Taking transit steps 

News flash: Various metro-area government officials and business owners voted to cooperate on something. Bigger news flash: It was regional rapid transit.

A few weeks ago on the 15th floor of the Compuware building in downtown Detroit, members of the Woodward Avenue Action Association — a group of business and civic leaders from communities along the Woodward corridor — voted to start implementing the suggestions put forth by the IBI Group, a consulting firm that studied the possibilities of rapid transit such as light rail in metro Detroit.

“It’s a huge breakthrough because this is government and business talking in one voice,” says Tom Barwin, Ferndale city manager and chair of the association’s transit committee. “It’s bipartisan, and it’s city and suburban officials.” If these community leaders follow through on the recommendations, he adds, metro Detroiters might see a rapid transit line running along Woodward from the Detroit riverfront to the Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak within 10 years.

But that’s a big “if.” The four steps suggested by IBI aren’t exactly of the baby sort. For one thing, the Michigan Constitution would have to be amended to allow for some type of voter-approved regional tax to fund the system. Regional sales taxes of about a half-cent are how cities such as Denver and Cleveland pay for their systems, but they aren’t allowed under current Michigan law. And while it’s changing the Constitution, the association will also have to develop a regional transit authority to oversee the system. All in all, not exactly as easy as wash, rinse, repeat.

So why are businesses and some governments from around the region finally getting on the bus, so to speak? It’s all about the money, Barwin says. “We’re competing with every other metropolitan area in America and the globe. By my estimation, if we could solidify transportation between the airport and Detroit, and between Detroit and Birmingham, within 10 years (of building the system) we could create 100,000 new jobs. That’s a pretty big bang for the buck.”

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