More mobility boosts economy, Mackinac panel says

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Increased transit options tend to become job boosters in cities that invest in them because businesses can expand in regions to give people more mobility, transportation experts said Thursday.

The comments were made at the Mackinac Policy Conference session titled, “Moving Toward a More Equitable Region: Creating Opportunity and Connecting People to Better Regional Transit Throughout Southeast Michigan.”

The discussion came just days after the Regional Transit Authority made public its $4.6 billion master plan aimed at convincing voters to support a tax increase to fund bus rapid transit, a commuter rail line, an airport shuttle service and a fare card system, among other improvements.

“You have to really help people understand that companies are now making decisions based on transit,” said Tracey Nichols, the director of economic development for the city of Cleveland. “Millennials, a lot of them don’t have cars. They want to make sure that there’s transit opportunities. And for companies to be able to attract that type of talent, they have to be located near transit.”

Nichols recalled a situation where she worked to lure a tire company to relocate to Cleveland, which has had a bus rapid-transit system for years. She used transit as one of the major attractions “to help sell them on the fact that they didn’t want to go to the suburbs, they wanted to be in Cleveland.”

Beth Osborne, the president of Transportation for America Consulting, a group that helps lobby for investment in transit, said that businesses can help sell a millage like the one the RTA is presenting. The authority is asking for a 20-year, 1.2-mil tax to help fund the plan.

“The engagement of the business community is extremely important,” said Osborne, the former acting assistant secretary for transportation policy at the Department of Transportation. “And all the communities that have built transit ... have done it because they’ve had the strong support of the business community. And members of that community coming out and explaining why this matters, and a lot of times it is: ‘If you want me to stay in your community, I have to be able to attract talent, and this is what talent is telling me.’ ”

Michael Ford, CEO of the RTA, said the master plan is the result of listening to the public. And the key is to convince the public that more mobility means better access to jobs and a better economy.

“It’s the culmination of all that listening and input that’s helped create the plan that we have before you,” Ford said. “We looked at the political realities and the financial restraints to put together the best plan that we could given what we know about the communities that we’re serving.”

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