Backers of a new regional transit plan for Metro Detroit face their first hurdle: Getting legislation approved to authorize a new taxing scheme.

A bill introduced by Rep. Jason Shepherd, R-Temperance, is pending in the House, awaiting committee action this week. It would allow Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit to form a new transit alliance, and make it easier to get a tax levy on the ballot. 

Lawmakers should OK the proposal and get the process moving. Lack of a cohesive mass transit system is the longest-standing unresolved issue facing this region.

Prospects for finally getting one in place are brighter now. Macomb County, where executive Mark Hackel is a transit skeptic, is sitting out of this round, comfortable with the SMART bus service currently serving the county. And in Oakland, the late County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who also opposed previous initiatives, has been replaced by Democrat David Coulter, an avid transit supporter. 

If it makes the ballot, a proposal would likely succeed. But passing a plan is one thing, making it work is another.

Backers of transit have a two-fold objective: getting those without their own cars to jobs outside their neighborhoods, and building a transit system that will attract young talent to the region.

They should focus in this round on meeting the first challenge. Build out the current bus systems to meet the immediate needs of lower-wage workers and the employers who want to hire them.

Fill the gaps in the existing service, but also think beyond buses to ride sharing, commuter vans, vouchers and public/private partnerships that collect workers and deliver them directly to their workplaces in a timely manner.

Get that done first, and then look to what the future demands. At this point, that's foggy, given the rapidly evolving world of transportation.

For now in Metro Detroit, moving middle-class commuters on a large scale basis into buses is a long bet.      

Commuting by car is still too easy. Massive miles of freeway and cheap parking everywhere but downtown Detroit makes driving the most convenient mode of transportation.

Even if you build it, they may not come.

I recently helped moderate a voter town hall in Warren in which the issue of transportation was top of mind. Attendees talked about how much they loved using the trains and subways while visiting New York, Boston and other cities, and bemoaned the fact they couldn't do the same here.

They clearly weren't thinking buses when they thought about mass transit. But the reality is a rail system, whether above ground or below, is prohibitively expensive. It's not going to happen here.

But conditions could change. Parking and fuel costs could skyrocket. Traffic could become unbearable.

Planners should commit to a multi-phase, flexible approach that allows the system to adapt to changes and incorporate new technology as it develops.

Building an expensive, rigid system that tries to make up for the transit mistakes of our past would be foolish. 

A targeted plan that addresses today's needs first while preparing for tomorrow has a much better chance of becoming reality.

Catch Nolan Finley on “One Detroit” at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on Detroit Public Television.

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