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Willow Run's Future Planes and Trains

Visionary want to revive southeast Michigan's flagging economy with an Airport City

By Keith Schneider

Tipped against a wall in Mulu Birru's office is a large piece of cardboard with a map of western Wayne County pasted to its surface.

Black lines trace an L-shaped swath of ground roughly bounded by Willow Run Airport on the west, Detroit Metropolitan Airport on the south, Michigan Avenue on the north, and Inkster and Taylor to the east. More important, the lines trace a revolutionary plan to revive southeast Michigan's economy and reverse Detroit's 50-year population decline.

The idea is to build neighborhoods that will attract talented people and innovative businesses from around the world and to build the transportation infrastructure—commuter rail, light rail, and rapid bus lines—that will enable people, goods, and ideas to swiftly cross the region and circle the globe. Airport City would be a crossroads of regional, national, and international commerce and a great place to live, work, and play.

The Airport City that exists on Mr. Birru's map—and in the imaginations of influential dreamers around the region—is a major departure from business-as-usual in Detroit. But Mr. Birru says that may be exactly what the region needs.

"When you want to create something you don't go with the flow," said Mr. Birru, who is the development director for Wayne County. "You sometimes have to be a little radical in your thinking."

Top Architecture Students Design Airport City
A soft spoken Ethiopian, Mr. Birru earned a national reputation for resuscitating struggling cities in Pittsburgh, where he also directed the development office and advocated for a successful bus rapid transit system, built a couple of sports stadiums, constructed a new convention center, and revitalized hundreds of acres of former industrial sites into high tech, office, retail, and industrial developments.

Now, he has his sights set on the Detroit region. This year, Mr. Birru enlisted the help of Douglas Kelbaugh, dean of the University of Michigan's Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, to design Airport City.

As he has done every year since 1998, Kelbaugh invited some 50 planning students and a squadron of technical experts to lock themselves in a Detroit region hotel for three days. Their goal: Carefully evaluate a particularly interesting and difficult problem of urban deficiency and propose design solutions that developers and city officials actually accept and execute. This year, the students emerged from the Ypsilanti Mariott near Willow Run with maps and computer graphics illustrating a place of commerce, jobs, entertainment, transport, and homeownership. Its name? Airport City.

Students envisioned architecturally distinguished homes and offices, boulevards and neighborhood streets, markets and other gathering places designed to save natural resources, stress affordability, and reawaken human connections and neighborliness. People and goods will find their way in, around, and out on uncongested roads and fast commuter rail, light rail, and rapid buses. Business executives will be able to check their Blackberries on the train to the airport, entrepreneurs will be able to bike to their place of business, and children will be able to walk to school.

Transit Needed to Bring Detroit Up to Speed
There's nothing radical about establishing communities and markets around international airports. It's already happening in Dallas, Amsterdam, Seoul, and other metropolitan regions.

The radical part is convincing southeast Michigan to trade in political partisanship, racism, fear of change, and government rivalry for a new set of operating principles: Political statesmanship, regional cooperation, human understanding, smart public investment, energy efficiency, technological superiority.

Last month, a chorus of prominent boosters, led by Super Bowl XL committee chairman Roger Penske, called for more of the cooperation that made the Detroit Super Bowl a success, and for unity in building the civic assets that the city and region desperately need. Building a regional rapid transit system tops the list.

That's because transportation drives land use, and transportation and land use together define how people live and communities grow. In the United States during the mid-19th century, for instance, the nation laid 20,000 miles of railroad in two decades and fostered the settlement of the Great Plains and West. In the 20th century, the 1956 Highway Act prompted construction of the more than 40,000 mile Interstate Highway system that emptied Detroit and other cities, and generated massive, expensive, and resource-wasting suburban and exurban development.

The Detroit region is now paying the price for the 50-year experiment in building an urban region solely around the construction of freeways and the use of private vehicles. The seven-county region is either at the top or the bottom of most of the unwanted measures of economic performance and quality of life—housing value and income growth, joblessness, economic and racial segregation, congestion, obesity, and out-migration of young adults.

Those measures have converged so powerfully that they've finally forced business executives and political leaders to really think about where southeast Michigan is heading.

A look at other regions that are investing in rail, downtown housing, and environmental restoration, reveals a promising alternative. Chicago, for example, has spent billions to modernize its transit system, restore its Lake Michigan waterfront, encourage new housing downtown and in nearby neighborhoods, and promote environmentally sensitive development and business practices. The result is that the nation's third largest city and its metropolitan region are reaping new jobs, higher incomes, and major business expansions.

Airport City, with its network of planes, trains and buses, superior quality of life, and business-friendly environment, may be Detroit's ticket to rejoining the ranks of America's greatest cities and establishing new markets with global reach.

"Speed," says Mr. Birru, "is the economic asset that will make Airport City competitive."

Wanted: Cooperation and Statesmanship
But southeast Michigan needs some new cultural and civic software to get up to speed.

