It seems that many transit discussions focus on how much it will cost and who’s going to pay. The fact that transit injects four dollars back into the economy for every dollar invested gets short shrift in the media and public forums (American Public Transit Association). That’s precisely why events such as “Build Transit, Build Business”, held on Tuesday, November 18th at Ford Field are significant. Organized by the Harriet Tubman Center, Metro Coalition of Congregations (MCC), and former State Representative Marie Donigan, this event drew 300 attendees from all over Metro Detroit, and was the sequel to an earlier 2014 event entitled “Better Transit, Better Business”.
Moderated by Mary Kramer of Crain’s Detroit, the keynote speakers included Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Chair, Paul Hillegonds, newly appointed RTA CEO Michael Ford, and Jason Jordan, from the Center for Transportation Excellence. Taking the podium after a short welcome by Reverend Louise Ott of the MCC, Kramer, who intimately follows the Detroit business community, provided unequivocal support for transit, stating that “business needs better transit options”.
During his segment, Hillegonds presented salient facts about Metro Detroit having the nation’s largest “jobs desert”. A jobs desert is a geographic area where well-paying full-time employment is difficult to obtain, particularly for those without access to an automobile, which in the City of Detroit equals 1/3 of the population. Metro Detroit has the nation’s most sprawled job market with “77% of Metro Detroit residents living more than 10 miles from a central business district.” Furthermore, “only 22% of jobs in southeast Michigan” are accessible within a 90 minute transit ride.
Ford was up next and discussed his success in getting a millage passed by 70% of voters to expand transit service as former Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority CEO. He then reflected on attending college in Portland, Oregon, and stressed the ease of using that region’s transit system to travel between his campus and first job. Ford also touched on the positive correlation between home values and transit. “Transportation was and needs to be at the heart of our economy.”
This provided a smooth segue into the panel discussion that followed, and convened the executives of University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), Wayne State University, Macomb Community College, and Oakland Community College who discussed transit obstacles as higher education institutions, and the impacts these obstacles have on the economy and their students. Said UD Mercy President Garibaldi, “75% of our students are commuters. They need good public transportation.”
Attendees texted questions, and a live Twitter feed ran on mounted TV monitors. Prior to the event, these TV monitors played a trailer titled “15 Minutes or Better: A Field Guide to Everyday Transit” introducing an upcoming documentary from Freshwater Transit.
The forum’s key takeaway was that anyone and everyone must champion better regional transit. Hillegonds invited people to apply to the RTA Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) which is currently accepting applications, and attendees placed cards in baskets around the room committing to hosting a meeting with RTA CEO Ford and RTA Board Members at homes, businesses, schools, or places of worship.
The event closed with a transit blessing led by Reverand Ott who called on her fellow religious leaders to protectively encircle the room and raise their hands in prayer, chanting “We are those who will choose to build or not to build a transit future with economic promise… May future generations call us blessed for the choices we make, the relationships we build, the future we create. Amen.”