Transit Oriented Boondoggle: The Problem With Detroit's Streetcar System

Investment in any kind of transportation should aid production, not consumption.
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Artist's rendering of the Grand Circus Park station for the M-1 Rail project in Detroit, Michigan. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

Artist's rendering of the Grand Circus Park station for the M-1 Rail project in Detroit, Michigan. (PHOTO: PUBLIC DOMAIN)

I had no idea what the term "transit oriented development" meant. The mayor and the city council members asked me a number of questions about urban planning and zoning. I fumbled T.O.D. I did well enough overall to be selected as a commissioner with the elder council member who revealed my blind spot chiding me to study transit oriented development. I did as advised.

The mayor appointed me despite my lack of urban planning or real estate development experience. I was the odd duck on the board, putting small city issues in the context of economic globalization. On the balance, I learned more than I contributed. And I discovered that urban planners have no idea what the term "international political economy" (I.P.E.) means. I wasn't going to tell city council what it should study.

As a blogger, I'm going to tell city council members across the country what they should study. Transit is a big expenditure for any city. I understand the benefits of T.O.D. I am willing to support a T.O.D. project if the I.P.E. rationale makes sense. A lousy argument for T.O.D.:

To keep young talent from leaving the state, the Michigan Municipal League is urging officials in Lansing to better fund cities and invest in mass transit options that would serve as long-term enticements.

In an hourlong meeting Monday with The Detroit News editorial board, league officials touted the “Partnership for Place: An Agenda for a Competitive 21st Century Michigan.” The plan, unveiled in early October, calls for an end to funding cuts in Lansing and more focus on transportation beyond roads and bridges.

The plan calls for a penny sales tax increase that would raise $900 million and be dispersed to municipalities through revenue sharing and a gas tax to raise $950 million in new transportation funds. In addition, the group wants the funding formula changed to distribute money based on pressing transit needs.

“People want to live in a great community, they want to live in a cool downtown. That’s an economic driver and so we need to change that conversation and get people to realize the importance of communities,” said Samantha Harkins, director of state affairs for the Municipal League. “It’s not just about maintaining a status quo. If we really want to have places that offer an urban experience for talented entrepreneurs and kids who graduated from U of M and Wayne State that are leaving every year, we need to be doing more, not less.”

Emphasis added. The provocation is brain drain. The revenue ask is almost $2 billion! It's extortion, not economic development.

Investment in any kind of transportation should aid production, not consumption. People follow jobs. Michigan puts a streetcar before education because somebody said a cool city would keep the prodigal daughter from moving to hated Ohio.

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