First, Airport City will need to look and feel great. Mr. Birru says that means developing a regional master land use plan, common architectural design standards, and regional zoning that describes what will be built where and how it will look. The five existing cities and three townships in the area, along with the county and the state, will need to lay aside their rivalries to pursue a common agenda.

Two, Airport City needs ample public investment to leverage private cash. Tax-resistant conservatives will be a big impediment.

Third, the region's ugly race barrier and economic segregation, a major turnoff for companies and their young talented employees, needs to disappear.

Fourth, in order for Airport City to work efficiently, it should, in Mr. Birru's words, "discourage cars." And that means providing alternatives. To keep highways and streets clear and road maintenance costs down, the city will be interlaced with transit lines and routes that are close by job, home, shopping, school, and other destinations.

Mr. Birru knows that a commuter rail line has not operated in southeast Michigan since the early 1980s, and that Detroit and its suburbs turned back a $600 million federal mass transit grant in 1976. He also knows that the Detroit region has the worst transit system of any major metropolitan region in the nation.

That doesn't mean that building Airport City is beyond the realm of reason. On the contrary, several assets that make places like Airport City possible are already in place. The Detroit Metro Airport, the nation's sixth largest, handles 36 million passengers and 350,000 tons of cargo each year, employs 18,000 people, and supports 71,000 jobs across southeast Michigan. Willow Run Airport, just seven miles away, is a modern air freight hub that transports 3.5 million passengers and 250,000 tons of cargo each year, contributes $85 million to the regional economy, and employs 1,500 people.

The two airports sit midway between two great cities—Detroit and Ann Arbor—and three important research universities: Michigan, Wayne State, and Eastern Michigan.

Rapid transit also has a chance of falling into place. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is set to complete a feasibility study by June for establishing new commuter routes from Detroit to Ann Arbor, with possible links to Metro and perhaps to Willow Run. Five options—two bus rapid transit routes, two commuter rail routes, and one light rail option—are under study. And last summer Democratic U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow and other members of the Michigan delegation convinced Congress to commit $100 million to design, engineer, and perhaps start construction on the preferred option.

"It's a big project and it will take a lot of consensus, a lot of cooperation, and a lot of imagination to make it work," acknowledges Mr. Birru. "But it's all possible."

With a little luck and a lot of statesmanship, "Airport City," a planned metropolis of 450,000 residents between Detroit's two major airports, might have trains to go along with its planes.

A commuter route from Detroit to Ann Arbor, with possible links to the Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run airports is starting to look like a real possibility. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments will complete a feasibility study by June and Congress has designated $100 million to design, engineer, and perhaps start construction on the commuter route.

Efficient public transportation is needed to turn western Wayne County—now a congested mismatch of aging neighborhoods, cracked parking lots, and featureless warehouses—into a modern city teeming with offices and condominiums and brimming with entrepreneurial and technical talent along the park-lined tributaries of the Huron River.

The mobility of people, goods and ideas, is a cornerstone of the 21st-century economy and of Airport City. At a time when news circles the globe in seconds, people and goods need to move fast too. That's why Mulu Birru, the development director of Wayne County, is focusing his efforts on "Airport City." He hopes to capitalize on existing and planned transportation infrastructure, to attract and generate 350,000 jobs in Airport City alone.

Wayne County already has the airports to take people around the world. The commuter routes would allow them to crisscross the region, giving them fast, convenient access to three major research universities—the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Wayne State, and Eastern Michigan—two airports, and cities and suburbs from Detroit to Ann Arbor.

Public transportation, insists Mr. Birru, is an economic imperative.

"Airport City won't work well, and won't attract the economic development that we envision, without very good public transit," he said in an interview.

Widespread Support, Many Ideas for Regional Rail Transit
The proposed commuter route stems from a 5-year-old rapid transit study by SEMCOG, one of at least nine published by the agency in the last two decades, that identified the Ann Arbor to Detroit corridor as a hot prospect for service in the region. Today, SEMCOG is comparing five specific options—two bus rapid transit routes, two commuter rail routes, and one light rail option.

The potential to revive commuter service between the two cities – the last train stopped running in 1983 – has generated considerable support. Last summer members the Michigan Congressional delegation, led by Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, convinced Congress to commit $100 million for the design, engineering, and possibly some construction for the preferred option.

The Wayne County Airport Authority, which manages Metro and Willow Run, issued a statement saying it "supports mass transit in the greater Detroit area and also supports linking Metro to a future Ann Arbor – Detroit system."

Architectural students from the University of Michigan, who evaluated the proposal in January, are pushing for fast commuter trains that would use existing Amtrak tracks between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and for a new station near Wayne that could serve Metro Airport with rapid buses, or eventually a light rail system. The students, who participated in a three-day charette to envision Airport City, also called for a separate light rail line from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport, using existing right of way owned by railroad freight haulers.

A hybrid of commuter rail and light rail also is promoted by Transportation Riders United, the Detroit region's premier transit advocacy organization. TRU's proposal combines a commuter rail, stopping in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Metro Airport, Dearborn and Detroit's New Center, with a light rail from the Dearborn stop along Michigan Avenue to downtown Detroit, then up Woodward Avenue to New Center. They envision extending the light rail line in the future.

