OpEd: Get corridor connections between cities up and running

Gillian Ream Gainsley is a born-and-raised Ann Arbor townie who tried hard to leave southeast Michigan, living in Baltimore, Toronto and Thailand before realizing her love for this place and settling down in Ypsilanti. She represents the city of Ypsilanti on the board of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

Get Corridor Connections Between Cities Up and Running

Six months ago I walked, grinning, out of the Partners For Transit victory party and sent my dad a text message reading "71%!!!!" the proportion of voters who supported expanding transit in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township. Since then a new route has started that takes me to work every day, and my husband and I have purchased the house where we'll be raising our family––in downtown Ypsilanti, three blocks from the transit center. 

My family is betting hard on southeast Michigan's future, and I'm proud to be part of a community that understands how much good public transit can do. But I also know that we are far from being done. If southeast Michigan is going to succeed, we need a robust public transit system that serves the entire region. 

We no longer live in a society in which a mid-sized town can meet a family's economic needs in the long term. With most couples managing two careers in different industries, changing jobs relatively often compared to decades past, a single town is not capable of providing the opportunities that a family would need to stay here in the long term. Rather than asking families to spend precious hours and dollars commuting, regional transit would open up opportunities to work and live anywhere in the region, strengthening all our communities rather than just a few hotspots.

Local transit service is vitally important, but the next step will be to add fast, efficient corridors linking the major cities in our region. As the "major arteries" of a transit system, the more efficient our corridors can be, the better. The Reimagine Washtenaw project is an excellent example of how we can reinvent a key route to make it work better for buses, bikes, pedestrians, and yes, cars too! It's also a direct connection between the two "hubs" of The Ride's transit network, so a faster connection benefits the entire system.

We also need to strengthen the corridors that knit together the rest of the region. Thankfully, many of these connections are already moving forward. Studies have commenced around the US-23 corridor between Ann Arbor and Howell (usually referred to as North-South Rail or WALLY) and along the entire Woodward corridor from Detroit to Pontiac. The Regional Transit Authority is in the process of starting studies on the Ann Arbor to Detroit (Michigan Avenue) and Detroit to Port Huron (Gratiot Avenue) corridors as well. Efficient inter-city transit will truly revolutionize our region, finally putting the Detroit metro area on par with other major cities.

Critics will argue that public transit costs a lot of money. So does widening highways. Studies show that driving rates have leveled off since 2008, yet highway expansions are being planned with the assumption that driving is a growing trend. Our regional governing body, SEMCOG, is considering spending $2.7 billion to add lanes to I-94, routing more traffic (and noise, and pollution) past our cities and widening the trench that divides Detroit's newly-revitalizing New Center and Midtown neighborhoods. A commuter train, on the other hand, would use existing tracks to route people directly into our center cities where they can enjoy everything our region has to offer, while also spurring economic development near station stops. If a train were an option on the I-94 corridor, many people would choose it, leaving more space in the existing highway lanes for those who choose to drive. As residents and voters in this region, it's up to us to choose the future we want to see. 

Perhaps the most exciting project, particularly as an Ypsilantian, is the prospect of a commuter rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit. This idea has been in the works since the late 1990s, but had been waiting on two major pieces of the puzzle: track improvements on the existing Amtrak line between Detroit and Chicago, and a streetcar connecting the station in New Center to downtown and Midtown. As of this year, with M-1 Rail breaking ground and the High Speed Rail line completing its last environmental assessment, the project is closer than ever to being realized. Using these existing partnerships and resources makes it possible to bring commuter rail to our region at a very low cost relative to the initial projections. With the RTA bringing on a strong, capable CEO in Michael Ford, who has already been successful locally at bringing governments and citizens together to support The Ride's recent transit improvements, our region has opened a new era of opportunity in regional transit. I hope to see these projects get the public support and political will that they deserve and need to move forward.

After years of parochialism, it's time to start thinking and acting as a region. The benefits of doing so are immense. Instead of wasting the 80 minutes a day and $300 per week I once spent on commuting to Ferndale, I could have used that time to get a jump start on work and invested the extra money in my home and community. Instead of skipping a trip to Comerica Park because of the hassle of driving and parking, my family could jump on a train and enjoy a day in Detroit. And rather than worrying about attracting investment to great places like downtown Ypsilanti, I could watch as our transit hubs become centers of vibrant, walkable activity. 

We have the opportunity to transform southeast Michigan into a successful, attractive region that is ready for the future, and I can't wait to see us jump at the chance.