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Let there be mass transit

A faith-based coalition joins the fight against aprawl.

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Published 10/27/1999

Inside a Highland Park church, Victoria Kovari has issued a rallying cry to her Christian soldiers and anyone else willing to listen.

This isn’t about the Bible. It’s not a fire and brimstone sermon. It’s about a burning public policy issue of immediate relevance to metro Detroit: fostering social and economic equality in the region through public transportation.

At meetings like this, public transportation is a no-brainer. Compared to the costs of building and expanding highways, mass transit is an incredible bargain. For example, the Michigan Land Use Institute reports that establishing a rail line radiating out from Detroit to Pontiac, Ann Arbor and Mt. Clemens would cost $130 million, half the $260 million tab expected just for diverting traffic during the proposed $1.3 billion rebuilding of 11 miles of I-94.

Meanwhile, years of broken promises to merge the city and suburban bus systems, not to mention transit studies carried out by Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) but never acted upon, and missed opportunities for federal funding have left the public skeptical that reform efforts have any chance of success.

Politics and racism are invoked as central problems: The highway lobby has too much pull in Lansing, metro area residents love their automobiles and, some say under their breath, white suburbanites don’t want African-American Detroiters to have an easier time getting to the burbs.

Enter Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, or MOSES

"The only way we’re going to counteract all of this conservative and right wing – the people who are controlling the debate in the state of Michigan, the big money – is if we organize people," MOSES organizer Victoria Kovari told a gathering of roughly 30 people who attended a recent public transportation funding workshop. "None of this ‘Oh, go write a letter to your congressman’ junk. Not this ‘Oh go make a phone call to your Legislature’ bit. We know we have to be much more organized than that."

Grassroots power

About a year and a half ago, MOSES, which includes more than 50 southeast Michigan churches, began to work on urban sprawl issues with the Michigan Environmental Council, which in turn includes such organizations as the Michigan Land Use Institute. MOSES is now working closely with the institute and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice in an effort to change the statewide "roads only" transportation policy.

It’s part of a growing grassroots movement in Michigan and nationwide surrounding transportation and land use issues, says Keith Schneider, the land use institute’s executive director. Transportation and land use issues, he says – by cutting across geographical, racial, religious and other social boundaries – have resulted in some highly unconventional partnerships with political clout.

"In almost every state, there’s a recognition that … how we are civilizing ourselves is uncivilized," Schneider says. "Deep in the American character is a love for open space, and that which makes our nation great is being lost."

The issue is particularly acute in Michigan, where sprawl has drained Detroit of economic resources while at the same time creating more pollution and putting more distance between jobs and the unemployed.

"We’re spreading out at a rate seven times faster than population growth, and we can’t find another state in the country where it’s faster," says Schneider. "Our sprawl isn’t a function of population growth, it’s a function of people spreading out."

Michigan also has some of the hottest transportation activism, he adds.

"You have a growing, influential environmental advocacy communications and research organization in northern Michigan – that’s us, the Michigan Land Use Institute – partnering with an urban-based neighborhood, faith-based organization in order to advocate for changing public policy."

"We’re serious about this. We’re moving thousands and thousands of people. … You put those coalitions together and you can steam into Lansing. ... It’s one of the most hopeful progressive movements in this state."

Let my people ride!

Formed in 1997, MOSES is an organization that includes both urban and suburban churches. The group has taken on drugs and other issues affecting the urban poor. Its mission includes sustaining Detroit and the area’s older suburbs.

Members say public transportation is not only an issue of social justice, in terms of how it affects poor inner-city residents without cars, but an issue of increasing relevance to suburbia. The Rev. Stephen Jones, pastor of First Baptist Church of Birmingham and a member of MOSES, says older suburbs are beginning to lose residents and therefore tax revenue to far-flung urban sprawl.

MOSES organizer Janice Joseph says many suburban residents also want better public transportation.

"We have a lot of people in our community who need those minimum-wage jobs and with no transportation to get to where those jobs are," Joseph says. "We have a lot of senior citizens who have doctor’s appointments and no transportation to get there."

Stephen Hands is a 15-year-old student at Grosse Pointe South High School and co-founder of the group Transportation Riders United, which is supportive of MOSES. Hands says he rides a SMART bus to and from school and often takes a bus to after-school activities.

"It’s a way of life issue," says Hands, who is one of the region’s youngest transportation activists. "I look at any other city that has a good system of public transportation, and that city is a lot nicer."

Hands says better public transit could also mean less drinking and driving, which he says is a problem in Grosse Pointe.

These days, MOSES is busy networking, preparing for its Nov. 16 transportation summit at St. James Catholic Church in Ferndale. Activists want to send their message in such a way that even jaded public officials can’t ignore them.

"We want to bring together as many people across the cities and the suburbs of southeast Michigan as possible, to get them to unite behind the issue of increasing the funding for public transportation," says Kovari, who is helping to coordinate the summit. They’re inviting Gov. John Engler, key legislators, state transportation officials and U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.

Local leaders invited include Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and Macomb County Commission Chairman John Hertel. "Our strategy is to try to get these players on the same stage and try to create this regional unity around increased funding, with probably six or seven hundred people, or more, from all of our churches in the background, daring them to say no."

The activists are hardly without critics.

"What these environmentalists want to do is force people out of their cars," says Tony Milo, executive vice president of Michigan Road Builders Association. "Time and time again, people have (said) that they don’t want to be forced out of their cars."