TRU suggested that the light rail and commuter lines share a platform at the Dearborn station and New Center station so that riders could transfer seamlessly from one train to the other.

TRU's technical analysis for the proposed hybrid system was so sound that SEMCOG included the idea as one of the five options it would subject to its feasibility evaluation. "It makes a lot of sense," said Megan Owens, the group's executive director. "Commuter rail offers the fastest service between Detroit, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor, which is critical to the line's success. Light rail reaches more people, including downtown Detroit. And it will promote jobs and housing and businesses at every station stop."


World War Two B-24 bombers where built at the Willow Run Airport in a collaborative effort between Ford Motor Company and Consolidated Aircraft.

Transit is an Economic Asset; Conservatives Claim It's a Waste of Money
Just how vital rapid transit systems are to a metropolitan region was the focus of a study in the 1990s by the Transportation Research Board, a unit of the National Academy of Sciences. Economist looked at the Philadelphia region – similar in size to the Detroit area – where conservative critics asserted, as they do in Detroit, that the commuter rail network was a waste of taxpayer funds. Economists analyzed the effects of shutting the system down and concluded that business sales would decline $2 billion annually in 1990 dollars, 26,000 people in the metropolitan region would lose their jobs, personal income would decline by $1 billion annually, and that 58,000 people would leave the region.

Even with those kinds of numbers Detroit's progressive political leadership has not risen to either promote or defend the Ann Arbor to Detroit transit line. That's probably because advocating for public transit is the infrastructure equivalent of coaching the Detroit Lions. Good men and women of wisdom and energy have tried and then disappeared…forever.

Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano, aware of the history of the issue, goes so far in an interview as to say he "likes the idea of a new Ann Arbor to Detroit line," but in nearly the same breadth acknowledges that he won't publicly advocate for it because he's "waiting for the business plan."

The region's conservative leaders are far less demure. The usual suspects, among them Republican Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Republican House Speaker Craig DeRoche of Novi, and the editorial page of the Detroit News, have all come out strong against a new regional line.

They ask who will pay for it. And, without any supporting documents and ignoring evidence from every city that has built new rapid transit capacity in the last 30 years, conclude that no one would ride the new line, and that money used to build it would be better spent on highway construction.

Both points are refutable. Since 1981, when San Diego built the new light rail line that started its remarkable downtown resurgence, 39 other cities have opened new street car and light rail systems, among them Kenosha, Wisc. (2000), St. Louis (1993), Minneapolis (2004), Baltimore (1985), and Dallas (1996). In every case critics said residents wouldn't ride, yet ridership vastly exceeded projections. Minneapolis' Hiawatha line transports nearly one million passengers a month.

In addition 40 other major commuter and light rail projects are in various stages of planning, engineering, design and construction, according to the Light Rail Transit Association, a Texas-based research group.

And if highway construction were the secret to success how come the Detroit region -- where three Interstates and a legion of other freeways converge -- doesn't look, function, or feel like Paris?

Missing the Boat?
At the moment, the most influential critic of rapid transit in southeast Michigan is Mr. DeRoche, who is leading a charge in the House to block any southeastern Michigan city from qualifying for any more federal funding for a new rapid transit, an initiative that could doom the Ann Arbor to Detroit line. Matt Resch, the spokesman for Mr DeRoche, said that the Speaker feels he is justified in his attack because he lives in Oakland County where he sees buses every day that he asserts are ineffective, inefficient, and a waste.

"Southeast Michigan needs infrastructure improvements," Mr. Resch said in the same month that bus ridership in suburban Detroit reached a new record high. "The Speakers' priorities are filling pot holes and expanding roads and bridges to relieve the traffic congestion problem."

Paul Tait, SEMCOG's normally cautious executive director, was apparently so irritated by such sentiments that he rose uncharacteristically in February to publicly defend his agency's transit studies. "A downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor corridor can and should be an incremental piece of an overall regional system," Mr. Tait said. "The corridor includes four of the region's 10 most populous cities, three of the top five employment centers, 103 large retail centers, and 135,000 students at 10 universities and colleges -- all factors in projected ridership."

Alvin Toffler, the futurist and author of The Third Wave, which predicted the development of new markets and human habitats like Airport City, once told an interviewer that the common bond that would link failing communities and struggling regions in the 21st century was a dearth of statesmanship. He put it this way: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn."

Toffler could have been thinking about southeast Michigan. At its heart, Airport City represents a classic Michigan entrepreneurial and creative response to an extraordinarily difficult problem: how to thrive in a new century. The issue is whether southeast Michigan will allow such an important idea, a vision of a globally significant community, to just fade away. Do Detroit and its suburbs have the capacity to relearn how to innovate and prosper?

Keith Schneider, a journalist, is the editor of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah, and a frequent contributor to Metrotimes, where a version of this article appeared in the edition of March 8, 2006. Reach him at keith@mlui.org

Times Article Viewed: 7513
Published: 17-Mar-2006

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