Motor City mass transit could get push under Biden administration

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Donald Stuckey II is a Detroit photographer without a car who can’t reach the nearest camera store on the city’s public transportation system. 

Instead of being able to support a local business, Stuckey has resorted to ordering his equipment online. 

This dilemma could change for Stuckey and other Metro Detroit residents who need expanded mass transit options to reach stores, jobs and schools.

Changes in leadership in Washington after the 2020 election have led to new hope for advocates of mass transit expansion in Southeast Michigan. 

In December, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter said regional transit is an important topic for him during his new term. 

He said it’s important economically for the region and for citizens and workers alike. 

Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana said it no longer feels like a debate over whether better public transportation is needed, but rather how to get it done. 

The Biden administration has called for a new set of national priorities relevant to mass transit.

For example, the new COVID-19 stimulus plan proposal designates $20 billion to assist transit systems that have been hit hard by the pandemic. 

For many people in Southeast Michigan, stimulus money from the bills passed during the pandemic is what they’ve wanted for years. 

In Metro Detroit, there are two main transportation systems. The Detroit Department of Transportation provides transportation in urban areas, while the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART, serves primarily suburban areas near Detroit. 

SMART general manager Robert Cramer said the two services complement each other, but bus routes could still be extended further into the suburbs of Oakland and Macomb counties to better serve the region.

Cramer also said the proposal of regional transit would be good for the region economically. SMART implemented upgrades to its buses recently, he said.

With the approval of Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, he said SMART would be able to extend its services further into these counties.

Communities such as Novi, Rochester, Canton and Livonia would benefit from the option and it would be an investment for the community because more people could get to jobs, he said.

In 2018, Amazon was searching for a new location for its headquarters. 

When Detroit didn’t make the cut, there was speculation about the company’s reasoning, much of it involving the lack of regional transportation in Southeast Michigan. 

With the opening of Amazon distribution hubs around the state, Cramer said the need for more funding for public transportation is becoming more important to Detroit residents who would benefit from jobs there. 

Cramer said the new administration in Washington will be good for public transportation, citing President Joe Biden’s use of Amtrak. 

He said at the state level, “by default, Democratic leadership is going to be more inclined to support investment in things like public transportation.”

When Stuckey was looking for a job several years ago, he couldn’t find one within walking distance. 

Once public transportation was extended in Metro Detroit, Stuckey went to Dearborn Public Schools, where he was hired as a substitute teacher and then offered a full-time position. 

Stuckey is now the president of Transportation Riders United, where he works to get people where they need to be. 

There have been unsuccessful attempts at passing legislation and tax millages for better regional transportation. 

Ferndale’s Piana said, however, that prospects for success on the 2022 ballot seem more optimistic.

Brad Williams, the vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, and others have been lobbying for more funding for regional public transit. 

With more funding, public transit could be extended further into the Metro Detroit area. 

In his 2020 testimony for a regional transit bill in the Michigan House of Representatives, Williams said Detroit spends the least per capita on public transportation among major metropolitan areas in the U.S.

In 2021, Williams said the new administration gives him hope for the future of public transportation. 

The appointment of Pete Buttigieg as secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation represented a turning point for community transportation. Piana, the Ferndale mayor, said that Buttigieg has been championing cities because he has direct experience working with communities and served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

The Congressional Research Service released a January report outlining public transportation on a national level moving forward. 

In the past year, national ridership fell by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Also, transportation is the main source of human-related emissions of greenhouse gases. 

Public transportation may reduce emissions if trips normally made in personal vehicles are made by trains or buses instead, the report said.

Piana has long called for more investment in public transportation. 

She recently earned the title of “Climate Change Professional” and said that public transportation options are important for environmental reasons. 

One of her goals for Ferndale is to become a carbon-neutral city and mass transit can help achieve that goal. 

John LaMacchia II, the assistant director of state and federal affairs for the Michigan Municipal  League, said there are many reasons for better regional public transit in Southeast Michigan. 

LaMacchia said the younger generations seem to want to live and work in a more urban environment, and public transportation makes a community more equitable and attractive. 

He said that pushing for regional public transportation isn’t just about a single issue —

it’s a way to build community wealth.

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