From the Directors: Streetcars and Highway Widening Projects Paving the Way for Injustice

August 5, 2013

Photo from http://www.publicadvocates.org

by Diana Copeland 
Detroit has long struggled with access to transportation issues and the two main transportation projects recently introduced to the city do not appear to offer any reprieve.  
As a representative of East Michigan Environmental Action Council, I regularly attend North End Woodward Community Coalition meetings. There, I witness testimony of Detroiters that have waited for over an hour for a bus; people that have lost their jobs because they were late for work because of bus delay; and folks waiting for buses only to have 2 or 3 busses pass them by at the bus stop.  It is clear that what Detroiters want and need is a reliable accessible rapid transit system. But, in recent project proposals for transportation that I have carefully pored over, there is no sign of help coming any time soon.  
In April this year the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) finalized the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the streetcar project.  This project was approved to replace the Woodward Light Rail project but it is a far cry from the Light Rail plan in terms of serving the people of the city of Detroit.  Despite overwhelming community turn out against the proposal, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) voted June 19th, for their 2040 transportation plan which includes a very controversial highway widening project of I-94 and I-75 freeways.
These elaborate and expensive plans (the streetcar will cost 137 million and the highway widening 4 billion) make little mention of a connected transit initiative.  If anything, that is still far off in the future.  The main issues with the justice implications of both projects are that they do not address improving health and quality of life, accessibility and affordability for the majority of Detroit residents. The Northend will be especially adversely affected by the streetcar’s Vehicle Storage and Maintenance Facility (VSMF), as noted in the EIS, by noise pollution caused by the streetcar turning in and out of the facility, storage of potentially hazardous materials and maintenance activity.
Neither project address accessibility issues in a meaningful way.  The streetcar system would serve less area than the original Light Rail plan and even less than an alternate improved bus service with increased number of buses, stops and system throughout Detroit would.  On both the original Light Rail and Streetcar EIS's, very little information was given explaining why a sophisticated bus system was not considered in place of the Light rail or Streetcar. It is essential to demand a cost comparison of both plans to an upgraded Bus System.  
Both projects come with large price tags for the city and residents.  The EIS states the system would largely serve the economic development of Downtown and Midtown, yet residents throughout the city will be stuck paying the unwieldy bills.  A majority of funds, $86 million, are coming from private and public investors, $25 million in Federal grants and $16 million in New Market Tax rebates for a total of $137 million.  For the amount of money that will be spent on the Streetcar system, a sophisticated bus service efficiently serving the entire city could be created that would more effectively meet the needs of the majority of Detroit residents while still bringing tourists’ dollars to local businesses. The Highway widening project is billed as part of a 4 billion dollar project.
As part of a variety of community transportation initiatives, EMEAC brings a race and class analysis to the forefront of the debates over transportation investments; we want to make sure that equity is at the heart of the transportation movement.  We do not feel like it is too much to expect that Detroit has basic transit service since our low-income people and people of color rely on them every day.
As an organization we strongly urge officials to guide transportation policy by the following principles:
   Accessibility: Transit systems must support the critical, day-to-day travel needs of the “transit dependent” - people without reliable access to a car. Transit routes must be reliable and well coordinated to allow for trips to school, work, shopping, recreation and medical care.
   Health and Quality of Life: Vehicles must be clean running to prevent toxins from polluting our environment and poisoning our bodies.
   Affordability: Fares should not exceed what families can reasonably pay.  Youth should get free rides or significantly discounted rides as many Detroit youth depend on buses to attend school.
   Public Participation: Community members must have a meaningful voice in decision making about how services can be improved and how dollars are spent.
   Accountability: Transportation planning and funding should reflect community priorities.
   Fairness: Low-income riders must receive an equal benefit from public transit dollars as higher-income riders do. Subsidies should be targeted to those who are least able to pay.
We reject both the street car proposal and the highway widening proposal.  Detroit’s businesses, residents, and families would be better served by transportation systems that include Accessibility, Quality of Life, Affordability, Public Participation, Accountability, and Fairness as policy principles.
We strongly encourage concerned citizens to attend the Northend Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) meetings held every 1st and 3rd Monday at St. Matthew & St. Joseph Episcopal Church (8850 Woodward Ave. Detroit 48202) at 5:30pm. For more information about the meetings please call Rev. Ross at 313.460.7076.