Michigan Asleep at the Wheel

While Michigan's Congressional delegation has spent the past several years narrowly focused on blocking new fuel efficiency standards to modernize the American automobile, Oregon's political leaders manuevered to secure a lucrative federal grant that could ultimately give rise to a $1 billion sector of the transportation industry.

The case is yet another example of how Michigan's claim of becoming a center of modern mobility technology amounts, at this point, to little more than a circus of big talk, missed opportunity, and little action from the state's politicians, corporate leaders, and news media.

What's the big deal? Today's Portland Oregonian reports how local officials, business executives, and politicians like U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) orchestrated a savvy, multi-year campaign to land a $4 million federal award and build the first modern American-made street car.

Dozens of cities across the nation, following Portland's lead, now are planning to rebuild historic streetcar lines as part of a comprehensive strategy to accelerate urban revitalization, improve quality of life, and boost competitiveness. So the clever people of Portland, who travelled all the way to Czechoslovakia to find streetcars for their now incredibly successful system, figured 'why not build them ourselves.' To them, the idea represented a promising opportunity to pioneer American-made mass transit technology, generate jobs for local manufacturers, and continue to diversify their economy for the 21st century.

The Oregonian's latest report suggests public officials fixed the highly competitive federal bidding process so Portland would win the grant. And the deal does sound a little suspicious. So what. They innovated the idea in the first place.

The point of this post is that neither Michigan nor Detroit are once mentioned in the article. Gomaco Corp of Iowa made a play for the federal funding. So did Pennsylvania-based Brookville Equipment Corp. Inekon, a Czech company, Siemens Transportation Systems, based in Germany, and other foreign competitors also reportedly wanted a shot at the contract.

Where's Ford and GM? Car-dominated Michigan continues to think like a bunch of car salesman, rather than mobility providers, and holds tight to the idea that there's only one way to get around: the automobile. There's certainly a need for affordable, clean cars in the 21st century. Indeed, it could be big business.

But the auto-only approach is increasingly out of touch with a rising number of global mega trends that favor a booming mass transit business. It also threatens to diminish - if it already hasn't - Michigan's standing as a world-reknowned transportation innovator and expert.