Megan Owens is the Executive Director of Transportation Riders United
(TRU). TRU is Detroit's non-profit transit advocate, dedicated to improving and promoting public transit throughout greater Detroit. Founded in 1999, TRU has a strong track record of doing the research, presenting the facts, involving the public, developing the coalitions and educating the leaders needed to achieve quality transit in greater Detroit.
Megan also serves on the Oakland County Public Transit Authority, which oversees SMART bus service in Oakland County, and on the Transportation Advisory Committee of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). She also helps lead two statewide transportation advocacy coalitions – Trans4M
and Let's Get Moving.
Previously, Megan spent six years working with PIRGIM
(the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan), expanding the state consumer protection program and leading efforts to reduce pollution from coal-burning power plants. She has also worked on several political campaigns and taught environmental education in the Michigan State Parks.
A lifelong Michigan resident, she graduated from the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment with a concentration in Environmental Policy. She has completed fellowships with the Detroit Regional Chamber's Leadership Detroit (class 31), the Michigan Non-Profit Association's Executive Leadership Fellowship and the Center for Progressive Leadership. Megan currently lives in Hazel Park with her husband and daughter.
There is enormous support for Woodward Light Rail. That's not surprising given the great benefits it will provide to so many people and given the substantial public involvement throughout the planning process. Throughout, there have been very few people actively opposed to it.
There have, however, been substantial debates over how it should be best achieved. That is probably appropriate, since this is a major project that will shape our city for decades to come. Over the past few years, diverse voices have been heard and compromises have been made. Now we have a great plan that incorporates the best input from all parties involved. Now it is time for everyone to come together around this vital project.
Since we're counting on the federal government for 60% of the funding, funding that many other cities want, Woodward Light Rail's very existence depends on our region coming together.
It is time for everyone involved to put aside their past differences and embrace this project.
Norm White is the head of Woodward Light Rail and has done an excellent job of shepherding this concept to where it is today. Yet he must now realize that he can't complete it all by himself. He must truly embrace the M-1 Rail funders as valued partners by offering open information and true respect.
Matt Cullen and the other M-1 Rail funders are incredibly generous in donating key funds to support this project. They also have a critical understanding of what the business community wants from this project to maximize its impact. Yet donating does not mean dictating. They received three-quarters of what they were seeking in compromises with the city and now need to fully and publicly embrace this project as planned.
Mayor Bing has a great opportunity to see enormous revitalization around this project, but he must provide more than just lip service. He needs to actively and enthusiastically advance Woodward Light Rail while also achieving a much higher quality of service from existing DDOT transit service under his control.
The Detroit City Council has been very supportive throughout years of transit debate. They now have an opportunity to demonstrate that great support by creating a Woodward Light Rail authority as soon as key details are worked out. They must also ensure full funding of DDOT until new funding can be identified for this critical transit service.
Governor Snyder and the state legislature can help as well. In addition to maintaining vital state funding for public transit, they now also need to provide local regions with new tools for funding transit, such as a voter-approved local sales tax or gas tax, to enable real expansion of Detroit area transit options.
Other business owners, residents, and concerned citizens can show their support by spreading the word about this great project to their friends and colleagues and by getting involved with TRU – Detroit's transit advocate.
Woodward Light Rail can truly reshape our city in exciting ways by encouraging redevelopment and revitalization, by creating tens of thousands of jobs and by boosting our property values and our economy. It is too important to be threatened by past squabbles or oversized egos.
Woodward Light Rail is coming to Detroit. If everyone comes together, we can make it a huge success for all of us.
In my first post I shared how I plan to personally use the Light Rail once it is built, demonstrating some of the many benefits it will provide to residents, businesses, and visitors alike.
But many people are still skeptical that it will ever happen, so I want to take a little time today to share what's been done so far and the key steps from here.
It may feel like we've been talking about Woodward Light Rail forever, probably because we have been. Since the old streetcar system was dismantled in 1956, there have been proposals and ideas, debates and discussion, all focused on bringing rail transit back to Woodward Avenue.
