DEARBORN, Mich. — Detroit wasn’t always singularly known as the Motor City. Once it was also known as a city that had an extensive streetcar system where people had a choice of how they “motored” around.

“People used streetcars to get to work and saved their personal cars for weekend transportation. It was not an either-or and it need not be now,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU), a nonprofit group dedicated to improving transportation access in the greater Detroit area. 1945 was a peak year for those riding streetcars in the city, she said. In that year alone, 492 million rides were counted.

Owens noted that the tire, auto and oil industries didn’t like the competition and had a big role in taking out the streetcar system.

I caught Owens here in Dearborn, next door to Detroit, at one of the public meetings TRU has organized. She told the crowd that winning better regional mass transit in the greater Detroit area “depends on regional cooperation.”

The lack of cooperation between Wayne County (where Detroit is located) and the surrounding counties has worked to cripple mass transit projects. Owens said that, regardless of whether it’s due to racism, unwillingness to invest, or insufficient political will and public pressure, TRU is working to end the impasse.

Founded 10 years ago, Owens’ group has been stepping up efforts to build regional cooperation by holding public meetings in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties to begin to bring people together to fight, as Owens says, “for more and better transit.”

A growing number of people want a choice and better options for how they can get around this sprawling area. The current system of private car ownership only works for one-half the population, Owens said. The other half is too young, too old, and too poor or has handicaps that prevent them from operating an automobile.

Owens listed many reasons for public investment in mass transit, including jobs, cost-savings and effect on the environment. She said it costs an individual $8,000 a year in gas, insurance, maintenance and repairs to own and drive a car, compared to an average $800 cost for transit fares. When there are houses in Detroit that go unsold at $10,000, how many have the money to pay $8000 a year to keep a car?

Cars and trucks contribute one-third of global warming, a figure that must be drastically cut if we are to prevent dangerous changes to the earth’s climate.

In addition, transit projects help to revitalize urban areas and create jobs all along the routes. It would seem like a no-brainer to invest in such projects particularly when, Owens says, there is an average return of 600 percent on all money spent on transit initiatives.

Owens says her group works to insure that mass transit projects are “built on best national practices and in the public’s best interest.”

The situation Inkster, Mich., resident Paris Blanton found himself in is happening more frequently. Blanton, who attended the forum here, is 42 years old. He spoke about the difficulties of getting to work when you don’t have access to a car. “I went through a period when my car broke down,” he said. He had to get up at 4 a.m. and use three different buses to travel from Inkster and be at his job in Southfield by 8:30 a.m. “A lot of people in my situation do this every day of their lives,” he remarked.

Owens and TRU organizer Josh Hyman see reason for optimism. They think we are turning a corner in the fight for mass transit, and point to successes to build on.

A commuter train that is to run on a dedicated line connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor should be running by October 2010. For those who bemoan the fact that public transit to Metro Airport is non-existent, the good news is that the train will have an airport stop.

In addition, a light rail route running up Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main thoroughfare, is planned.

Transportation Riders United has a 20-year plan to have a regional system of trains, light rail and busses servicing southeast Michigan. “We need to demonstrate tremendous public support” for these initiatives, Hyman said. To that end TRU is circulating a petition that includes a declaration of support for a regional sales tax, the most commonly used national model to fund transit.

Here’s hoping the local and national need for mass transit will also result in retooling some of the closed auto plants, employing the skilled but out of work autoworkers and engineers, to build those buses, light rail vehicles and subway cars right here in Michigan.

jrummel @