There are two major roadblocks to the success of Detroit’s revitalization: Detroit schools and regional transportation. It’s not a matter of choosing which one of these Detroit can do without because both are critical. On Wednesday afternoon, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan gave an impassioned pro-Detroit address to the Mackinac Policy Conference crowd, spelling out the ways in which Detroit has made significant progress, but then pointing directly at the monumental challenges facing Detroit Public Schools – and the entire Detroit educational system including charters and the Educational Achievement Authority – as a roadblock with the potential of derailing Detroit’s much-hyped progress. Without a functional school system, there will be no functional city.
Put more simply, failed children equal a failed city.
On Wednesday morning, a panel of experts discussed the other necessary piece of the puzzle, namely regional transportation. In November, voters in Southeast Michigan will vote on a 1.2 millage proposal to build a regional transit system that will add up to a tax of approximately $95 per resident per year for the next 20 years. If approved, the new system could be up and running within the next five years. If not, Southeast Michigan, and Detroit in particular, could find itself forced to the sidelines of its own good news recovery story. Sen. Gary Peters, one of the panelists, strongly emphasized the necessity of upgraded regional transportation in a later conversation.
“This is about empowering people to get from Point A to Point B. It’s about empowering the whole region economically because it’s pretty clear when you have a regional transit system that’s a powerful engine for economic growth,” he said. “That was part of our message to the business community is that we have to get all units of government to come together. It’s got to be federal, state, local.”
When asked what possible roadblocks stood in the way of proposed legislation that could make this vision a reality, Peters pointed to tax fatigue as one very real problem unless voters can be convinced that this is the way to go, even for those who don’t plan on using the new system, and even though it will cost them an estimated $95 per voter per year for the next 20 years. The best argument is what the alternative will look like if Detroit and the surrounding region votes against its own self-interest.
“Every successful major region has a successful regional transit system. They tend to go hand in glove. If we’re going to be competitive with the rest of the country, in attracting talent, attracting businesses and growing our businesses, we have to have the kind of amenities and services that people expect and are available in other cities.
“This new regional transport system is critical to Detroit’s revival. We’re seeing great strides happening in Detroit as redevelopment has occurred in the downtown area and along Midtown and we’ll see as the light rail is built, it will fill in the gap between Midtown and downtown as well with investment, which is happening already. And now we need to make sure that is getting out throughout the neighborhoods in the city as well. That’s why a transit system can’t just be down Woodward, it has to be throughout the region as well so we can fill up all those areas with economic development.
“We’re not gonna ask voters to vote for something that’s never been done before and hope that it will be successful. This is something that’s been done in cities across America to great success.”
One of the problems that has held back progress in the area of transportation for a number of years has been the long-embedded history of poor race relations and Detroit phobia that has used fear as a mechanism to cause some suburbanites to oppose regional transit out of fear that such a system would only export crime to their communities. Peters said such fears are not only unfounded but rather ridiculous.
“I’m not a police officer, but I would suspect most people think someone doesn’t commit a crime and then use the public bus as a getaway car. That’s not usually what happens. I think that would be pretty rare that your getaway vehicle is the public bus.”