This current effort really got going in 2006 when the city of Detroit launched a federally-directed "Alternatives Analysis", to determine the best type of rapid transit to build and where in the city to build it. For over two years, they held public meetings, evaluated bus ridership data, studied population and job density and more, evaluating just about every possible option. Everything pointed to Light Rail on Woodward Avenue as the key place to start. So working together with the Federal Transit Administration, they put together a plan to make it happen.
Around the same time, the Regional Transit Coordinating Council's John Hertel met with some of the city's top business leaders and came to the same conclusion – that Detroit needs Light Rail on Woodward Avenue. But they were skeptical of the city's ability to pull it off and impatient to get it done far faster than the city had proposed. They put together a plan for a smaller, cheaper Woodward rail option, which became M-1 Rail.
But it quickly became clear that having two different proposals for the same basic project didn't make sense. M-1 Rail couldn't be built without city and federal approvals. Woodward Light Rail needed some additional investment to get major federal funding. So they agreed to work together to create one project that would achieve all of their goals.
Over the past year, Woodward Light Rail has gone through another federally-required process, called an "Environmental Impact Statement", to finalize the plan and evaluate all potential impacts. After a lot more public input and expert analysis, the Federal Transit Administration and Woodward Light Rail director signed off on a final decision on the route, alignment, and stop locations, which was announced just last month.
This is a critical and exciting step, but there are several more key steps to go. The Woodward Light Rail team is working with the Detroit City Council right now to develop a new Woodward Light Rail authority to manage and construct the project. This is critical to ensure city bureaucracy doesn't slow down this important project. While oversight and other specifics need to be agreed upon, it is a critical step to help make this project succeed.
In September, the Federal Transit Administration should sign an official "Record of Decision", enabling the detailed engineering and final design work to go ahead. The Federal Transit Administration will officially commit the $300 million needed to build the line, if there is strong, broad local support for the plan and all the details have been fully worked out.
If everything goes right, construction will begin in the next year or two and we'll be riding by 2015.
Woodward Light Rail is coming to Detroit! After decades of dawdling and debate, it's finally going to happen - assuming no one screws it up.
If there is any place in the country that screams out for convenient connections through rail transit, it is Woodward Avenue. In blog entries over the next few days, I'll lay out what has been done to make it possible, what the next steps are, and what needs to happen to ensure it succeeds.
Today, I'll start with why we need Woodward Light Rail (for those last few people in the region who still question it).
To explain why we need Woodward Light Rail I could share stories of the economic vitality of cities with successful rapid transit lines, or I could provide statistics on the number of Detroiters without a car, or I could quote surveys showing that talented college graduates and the businesses that want to hire them are moving to vibrant cities with effective transit options instead of to Detroit.
But instead, I'll explain how I personally plan to use it.
Picture a beautiful summer morning in 2015. My daughter and I walk to the end of our block and hop on the SMART bus that takes us the two miles to the Fairgrounds where the Light Rail will start. We could drive to the secured park-and-ride lot or perhaps ride our bikes, but since the bus routes have been aligned to bring people to the Light Rail, that's really the easiest way to get there.
Within 10 minutes, the Light Rail train arrives to pick us up. On the smooth quick ride downtown, my daughter may brighten the morning of some commuters with a friendly smile or I may chat with some students heading to class at Wayne State or workers heading home after the night shift. We hop off downtown and walk the few blocks to her daycare and my office.
At lunch, I'll hop back on the Light Rail and meet up with friends at Good Girls Go to Paris. Oh, and I forgot my mother's birthday is tomorrow – I'll stop by one of the great new shops or restaurants that have opened up near the Light Rail stations and pick her up a gift.
And drat, it's started to rain. I guess instead of walking, I'll take the Light Rail up a few stops further for a business meeting up at New Center, since the covered platforms make the short wait comfortable and dry.
