Religious leaders from around the Detroit region seconded President Obama’s State of the Union call for investing in transportation infrastructure in a statement released late this week. Michigan, they say, “put American transportation on the map.” Yet the U.S. now lags the rest of the industrialized world, and a number of poorer countries, in the state of its transportation infrastructure, particularly rail and public transit. According to the faith leaders, affiliated with regional equity advocate MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength), it’s past time for us to give those modes new life.
It’s not just transit that’s suffering. The feds are over a year behind schedule in passing national transportation legislation – popularly known as “reauthorization,” or a “transportation enhancement act” (TEA). Without this periodic infusion of cash, we’re going nowhere. “Federal inaction on a robust, multi-year transportation bill has come at a price of American families increasingly stuck and stranded without affordable, reliable and efficient ways to get to work, school, or medical appointments,” the statement reads. “As gas prices soars over the $3 a gallon mark, citizens will once again be forced to struggle to choose between paying for gas and paying their bills.” The question isn’t whether we can afford to make lifeline transportation investments, but whether we can afford not to make them.
And the answer is clear: no, especially when it comes to the public transit investments that serve our state’s most vulnerable people. As the statement puts it:
“One-third of Detroit residents do not have access to an automobile, relying exclusively on public transit to get to work, school, doctor’s office, or to the grocery store. Smarter transportation investments can unleash the under-realized economic power of communities across Michigan. By investing in transportation projects, America can get people back to work now, lay a strong foundation for future economic growth, and expand opportunity for millions of residents.”
The faith leaders represent each county in the Detroit tri-county region, and include Rabbi Joseph Klein (Oak Park), Rev. Robert Dulin (Southfield), Rev. John Hice (Royal Oak), Rev. Bart Beebe (Sterling Heights), Rev. Darryl Moore (Detroit), and Rev. Charles Williams (Detroit). Co-signators are MOSES Executive Director Ponsella Hardaway and CeCe Grant of Transportation for America, which is leading the fight for transport reform across the nation.
It’s exciting to see congregations taking leadership on transportation; indeed, the statement sets an example for others across the country to follow. For too long, we’ve treated transportation as a technical issue, something for designated planners, engineers and economists to resolve. Yet as Transport Michigan has sought to emphasize, and the MOSES statement suggests, transforming our transportation system is ultimately a moral duty. In Michigan, perhaps more than most parts of the U.S., it requires challenging prevailing norms that immobilize the poor. Change on that level is more than any technocrat can accomplish, as the sad history of public transit in metro Detroit has shown; it requires a common public commitment and grassroots momentum.
Transportation systems structure our lives and change our planet’s very climate. Making them humane and sustainable is a crucial task for all of us in the work of building what Martin Luther King Jr. called a “beloved community,” a society that does right by everyone no matter how they roll. Let’s hope that transportation advocates around the nation take note, and weave moral suasion – not just hard numbers, but truth in the gospel sense – into the very heart of their arguments for change.