If there’s a social problem with people who can’t afford cars, Milo says, that problem should be solved using state general fund dollars instead of transportation fund money.

High hopes

Other than heavy attendance at its summit, MOSES is aiming for two things: an increase in state public transportation funding from $170 million to at least $220 million per year, and the creation of a citizens review committee to assess the environmental and economic impact of all proposals submitted to SEMCOG for new roads or major road expansions requiring purchase of right-of-way. SEMCOG is responsible for planning regional transportation and allocating federal funds for local transportation projects.

Neither aim will be easily achieved. Although SEMCOG’s transportation committee has agreed to arrange for a subcommittee to study whether a citizens advisory committee is necessary and make a recommendation to the executive board, some board members argue that SEMCOG already assesses road projects’ environmental impacts and doesn’t need the committee.

As for MOSES’ request for a statewide increase in public transportation funding, Conan Smith, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), says it must be understood in the context of Michigan’s Constitution.

Smith says the state constitution requires that at least 90 percent of state transportation dollars be spent on roads and bridges. He says the rest can be used for public transportation, but that in a good year transit gets only 8 percent or 9 percent. And, he explains, transit gets funded only after money from the 1997 4-cent gas tax hike is taken out of the budget for other uses.

Currently, Smith says, the most public transit could reasonably expect to receive in Michigan would be $180 million annually – $40 million short of MOSES’ stated objective.

Kovari says what MOSES demands would require that the entire state transportation budget be increased from approximately $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion, and that public transit get a full 10 percent of that entire budget.

Because Michigan only allows up to 10 percent of its transportation budget to go for public transit, matching federal dollars are limited. Smith says the Republican-controlled Congress is already more likely to fund one-time capital improvements such as road repairs than public transit operating costs, even when it comes to grants that don’t require a state match. Of the roughly $800 million a year Michigan currently receives in federal transportation funding, he says, only about $30 million goes for public transit.

"There’s a belief that transit should pay its own way through the fare box," Smith says. "On the one hand, Republicans say (transit providers) can’t pay their own way because they’re inefficient. … Transit could charge $50 a ride, but who would we be serving at that point? Transit is for people who can’t afford cars."

Money and politics

Although the state’s constitutional cap on transit funding is the real problem, Smith says, organizing a ballot initiative to change that would be difficult, given that environmentalists in Michigan have only in recent years become involved in transportation issues. Instead, environmentalists and other transit activists are focusing on Public Act 51, which determines how approximately $2 billion in state gas and auto sales tax revenue is spent annually. State officials are revising the law, which expires in September 2000.

Gov. Engler has appointed a state transportation funding study committee made up of legislators and business types to examine Act 51 and make recommendations to the Legislature, which will have final say on the revised law. The committee, says Smith, has "no environmentalists, no transportation providers." Of Gov. Engler’s appointees and the Legislature, Smith says, "I’m not confident that the powers that be have the interests of public transportation in Detroit in mind."

His skepticism is even more understandable considering the power and influence of the Highway Building Lobby. According to an October 1998 study by MEC and the Sierra Club, the lobby – groups including Automobile Club of Michigan Political Action Council, County Road Association of Michigan Rural and Urban State and Highway PAC, Teamsters PACs, Michigan Road Builders Association PAC and Michigan Trucking Association PAC – contributed more than a $730,000 to state politicians, including soft money, during the previous election cycle. According to MEC, the highway lobby outspent public transportation and railroad interests by a ratio of more than 10-to-1. In addition to the highway lobby, public transit activists say a lack of local unity in terms of public transit in southeast Michigan hampers the region’s ability to attract state and federal money. At the local level, there’s the long-standing fight between Detroit Department of Transportation (D-DOT) and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART).

The "Big Four" – Archer, Patterson, McNamara and Hertel – also get a share of the blame for failing to bring about a D-DOT/SMART merger.

"We’re not going to get commitments for more money unless we make a move to improve service," Kovari says, "and that is defined (by the state) as consolidation or merger of the two systems."

Strength in numbers

In July, MOSES drew more than 400 people to a meeting at St. James Church. Kovari says all of those people raised their hands indicating they would be willing to not only attend the Nov. 16 summit, but bring friends.

Kovari says the organization hopes to draw between 600 and 700 people to its transportation summit.

"We know we can do this because we turned out about 3,000 people a couple of years ago around … drugs," Kovari said.

MEC’s Smith says even if MOSES attracts half the people they are expecting to attend the summit, it would represent an outpouring of support for mass transit on a scale metro Detroit has not seen in at least a decade.

"It is definitely the biggest push we’ve seen in a long time," Smith says. "MOSES has a tremendous reputation to mobilize a lot of people, because they are a faith-based organization and they do have this network of churches."

The coalition is affiliated with a Chicago-based national organizing network called the Gamaliel Foundation, which, according to MOSES’ literature, includes 41 other congregation-centered community organizations in 11 states and South Africa. The foundation provides training in church-based organizing, leadership, the spiritual basis for public ministries, among other services.

Kovari says part of MOSES’ strength comes from its broad geographical coverage of the Detroit area. First Baptist Church of Birmingham Pastor Jones says his is the first "middle ring" suburban church to join the coalition.

Kovari says the base of people in the older suburbs around Detroit is important in swaying political leaders. She says other suburban churches have indicated an interest in joining MOSES.

"We know we have to become much more powerful than we are now," she says.

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