Then it's back downtown, where a big convention is wrapping up at Cobo Hall and several hundred people are getting on the Light Rail to head up to the DIA. Good thing the two-car Light Rail cars can hold so many people!
A few more hours of work, then I'll pick up my daughter and meet my husband Jason for the ball game. He's not a big fan of buses, so he drives to the park-and-ride lot and rides the Light Rail to Comerica Park with lots of other excited baseball fans. After a great game, we skip the traffic by getting back on the Light Rail. Since we saved so much money not having to pay for gas or parking, Jason convinces me to stop at the Majestic for a drink with friends we bumped into on the train.
As we head home, I think about waking my daughter who is dozing comfortably on my shoulder to show her the big construction vehicles that are building the next section of Woodward Light Rail into Oakland County. But there's no need to wake her. There will be lots of opportunities to see construction vehicles, since Light Rail and other rapid transit is being built all throughout the greater Detroit region.
In the past few blogs, I've explained how your life could be improved by better transit, how far we've come as a region, and the critical next steps to ensuring quality regional transit becomes a reality, even here in the Motor City.
Clearly, the biggest battles are ahead. Some are happening right now!
We need real regional cooperation among the leaders of Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb Counties and the City of Detroit to create an official regional transit authority. Mayor Bing and Oakland Executive Patterson have to put parochial interests behind them and support this best opportunity to advance transit for the entire region.
We need to convince the state legislature to invest in transportation by changing the gas tax and allowing regions to vote on a local sales tax. Too many legislators, led by Senate Leader Mike Bishop, are adamantly opposed to anything that sounds vaguely like a tax, no matter what the need or benefit. That's got to change.
We've also got an even more immediate test case of both of these critical next steps – the potential to expand transit service and the SMART millage throughout all of Oakland County. The County Commission will be voting on it in a few short weeks! All the democrats and one republican are supporting it. We just need a few more courageous republicans to recognize the enormous need and benefits and support it. We also need to make sure Executive Patterson doesn't veto it!
We're not leaving any of these vital decisions up to chance!
Transportation Riders United is proud to lead the fight that could decide the direction of transit for decades to come. We are working to demonstrate overwhelming public support with a petition calling for regional cooperation and increased transit investment. We've got over 12,000 signatures already and need your help to get 40,000 before the end of the year.
We are coordinating meetings between local transit supporters and key elected officials at the state and county levels to ensure these leaders are getting the message. We are building and demonstrating support throughout the business community, which stands to benefit greatly and has important influence with elected officials. We also continue to work to spread the word about the benefits of transit through community events, regional media, local presentations, partner groups, social media, and much more. All that, in addition to actively watchdogging the various transportation plans and projects to ensure that they are done right.
TRU is Detroit's transit advocate. We have a decade of experience, research, outreach, advocacy, and planning behind our belt. We understand what is at stake and we are actively tackling it. But we can't do it alone. If you support this vision and are excited about this potential, please get involved.
Go to DetroitTransit.org to sign our petition and ask your friends to do the same. While there, join our email list to keep updated on key transit news, events, opportunities, and more.
Call Oakland Executive Patterson and urge him to support regional transit, including the regional authority and the SMART bus millage.
Contact your state legislators and tell them you are willing to pay a little more in taxes to support vital transit investments.
Come to TRU's 10th anniversary celebration and/or join TRU as a member to support and advance our work as Detroit’s transit advocate. Imagine vibrant successful communities throughout greater Detroit all connected by convenient efficient rapid transit – then help us make that vision a reality.
Public transit in the Motor City has come so far. We are on the cusp of real change. Yet the biggest battles are ahead. With your help, we can truly ensure that the greater Detroit area becomes as attractive, prosperous, and successful as we all imagine it can be.
If you read my first blog, or if you've spent much time using transit in other cities and dreamed about real rapid transit in Detroit, you understand why we need to improve and expand our transit here in greater Detroit.
A large portion of the region now agrees that we need more and better transit, so what's holding us back?
