Vote ‘no’ on regional transit plan

Bill Johnson

This November will be the first opportunity for residents in the four-county Metro area to vote on a 1.2-mill, 20-year, $4.6 billion property tax millage for regional transit.

It may also be the only opportunity for voters to say no.

Passage of this hyped transit proposal would burden taxpayers with never-ending construction, maintenance, and operational debt without achieving any of the promised benefits.

The Regional Transit Authority is trying to sell the massive transit scheme as the neatest and greatest development idea this century. But is the concept worth the price?

Advocates argue that while Detroit has one of the oldest municipal transit systems in America, it is the only one that has not merged its bus operation. That’s true. After years of contention and for a number of legitimate reasons, D-DOT, the city bus system, and SMART, the suburban system, were never consolidated.

However, a merger of the two inefficient and ineffective systems, as envisioned by the RTA, would not guarantee that ridership would increase, service would improve, and cost-savings result. And the last thing the region needs is one dysfunctional system that becomes a bottomless financial pit.

A regional mass transit system might have been feasible in the 1940s when Detroit was in its heyday with a population approaching 2 million. Since then, the city has lost most of its employment base and more than half of its population.

That hasn’t stopped promoters from making the incredible claim that merging the bus systems could play an important role in connecting Detroit’s low-skilled, unemployed population to jobs in the suburbs. Closer to reality, the collapse of the city’s public education system provides compelling evidence that many Detroiters remain locked in economic isolation due to a lack of marketable skills rather than a lack of transportation.

Also ignored are new regional commuter patterns. They show a staggering decrease in passenger service in and out of the city and expanding service across county lines. Thus, Detroit’s extreme low population density destroys all arguments that this transit plan is worth the investment.

A new transit arrangement might be beneficial in a large city with a significant employment base downtown and difficult auto-commuting conditions. Detroit no longer qualifies as a significant hub or major destination point.

New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington-Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston are cities where regional transit is justifiable, although not in a cost-effective way. Yet, despite spending vast resources on transit, no other city has been able to reproduce the ridership shares achieved by these seven cities. Fares collected by these systems don’t come close to paying operational costs.

Rail lines like the one planned from Detroit to Ann Arbor — with a connecting airport shuttle service — are the most expensive and least efficient form of transit. It bears mentioning that most cities that constructed new rail systems in recent years have dramatically underestimated construction costs, overestimated ridership and increased the financial liability of taxpayers.

The inescapable truth is that Metro Detroiters have a love affair with cars, and the likelihood that motorists are going to park their vehicles and get on a bus or a train is laughable.

At best, the RTA plan will be a massive public infrastructure project with significant benefits bestowed on system designers, construction companies and laborers and operators of the system. At worse, it is an insidious deception by politicians to tie a massive debt millstone around the necks of property owners in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

When voters take to the polls, they should liberate themselves from this albatross: Give the transit proposal the Gov. Rick Snyder “Road Tax” treatment. Vote no.

Bill Johnson is CEO of the Bill Johnson Group.