Howes: Evans offers solutions in regional transit pitch

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Warren Evans is on a roll.

Fresh from wrapping a jail swap with Dan Gilbert that will dismantle Wayne County’s monument to its own incompetence and deliver a new criminal justice complex, the county executive is preparing to pitch a revised transit plan to the Regional Transit Authority board Thursday.

“Connect Southeast Michigan” would be less capital intensive than the plan voters rejected in 2016, would offer a more flexible route structure, and theoretically would try to answer the usual complaints from Oakland and Macomb counties. Count on it to intensify a debate that often delivers far more heat than light — precisely what this recovering metro region does not need.

It needs steady leadership anchored firmly in dollars, cents and understanding 21st-century reality. And it’s this: a metro area of some 4.2 million people can’t compete credibly for talent and investment with arguably one of the most poorly executed public transit systems in the country.

It can’t chronically under-invest in a substandard system, spend less than half per capita ($67) what Cleveland ($158) spends on mass transit, and bet no one will notice (see Detroit Metropolitan Airport, circa 1990s). It can’t tout its cred as the intellectual center of next-generation mobility while waging the same ol’ parochial fights as if nothing has changed.

A lot has changed. Tough financial restructuring and proactive leadership in Detroit and Wayne County are changing the financial arcs of both jurisdictions; private investment in downtown, Midtown and some neighborhoods is gaining traction and enthusiasm; the prevailing zeitgeist is less patient with the divisiveness popular a generation ago.

And metro areas can’t hide their dysfunction from would-be investors, prospective talent, even their own residents. The only folks fooled by the sorry state of transit in the town that helped put the world on wheels apparently are the local politicians serving their choruses of no.

In the gallery of regional hot spots, mass transit remains the most enduring. Municipal bankruptcy effectively forced regionalization of the Detroit water system. Financial stress conveyed Cobo Center to an authority that engineered a massive renovation. And embarrassment helped deliver a revitalized airport.

But reaching regional agreement on a system to move people — and who will pay how much for what they may or may not use — is just too hard. It shouldn’t be, considering the progress this region, often working with the governor and state lawmakers, has made to overcome a legacy of decline.

Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan get this, of course. Business leaders get it. Millennials get it. People who don’t own cars, or can’t afford them, get it. Inc. gets it, too, citing the region’s sketchy transit among the reasons it dropped Detroit from its list of possible sites for a second North American headquarters.

Even this town’s automakers, credited (or blamed) for effectively killing regional transit here back in the 1950s, get it — judging more by their actions than their rhetoric. Much of the Auto 2.0 work they’re doing to develop self-driving cars aims to connect people to effective mass transit systems that can move far more people than four- and seven-seat vehicles.

Personal transportation in this country, and around the world, is facing the most fundamental change since Henry Ford’s Model T rolled off assembly lines. How the self-described automotive capital can offer such a lame excuse for mass transit is an irony in a class all by itself.

Now, the critics aren’t all wrong, either. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel routinely warns about investing too much capital in last-century transit infrastructure when next-century mobility is just around the proverbial corner.

He’s got a point — up to a point. His cautions helped shape the plan Evans will detail, chiefly the reduction in proposed capital outlays and an openness to adopting emerging mobility services as they become available for real-world applications.

But a perfect world of the self-driving transit system should not be the enemy of a real-world transit system that could better move people across a comparatively vast region. And slow-walking existing proposals because the autonomous future is just around the corner is nothing more than a stall.

Self-driving technology is evolving quickly, to be sure. But it’s not just around the corner for everyday use. Federal standards are incomplete; infrastructure must be developed and financed; and we’re a long way from anything approaching customer acceptance.

The meantime could be a long time. If there’s one thing this town ought to be able to do in its metaphorical sleep, it should be figuring out to move the people of the Motor City, right?

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.