Can the Feds Fix Detroit’s Uniquely Terrible Transit System?

There is no better evidence of the sharp social divisions that continue to haunt metro Detroit than the appalling state of its transit system.

When it comes to public transportation, residents of the city of Detroit and suburbanites live in a state of government sanctioned apartheid. They ride fully separate systems, with fully separate sets of maps and noncooperating administrations.

Can Detroit and its suburbs cooperate on a regional transit system in order to draw $300 million in federal funding for light rail? Photo: ##http://drpinna.com/empty-city-streets-now-detroit-17347## DrPenna.com##

Here, urban-suburban tensions are so intense, multiple tries over decades have failed to produce a unified regional transit system. Instead, the suburbs are served by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) and the city of Detroit is served by the Detroit Department of Transportation.

And it’s not just a logistical nightmare for riders, it’s a major obstacle to the region’s economy. There is no regional vision for transit, because Detroit — unlike every other major city in the country — still lacks a regional transit system.

But now the federal government is stepping in to help remedy the situation and it’s holding a $300 million bargaining chip. The Federal Transit Administration recently called experts together to brainstorm ways to improve and unify Detroit’s transit system, and Crain’s Detroit reports that FTA chief Peter Rogoff has followed that event up with closed-door meetings to help bring about regional solution. Apparently, the federal government has some concerns about turning over the grant funds needed to realize Detroit’s Woodward Corridor light rail plans with the transit system in its current state.

For one, the light rail line is intended to extend beyond the city limits into some of the northern suburbs.

“[An RTA] has to happen for the project to achieve its broader utility,” Rogoff told Crain’s. Rogoff also told Crain’s he was concerned that Detroit would raid money from bus transit service in order to support the rail expansion, which is prohibited under the terms of the federal transit grants.

Meanwhile, like most transit systems across the country, both of metro Detroit’s are suffering. But the redundancies that are part of Detroit’s two-system solution only worsen the landscape for the region’s carless masses.

The city of Detroit, for example, has no dedicated revenue stream supporting transit operations. The service is supported by the city’s general funds — also an exceptional case among major cities.

Meanwhile, job opportunities and essential services don’t stop at the city borders. Job sprawl has intensified in recent years. More than three-quarters of the region’s jobs are located at least 10 miles from the urban core. Meanwhile, fully one-third of Detroit households lack access to a private automobile.

“They’re depending on the buses to get them where they need to go,” said Owens. “They’re losing jobs, because if they can’t get to a job on time, they’re going to lose that job.”

Fortunately, however, in addition to federal calls for a regional transit system, unification has supporters in high places at the state level as well. According to Crain’s, the push for a regional transit system is echoed by Governor Rick Snyder. His efforts have produced a level of support, as well, among key officials in the suburbs and city. Still some disagreements remain, however, about the governing structure of the proposed regional agency and the terms of the agreement with union employees.

Ultimately, however, it was this kind of squabbling that killed promising efforts at integration last year and in 2005. Developing a cohesive transit agency or regional vision in Detroit has without a doubt been complicated by its history of racial segregation. Detroit is roughly 82 percent African American, which makes it America’s blackest major city. By maintaining separate transit systems for its suburbs and city, the Detroit region maintains essentially segregated transit service.

“Race is definitely an underlying issue with any regional efforts in this region,” said Megan Owens of the local advocacy group Transit Riders United. “There’s a great deal of mistrust between city and suburban leaders. There are some folks out in the suburbs who still are afraid of transit because they think black folks from the city are going to take the bus out and steal their television.”

But Owens is hopeful a regional transit system could help heal some of those scars. “It’s really easy to maintain misperceptions of what people are like if you live in a bubble and then you get in a metal box and drive to an office building where everyone looks like you,” she said.

Governor Snyder is planning an address on the issue in October, Owens said. She is hopeful a new system will emerge before the end of the year.

Detroit is counting on about $318 million from the feds in order to build the $528 million project. Rogoff has indicated that the lack of a regional transit agency would not necessarily preclude the city from receiving any federal funds. But he did indicate he’d like to see progress toward a regional system when the funds are awarded.

Owens and other transit advocates are cautiously optimistic that this time will be different.

“The fact that there is such interest and momentum from the governor [and] the Detroit City Council really does give me hope that we can break past these barriers and some of the self-centered politics that have blocked it in the past,” she said.

  • The feds can help, but only if the region decides we want to work together first.

    Although the bifurcation of the bus systems is indeed a legacy of city-suburb segregation, it should be noted that Detroit residents make up the majority of suburban SMART bus riders, since the system provides a lifeline to suburban jobs.

    Another particularly unfortunate aspect of regional policy is the “opt-out” provision, under which many suburban communities opt not to participate in SMART. As a result, SMART buses travel through the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills without stopping, and never even approach major regional centers like Novi’s 12 Oaks Mall and the Suburban Collection Showplace conference center.

  • The feds can help, but only if the region decides we want to work together first.

