Detroit will finally get its 3.3-mile streetcar line in the heart of the city, after the federal government recently announced it would spend $25 million on the project. The U.S. Department of Transportation formally blessed the plan after southeast Michigan created a regional transit authority late last year.
There’s a lesson for Toledo as well as Detroit: The federal government is paying close attention to how urban areas cooperate and collaborate. Those that work together through regional agencies and authorities have a far better chance of securing federal dollars for transportation, economic development, environmental, housing, and other projects.
The Federal Transit Administration made clear that it would not allocate millions of dollars to a Detroit light-rail or rapid-transit bus project until southeast Michigan got its act together. The area needed a regional authority to operate, govern, and coordinate existing and emerging light-rail and bus service.
In the 1970s, metro Detroit lost $600 million in federal aid to build a light-rail system because Detroit and its suburbs couldn’t agree on a plan. Light-rail lines were to connect to Detroit’s downtown People Mover, but it never happened. Later, the region tried and failed dozens of times to create a regional governing body for mass transit.
Now, the new regional transit authority has jump-started the $140 million M-1 Rail project. A streetcar line on Woodward Avenue will link downtown Detroit to the cultural, medical, and educational center a few miles to the north. Construction could start this year, with streetcar service to start in the fall of 2015.
Toledo can learn a valuable lesson on regional cooperation. Over the past year, several communities have debated whether to withdraw from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority. In a shortsighted move, Perrysburg left TARTA, stranding workers from outside the community, including Toledo, from getting to Perrysburg workplaces.
The debate should have been about joining TARTA. The location and population of Oregon and Springfield Township make them logical candidates to hop aboard the regional transit system. Aside from making TARTA service more comprehensive, such moves would make cooperation on other regional efforts more likely.
Regional cooperation not only boosts economic development in the Toledo area, but also improves its chances for federal aid. The urban policies of the Obama Administration are guided, rightly, by a belief that metropolitan regions — not individual municipalities — are the basic units of growth and development. A transit line between Toledo and Perrysburg provides employment for people living in Toledo, as well as employers and customers for Perrysburg businesses.
The United States is no longer a nation of farms or isolated cities and suburbs. Interconnected metropolitan regions that cross city, county, and state lines drive local economies. Local governments must become more regional in delivering services, taxing residents, and planning investment and development.
All local governments in the Toledo area must do a better job of thinking regionally. Groups such as the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments have a special duty to promote regional decision-making, identity, marketing, and branding in northwest Ohio.
Detroit’s recent success in developing a downtown light-rail system shows it’s never too late to start.