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Southeast Michigan has a real chance for a good transit system

Metropolitan Detroit is the nation’s only major urban area with absolutely no mass transit from the airport either to the downtown or to major suburban areas.

What may be even worse is that there is also no reliable and timely way for most people to get from their homes to their jobs in less than an hour, other than a private automobile.

Since more than a quarter of adult Detroiters have no cars, there is no practical way for most of them to get out of poverty.

That’s why we were transfixed last year by the so-called “walking man,” James Robertson, who walked more than 20 miles to and from work every day.

This wasn’t a stunt. It was the only way he could get there. But few have his work ethic or stamina.

... this year we are finally going to have what will likely be the only chance we'll ever get at workable, regional, mass transit.

Well, this year we are finally going to have what will likely be the only chance we’ll ever get at workable, regional, mass transit.

The three-year-old Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, the RTA, unveiled its master plan last week in what was designed to be a coordinated one-two punch – first at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, and then before all the movers and shakers 300 miles away at the Mackinac Conference.

Unfortunately, the announcement didn’t get as much attention as it deserved.

This may have been because a lot of attention was focused on the battle to save Detroit Public schools, and the fact that Flint is still such a large part of the conversation.

That’s unfortunate, because the RTA plan is not only brilliant and affordable, but could be a total economic game-changer for this region. I watched last week as a procession of speakers – black and white, Republican and Democrat, business and government – spoke up enthusiastically in favor of this plan. Voters in four major counties will be asked in November to agree to levy a new 1.2 mill property tax to pay for the RTA.

If you rent, this will cost you nothing. If you own a house worth $200,000, it will cost you about $120 a year.

That is, by the way, a little less than I spent to take Metro car taxis to and from the airport twice last winter.

If the RTA is built, within a few years I won’t have to do that anymore.

I’ll just have to get to a nearby station and board a special bus which will in some ways be more like a train, and travel in its own special lane.

Long before that, all sorts of new conventional bus routes would open up, and the Detroit and suburban bus systems finally made to logically mesh together and with light rail systems. This is a wide-ranging, multi-platform, fully integrated coordinated transportation plan that is essential if we are to be competitive.

The only question is whether the voters will be mature enough to see that.

The only question is whether the voters will be mature enough to see that.

No major political figure opposes the RTA; even Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, a longtime mass transit foe, has said favorable things.

But there are those who would oppose another dime of new taxes to save the planet from exploding, and this knee-jerk mentality is the biggest threat against our future economic progress.

This might just be the most important thing on the ballot this year.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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