Transit Time in Michigan

After a parade of young white guys testified about the urgent need for modern public transit in Michigan cities, one middle-aged white guy joined the cause.

"Transit in Michigan has found its time," said state Representative Tom Pearce, a Republican from suburban Grand Rapids, at the July 25 meeting of the House Public Transit Subcommittee in Lansing. "There was a time when we were the auto capitol of the world. But we've come to a point where the costs of gas, insurance, car maintenance, environmental concerns, the inability to get people to work....all these things are coming together. It's in our best interests to get more serious about public transit."

The statement is important because, as cities across the nation invest in modern mass transit to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, elected officials in Michigan continue to stick to the 1950's roads-only transportation approach.

But Rep. Pearce's comments illustrate that even conservative policymakers are beginning to see not only the flaws in that narrow investment agenda but also the strategic value in expanding mobility options like busses, street cars, and light rail.

His comments came after months of public testimony before the House Public Transit Subcommittee delivered a strikingly consistent message: public transit is key to propel modern economic growth. Not surprisingly, the messengers more and more are coming from the educated and creative crowd of 20- and 30-year olds who have experienced vibrant cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver but have chosen to make their home in the Great Lakes State. Here are some excerpts of recent testimony before the subcommittee:

Eric Tungate, the 30-something director of economic development for the City of Hamtramck, testified on July 25, 2007:

"Life has been reduced to a simple equation," he said. " No car equals no work and no play."

"Transit is the single most important aspect of improving our economy in metro Detroit," Mr. Tungate added. "An effective mass transit system is one of the tools we can use to get back the college graduates we have been losing for the last 30 years to Chicago, New York, and Boston."

Conan Smith, 35, and Luke Forrest, 29, both of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, testified on June 27, 2007:

"Public investments in transit are direct infusions to regional economies by creating jobs and reducing travel costs," they said. "More importantly, transit spending catalyzes additional investment, both public and private."

Even yours truly, the 32-year-old Great Lakes Guy, was invited to testify yesterday by state Rep. Marie Donigan, the Democrat from Royal Oak, MI who chairs the subcommittee. Here's my opening statement:

"Serious investment in modern mass transit is no longer an option for Michigan and its cities. A number of people in our state still view mass transit projects as these wild experiments using unproven machinery that threaten to bust government budgets, crash private property values, and interfere with auto dependence. But the reality is that thoughtful planning for and investment in modern public transit is both a path to, and a requirement for, strengthening Michigan's competitiveness for the 21st century."