For economic growth: M1

By • on December 22, 2011

The news that the city and state have walked away from the Woodward light rail (M1) is not a good way to end the year. Big mistake! M1 – and not a bus rapid transit system which is now the preferred alternative – is the most powerful potential long-term game changer for Detroit. For a city that desperately needs a game changer.

What is the difference between bus and rail transit? Buses are an effective way to move people. Rail transit is primarily a powerful catalyst of economic growth. As Megan Owen, Executive Director of Transportation Riders United, is quoted in a terrific overview Free Press article on M1: “Weʼre basically throwing away a $3- billion economic development investment.”

Several years ago at a Urban Land Institute (ULI) Michigan Real Estate forum I heard a presentation on the Portland, Oregon street car system put in place in the 70s. It was described as development oriented transit. The city made the investment first and foremost for rail transit’s ability to stimulate and steer economic development, not to move people. And it paid off! Portland’s boom has been very much rail transit driven.

And cities and regions across the country, except here, learned the Portland lesson. Including Salt Lake City which for more than a decade has and continues to invest in building an extensive light rail system as a lynchpin of their economic growth strategy.  You read that right: red state, small government, low tax Utah investing taxpayers money in a light rail system.

This year at the ULI forum I was on a panel where one of the speakers said that national retailers are increasingly making new investments in central cities along light rail lines. Light rail, not bus lines – rapid or not. They too understand that light rail uniquely spurs and concentrates development. It is a particularly powerful attractor of young professionals that the city, region and state so desperately needs for its future economic growth.

Unfortunately our city and state elected leaders don’t seem to have learned that lesson. We are walking away from this powerful economic development initiative because as the Free Press report the lack of $10 million dollars a year in operating funds. $10 million a year would bring billions in economic growth and we won’t even try to raise the funds. Not smart!

The folks that get it are metro Detroit’s private sector leadership. The hopeful news is that the Kresge Foundation and Detroit’s business leaders are not taking no for an answer. As Crain’s Detroit Business reports, they sent a letter to the Mayor and Governor supporting development of M1 from downtown to the New Center area. They wrote:  “Detroit is at a critical juncture,” the funders wrote in the letter. “The need for a powerful catalyst to spur investment, attract new residents and businesses and help restore the city’s tax base is urgent.”

In another Crain’s article Dan Gilbert put it best: “Detroit has a chance to make a decision. Does it want to be a second-class city or a first-class city? These kinds of decisions, like we are seeing right now, won’t allow us to compete as a first-class city,” he said.

And they have put their money where they mouth is. As Crain’s writes:

Signing the letter were Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson, Penske Corp. founder and M1 Rail Chairman Roger Penske, Quicken Loans Inc./Rock Financial founder and M1 Vice Chairman Dan Gilbert and M1 CEO Matt Cullen. Compuware Corp. founder Peter Karmanos Jr.; the Ilitch family, which owns the Detroit Tigers, Detroit Red Wings and Little Caesar Enterprises Inc.; Henry Ford Hospital; and Wayne State University joined the other private funders in each having committed $3 million for the display advertising rights to a station along the planned rail’s route.

The lead funder is the Kresge Foundation which has committed $36.7 million to the project.

As we have written often, in a state where many candidates get elected by bashing Detroit, Governor Snyder deserves enormous credit for his courage to campaign across Michigan that for Michigan to succeed Detroit must be successful. He understands better than any Michigan governor since Bill Milliken that the most prosperous states in the nation are those with a high prosperity big metropolitan area anchored by a vibrant central city.

Now is the time to put that understanding into action. We need the Governor along with city and regional elected officials to join with business and philanthropic leaders to make M1 a reality and to put in place what we all so desperately need and want, a powerful spur for economic growth.

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