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Detroit — Improved mass transit in Southeastern Michigan can help the economy by getting people to jobs and college and would eventually succeed in winning a tax increase if the public is shown its true value, local transportation experts said Tuesday.

In a two-hour forum titled “Build Transit. Build Business,” officials from the Regional Transit Authority, local college and universities and other advocates made the case for the push for better transportation with the recent hiring of a CEO at the RTA and a 2016 referendum campaign to fund the agency and transit options.

Paul Hillegonds, the chairman of the RTA board who addressed the more than 170 attendees, said one of the most serious challenges is the job sprawl that is among the worst in the top 100 metro regions in the country. More and improved transit options can alter that, he said.

“For sure, we need to be concerned about over a third of the Detroit families who don’t have personal vehicles,” Hillegonds said. “We need to be concerned about a growing senior citizen population that needs public transit to connect to the essentials of life. We know that there are people with disabilities that do not have personal transportation.”

New RTA CEO Michael Ford also made the case by saying transportation needs to be at the “heart of our economy” and that better coordination between providers and public input to an overall master plan can make transit attractive.

“It’s clear the lack of financial resources over many years has led to the trying conditions of our buses. Mechanics do the best that they can, our drivers do the best that they can to provide the service,” Ford said. “Things don’t always have to be the way they are. We can work together.”

Other topics at the forum hosted by the Metro Coalition of Congregations, a project of the Harriet Tubman Center, included the importance of transit to the lives of college students and millennials as well as how to plan a successful tax referendum to fund transit.

The event was held in the Hall of Legends room at Ford Field and is the second one this year to tout the future possibilities of bolstered transit in a region that has struggled for decades to provide even basic services.

But the tide, advocates say, has turned with the creation in 2012 of the RTA, the 3.3-mile M-1 Rail streetcar line under construction on Woodward Avenue and the corridor studies for bus rapid transit on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenues that would be partly financed through a referendum.

As for a future tax funding increase, skeptics can be convinced by a broad-based campaign of business and residents that shows value of improved transportation options even if people don’t use it, says Jason Jordan, the executive director of the Center For Transportation Excellence in Washington, D.C.

Jordan, who’s organization studies various ballot box initiatives across the country, said the pass rate for initiatives are around 70 percent and that Michigan is ripe with the success given the passage of local millages this year. He played for the audience TV commercials in successful referendum campaigns in Kansas City and St. Louis.

“While most measures succeed most of the time, they do so very narrowly,” Jordan said. “Not many of these elections are slam dunk, blowout landslide elections, which means that the communities that are successful are very strategic. At the end of the day, you have to convince people to pay.”

Another panel discussion featuring college and university presidents and their surrogates discussed the need for better transit and how it helps students save money and get to various campuses.

“Seventy-five percent of our student body are commuters, the majority of them are from Michigan. Those students also need to have good transportation in order to go back and forth,” said Antoine Garibaldi, president of the University of Detroit Mercy.

Wayne State University officials, for example, have invested in transit options, too, such as a bike sharing program and a shuttle bus from the Midtown campus to downtown on weekend nights.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter: @leonardnfleming

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