Atlantic Cities
Democracy in America

Free Federal Money May Doom a Transit Center in Troy

For the past few years the small city of Troy, Michigan, has looked forward to the completion of an $8.5 million multi-modal transit center. Plans call for replacing the current Amtrak station — which "consists of a platform and small shelter," according to the Troy Patch — with a multi-modal facility for travel by intercity rail, regional bus, and local taxi (and maybe car and bike rental), as well as a potential future connection to a proposed light rail system [PDF]. Amtrak would continue to serve the station, which in time could become part of the a Detroit-Chicago high-speed rail line. Proponents of the center believe it will turn Troy into a legitimate regional transportation hub.

After years of planning the transit center is on pace to open in October 2013. That is, it was on pace until this year's mayoral election. The winner of that race was tea party activist Janice Daniels, who campaigned against the transit project. Daniels doesn't like the idea of accepting a $8.5 million federal grant to fund the center, considering the country's growing budget deficit. Some members of the Troy business community are behind her, including local C.E.O. Ron Wilson, who told the Detroit Free Press, in a quote worthy of the novel Catch-22: "The City of Troy cannot afford this $8.5 million of free money."

In short, Wilson believes the transit center will end up costing the city down the line. Yes and no. It certainly won't cost the city anything up front. Estimates place the cost of the facility [PDF] clearly within the $8.5 million federal grant figure. A note on the Troy website from the city manager [PDF] states, in no uncertain terms: "This project is 100 percent federally funded and there is no direct cost to the City." Still there will be an operational cost of $30,000 a year — an amount that seems competitive with, if not less than, the annual salary of a single city employee. And if Troy rejects the money it won't go back into the federal pile; it'll go toward a rail project somewhere else.

Fears of contributing to the national debt aren't the only grounds for opposing the project. Many local residents are worried the 24-hour center will become a criminal hangout. "It could be a place where people who don't have another place to go hang out," said city councilman Wade Fleming, according to the Detroit News. Others doubt that the city of roughly 80,000 is large or centralized enough to become a regional hub.

The rising opposition has left proponents of the transit center slightly baffled. The president of the city's Chamber of Commerce believes Troy "can't afford to lose this project," according to the Patch. Another resident quoted by the Patch countered the criminal argument by saying she lived in Europe and had a very enjoyable experience riding trains. Jeff Wattrick of MLive.com, in an editorial about Daniels, seemed to summarize the tempest best: "People live in places like Troy precisely because nothing is supposed to happen here."

Troy doesn't have much time to sort out the situation. The city council must approve an architectural and engineering contract by mid-December, according to the terms of its grant, and a vote is scheduled for December 19. Mayor Daniels may not even last that long. A number of residents are calling for her to resign after reports that she posted an anti-gay comment on her Facebook page back in June: "I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there." A crowd of protestors showed up at a public meeting on Monday to voice disapproval of the new mayor. The controversy overshadowed the original purpose of the meeting: to debate the transit center.

Photo credit: Eric Thayer/Reuters

Keywords: Detroit, Transit, Troy, Rail, Amtrak

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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