Just two little things – regional power sharing and a new tax. That's all.
First, we need a regional transit authority - one agency for the full tri-county area to plan, fund, coordinate, and implement new transit investments. As we saw with the Cobo deal (and the water fights and anytime Brooks Patterson shares a stage with a Detroit mayor), our regional leaders don't always play nice when it comes to sharing power over regional resources. But today's system of separate agencies in charge of Detroit buses, suburban buses, Woodward light rail, Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter train, the People Mover, and regional transit planning really doesn't work. Nor can any of these entities gather the tax money needed to implement a complete system.
The Regional Transit Coordinating Council, which includes the leaders of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties and the City of Detroit, is actively negotiating a regional authority agreement. Haven't heard nearly as much about that as you did when the Cobo deal was being negotiated? That's the plan, to get the squabbles taken care of behind closed doors instead of in competing press conferences. But it is just as, or probably even more, important than the Cobo deal, with even more on the line.
Rumor has it that Wayne and Macomb leaders have agreed and that the other two are close. Once those four agree, the state legislature must take it up and pass it through both chambers and get the governor's signature. Amazingly, that will probably be the easy part, once Detroit and Oakland County are both on board. Let's hope (and work to ensure) that the benefits to the region will overcome any parochial interests or narrow-minded politics!
Then we need to fund it.
Just about every other major metropolitan region has a dedicated tax for public transit. That's one of the reasons just about every other region has better transit that we do – because they pay for it. While funding mechanisms vary, most metro areas have a regional sales tax of ½ or 1% that funds the construction of new transit lines and the operation of their buses, trains, subways, and other transit. Other metro areas pay on average $200 per capita on their transit network; top cities invest even more. Our region pays just $75. So we get what we pay for.
The question is - are you willing to pay a little more to get better transit?
Would you be willing to pay an extra quarter on a $50 dinner to not have to pay for parking? How about a nickel on a $5 beer to not have to worry about a designated driver (or a DUI)? A penny or two more on your morning coffee to have a more vibrant city?
From my conversations and Transportation Riders United's research, most people are willing. Now we just need to convince the politicians to give us the choice. That's the real battle.
My last blog will detail what TRU is doing to make sure our elected officials do what is right for regional transit and how we need your help to make it happen.
It is often said that you can't understand where you're going without looking back on where you came from. That's especially true for transit in the Motor City. We've still got a long way to go, but we're on the right track, and wow, have we come a long way!
Detroit once had a great transit system; the biggest municipally-owned streetcar system in the country. Vibrant, close-knit communities like Ferndale, Mt. Clemens, and Birmingham were built up along train and streetcar lines. Early autoworkers would hop on the streetcar to go to work or shopping, saving their new automobile for the Sunday drive.
Over several decades, however, interurban train lines closed, streetcars were sold off to Mexico and replaced with buses, and commuter trains stopped running. For the past fifty years, transportation investment throughout the greater Detroit area (and most of Michigan) focused almost exclusively on building more and bigger roads and highways.
Since development follows transportation, subdivisions and strip malls popped up like house farms in former farm fields and forests all along the big new highways. People moved further and further away from the central city, lured by initially quick highway commutes, low building costs, and government housing incentives. The communities they left behind were stuck subsidizing the sprawl, getting paved over for the big new highways, and struggling to pay for massive infrastructure.
While the new car-dependent suburbs may have worked well for some people, they neglected the needs of many other people throughout the region. Fully one-third of our population is too young, too old, or physically or financially unable to drive. Many more just want to have other transportation options. These include many people in the suburbs, including moms who are sick of spending their lives as kid-chauffeurs, aging seniors who want to maintain independence despite losing their vision, families struggling to pay gas and car payments with decreasing incomes, and many others. Those are just a few of the reasons that transit is so important!
