When Transit Works
By Dave Dempsey
Just last June the Twin Cities, one of the Midwest's fastest growing metropolitan regions, celebrated the first anniversary of the Hiawatha Line, a light rail route linking downtown Minneapolis with the region’s airport and the Mall of America.
A few days later, the U.S. Census dropped Detroit — which has one of the worst public transportation systems of any major metropolitan region anywhere — from its list of America's 10 largest cities.
This is hardly a coincidence, as hundreds of transit advocates from across the nation gathered in Salt Lake City for the Rail-Volution Conference are learning. This weekend's conference celebrates the remarkable boost modern public transit systems are giving to dozens of American cities. There is no longer any doubt that a powerful link exists between effective public transit and a region's economy.
Minneapolis and Detroit offer prime examples. Minneapolis' Metro Transit reported six million rides in its first year of light rail, 61 percent higher than predicted. The Twin Cities regional population jumped nearly 3 percent since 2000, a healthy growth rate.
Meanwhile, the Census reported that Detroit, where a struggling network of buses are the only regional transit option, lost 50,000 residents since 2000, more than any other American city, returning Motown to its 1915 population.
One big reason for the stark difference is that, while Detroit's racially hostile city-suburban relationship frustrates efforts to develop regional transit, the Twin Cities's regional cooperation and steady pressure from transit advocates produced a more balanced transportation system.
Patience and Vision
But the Hiawatha line's arrival also shows how much effort it takes, even without racial divisiveness, to build quality transit. When it was first proposed in the 1970s, conservative politicians attacked light rail as a waste of taxpayer money. Now, however, Russ Adams of the nonprofit, Minneapolis-based Alliance for Metropolitan Stability says it is clear how wrong that claim was.
"The critics of light rail made a very bad miscalculation of the public's growing desire for transportation choices," Mr. Adams said. "Our region now recognizes what a terrible mistake it has been to focus on a single-solution approach."
The Metropolitan Council, a planning agency, provided a forum and official advocacy for light rail in the state Legislature. Finally, in the 1990s, the tide changed, thanks to patient advocacy, widespread opposition to freeway expansions by neighborhoods targeted for such projects, and a Minneapolis congressman who directed $334 million in federal funds to the $715 million Hiawatha light rail corridor.
The line, which began service on June 26, 2004, was an immediate hit. Metro Transit reports that it averaged 19,700 rides per weekday between January and May of this year, and that 57 percent of its riders use light rail at least five days a week.
Pragmatism vs. Partisanship
In fact, some observers say, the line is so popular that the Minnesota Legislature's inaction on additional transit during its 2003-2004 session may have cost 13 Republican members of the state House, many of whom opposed funding more transit, their jobs. The same trend was observed last November in Colorado, where voters replaced Republican lawmakers opposing Denver's $4.7 billion regional transit initiative and swung the state Legislature to the Democrats for the first time in a generation.
"Increasingly it's clear that pragmatists…best represent the interests of hard-pressed suburban commuters," the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune editorialized after last November's surprising local results. "Indeed, Twin Cities voters are happily discovering what's long been true elsewhere: Better transportation doesn't have to be a partisan issue."
Former Michigan Governor William G. Milliken, a moderate Republican, told southeast Michigan's leaders the same thing during his speech at the Mackinac Regional Conference, on Mackinac Island, in May.
Mr. Milliken knows the story well: In 1976, while he was governor, U.S. Transportation Secretary William Coleman offered $600 million in federal funds to build regional transportation in southeast Michigan. But distrust between the largely white suburbs and largely African-American Detroit doomed the proposal.
"It would have brought people together, to and from every point of the region," Mr. Milliken laments. "It would have helped people get to jobs."
Opposition to regional transit for metropolitan Detroit persists. Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm invoked Mr. Milliken's vision of "one Michigan" in her 2002 election campaign and appointed him to co-chair a panel that drew up a Smart Growth plan for the state in 2003 that includes transit. But suburban Republican state legislators prefer laying pavement, not rails.
Let's Get Together
Of course, successfully transit is no cure-all. Minnesota's Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty recently vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have provided an additional $200 million annually for transit by 2011, including a half-cent regional sales tax for expanded transit, bicycling, and walking in the Twin Cities region. Now large cuts in the region's bus system loom.
It's a strange decision: Public transit has helped the Twin Cities' metropolitan unemployment rate to register a strikingly low 3.7% in May 2005. Compare that to 7.5% unemployment in metro Detroit, the highest of any major metropolitan region. Business is flocking to Hiawatha light rail corridor. The Metro Council forecasts 7,150 new housing units, more than 19 million sq. ft. of new commercial space, and up to 68,000 new jobs by year 2020 along the Hiawatha line. Transit success has shifted the conversation among Twin Cities residents from whether to where to build the next line.
Meanwhile, Mr. Milliken says the failure of metropolitan Detroit to capitalize on the 1976 federal transit offer is among his chief regrets. Pointing to Toronto and Chicago, two cities that developed outstanding regional transit systems and now thrive economically, he asserts that Michigan would be "light years ahead" had its most populous region embraced a regional transit plan 30 years ago.
David Dempsey, the Great Lakes policy advisor for Clean Water Action and a consultant to the Michigan Environmental Council, is the author of Ruin and Recovery: Michigan's Rise as a Conservation Leader, and On The Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century. Reach him at email@example.com.
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