    Although the bifurcation of the bus systems is indeed a legacy of city-suburb segregation, it should be noted that Detroit residents make up the majority of suburban SMART bus riders, since the system provides a lifeline to suburban jobs.

    Another particularly unfortunate aspect of regional policy is the “opt-out” provision, under which many suburban communities opt not to participate in SMART. As a result, SMART buses travel through the wealthy suburb of Bloomfield Hills without stopping, and never even approach major regional centers like Novi’s 12 Oaks Mall and the Suburban Collection Showplace conference center.

  • If nothing else, I hope that Administrator Rogoff teaches Detroit an important lesson: well-connected local politicans aren’t the ones to do this.  He did us a favor in bringing transit professionals to Detroit — people who understand the implementation-level details of developing a transit system.

    Gary Thomas, Cal Marsella, etc. are not the Brooks Pattersons and John Hertels of their regions.  Rather, they are career professionals who understand the BUSINESS of transit as much the politics of transit.  In Detroit, we seem to think that complex solutions will magically appear if we throw the “right” politicians at the challenge.

    Not likely.  Transit is a pretty involved undertaking.  And it’s not a simple matter of passing it off to the hallowed private sector.  Imagine if we hired transit professionals to run our transit systems.  Then we’d be off to a good start.

  • Todd Scott

    Calling Metro Detroit’s transit system “government sanctioned apartheid” and “segregated” is offensive. Yes we have transit issues, but we don’t need the media spinning this into something it is not. A little research would have found this not to be true.

    The SMART system also serves the city and tries to avoid poaching DDOT ridership.  DDOT even has modest service to some suburban areas. I noted this 11 months ago on Streetsblog. 

    The statement “There is no regional vision for transit” is also incorrect. The regional vision — approved by the 3 counties and city of Detroit — is on-line at http://www.detroittransit.org/cms.php?pageid=69

  • Karen

    My parents live outside of Detroit and during law school I interned for the summer in downtown Detroit and took the SMART bus. It would pick people up in the Grosse Pointes, just outside of Detroit, and then stop picking anyone up as soon as it crossed the border and drove through Detroit several more miles to the downtown. I could not believe it. I also do not think the statements about “government sanctioned apartheid” and “segregated” are untrue. What I think is offensive is the history of racism and the racist policies that continue to this day.

    There were explicitly racist housing policies in Grosse Pointe that came to light in a 1960 civil suit, whereby African Americans and Asians were automatically disqualified from purchasing and it was extremely difficult for Jews and Southern Europeans to qualify. A few weeks before he was killed, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the Grosse Pointe high school (now Grosse Pointe South) about two Americas, such as Grosse Pointe and Detroit. About 200 bigots protested outside (also about 2,000 people went to listen to him) and the local woman coordinating the visit was told her child had been kidnappe  to terrorize her for working to bring him to tell hard truths that needed to be told. This July, the L.A. Times ran an article contrasting Mitt Romney’s inaction on civil rights with his father’s leadership in that area. It discussed the elder Romney marching with an anti-segregation march in 1963 and then getting angry letters from racist whites. Where was this march, where he was pictured alongside a man with a sign about having been discriminated against in that city/cluster of five cities? Grosse Pointe.

    It has been nearly 50 years and there has been improvement, but those attitudes didn’t just melt a way. Most people in power nowadays know they can’t publicly proclaim that the motivation for policies with racist (and classist) effects is racism without there being an uproar — or a court acting since then there would be proof of racist intent. Growing up in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s there, I witnessed police harassment of people for being black and heard a lot of among people in Grosse Pointe. The area is still extremely segregated, though in the last 10 years or so, Grosse Pointe has been slightly more integrated and it is slowly improving.

    In 2005, when Grosse Pointers were in a tizzy about out-of-district enrollment in schools, the school board president told the Detroit
    Free Press, “This is a community that is very uncomfortable with
    diversity.” I don’t doubt for a second that that racism and classism are major reasons (if not the sole reason) for a bus policy whereby the buses drives right past everyone in Detroit and fail to pick them up, but manages to coordinate among the different suburbs. 

  • Jarrett Walker

    Understood, but as a devil’s advocate: Regional transit agency agreements are coming under a lot of strain in many urban areas of the US, especially where suburb-dominated boards routinely outvote the interests of the central city. There are actually a lot of benefits to a core city government controlling its transit system, notably the ability to integrate transit with traffic, parking, and land use thinking more easily. San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, which includes both transit and traffic/parking, is a great example.

    There is also nothing intrinsically wrong with transit coming out of the general fund as long as that fund is big enough. The US model of separate transit agencies with their own funding streams is actually unusual in the Anglophone developed world. Again, Detroit should be aware of the downsides before it puts a suburban majority in charge of its transit system. Suburban and urban transit demands and expectations are intrinsically different, and a lot of harm is done when one side imposes its model on the other.

    It’s not hard for a complex metro area to make its transit systems cooperate while retaining subregional or municipal control, if that’s important enough to everyone. Greater Toronto is a good example, with regional planning of truly regional issues but mostly municipal or sub-regional control.

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