Source: 
Detroit Free Press
Matt Helms

There are a lot of misconceptions about public transit, despite its critical role in getting people around.

It's a $55-billion industry in the U.S. and a system that has been stretched by record-high gas prices and ridership levels not seen since the 1950s even as a troubled economy reduces funding nationwide.

The American Public Transportation Association says the long-term trend is clear: Ridership on the nation's buses, subways, commuter rail lines and other transit systems grew 34% in 1995-2009, outpacing 23% growth in the number of vehicle miles driven on highways in that period. The number of workers who rely on transit regularly grew by a million, to nearly 7 million nationwide, in 2005-09.

As state and local leaders explore setting up a regional public transportation system to help stabilize and ultimately improve service in southeast Michigan, they'll have to battle misunderstandings about public transportation:

Transit should pay for itself.

No big-city transit system in the U.S. is self-sustaining.

Chicago's three main transit systems are among the best at it, with revenue from fares, advertising on rail and buses and investments bringing in about 50% of operating costs, as Illinois state law requires.

Nationwide, transit is subsidized by federal, state and local governments because it's efficient and provides reliable, safe transportation that in itself can be considered an attraction to living in a place, like New York's subways. It's far friendlier to the environment than cars and, when well run and reliable, can lead to less traffic congestion by providing a low-cost alternative to commuting by car, encouraging people who own cars not to drive them to work daily.

Unlike transit, highways aren't subsidized.

Only if you don't factor in things like Michigan's tax of 19 cents per gallon of regular gasoline you pay at the pump, and the 18.4-cent federal tax.

True, that same pot of money pays for both road building and maintenance and for building and operating transit. But a U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) report in January debunked the notion that those taxes -- often called "user fees" by advocates of road spending -- are adequate. By PIRG's estimate, the U.S. has spent $600 billion more on highways since the system was built than what "user fees" such as gas taxes and vehicle registration fees paid for, and today those fees cover only about half of the cost of building and maintaining roads.

It's also true that metro Detroit has some of the nation's highest rates of people who commute alone by car, clearly indicating a preference. But about 160,000 people ride metro Detroit's bus system daily, and more would use it if better service were guaranteed.

Metro Detroiters aren't willing to pay for transit.

Detroit subsidizes its Department of Transportation buses to the tune of $53 million a year, and property owners in 70 suburbs pay a tax that supports suburban bus service.

Fifty-three other suburban communities eligible to be part of SMART instead opt out of the system and avoid paying a .59 mill property tax that provides about 42% of SMART's budget.

SMART covers all of Macomb County and 50 communities in Wayne and Oakland counties, where voters renewed SMART's millage overwhelmingly -- 70% in favor -- in 2010.