $132 million in federal funds, RTD extended the line 8.7 miles to suburban Littleton, also on budget and on time. In 2001, the agency added nearly two miles more to link the suburbs to the city’s downtown sports stadiums.

With each addition, ridership increased. Tens of thousands of Denver residents happy with RTD’s safe, convenient and cost-effective service said they wanted more.

Perhaps most importantly — and this is the lesson southeast Michigan most needs to learn — the region’s elected leaders understood that, though every community has self-interests, all wanted to ensure their common economic health and quality of life. A rare unity of purpose emerged.

“We had meetings early on while we prepared the campaign for FasTracks in which we agreed not to criticize each other in public, no matter what,” says Melanie Worley, a Republican Douglas County commissioner who is a Michigan native. “The public, and any opponents, no matter how influential they were, had to see we were truly united for this to succeed.”

What’s happening in Denver, Salt Lake City and other metropolitan regions represents the full flowering of a new economic development strategy that fits the conditions of the 21st century, not the 20th. Cities are developing in a way that ties housing, jobs, recreation and retail businesses together, not by building new highways, but by repairing those that exist and adding steel rails and other public transit. It’s a strategy that nearly 30 American cities have embraced by building new, regional, light and commuter rail lines since the late 1980s, according to the Federal Transit Administration. In every case, ridership exceeded initial expectations and regional economies have flourished. Even car-happy Houston is now building a 73-mile rail network.

“The decision here by voters to pay a little more to build a regional transit system is going to define what the Denver region will be in this century,” says the Chamber’s Blake, a conservative Republican and close ally to Gov. Bill Owens. “What we’ve built so far already has influenced where businesses locate, where housing is built, where people decide to live and how they get to work. It’s a very smart decision and people are excited about it. They know it is the right thing to do.”

Surveying our scene

In southeast Michigan, public opinion polls have found very strong support for building a modern public transit system. A comprehensive survey completed in 2004 by the University of Michigan’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning found that 46 percent of Detroit suburbanites surveyed “would be strongly in favor” of making public transit available in their neighborhoods, and another 39 percent would be “somewhat in favor.” Three years ago, an opinion survey of 2,000 citizens by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments found residents were very dissatisfied with public transit service and wanted improvements.

On that front, there have been small signs of movement. A transit line planned between Ann Arbor and Detroit, with a stop at Metro Airport, received a $100 million earmark from Congress last summer, and is in the early stages of research and planning. Much of the money is designated for design and engineering. Constructing the line on 50 miles of existing right-of-way could cost $500 million, or about what 15 miles of freeway costs to build now. But once built, the line could operate indefinitely without having to be rebuilt like highways. (For instance, the heavily used Paoli Local, which carries commuters from Philadelphia to its Main Line suburbs, travels on track that was installed in 1922.)

Communities along Woodward Avenue are forming a committee to look at what it would take to build a light-rail line from downtown Detroit to Pontiac. The suburban SMART bus system is experiencing steady growth in ridership.

Wayne State has held two forums on public transit where representatives from the region’s two bus systems and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments talked about alternatives for getting to the campus.

On Oct. 27, by a vote of 20-3, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved a nonbinding resolution to support “a solid investment in quality transit in Southeast Michigan as a proven and powerful tool to alter current development patterns and build vitality in our existing communities.”

Freshman state Rep. Marie Donigan, a former Democratic city commissioner in Royal Oak, has also emerged this year as one of the prominent and ardent transit advocates in the Legislature, where she heads up a bipartisan transit caucus. On Nov. 14, she led a “tour de transit” along Woodward Avenue. General Motors loaned her a hybrid bus so she could show state lawmakers and civic leaders the strengths and weaknesses of the current system.

“We absolutely need better public transportation in southeast Michigan and throughout the state if we have any hope of competing with other states and cities for new industry, good-paying jobs and an influx of young people and new families,” she says.

Donigan’s colleagues in Oakland County’s opposing party have already made it clear they have no interest in helping at all. State Sen. Shirley Johnson of Troy leads the Legislature’s work to cut public transit funding. House Speaker Craig DeRoche, a Republican from Novi, calls any transportation investment other than roads “social engineering.” Patterson has called the research dollars spent to study the proposed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit transit line a “waste of money” that would be better spent on roads.

But when it comes to weighing the overall value of expanding the region’s road network against constructing a public transit system, the case for roads is not as solid as proponents say. Why? Because roads are tremendously expensive to build, costly to maintain and don’t last very long. In a state and region no longer able to afford massive road construction, it’s a good moment to wonder whether a way of life that continues to be so devoted to building roads and highways is throwing good money after bad.

Still, roads take up an awful lot of political space. For the time being, the No. 1 highway priority that leaders of both parties are lining up to support in southeast Michigan is rebuilding and widening an 18-mile stretch of I-75 from Eight Mile to M-59. That portion of the highway was built in the 1960s at a cost of about $1 million to $2 million a mile.

Rebuilding I-75 and adding a fourth lane in both directions is currently projected to cost $30 million to $35 million a mile, or between $540 million and $630 million. The project’s environmental impact statement also describes the need to improve and expand 56 miles of county roads that feed I-75, at a cost estimated at $500 million more. The total project cost, then, is now more than $1 billion. How close that price tag is to the actual cost in 2011, when the project is scheduled to get under way, is anybody’s guess.

But it’s not at all certain when rebuilding that section of I-75 will happen. Because the federal government requires a 20 percent match, Michigan, which owns the road, would have to come up with at least $100 million in state funds and maybe much more than that — a formidable sum in a state where road dollars are already scarce, and competition is ever keener. Oakland County, largely responsible for the feeder routes, would also have to contribute about $100 million for its share of the project.

Higher fuel prices, moreover, are adding to the state’s road-building trouble. Michigan’s gas tax is 19 cents a gallon. The revenue is put in a fund and disbursed statewide for all kinds of transportation investments. As gas prices have increased, people are driving less, and tax revenues are falling. In the year ending Aug. 30, gas tax revenues totaled $923.7 million, according to the state, $21.3 million less than in the previous 12-month period.

So the I-75 reconstruction is a useful metaphor for an economic development strategy that arguably is running into a dead end.

A student of history can follow the story line. In a prior century, a rich country and a wealthy region develop a culture and an economy distilled by two inventions: highways and cars. Miles of new highways are built, and an armada of private vehicles uses them to move from city to suburban home to suburban jobs. Prosperity abounds.

Then things change. Roads get old. Costs go up. Society’s willingness to pay goes down. The old development strategy steadily erodes a region’s well-being. A new one is needed.

That’s where Detroit and its suburbs are today. For the first time since Michigan and its largest metropolitan region launched the road-dominated transportation and economic development strategy six decades ago, two critical questions have become priorities:

• Is Michigan’s roads-only transportation system obsolete?

• And is a policy designed more than 60 years ago — one that gives short shrift to alternatives — flexible and creative enough to keep the state’s economy and quality of life competitive in this century?

Based on the conditions in southeast Michigan, and the experiences of other metro regions that are fast developing new designs for growth, the answer to the first is probably. The answer to the second is a clear no. A smart region, interested in its well-being, would do something about it.

See Also:
Metro Times Online Discussion - Transit Crisis
Keith Schneider hosted an online discussion about the traffic crisis in Southeastern Michigan on November 18. This is a transcript of that discussion.

This article is part of "Roads Not Working," a continuing series about transportation issues in southeast Michigan.

Writer and editor Keith Schneider is deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group in Beulah. Send comment to letters@metrotimes.com.

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