Column: Don’t use Amazon to defend new transit taxes

John C. Mozena

Michigan managed to avoid throwing billions of taxpayer dollars at Amazon, but that doesn’t mean the attempt won’t come with a hefty price tag for us all. That’s because metro Detroit’s failure to attract the company’s HQ2 development has become the primary talking point for supporters of multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar public mass transit plans.

The reality is that Amazon was never coming to Detroit. The big reason we were in the 92 percent of bidding cities to be eliminated in the first cut isn’t bus service or “talent” or any other one thing, but rather what Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert identified in his post-bid open letter: “We are still dealing with the unique radioactive-like reputational fallout of 50-60 years of economic decline, disinvestment, municipal bankruptcy, and all of the other associated negative consequences of that extraordinarily long period of time.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that the usual suspects in our region won’t line up to claim that being one of the 218 cities not chosen for Amazon’s 20-city shortlist proves we should be spending big on their proposals if we want to be “competitive.”

The loudest of these are the supporters of massive new regional transit initiatives, who persistently refuse to take no for an answer and are retooling their plan for another go at the region’s voters. It’s no real surprise that the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan’s current Connect Southeast Michigan plan goes straight for Amazon in its argument for $5.4 billion in new taxes: “When Amazon passed on naming Detroit as one of the top 20 finalists for its second headquarters site, the lack of a workable regional transit system was one of a few key factors cited.” Even while being honest about the region’s reputation, Dan Gilbert still toed the party line on transit, writing, “Having a strong mass transit solution is the ante to play for a millennial workforce, as well as for the most successful and dynamic companies in the world.”

But do we need to raise the cost of homeownership and business operations in our region for the next two decades to be competitive for dynamic tech companies and millennial talent? That’s not the case in Silicon Valley at the center of the high-tech world, where instead of squeezing local taxpayers for more money, employers are providing private transit options for their employees to sidestep or supplement the public system.

Why couldn’t Amazon in Detroit be like companies in tech hotbed San Francisco, where an estimated 8,500 tech workers at companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple are picked up each day in the city by private shuttles operated by their employers and transported to offices around Silicon Valley?

Instead of calling for massive public transit upgrades paid for by taxpayers with no connection to their company, tech titan Apple was comfortable building its giant new Cupertino headquarters three miles from the nearest Caltrain commuter train station. That’s because rather than relying on the Bay Area’s famously crumbling mass transit system, Apple instead runs a private shuttle service that makes more than 200 trips daily around the region to take its employees between work and home. As a result, according to an official study for Cupertino’s city government, only 1.5 percent of Apple’s headquarters employees take public transit for their daily commute.

Even though they’re the exact hipster tech workers we’re told Detroit needs public mass transit to attract, more than four fifths of Apple’s employees drive private automobiles to work, and most of the rest ride the company’s own clean, secure, reliable and Wi-Fi-enabled shuttles, the study found.

Just like Amazon will, Apple built its new headquarters where it made the most business sense to do so. Then, for the small percentage of its employees who didn’t prefer driving to work, it figured out how to adapt to and supplement the existing transit system. If Amazon or any other company thought it made business sense to come to Detroit, it could do the exact same thing — and then pay for the buses with some of the billions of dollars in taxes they wouldn’t be paying the city, state or county rather than asking other taxpayers to pay even more.

That’s the kind of model metro Detroit should be considering — minus the massive subsidies and tax incentives to giant corporations — where public transit is tightly focused on the people who truly need public assistance to get around in their daily lives. Meanwhile, people who take transit for convenience or out of personal preference should pay the full, unsubsidized cost of their choices. There’s no reason a low-income Detroit homeowner already paying some of the nation’s highest effective property tax rates in a neighborhood decimated by foreclosures should have that tax burden increased to subsidize a well-paid millennial computer programmer’s train trip to work. If a corporation thinks its workers need help to get to work, they can put their money where their mouth is rather than asking the rest of us to foot the bill.

No, Amazon wasn’t coming here if only we had more buses. It’s a sign of the weakness of their other arguments that our local transit advocates are clinging to this failed Amazon bid as an excuse to take another $5.4 billion, 20-year stab at the region’s taxpayers, and their plan should be treated accordingly.

John C. Mozena is a marketing and communications consultant and free-market advocate.