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Mass transit: How Detroit is planning to catch up with the rest of the country

June 3, 2015 by Steven M. Gursten

Detroit M1 Rail rendering
Detroit M-1 Rail rendering

We all know Detroit has its share of struggles and hardship — that remain even as the city begins to rebuild and rise from its history of corrupt government, poverty and lack of public resources to protect its people.

As an auto accident attorney, I’ve written in depth about the city of Detroit and its issues with some of the highest car insurance rates in the nation leading to nearly 50% of its drivers being uninsured and thus without desperately needed No Fault protections.

I believe one part of the solution for Detroit starts with public transportation. After all, Detroit is one of the only major cities in the U.S. without a thriving public transit system. This, combined with what may be the highest auto insurance rates in the nation, make for a very bad combination.

The need for better mass transit and public transportation in Detroit

Transit spending for metro Detroit falls behind the rest of the country at $84 per capita annually compared to the $184 per capita average in other major American cities, according to published reports.

The good news is, officials are now trying to change that. Currently, there are studies underway to help determine the best rapid transit options for Detroit’s corridors, according to a recent article in the Detroit Free Press.

Better bus rapid transit is the most likely system to be recommended. But the spike in bus accidents in Detroit and with related SMART buses in the suburbs is another issue I’ve written about that needs to be looked into further before more dollars are allocated.

There’s also the possibility of a rail system. This rail system is being reviewed by people such as Michael Ford, chief executive officer of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan. The RTA was formed by the Legislature in 2012 after many failed efforts at developing regional transportation.

The “Michigan Avenue” study is considering a route from Detroit to Ann Arbor and would include a connection to Metro Airport. The RTA is also planning to create an express airport service from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties

The RTA says it will have the results of its report in September.

In the meantime, the Detroit “M-1 Rail,” a 3.3 mile  streetcar line in Detroit, on Woodward Ave. between Congress to just north of Grand Boulevard, is underway.

The $140 million plan for the M-1 Rail line will include 20 different stations serving 12 stops, with most of the stations being on either side of Woodward, but some in the center of the street. There will be six 60 foot-long, driver-operated cars. Either end of the streetcar will be able to drive, so the car will not need to turn around – the driver just goes to the other end, according to a recent story in MLive.

The best news is that the  M-1 Rail isn’t expected to end in Detroit. Eventually, it may stretch to Pontiac, providing a lifeline and jobs for many Detroit residents into the more wealthy suburbs that lie outside the city.

The M-1 Rail is expected to be complete around the end of 2016.

How public transit will help Detroit

A viable public transit system isn’t just about bringing more economic development into the city. It will also help remedy the insurance crisis I mentioned above.

The M-1 Rail would be a boon for the 25% of Detroiters who don’t own a vehicle, as well as the 50% that currently have a car but drive bare or “drive dirty” because they cannot afford insurance for these cars. For many low-income Detroiters, it’s a choice between putting food on the table or insuring your car. I’ve even called this a civil rights crisis, as it affects the most poor and vulnerable citizens.

As far as parking, Detroit public transit will also ease steep parking rates for residents and those wishing to travel there.

Paul Hillegonds, RTA chair said it best on the importance of Detroit regional transportation catching up to the rest of the U.S.:

“If we are going to prosper in a 21st Century global economy, we need to develop a transit system that better connects residents to jobs, schools, basic services and the recreational and cultural assets we are blessed with.”

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