The idea of a reliable, regional transportation plan and why it is seen as a social justice issue

Nearly four out of five job openings in Southeast Michigan cannot realistically be accessed by public transportation. That means getting from Pontiac — with few job openings — to a city like Novi — with its growing economy and a wide choice ranging from shopping malls to light industry, for instance — is a tough nut to crack.

marie donigan
Marie Donigan, a member of St. John’s, Royal Oak, sees quality regional transit as an issue that affects all people in all areas.

Or perhaps residents from the east side of Detroit want to work, anywhere. There are a few lines available into downtown Detroit, but good luck trying to get to Dearborn or Warren or Royal Oak. It’s not easy.

Maybe you’re a student without dependable transportation. Less than half of the colleges and community colleges in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties are underserved by public transportation.

The current mass transit picture is bleak. And that explains why Marie Donigan, a member of St. John’s, Royal Oak, works so hard to get that point across to anyone willing to meet with her.

It’s an issue of social justice.

“Look at what’s happening with students, for instance,” Donigan said. “Insurance is so incredibly expensive in the Detroit area. So instead of studying, they’re working to pay for a car. And the way things are right now, it takes five to seven years to get a two-year degree if you have to take public transportation. That’s simply not right.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan supports A Coalition for Transit (ACT), which numbers more than 150 organizations and individuals recognizing the need for a true regional transit system.

In 2012, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder created the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), with the goal of coordinating, modernizing and improving mass transit in the four-county area.

Currently there are four regional transit providers: DDOT, the Detroit Department of Transportation; SMART, Southeast Michigan Area Regional Transportation; AAATA, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority; and the People Mover. In addition, the M-1 Rail is still under construction. Elements of each are effective, but stringing together a route using more than one service can often be difficult, if not impossible.

Current per capita spending on public transit in Southeast Michigan sits at $69 a year, significantly lower than other metropolitan areas nationwide which offer greater transportation accessibility. Meanwhile, an American Public Transportation Association study shows for every $1 invested in high-speed produces $4 in economic benefit for that region.

Studies have also shown more than 70 percent millennials are looking to locate to a region with good public transportation. Among senior citizens, 83 percent note regional transit would be especially useful (as more than one-quarter of all seniors do not drive and cannot access reliable regional transit).

It’s an issue, explains Donigan, that goes across lines of geography, finance, age, race and gender.

“We haven’t had a good regional transit system since the 1950s,” she said. “Many of the local bus lines haven’t been redrawn, taking people to and from places where there are no jobs now. I hear story after story of people whose lives are affected by no public transportation.”regional map top

The issue also affects businesses, many of which have a hard time filling openings simply because of transit inaccessibility.

So that’s why Donigan is busily touting the benefits of an upcoming 1.2 mill initiative on the November ballot. She is willing to speak with churches, social groups, even individuals to get out a message: Not only is it possible to improve regional public transit, but it can benefit all people.

Donigan currently works with the non-profit Harriet Tubman Center as chair of the Intergovernmental and Regional Affairs Committee. She previously worked in local government and as a three-term member of the Michigan House of Representatives.

St. John’s, Royal Oak and Grace Church, Mt. Clemens are also members of ACT. Donigan desperately wants to address more churches in the diocese.

“I’ll come to any church, any time,” she said. “This is an opportunity for something positive to take place.”