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What the Bus?!

Regional transit is a high-stakes game

Last edition, Detour dove into the details of the proposed Detroit regional transit plan and the Regional Transit Authority’s urgent maneuvering to bolster public support. This week we’re looking at the tight timeline to push the plan forward and why a couple of local meetings next month have such high stakes. 

Anytime I feel myself checking out of some boring story about regional transit, I remember one unforgettable public transit trip I took two years ago in Metro Detroit. It is one example of our system of totally solvable, WTF transit moments.

Headed home to Woodbridge from a doctor’s appointment in Novi (I was lucky to catch a ride there), I walked five miles down Grand River to get to a SMART bus stop in Farmington. Waited a bit. Took the bus to 7 Mile. Waited some more, then hopped on a DDOT bus to Grand River and 14th, where on the short walk home I vowed to never do it again. My 26 mile trip down one major road took about as much time as driving to Toronto.

Who’s to blame? Our barely-funded and utterly outdated regional transit system, that’s who.

UPHILL BATTLE: 
The RTA proposal, which would cost taxpayers $5.4 billion over 20 years (about $150 a year for an owner of a $200,000 home) lays out a map to expand and improve transit throughout the region. There are some big changes since voters rejected an earlier version in 2016. The revamp funnels more money for transit projects in communities outside of core service areas, a sweetener for the counties where the plan failed. It puts more buses on the roads on more routes. It would make it easier to navigate between suburban transit (SMART) and  Detroit’s bus system (DDOT) and includes money for some road fixes. It sends four routes to Detroit Metro Airport and also invests in big tech upgrades to push local transit into the future. But now that planners have crunched the numbers and created the map, the real work is getting underway.

  • First, public comment continues through the end of the month (click here to take the survey), and RTA committees must approve the new proposal.
  • If they approve the new proposal, the RTA board will vote in June over whether to make this current iteration the new master plan.
  • THEN, the board would have to agree to put the 1.5 mil tax on the November ballot, a decision that requires a yes vote from an RTA member in each county. That will need to be completed before the state’s deadline to submit local ballot proposals, at the end of July.
  • If they even get that far, there’s only a few months to kick into voter education mode, the piece of the puzzle that was largely missing when the 2016 millage was defeated.
  • That gets us to November, where voters will have to say yes to this version of the RTA.

What are the Vegas odds on all of this actually happening? That’s anybody’s guess.

Getting through the hurdles means leapfrogging past strong opposition from Oakland and Macomb County Execs L. Brooks Patterson andMark Hackel, who have serious sway over the RTA board and will undoubtedly keep the resistance going if the plan gets on the ballot. Patterson, for his part, gloated over the abysmal QLine ridership numbers last week, warning transit advocates to “proceed at [their] own peril.” Even if the millage passes, Republican legislators are preparing a bill that would let cities opt out of the millage — which kind of negates the whole purpose of regional transit.

GO WEST, YOUNG TRANSIT SYSTEM:
If there is actually a Plan B, it’s more of a lose-lose option. Picture this: it’s 2025, and commuters in Ann Arbor can jump on a train to travel the 40 miles to Detroit — but Farmington residents still can’t take the bus a few miles west to Novi. Our “regional transit” map still looks like a slice of Swiss cheese.

While transit advocates publicly push the RTA plan, they’re also quietly talking about piecing together an agreement for Wayne and Washtenaw counties (home of Detroit and Ann Arbor respectively), if the official plan fails again. Transit activists Motor City Freedom Riderstook a stab at a rough draft of a two-county solution, with a map that looks better than the nothing we’ve got now. If the board doesn’t approve the ballot piece in June, look for the Wayne-Washtenaw talks to heat up.

At the RTA public info session in Birmingham last month, the most frequent objections were over fiscal responsibility: whether Oakland County residents will get much as they give, and why they should pay for an Ann Arbor-Detroit line that doesn’t physically serve their cities. One transit backer ruminated that northern residents fear a speedy AA-Detroit connector route, paired with Ford’s potential move to Corktown, shifts power away from Oakland County — a bitter pill to swallow after being the economic engine of the region for several decades. Ironically, Oakland County may turn down mass transit in the name of preserving power, only to find their influence waning if Ann Arbor and Detroit spark a partnership. All in the name of lower taxes!

One woman waited patiently to the end before making a pitch tailored to the particular interests of locals: “It was upsetting to me to hear someone say that they wouldn’t benefit from this,” she told the crowd. “I’m retired and working part-time in a grocery store, and I get complaints all the time, ‘Why aren’t there more people working here?’ And I also hear from the employer, ‘We can’t get people to work here.’ If we had transportation from the places where people live to the places where they need to work, you would have better services.”

TRANSIT PLEA(SE):
I’m no Walking Man, and my Grand River expedition pales in comparison to the routine obstacles many people around the region face trying to get to their damn jobs. Still, if I could spin a magic steering wheel, I’d make every RTA board member — Patterson and Hackel too — spend a few hours navigating our patchwork transit system before they get to vote.

But if the Amazon rejection taught us anything, it’s that transit is about more than just getting Detroiters without reliable cars to jobs they need. It’s about building a robust economy by creating a region that’s attractive to employers. It’s about staunching the population loss by providing an essential service to millennials who increasingly don’t want to rely on cars and giving mobility options to our rapidly aging population. And it means building a system where public transit isn’t just the last resort, but an attractive option.

Over at CityLab, they’re devoting a whole series to the humble city bus, kicking it off this week with an essay from Laura Bliss arguing why — contrary to perception — buses are just as relevant in the age of on-demand ride services. “If you care about how well your city moves, how your local economy is faring, and how the planet’s future fares, then you care about your city bus. … The basic model — a big moving container of people on a fixed route — has never stopped working. It’s time to make it work much, much better.”

Back here in southeast Michigan, we’re still debating whether we should catch up with the 21st century. —Kate Abbey-Lambertz

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