In 2016, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeastern Michigan (RTA) enthusiastically proposed a Regional Transit Master Plan designed to target all four of the major counties surrounding Detroit (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw Counties). The ambitious $4.7 billion proposal aimed to improve regional transit through “a new tax and available state and federal funds,” while unifying a transit system plagued by decades of racial and economic divides along routes (Messner, 2018). The proposal was a win-win for the state of Michigan, and the catalyst of four years of efforts by the RTA (founded in 2012) to improve regional transit. But when brought to the ballot in November of 2016, voters shot down the deal with a resounding “no”.
Let’s examine Detroit voters’ decision to reject the Regional Transit Master Plan. The resolution was defeated by an 18,000-20,000 vote margin (49.5 to 50.5 percent), with almost 1.8 million total votes cast (Afana, 2018). Most notably, nine communities in Oakland County decided to opt out, with much of the remaining “no” votes coming from suburban Macomb County. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson (who, ironically, helped to lobby for the creation of the RTA in 2012) said that he would not force voters “into a tax machine from which they can expect little or no return on their investment” (DeVito, 2018). Patterson has also offered a staunch refusal to reconsider such a plan in 2018 and has done nothing to pressure voters to consider any regional transit initiative (Afana, 2018). While the desire to limit support of public initiatives to those that will directly benefit the individual is an understandable thought, voters in suburban Detroit almost certainly missed out on the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is Amazon, and other corporations just like it, who will continue to ignore Detroit until they prioritize such a necessary objective as regional public transit. It’s why proposals by cities like Birmingham, Alabama were simply laughable: why would Amazon decide to come to a metropolitan area where urban versus suburban needs create a culture of limited progress? Why would Amazon wish to come to a city, like Detroit, where the short-sighted needs of suburban voters outweighed years of planning and strategy by an urban coalition who had a viable plan for regional public transit in place? Amazon made it abundantly clear in its criteria for a host city that it must prioritize public transit (Amazon.com, Inc., n.d). Voters in Oakland and Macomb counties must decide whether they favor short-term tax savings, or the long-term benefits of appealing to multi-billion-dollar companies. According to the Amazon.com, Inc. (n.d.) press release, of the 20 cities actively considered by Amazon, only Nashville, Raleigh, Indianapolis, and Columbus have poor quality public transit (in comparison to other cities on the list like Atlanta, Newark, Pittsburgh and San Francisco) (CNT.org, n.d.).
Chicago has remained in competitive play for Amazon HQ2 for the exact reason as to why Detroit was never seriously considered (Messner, 2018). In early January of 2018, the Chicago Regional Transportation Authority Board approved their own ambitious plan for improving future public transit (Progressive Railroading, 2018). The 2018-2023 regional transit strategic plan is an update to a previous public transit initiative, and reiterates Chicago’s commitment to providing public funding for world-class public transit (RTAChicago.org, n.d.). The 2018-2023 plan is no outlier—Chicago’s RTA board revises their strategy every five years and considers public transit to be one of the region’s “most important mobility assets”, according to RTA Executive Director Leanne Redden (RTAChicago.org, 2018). She went on to say that “now is the time to act”, and that Chicago must prioritize locating a stable funding source to “continue to provide excellent service to our riders and fund capital projects that will make us competitive”.
These words by Director Redden are in stark contrast to those of Oakland County Executive Patterson, who considers transit funding an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer. The underlying difference between Chicago and Detroit in their bid for Amazon HQ2 is that elected and appointed officials, as well as the general population of Chicago, understand that quality public transit makes the city an appealing and competitive destination for investment. Amazon is a company of the present but for the future—they are groundbreaking in their methods and revolutionary in their influence. Amazon has zero desire to stay in the past. Chicago understands the bigger picture, while Detroit does not. Until Detroit (and other cities with similar attitudes towards public transit investment) understand the link between transit-as-progress and private sector investment, they will most likely never be taken seriously by multibillion-dollar companies looking to expand or relocate.