Mass Transit May Return To Detroit

When you think of Detroit, you think of cars — not trains or buses. Fifty years after Detroit's last streetcar went out of service, there's talk of bringing mass transit back. After years of false starts, this time, Motor City business leaders are on board.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

It's Day to Day from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. This week, the House and Senate wrangle over proposals aimed at bringing down the cost of gas. But neither measure is expected to change the price at the pump anytime soon. So, today, we're looking at a couple of ways to avoid your car. In a few minutes, we'll hear about the best cities to walk in. First, though, Celeste Headlee reports on new calls to rebuild the public transit system in the hometown of the U.S. auto industry.

CELESTE HEADLEE: Years ago, Detroit had one of the largest streetcar systems in the U.S. You could hop on a sleek, electric car and travel quickly out of the city to your home in the suburbs.

Mr. JOHN HERTEL (CEO, Detroit Regional Mass Transit Authority): When I was a little boy, on a Sunday, my parents took me to ride the Detroit streetcar. And I said, why are we riding this on Sunday? Because, at that time, businesses were closed on Sunday. They said, we're riding it because it's the last day that the streetcar's going to run. That was 1956.

HEADLEE: John Hertel is now the CEO of the Detroit Regional Mass Transit Authority. Those cars were sent to Mexico City, perhaps because they seemed old fashioned in the post World War II boom, when every one wanted their own set of wheels. The Detroit area hasn't had any comprehensive public transportation since that last streetcar went south. But Megan Owens, of the non-profit group Transportation Riders United, said the region has had other opportunities to build mass transit.

Ms. MEGAN OWENS (Director, Transportation Riders United): In the 1970s, the federal government offered the Detroit area 600 million dollars if we could just come up with a plan to build public transit. And the city and the suburbs couldn't agree.

Mr. BROOKS PATTERSON (Executive, Oakland County): It was an opportunity knocking on the door, and nobody opened it.

HEADLEE: Brooks Patterson is the executive of Oakland County that borders Detroit to the north. At the time the government offered that 600 million dollars, the region was still smarting from the aftershocks of the Detroit riots and Coleman Young was the defiant mayor of the city. Many people say it was racism that kept the region from reaching agreement on a plan to link the largely black Detroit to the mostly white suburbs. Patterson was a law student at the time.

Mr. PATTERSON: Nobody called me and asked me if I wanted to have mass transit. So I don't think you can blame it on the general population. It's the leadership that failed us at that time.

HEADLEE: Since then, there have been 23 serious efforts to install transit lines in Metro Detroit. They've all failed, except a proposal to create bus lines in the suburbs. And Patterson says that's because not enough people use public transportation. A grand trunk rail line used to stretch for 31 miles from Pontiac to Detroit. It was dismantled in the late '80s because ridership fell below 500.

Mr. PATTERSON Now, what has changed in the minds of the public, that we've gone and built a multi billion dollar line, requiring millions of dollars in subsidies to maintain, when we couldn't even get 500 people or more? That we couldn't even get when Detroit had a larger center in downtown, with more jobs and more people.

HEADLEE: John Hertel says a lot has changed. Gas prices are high, people are concerned about pollution, and business leaders now recognize the economic value of mass transit. He says cities like Dallas, Portland and Denver have seen huge benefits from investments in public transportation.

Mr. HERTEL: In all those places, for every dollar they've put into mass transit, there's been an investment by the private sector of, on average, over seven dollars. Seven to one.

HEADLEE: Business leaders in Metro Detroit are now jumping on board the mass transit wagon. Matt Cullen is the CEO of Rock Enterprises, the holding company for Quicken Loans. He says the chairman of his company, Dan Gilbert, has been working hard to get some kind of mass transit plan approved.

Mr. MATT CULLEN (CEO, Rock Enterprises): It's not altruism, he really believes that, in order to be competitive, in order to track the best and brightest young folks coming out of college, you need to have the environment that they're going to find appealing.

HEADLEE: And that environment, Cullen says, is a strong inner city with good public transportation, not a bunch of parking lots. Brooks Patterson says mass transit is a wonderful thing, but he doesn't think Michigan can afford it right now.

Mr. PATTERSON: We're considered the fourth wealthiest county in America, and we just let 152 of our best and brightest go early, because we had to reduce our budget to offset the shortfall. So, these are tough times. And is mass transit a priority? We'll see.

HEADLEE: Megan Owens says politicians still remember the riots of the '70s, and were involved in the often rancorous bickering that's plagued Detroit and its suburbs for 50 years.

Ms. OWENS: There's some discussion of, is it just a waiting game till some of this older generation that are stuck in that '60s and '70s mindset are retiring and moving on?

HEADLEE: Still, a bill to fund public transportation using property tax revenues is making its way through the Michigan House right now. And, after five decades of letting opportunity's knock go unanswered, leaders in Detroit hope this time someone opens the door. Celeste Headlee, NPR News, Detroit.

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