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Submitted Testimony of Sandy K. Baruah for Senate Transportation Committee

February, 28, 2012 – Thank you Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee for inviting me to testify today on this very important topic.  I especially appreciate the leadership of the sponsors of this package including Senator Casperson, Senator Johnson and Senator Warren also Governor Snyder for highlighting this important issue in his special message on Infrastructure. The Detroit Regional Chamber strongly supports Senate Bill 909, 911, and 912.  Frankly, we support the entire package that has been introduced to provide badly needed funding to our transportation infrastructure and a coordinated voice for public transit in our region.

The Detroit Regional Chamber was founded in 1903.  Over 100 years ago, business leaders from this region identified transportation and ability to move individuals and products safely and efficiently as one of the primary challenges facing our region.  Since that time, transit in metropolitan Detroit has actually deteriorated and we are left with a system with low levels of coordination and service that doesn’t meet the needs or expectations of our residents or businesses.  Over the last 20 years, the Detroit Regional Chamber has been at the center of the fight for regional transit.  My predecessor, Dick Blouse, was the leading voice in support legislation to create the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority.  Dick helped lead a remarkable effort that included business, labor, and political leaders throughout the region.

My support for public transit is both professional and personal.  From the perspective of the business community in our region, our lack of coordinated public transit is a missed opportunity.  Public transit serves as a means for our members to ensure that their employees have a safe and efficient means to travel to and from work.  Over the last several decades the population and economic centers of metro Detroit have spread out over a significant geographic area.  Like many regions, many employers in the core city rely on employees from the suburbs.  Economic and environmental concerns make transit an attractive option to many employees who work in the core city.  Additionally however, many suburban employers rely on employees from Detroit.  We all know that Detroit’s auto insurance rates are among the highest in the nation making individual auto ownership a challenge for many of the city’s residents.  Fixing transit can be part of the solution to making those residents valued employees for companies based outside of the city.

I am also encouraged that bus rapid transit is part of the dialogue.  The Chamber believes that BRT combines the best of both worlds to create a transit system from scratch.  BRT offers the speed and accessibility of light rail by using dedicated lanes, signal pre-emption, and fixed pre-paid stations.  Also, it embraces the lower start-up costs and long-term route flexibility of a traditional bus system.  Many regions around the world have found BRT to be an excellent option for starting up high-speed transit.  BRT has the potential to drive needed efficiencies in both the SMART and DDOT systems.  Additionally as an umbrella agency could lead to increased service coordination and eventual merger if it appears to be in the interests of users and taxpayers.  Further, BRT has the opportunity to better feed and utilize the People Mover system.  The People Mover has never been able to meet its potential to move residents around downtown, but regular BRT service can help move the People Mover from a visual signature for the city to a key cog in a regional transit system.  As an owner of an Yearly People Mover pass and regular user, I can confirm and even a committed car lover will use transit and can confirm its ease of use and quality.

Which leads me to the final point I wanted to communicate to you.  Prior to coming to Detroit in 2010, I have lived with coordinated public transit all of my adult life.  As a resident of Portland, OR and Washington, DC, I have seen firsthand the economic impact that transit can have on cities and the surrounding areas.  Both regions have strong public transit options that I utilized regularly in spite of my love for automobiles.  Detroit is the first city I have lived in where my transportation options were limited to driving the black car or the white car.

Moreover, there is a human element to consider.  As mentioned earlier many of the residents in our city and our region find that having their own car is prohibitive for either economic or other reasons.  However, this doesn’t erase their needs to safely travel around our region.  Some are isolated from necessary services including grocery stores, medical care and child care.  Further, the young talent we hope to continue to attract to our region demand the ability to move around the region without an automobile.

In short, if we desire to be a world class city and region, coordinated public transit is an absolute necessity.  On behalf of the Detroit Regional Chamber and our membership, I ask you to support our region and support Senate Bills 909, 911, 912.