Election Leaves Hope for Michigan Transport, Despite Derailment Elsewhere

Keep Ypsi Rollin' cruised to victory at the polls Tuesday
Keep Ypsi Rollin’ cruised to victory at the polls Tuesday

“Not bad,” said Richard Murphy, co-organizer of a campaign to preserve Ann Arbor Transit Authority bus service in Ypsilanti, as the final vote count rolled in Tuesday night at the Tap Room on Michigan Avenue. Citizens – almost three-fourths of them – had given Ypsilanti the first dedicated funding source for buses in the city’s 178-year history.

For advocates of sweeping change in our transportation systems, as for other advocates of social, environmental and economic reform, the Nov. 2 election gave little reason for rejoicing. Among other things, it foreclosed U.S. action on global warming for the next two years, and the victory of Republican governor candidates in Ohio and Wisconsin may stop high-speed rail there. The loss of Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar came as a particular blow for bicyclists and advocates of federal transportation reform. But in Michigan, the picture is slightly different.

If the new political landscape here is not remarkably rosy for transportation reform, it’s also, in Murphy’s words, not bad. Relative to the rest of the country, that’s pretty good. Still, we need to push Governor-elect Rick Snyder to convert his moderate commitments to transport reform into immediate, decisive action.

Volunteers tally the returns for transit in Ypsi's Tap Room
Volunteers tally the returns for transit in Ypsi’s Tap Room

If you’re dismayed by the Michigan outcome, consider the suicidal course being charted in Wisconsin, whose state capitol of Madison lacks Amtrak service. If Governor-elect Scott Walker’s website NoTrain.com didn’t make his position on high-speed rail clear enough, his aides’ derisive references to Obama rail plans as a “Soul Train” did (and moved black Democrats to demand an apology). Walker vows to send back the nearly $1 billion in rail funds awarded to Wisconsin for transforming the Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison link, and the state is already laying off contractors.

Ohio, whose capital of Columbus also lacks passenger rail service,  had received $400 million for a line linking it with Cleveland, Dayton and Cincinnati.”It is dead,” Governor-elect John Kasich proudly announced on Election Night. “Passenger rail is not in Ohio’s future.” He’s seeking to terminate contractors immediately. Kasich’s slogan is, ironically, “A New Way.” To paraphrase The Who, that new way is the same as the old (high)way.

As in Ypsi, transport advocates need to accelerate their work
As in Ypsi, transport advocates need to accelerate their work

Michigan, too, now has a Republican governor-elect. But while this site has criticized Rick Snyder for targeting a bicycle and pedestrian bridge as wasteful transportation spending, questioned whether his budget-cutting ambitions will leave room for expanded transit, and noted, with m-bike.org, that his running mate Brian Calley opposed Complete Streets legislation, there’s no question that he differs from much of his party when it comes to transportation. He’s nominally pro-rail, pro-transit, and pro-walking. In the campaign’s response to concerns raised over his bridge comment, Snyder comes out for bikes as well. Compare that somewhat apologetic statement to rising GOP House Majority Leader John Boehner’s mockery of the idea that bicycle commuters should receive the same tax benefits as those who drive or take transit.

More fundamentally, Snyder is a pro-urban Republican, the first to hold his election-night shindig in Detroit for the first time since Bill Milliken. Milliken was one of Detroit’s only friends in Lansing in the ’70s, and a fighter for regional rapid transit. We know how that battle ended: with a bipartisan consensus, more or less, that the state’s largest city should be left to rot. However, as Snyder and other corporate leaders are realizing, the trashing of Detroit and other Michigan cities has been catastrophic for Michigan’s economy.

That realization has helped give us a Republican governor who actually appreciates the need to invest in cities, and has some idea that better transit, walkability, and intercity rail will need to be a big part of that process. That’s not a bad start. Still, advocates have got to push these issues hard. Otherwise, we could get more shamefully weak half-measures like outgoing Governor Granholm’s “Cool Cities” program, the urban revitalization initiative whose total funding amounted to less than it took the state to demolish Detroit’s historic Hotel Statler – for a Super Bowl parking lot.

We need to say “never again” to that “Band-Aid & bleed” approach to urban reconstruction. Snyder has promised to “reinvent Michigan.” To do that, he needs to convert his mildly reformist “creative class” predilections into aggressive action in Lansing.

First, Snyder should write the federal government, as New York Governor-elect Cuomo has done, to request that at least some of the $1.2 billion in federal rail funds rejected by Wisconsin and Ohio go to his state instead. The funds should stay in the Midwest, and the Obama administration has a political interest in making sure they do. The Badgers’ and Buckeyes’ loss can be Michigan’s gain.

Will Rick follow Bill's lead to spice up transport? Det. News
Will Rick follow Bill’s lead to spice up transport? Det. News

Second, Snyder should take Detroit’s Dave Bing and Oakland County’s Brooks Patterson into a room and get them behind a regional transit authority for their metropolis. A regional transit authority is probably the single most necessary short-term reform for the Detroit region’s long-term future. We’ve been waiting almost half a century for one, and we can’t wait any longer. If anyone can illuminate the issue for the corporate-minded pair, it’s CEO Snyder.

Third, Snyder should take a quick look at other new transit lines around the US, call up M1 Rail CEO Matt Cullen, and convince Cullen & co. that the new light rail line they’re helping to fund should go down the middle of Woodward, not along the curbs. Reinventing Michigan will require rapid transit with its own right-of-way, not a trolley that has to stop for every bus and turning car. Snyder probably already knows most of the private-sector patriarchs behind M1, so maybe they can settle this over a nice steak dinner.

Whatever candidate we supported, we need to recognize that when it comes to transportation, Snyder is a guy we can work with. In this difficult hour, Snyder could even mature into a vital GOP champion for transport reform. But to take full advantage of these opportunities, we need to roll up our sleeves and start talking to him – now.