Woodward Avenue Subway Killed by City-Suburb Divide

March 13, 2014

2-27-1980 A7 prelude to busing

In this week’s Metro Times cover story, “Off the rails: How metro Detroit ended up with the worst public transit system in America,” we explored some of the region’s past failed attempts at regional alternative transit plans,

Arguably the biggest whopper of the bunch was a missed $600 million subsidy to construct a subway along Woodward Avenue into Oakland County, as well as a number of light rail lines and commuter rail systems. Then-President Gerald Ford made the commitment, $2.5 billion in 2014 dollars, contingent upon the merger of the Detroit and suburban bus systems.

The plan fell apart due to regional strife and political leaders being unable to budge on their differences in the plan. (Then-Mayor Coleman Young pushed for the heavy rail subway line; suburban officils hated the idea of it.)

Today, a Metro Times reader dropped an interesting tidbit in our mailbox worth mentioning. At the time the subway proposal was being considered, the Pontiac-based Oakland Press came out swinging against the idea, they say. Our reader went through the Pontiac Public Library archives and gathered a collection of Oakland Press editorial sections offering examples of the anti-subway rhetoric stemming from residents in that county.

One of the Press’ readers remarks, dated Feb. 27, 1980, shows the results of a poll regarding the proposed Detroit subway. The first question: “Should the [Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority] build the subway?” An overwhelming 1,562 readers responded ‘no.’ Only 50 said ‘yes’ to the idea.

The second question asked if the county should pull out of SEMTA? Again, for public transit advocates, the result must’ve been deflating: 1,531 ‘yes’ respondents, compared to 72 ‘nos.’

And for anyone who felt the cost of the entire regional transit plan (roughly $1.5 billion) played a role in its eventual failure, some readers comments flanking the Oakland Press‘ poll results should offer a different perception. It wasn’t the cost that was the issue, it was the thought of Detroit and all of the problems the city would bring.

One couple, Mr and Mrs. James Simmons of Rochester, had this to say about the proposal: “Why should we pay for something that benefits Detroit and Mayor Young’s whims and dumb ideas. We should pull out [of SEMTA] and keep Detroit and all its crime in Detroit.”

Another OP reader took issue with the plan to run heavy rail underground. At first, he appears to support the idea of a rail system, but argued it should be above-ground. And then he placed the blame on Young. “They could build it less expensive above-ground,” said Stephen Seymour of Birmingham. “Also, it should extend beyond Ten Mile. Oakland County residents would be taxed for a project that is of very little benefit to them; it benefits Coleman Young.”

Kenneth Wilson of Clarkston offered this over-the-top take: “We don’t need it! It would just be a mugger’s paradise. It would only help out the people and businesses adjacent to it at everyone’s expense. We never should have joined [SEMTA]. We don’t need their criminals out here. It’s just a preliminary to forced busing to Detroit.”

Reports noted the public vitriol between suburban and city leaders eventually spilled over into the state legislature, which ultimately dissolved SEMTA due to the failed merger.

A week later, the newspaper continued receiving more responses on the proposal, all virtually echoing one another: Why should we pay for something Young wants?. We don’t want Detroit’s problems. How would this benefit me?

3-2-80 A5 keep south of 8 Mi

The endless remarks called to mind a column from Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press from 2011. Dickerson, in response to then-Troy Mayor Janice Daniels’ vehement opposition to a proposed transit center in the city, took aim with what the headline called an “all-too-familiar fear.”

At the time, Daniels rejected a proposed agreement for the transit center because, as she put it, the “City of Troy cannot afford this $8.5 million of free [federal] money” for the project. The transit center would serve as a multi-modal hub for bus and train riders. That, Dickerson says, was the real motive for Daniels opposition to the project.

[T]heir real motive was transparent: the fear that outsiders currently disinclined to visit Troy may do so if enticed by a modern train station and convenient parking, at an incalculable cost to Troy taxpayers and their way of life.

Dickerson concludes his column with a point many seemed to have missed 30-40 years ago when this transit proposal was being considered. A dearth of reliable public transit may have been  good thing for outlying communities back then, but it’s not a viable option anymore.

There may have been a time when communities could compete effectively for residents and employers by making themselves less accessible to surrounding municipalities, but that time is a distant memory. The era when the absence of public transit was a boon to property values may never have existed at all.

  • detroit58

    Learn from the past to build the future. We are long overdue connecting the Detroit-Pontiac corridor with transit. Add in the remaining radials (Gratiot, Grand River, Michigan) and tie together with east-west feeders and Mound/M-53 north. Rail on the main Woodward corridor, multiple bus/van/park-n-ride options elsewhere.

  • Krystal Wilson

    The people of Detroit will be scoping out my stuff in West Bloomfield,…I think not!

  • bill c

    Thank God this never happened. It would have cost a fortune and there’s no evidence whatsoever of a demand.