Blog: Megan Owens

Ironically, early auto workers once rode the streetcar to work in factories. This new model year, facing a crumbled rail system and plant closings, the communities of greater Detroit are assembling a regional transit authority. Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, outlines a timeline of transit and what's needed to make the jump from jalopy to streamlined bus service and regional light rail.

Post 3: Taxing Steps Will Make Quality Regional Transit

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.