November 19, 2005

Metro Detroit Leaders Eye More Mass Transit

"Late last month, to everybody’s surprise, the Oakland County [Mich.] 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 [as on road contruction and widening]," writes Keith Schneider at the Michigan Land Use Institute in Metro Times Detroit, a weekly "alternative" newspaper, reports.

It's hard to miss the symbolism of government officials in the heart of America's auto industry concluding that the region needs public transportation as much as it needs ever more and wider highways. After all, it was the 20th century lobbying of that same auto industry that was one factor in generating enormous public funding of road infrastructure compared to funds for mass transit. (Did you know that in the early 20th century, there was a trolley line running through Framingham from Worcester to Boston? In 1931, the B&W trolley line was replaced by Route 9.)

Kami Pothukuchi, who teaches urban planning at Wayne State, sees "geography and the economy in confrontation" in the Detroit area, Schneider says. "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," he notesAt the top of Pothukuchi's list: creating convenient, efficient and safe public transit networks - which, ironically, existed in the Detroit area a century ago.

"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?" Schneider asks. It's the same question we need to be asking in eastern Massachusetts. Encouraging better development patterns around existing mass transit stations is one way to better use the transportation resources we already have, but we need to be doing a lot more to better balance public funding between roadways for private vehicles and mass transportation.

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