By the late 1990s, Detroit was providing a lackluster and unreliable bus service that often didn't show up and left people in wheelchairs waiting on the curb for hours. City and suburban bus service was badly coordinated and even the People Mover had to operate one-way at a time after damage from the Hudson's Building implosion. Even worse, far too few people understood that things could be different. Bus service was seen as welfare for people who couldn't afford a car and there was no understanding of the enormous economic benefit other cities were deriving from rapid transit investments.
A handful of local individuals got pissed off at the lousy transit service, and the lack of any real leadership to improve it, and decided to do something about it. Their reasons for action varied – an environmental lawyer concerned about air pollution, a well-traveled 14-year old who saw the connections between transit and urban vitality in other cities, city residents who just wanted their bus to show up on time – but their dedication never wavered and Transportation Riders United was created.
Over the past decade, the region has changed dramatically. City and suburban bus services are working much more closely together. Both have over 80% on-time performance and are actively striving to do even better.
Active discussions are occurring among key elected officials in Oakland County and throughout the region about expanding transit and eliminating holes in service. There is broad public support for expanding transit and growing interest in funding transit improvement. Regional leaders and national experts frequently discuss the enormous economic and revitalization benefits transit can provide in keeping young professionals here, recruiting new economy businesses, spurring redevelopment, and creating jobs. And our first two rail lines are likely to start running within the next few years, along Woodward and out to the Airport and Ann Arbor.
While we are still primarily dependent on buses and regional leaders continue to squabble over taxing and control, we are fully on the rebound, having reached the nadir and started to climb again. We've still got a big hill ahead of us to ensure regional cooperation and dedicated transit funding, but I'm pleased to say that we've come a long way, baby!
Come to TRU's 10th anniversary dinner on November 16 to learn lots more about past transit troubles, the founding of TRU, and the enormous impact we've had over the past decade.
Read my next blog posts for how we're going to get the rest of the way there.
Transportation Riders United (TRU), Detroit's transit advocacy group, is celebrating our tenth anniversary next week. This has gotten me thinking a lot about just how much the greater Detroit region has changed over the past decade and what it will be like ten or more years from now.
TRU, along with Metromode and others, has been discussing transit for several years now. You've probably heard about the great economic benefits and cost savings that transit investment can bring. Maybe you've seen the various transit plans and maps.
But what will more and better Detroit area transit really mean for your daily life? That's what we all really want to know, isn't it? So I'll start my blog series by taking a stab at it.
Imagine being able to take your kids (or grandkids or nieces) to the zoo, the Science Center, and the Riverwalk carousel all in one day without once worrying about parking or traffic, just hopping on and off the Woodward streetcar whenever you want.
Imagine heading to the ballgame (be it Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, or even Wolverines) with a group of friends and never having to worry about parking or who will be the designated driver, because you can all party safely on the train.
Imagine not having to drive your 15-year old to the mall, or soccer practice, or a friend's house, since they can use the safe, convenient and reliable bus system to get there. Imagine saving thousands of dollars in gas, parking, insurance, and car repair bills because you can leave your car at home on your commute to work, or even get rid of a car altogether. Imagine an attractive new condo just steps away from the streetcar stop where you can ride, walk, or bike to lots of new restaurants, markets, shops, coffee shops, schools, theaters, and other businesses that also popped up along the streetcar line.
Imagine a business trip to Chicago that doesn't involve either five hours of monotonous driving or taking off your shoes to go through an airport security line. Instead you hop on a high speed train and spend three hours polishing your presentation or relaxing with a coffee and a paperback.
Or just imagine fewer people crowding your highway on your drive to work, more young professionals and new technology businesses moving into the region, increased property values and a higher tax-base throughout the region.
That's all to say nothing about helping cut global warming pollution, decreasing asthma attacks, minimizing obesity by increasing walkability, focusing development, reversing Detroit's population decline, decreasing sprawl pressure on rural farms and open spaces, and much, much more.
Hope so, because the greater Detroit area is truly on the cusp of making this vision a reality. In the next few blogs, I'll explain how far we've had to come to get this close, the tough steps we still need to take, and how you can help make it all happen.