Column: Transit still key to economic future

Sandy Baruah

Recently, Michigan and Detroit successfully tackled many of the big challenges to our economic health. This focus on solving — not ignoring — big issues has paid off handsomely with both the state and its signature city experiencing the most positive economic, social and reputational momentum in decades.

But as the news from Amazon highlights, which left the Detroit region off its finalist list for HQ2, we still have work to do. The lack of regional transit was a key factor in Amazon’s decision. Some view regional transit with skepticism, and those with such views deserve respect. However, when discussing regional transit, our region is best served by a holistic view. Some important points to remember:

■ While public transit ridership can vary from year-to-year due to economic factors — such as fuel prices, population and general economic conditions — the overall rate of use in the nation has risen 14 percent since 1990, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

■ Critics claim that public transit is a poor investment because such systems don’t pay for themselves. This is true — public transit systems generally don’t cover its expenses from riders. However, such analysis fails to account for the true benefits of public transit. APTA reported that 87 percent of rides on public transit serve a direct economic purpose — such as to work or to shop. This economic impact is not accounted for in the math of the cost of public transit.

■ You will find no greater supporter of the opportunity presented by the autonomous car than the Detroit Regional Chamber. This technology is critical to our future. However, to think that autonomous pods will be ferrying us around anytime soon is flawed. Also, simply moving from today’s vehicles to autonomous vehicles would not reduce congestion unless we couple this development with effective mass transit.

There are also important, intangible, harder to quantify, reasons that regional transit makes sense:

■ Car insurance in Michigan is among the highest in the nation. There is little doubt that a driver of this dynamic is the high number of those who drive with invalid licenses or are insufficiently insured — people who have no other option than to drive illegally because of the lack of public transit options.

■ Effective public transit reduces the number of cars on the road – easing the wear on our roadways.

■ Effective public transit offers people without vehicles (or who are unable to drive) with increased opportunity for economic success.

■ While tourism levels in Detroit are soaring, the lack of regional transit remains a barrier to some high-profile, large-scale events.

■ Many millennials, those young well-educated professionals, simply won’t consider places without good public transit.

Certainly, good public transit is important for those in our society who lack the resources that many of us enjoy. But the reason the Detroit Regional Chamber co-led the regional transit campaign in 2016, and why the business community is so engaged in this matter today, is that fixing our regional transit is critical to our economic future. Just ask Amazon.

Sandy Baruah is president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.