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

1:40 PM EDT on September 21, 2011

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.

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.

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