By Sara Colunga
EAST LANSING, MI — Bobby Frank, who inspects homes for a living and has lived in Ann Arbor for 30 of his 56 years, is a southeast Michigan resident who can walk to work, admires Ann Arbor’s bus system, and who understands the value of a proposed new Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line to himself, his city, and his region.
“For people who don’t have a car or want to try and reduce the amount of driving that they have to do,” Mr. Frank said in an interview, “It gives them the opportunity to get around places. Transit adds a lot to the city by giving options to people and to the students here.”
Luke Forrest, who recently earned graduate degrees in urban and regional planning, and real estate development from the University of Michigan, lives in Ferndale where he is the public policy director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a coalition of Detroit inner-ring suburbs. Under his guidance, the alliance is determined to help redesign Detroit’s older suburbs in a way that encourages the development of a rapid transit system in the largest metropolitan region in North America that does not have light rail or commuter train service.
“We just need examples to show people that it’s not that crazy to do it here,” he said. “We have successful examples of downtowns that have been redeveloped and revitalized. Now we need to help people make the connection to transit and the economic boon it can bring.”
Setting Aside Differences to Build a Train Line
Mr. Frank and Mr. Forrest, separated by less than 40 miles and a generation, are advocates in an on-again-off-again conversation about the value of rapid transit in southeast Michigan that has been ongoing for more than 30 years. It’s time, say both, for communities to set aside their differences and plan, design, finance, and build a modern system that includes new neighborhoods around transit stations.
Last summer, Mr. Forrest’s group joined the Tourism Economic Development Council, Transportation Riders United, the Woodward Avenue Action Association and the Michigan Environmental Council, a statewide advocacy organization, in publishing an important study that described how communities in other states were doing just that. The study, entitled Michigan’s Golden Spike, supported by a grant from People and Land, an initiative of the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, also reported on how popular those new rail lines and neighborhoods had become for home and business owners.
Michigan’s Golden Spike found that in those regions where so-called “transit oriented developments” had occurred, local governments invented ways to cooperate with each other, to bridge their differences, and decide on changes in zoning, design standards, and permitting that made it easier and less expensive for developers to build. Portland’s Max light rail system, for example, has prompted billions of dollars in new home and business investment around its station stops. The same has occurred in Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Minneapolis, and nearly every one of the more than 30 American metropolitan regions that have built or expanded their rapid transit systems since 1989.
“I think we can change development policies and help make our cities healthier economically, and make them more walkable urban places,” said Mr. Forrest. “That can happen in the next few years. It’s a matter of sorting out the work on the ground. You just have to work with each community.”
Conference on Regionalism in Washington
That ability to coax communities to work together, so important to constructing and operating transit systems and other key regional public services, also is the subject of an international conference this week in Washington. The three-day conference on “The Science and Education of Land Use: A Transatlantic, Multidisciplinary and Comparative Approach,” is being held at Washington’s City Center. Among the papers to be featured at the conference is Transaction Costs and Intergovernmental Cooperation in Land Use by Soji Adelaja, the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University and Director of the University’s Land Policy Institute, which is a co-sponsor of the conference, and Laila Racevskis, a former researcher at the Land Policy Institute who is now with the University of Florida.
In essence, Dr. Adelaja’s paper confirms what Mr. Forrest is now discovering about the difficulty of convincing local governments to change their operating practices and cooperate with one another. It’s just plain hard and expensive to significantly adjust how things are done in government. But it’s essential if new kinds of communities are to be built along transit lines.
Indeed. The Golden Spike study describes how important it is for local governments to set their differences aside and work on a regional scale because the Detroit region is edging ever closer to a starter transit line.
A Detroit-to-Ann Arbor Starter Line
Three years ago the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), the regional planning agency, launched a research project to determine whether building a rapid-transit line along the 50-mile Detroit-to-Ann Arbor corridor is technically and financially feasible. The proposed line in 2005 received a $100 million Congressional commitment for engineering, design, and construction. Such starter lines have been essential to getting the trains moving in cities from Denver to Dallas. A successful starter line that attracts thousands of riders proves that there is a demand for rapid public transit, building the political and financial support for a full-fledged rapid regional transit system, which fuels still more ridership, a superior quality of life, and economic vitality. Already, regional rapid transit is strengthening the economic competitiveness of Minneapolis, Denver, St. Louis, Dallas, San Diego, Portland, and more than a dozen other metropolitan regions.
The success of such lines, according to the Golden Spike study, is determined in part by the ease with which people can get to station stops, especially if they can walk from their homes and businesses located just blocks away. The Golden Spike study included examples of the planning and zoning framework from other cities that could help communities along the Ann Arbor-Detroit rail line, as well as along other important corridors like Woodward Avenue and Gratiot Avenue in Detroit, build transit-focused neighborhoods.
Mockingbird Station, in Dallas, prompted $270 million in new development, including 200 loft-style apartments, an eight-story office tower, and stores and entertainment. Investment along the entire Dallas Area Rapid Transit light rail system from 1997 to 2001 alone totaled $3.3 billion, according to Golden Spike.
Reasons for the line’s popularity include saving some of the $6,312 that the average American spends on transportation each year. And cities have found that rapid transit is an essential piece of civic equipment that attracts young adults, the highly educated young professionals that are revitalizing metropolitan downtowns across the United States.
Slowly but surely, Michigan cities will also embrace the idea. “It’s interesting,” said Mr. Frank, noting road construction patterns and transit investments in Ann Arbor. “They’re rebuilding roads by taking away lanes. The intent is to make it more difficult to drive in Ann Arbor. More buses, less traffic.”
For more information:
Michigan Golden Spike
Contact the Land Policy Institute at 517-432-8800.
Sara Colunga is a student at Michigan State University and a writer for the Land Policy Institute.