Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The suburban partnership

Cities and their suburbs form a partnership.  An ecosystem, if you like.  For most metropolitan regions, the bulk of the population lies in the suburbs and the bulk of the industry lies in the city.  That relationship doesn't hold for every metro region, but it is often true.  Thus cities form a partnership with their suburbs.  If the partnership is healthy then they can cooperate on issues like taxes, transit, and public safety to enhance the region and increase the overall region.

For several years, some aldermen in Chicago have bloviated about imposing a commuter tax on suburbanites who work in the city.  You can see its roots in 2011 when it was proposed by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson and praised by several aldermen and opposed by the mayor.  It was ressurected in 2013 by the Grassroots Collaborative, where alderman Emma Mitts supported it but alderman Ariel Reboyras opposed it.  It is getting legs again in 2014 with support from alderman Bob Fioretti.

While this tax may never pass due to legal reasons, I oppose these sorts of punitive deals that cities and suburbs dither about.  It is divisive and unconstructive.  And there is a clear precedent that Chicago should learn from and avoid.

I have long opined that there is not a more dysfunctional city suburb relationship than metro Detroit. There is, at times, an almost visceral hatred betwixt the two.  Recently an interview with L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County commissioner, has surfaced which gives a voice to that acrimonious relationship.

"Anytime I talk about Detroit, it’s not positive. Therefore, I’m a Detroit basher."

This sort of acrimony is par for the course with Detroit and its suburbs.  There is much hand-wringing over former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young's phrase "Hit eight mile".  And this acrimony has played itself out in public policy.  Look at how little cooperation exists concerning an abundant resource; the water department.

“I tell my team no deal is better than a bad deal — and right now it’s a bad deal, so we’re probably going to walk,” Patterson told a crowd of public officials at Governing magazine’s Outlook in the States & Localities conference.

The Free Press reported last month that Orr was considering forming a regional authority without Oakland and Macomb as members, if they wouldn’t agree to a deal, according to sources involved in the negotiations.

Also consider some of the fits and starts that have plagued regional transit in the Detroit area:

  • 1988 – On December 7, 1988 Public Act 204 was amended and SEMTA was restructured from its seven-county operation into a three-county agency, which excluded the City of Detroit (emphasis added) and renamed the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART).  SMART began operations on January 17, 1989.
  • 1996 – SMART and DDOT establish a common regional bus pass but further attempts to merge services fail.
  • 2001 – The Detroit Regional Chamber spearheads legislation to create a Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority (DARTA).
  • 2002 – Legislation to form DARTA is vetoed by Governor John Engler
  • 2003 – In May of 2003 DARTA is formed through an interlocal inter-government agreement (IGA) that includes the City of Detroit, Wayne County, Macomb County, Oakland County, Monroe County and SMART. The agreement proposed that the parties utilize existing constitutional and statutory law to establish more effective and efficient public transportation services. Under this agreement the parties agreed to transfer to DARTA powers, duties, functions, responsibilities and authority essential to providing quality public transportation. However, under this agreement DARTA could not levy taxes nor could DARTA bind any Michigan municipality to any obligation without the consent of that municipality.
  • 2006 – In May of 2006 the Michigan State Supreme Court decision dissolved DARTA and the IGA.
  • 2009 – During 2009 the legislature failed to approve legislation to develop a regional transit authority.
  • 2011 – The City of Detroit cuts DDOT bus operating subsidy and approves a bond issue to help fund Woodward Light Rail required match. No operating funds have been identified for the Woodward Light Rail. 

It is to Detroit's detriment that the region failed to cooperate on regional transit issues.  These sorts of disagreements have spilled over into other areas of civic life, such as the Detroit Zoo.  The region has wasted taxpayer funds trying to poach industries from the suburb to the city.  Quicken Loans relocated to Detroit from the nearby suburb of Livonia .  Thus the net job growth for the region was essentially nothing.  Quicken Loans moved into the Compuware building, itself a transplant from the neighboring suburb of Farmington Hills.

Detroit and her suburbs tell a cautionary tale.  Chicago has, in comparison, a robust relationship with its suburbs.  The RTA, despite its faults, manages transit agencies that provide a comparatively well integrated network of trains and buses.  I have personally used all three of them for commuting:  Metra, PACE, and the CTA.  I have taken the traditional perimeter/suburb to downtown commute as well as the reverse commute to the suburbs.  And I can say that, while not always a joy ride, they exist.  And this allows households with fewer than one car per working adult to commute to work, a trend increasing over time.  It also allows downtown Chicago to enjoy greater density, which leads to more diversity and specialization.

Chicago needs to resist the call to arms against its suburbs, just as its suburbs need to resist a call to arms against the city.  Plans for a punitive suburban tax increase are the sorts of petty squabbles that made Detroit so dysfunctional.  Instead of looking to punish the suburbs, grassroots organizations and alderman should look at ways to work better with the suburbs to ensure the continued prosperity of both city and suburbs.

Chicago aldermen warmed to the concept of a one percent commuter tax on suburbanites who work in Chicago.

“People who live outside the city and work in the city utilize our streets, our transportation systems. They’re in Chicago. They’re out of Chicago. Perhaps, there’s a price to be put on that,” Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) said at the time.

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) added, “A lot of people come in the city. A lot of people outside do business with the city and we don’t recoup those dollars.”

Resist the call to arms.  Remember that these aren't free riders.  Suburban commuters pay tolls and transit fares.  They dine and shop downtown.  They are a valuable commodity to the city businesses that need a skilled and diverse workforce.  Remember that the suburbs can levy a price on city dwellers that use suburban streets and transportation systems.  And look at where that road leads.