Dennis Archer on the future of mass transit in Michigan and beyond

During his 60-plus years Dennis Archer has had several careers -“ special education teacher, lawyer, Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Mayor of Detroit, President of the National League of Cities and Chairman of a Detroit-based international law firm. Now, concurrently with his position as chairman of Dickinson Wright, Archer serves as one of four co-chairs of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (a national public policy think-tank) National Transportation Policy Project.

Dennis Archer

“The transportation project is a true bi-partisan endeavor,” says Archer. “Two Republicans, two Democrats, which includes former New York and Minnesota congressmen, a former Washington State Senator and me.”

In a recent interview in his office overlooking Detroit, punctuated every three minutes by the familiar sound of Detroit’s People Mover some 40 stories below, Archer talked about his new national policy role.

He became interested in transporation as he thought about running for mayor in 1994. “One of the big issues confronting Detroiters was the transportation situation -“ the ability to get from Point A to Point B; it was horrendous -“ particularly for people who lived in the city, didn’t have a car and needed to go beyond city borders to get to work. It required on average as many as three busses and it required them to be on those busses for maybe two, two-and-a-half hours. That’s because this was the largest metropolitan area without a regional transportation system,” he explains.

“I’m delighted,” continues Archer “that the Michigan Legislature has passed, and the governor has signed, legislation that provides the mechanism that will allow us to get a transportation system in the region. I’m very hopeful that John Hertel, who is the agreed-upon transportation czar by the chair of the Macomb County commissioners, the county executives of Oakland and Wayne counties and the interim Detroit mayor , will help bring us all a brighter transportation future.”

In her statement that accompanied the signing of the legislative package, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm said that it will pave the way for development of a rapid transit system along the Woodward Avenue corridor in Detroit. This new legislation sets the stage for continued development of rapid transit systems across the state and continues the efforts to grow the state’s economy and create jobs. Rapid transit systems may include such options as light rail, trolleys, or bus rapid transit.

“The most vibrant states are the ones that have a robust public transportation system, and this legislation is a historic step to take Michigan closer to having rapid transit systems, starting in Detroit,” Granholm said. “As the nation moves toward new solutions like alternative and renewable energy, we must create cities that are compact and dynamic and diversify our transportation systems with alternatives like light rail lines.”

The new legislation allows the creation of nonprofit entities to build and operate rail lines in Michigan and provides tools to generate financing for operation of the systems.

The package applies to other cities as well as Detroit, but will be of particular importance to The Regional Area Initial Link (TRAIL) project slated to run 3.4 miles between Hart Plaza on the riverfront and the New Center in Detroit where it will connect with the proposed Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail service. Some of the projected stops will include major businesses, theaters, ballparks, museums and hospitals.

The legislation also allows private contributors to fund the system’s construction. TRAIL, a business group chaired by civic leader Roger Penske, has championed light rail on Woodward and raised private sector funds toward its implementation. The group has appointed Matt Cullen, president and COO of Rock Ventures, as volunteer interim CEO.

“This is one of the most vital projects for Detroit and southeast Michigan,” said Cullen, who was formerly an exec with General Motors and headed up much of the transformation of its RenCen headquarters. “This new legislation allows planning and engineering to begin in earnest among TRAIL, MDOT, DDOT and the many stakeholders along the Woodward Corridor.”

Granholm noted that the legislation is a critical tool to allow public/private partnerships to thrive. She noted in her news release that “There are some situations where the government can’t do it alone, where the private sector can’t do it alone. Woodward light rail is one of those situations. It took everyone, government and business, working together to make it happen.”

Archer picks up from there. “Last year I was contacted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. It was formed by former majority leaders of the United States Senate, in particular Senators Howard Baker, Tom Daschle, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. They have been able to attract foundations and other contributors who wanted the benefit of a bipartisan approach to address existing problems.

The current federal legislation that provides for the planning and construction of, among other things, light rail and other mass transit solutions is known as SAFETEA-LU. Archer continues: “it is scheduled to expire in September of this year. So, the Bipartisan Policy Center created a National Transportation Policy Project. I was asked to become a co-chair because I have a devout interest in transportation that comes not only from my experience as Detroit’s mayor but also because I’ve been active in the U.S. Conference of Mayors and I’m a former president of the National League of Cities -“ both entities having a deep and abiding interest in transportation. We hope to have a report completed by the end of the first quarter of this year for the Obama administration and the Congress to consider. Transportation will constitute a large portion of the proposed stimulus package and help to create some 3 million jobs -“ and it was important for Michigan to have in place the enabling legislation that will allow us to have projects which can be immediately funded.”

Traditional shared funding requirements for cities and states may be revised as a part of the stimulus package, Archer continued. “Having to have matching dollars -“ even as little as 10 percent -“ can be a lot when you have deficits as we have in Detroit and Michigan. And it could be as much as 30 to 40 percent, depending on the project. So the idea is to defer those requirements until the cities and states are more stable and can put money back into the system.”

The key phrase heard in discussions about the infrastructure component of the proposed stimulus package is “shovel ready.” While that refers primarily to road, highway and bridge repairs, it can also refer to mass transit projects. “Thanks to the efforts of the state department of transportation and the governor’s office,” says Archer, “Michigan will have a large number of ‘shovel ready’ projects, including the light rail system planned for the Woodward corridor. At the moment this section is contemplated as being privately financed but it is proposed that this would count as the ‘matching dollar amount’ for an extended system reaching to Royal Oak.”

‘Light rail’ is the terminology for streetcars and similar systems with numerous stops in urban areas while ‘commuter rail’ is more traditionally point-to-point, faster and with fewer stops. Currently, Amtrak operates a limited intercity commuter rail service between the Detroit area and Chicago -“ with stops at Woodward Avenue in the New Center and in Ann Arbor -“ and with the passenger trains operating on tracks controlled by freight hauling rail companies whose freight trains take precedence over passengers.

“In the interim,” says Archer, “there should be a close look at beefing up the area’s bus fleet. Hybrid busses are operating in many cities at the moment. Busses can go where light rail is inefficient, they can serve as feeders to the light rail system. And, as I understand it, the new legislation passed in Lansing incorporates all of the municipalities in Southeast Michigan into the new regional system. There is no more ‘opting out’ so everyone participates in the process going forward.”

Archer points out that “Every great region in this country has some sort of effective mass transit program. It’s not to promote or increase sprawl, but to accommodate the needs of its citizens. It needs to be reliable, and clean and produce fewer carbon emissions.”

He concludes: “What this Public Transportation Project will do is provide a bipartisan approach to encouraging Congress to act on behalf of the states and cities throughout the United States. Is the new legislation that will be enacted in the fall fair? Does it help us with the economic development of a city or region? Does it have a component that will keep us clean and green? These are the new core components that have not been present in previous legislation. They are what will go a long way toward making this country great again.”.

[Editor’s Note: Dennis Archer will be joining Corp! as a columnist and will be commenting on transportation and other issues confronting not only Southeast Michigan but the state and region as well. We look forward to his contributions.]