21st Century Detroit

How do we rebuild Detroit? It’s a question older than half the city’s current population.

In recent years that question has become more and more closely intertwined with rebuilding the Michigan economy as a whole since it’s apparent that we can no longer rely solely on the auto industry or, more broadly, manufacturing despite recent gains that the state has made.

Since Governor Snyder’s election in 2010, part of that discussion about how we rebuild that state economy has centered around a bridge – a bridge proposed by Mr. Snyder to link Ontario and Michigan together. We have several already, yes, but according to Mr. Snyder, the increase in traffic capacity will mean that Detroit will solidify itself as a hub for international trade and commerce.

The Center for Automotive Research is claiming 5,000 to 6,000 temporary jobs will be added during bridge construction and 1,400 permanent jobs. Whether those jobs will be in Detroit or split with Windsor, the article fails to mention.

Another more detailed article from MLive describes how a second bridge in Detroit will assist car manufacturers that regularly have to transport goods from Canada to assembly lines in the U.S.

Mr. Snyder is being applauded as a “visionary” for pushing the project. I have been very critical of Mr. Snyder in the past but as a Michigander I believe in finding a way forward together and I don’t want to detract too much from the project. What he is trying to do has the potential to be very positive – and it’s worth noting that the project has the support of every single past Michigan governor living today. He’s up against a billionaire with a lot of money at stake tied up in the Ambassador Bridge who’s been waging ad wars against the New International Trade Crossing.

Recognizing that I am neither a resident of Detroit nor am I an expert in economics, here is a short “Yes, but…” to the discussion.

Detroit made itself great in my grandparents’ generation by leading us into the biggest, most calamitous war in history. Car manufacturing plants got converted into America’s war machine overnight and helped supply the Allies with much needed tanks. My grandfather and grandmother both served in the war – one as a cartographer in Alaska and the other back in Detroit at a converted manufacturing plant. I’m proud of what my grandparents and the city of Detroit accomplished.

Today, Detroit needs this kind of adaptability to rise again. The problem the last time around during World War II is that the sudden boost in economic activity and manufacturing wasn’t sustainable. If we want to leave a lasting legacy and a lasting infrastructure, building a bridge isn’t going to be the answer. Sustainable development means surpassing new ways to better serve the auto industry. It means developing new industry – which I fully recognize could also profit from this venture.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

I recognize that no one is presenting this as the definitive answer to Michigan’s economic downturn but rather as one component that will help move us forward. And I agree. I think that the bridge has great potential to help Detroit turn a corner if the private sector will get on board as they’ve promised.

I would just like to ask the question: Why aren’t we investing in more sustainable infrastructure? Why are we opting to expand highway transportation when demand has been decreasing at the 82 year old Ambassador Bridge? We could instead be expanding international rail services. Take a look at this map – we already have a good deal of rail infrastructure in and around Detroit that could be further developed as a more durable means of making Detroit into an international trade hub. As oil resources dwindle and become more difficult and more costly to access (not just financially speaking but also in terms of human life and the environment), we find ourselves still awaiting viable alternatives as technology for more eco-friendly automobiles lags. We need solutions now and one of them is using more trains. Of course this will mean that nationally, we need to bulk up on our infrastructure which means spending money which makes people cringe now more than ever.

But this is the future we’re talking about. We have a couple options right now: We can continue exploiting oil resources and go after the hard-to-get-to reserves in the Gulf of Mexico and in the North Atlantic and the Alberta Tar Sands and change nothing structurally about the way we operate as a society in terms of transportation or we can simultaneously exploit what resources we’ve already tapped (being realistic) while also reworking our transportation infrastructure and pursuing sustainable energy options.

Unfortunately, the United States has largely contented itself with the former rather than the latter. While the shortcomings of this approach should be self-evident, most people think in terms of the pump, which is to say that we base our feelings towards drilling for oil off of how much a gallon costs at the gas station. There are two (primary) problems with this: A) this isn’t a permanent solution, our supply of oil is finite and B) by going after these reserves like the Tar Sands and deepwater drilling in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, we’re doing permanent damage to our environment in exchange for temporary gain. Future generations will condemn us for our short-sightedness on this count unless we make drastic changes in how we extract oil or else in actively pursuing new energy sources.

So back to Michigan.

If we want to be a 21st century leader, we need to invest our resources in efficiently exploiting our border with Ontario by building and expanding lasting infrastructure that will be adaptable to changing needs 82 years from now.

We need a visionary in office right now and I applaud Mr. Snyder for his work on this so far – but I hope that we won’t content ourselves thinking that more roads will be a lasting solution. Of course alternative transit won’t solve all our economic difficulties, but it sets us up as better prepared to face the future with greater adaptability for whatever needs face us down the road.

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