Riding into the future

September 1, 2016

 There's no secret that Detroit, and surrounding areas, have had a 100-plus year love affair with automobiles. We love to drive them, build them, cruise them, and gaze at them. For many homeowners, a two-car garage is no longer sufficient, with three-car garages becoming more and more common in newer suburban homes. Yet, there are still many people without cars, and in need of reliable transportation. Increasingly, young people are choosing not to get their driver's licenses at 16. Millennials have received the memo, drilled into them by parents and teachers, that drinking and driving is a bad thing, and often choose ride-sharing transportation, such as Uber and Lyft, when going out for a night of fun. But for decades, other options for transit in the metro area have been scarce and unreliable.

 

On August 4, the board of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), comprised of representatives from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit, unanimously agreed to compromise language on a master plan for a regional transit millage to be placed on the November 8 ballot. The ballot issue asks voters in the four counties to approve a 1.2-mill property tax increase to fund the RTA's master plan of bus rapid transit and commuter rail to be developed over a 20-year time period. While the RTA has said the tax would cost the owner of an average home in the metro area $95 annually in additional taxes, that is only if your home has a state equalized value of $100,000, meaning you have a home worth $200,000. If you live in a $1 million-plus home in Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills or Oakland Township, the RTA tax you pay may be closer to $600, or more, annually.

 

Unlike with the SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) millage, communities will not be able to opt-out of the RTA tax if it is passed by residents of three of the four counties. And homeowners would pay for it on top of the SMART millage, which was increased to a one-mill tax from .59 mills in 2014 and will expire in 2018, when it is slated to come before voters in Oakland, Macomb, Monroe and Wayne counties for a renewal. Even if the RTA millage is approved, residents will continue to need to support SMART as a separate entity, at this point for an indefinite time. "I'm sure it will always require tax subsidies. Only about 10 to 20 percent of revenue comes from fare boxes," said Gerald Poisson, chief deputy county executive of Oakland County, noting that Tokyo's transit system is the only one in the world that does not require a subsidy. "The ones in the U.S., millage subsidies account for about 50 to 60 percent (of revenue)."

 

A concern, among many, voiced by Oakland County representatives to the RTA board, Chuck Moss and Timothy Soave, is that there is no detail in the RTA master plan provided as to the likely impact of the RTA's request as an operating agency seeking state and federal capital and operating funds for the RTA services, separate from SMART, DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation), The People Mover, or Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. "We need to know how it will improve, at what cost, and how those costs will be allocated and funded," Moss and Soave wrote in a 19-page draft of concerns on July 5.

 

If approved by voters, along with state and federal matching funds, the tax is predicted by the RTA to generate $4.7 billion over 20 years to pay for bus rapid transit lines on main corridors of Woodward, Michigan and Gratiot avenues, as well as Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. It would also create a commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, and high-end luxury bus service between Metro airport and numerous locations, as well as cover the transit service's annual operating costs. It would incorporate connections between the SMART and DDOT bus lines to provide connectivity for riders, pay for operating the People Mover, and in 2027, cover Detroit's new Qline, the M-1 Rail streetcar currently under construction along Woodward between downtown and midtown Detroit. 

 

If approved, in the first year, using 2016 taxable values, Poisson said that Oakland County voters would pay $63.3 million into the RTA system; Wayne County voters, excluding the city of Detroit, $39.2 million; Detroit, $7.6 million; Macomb County, $30.3 million; and Washtenaw County, $18.3 million. The millage is for 20 years.

 

"The other years are just rough estimates, because for instance, there are increases and declines in taxable values, as well as capped growth under Headlee," Poisson said.

 

If passed in November 2016, the master plan states, "The first five years of the Regional Mass Transit Plan will establish a reliable regional transit network for Southeast Michigan. The immediate implementation of new paratransit and mobility management services will expand regional mobility from the onset...the RTA will be able to introduce Cross-County Connectors, expand local airport express services in the first year of the service...After establishing a reliable regional network during the first five years of the program, the RTA will focus on expanding rapid transit in the region over the long-term. This includes opening all bus rapid transit corridors, establishing regional rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, and assuming operations of M-1 Rail."

 

The RTA was established by the Michigan state legislature through Public Act 387 in 2012, with a 10-member board with representatives each serving three-year terms from Oakland, Wayne, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties, the city of Detroit, Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, and the governor of Michigan, whose representative serves as the chair without a vote.

 

The legislation gives the RTA the sole authority for the public transit region to apply to the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) for an operating grant, and requires it to submit a single consolidated application for the region and to allocate funding to public transportation providers, with currently 51.5 percent going to SMART, 47.5 percent to the city of Detroit's DDOT bus system, and one percent to the People Mover. It allows the RTA to acquire property for the system by various mechanisms, including condemnation, and appropriated $250,000 from the Comprehensive Transportation Fund to the RTA to begin implementing the state act.

 

But it was not all smooth sailing from there. While Gov. Rick Snyder signed it into law on December 19, 2012, creating the Regional Transit Authority, finding a CEO proved to be a hurdle. John Hertel, the general manager of SMART and initially the choice to lead the new authority, stepped down in 2014, after never signing a contract, and ironically, never resigning from SMART, either. He just slid back into his former position. He told media at the time that he hadn't signed a contract, wasn't earning a paycheck, and couldn't hire any staff. He told one reporter he needed $2 to $3 million to develop the 110-mile system the legislation called for. It had given him $250,000. A request from the legislature for further funding, to the tune of $2 million, never came to fruition.

 

In the past, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) had been in control of funding, and in 2013, they transferred $7 million in federal funding from DDOT to SMART's budget, which moved urban dollars to suburban transit. Carmine Palombo, deputy executive director of SEMCOG, said, "Myself, along with a couple of MDOT staffers, along with Dennis Schornack from the governor's staff were the interim staff for the first year of the RTA until they hired an executive director and staff. After that, SEMCOG has worked with the staffers and provided them with some numbers and data." He did not comment on the specifics of transferring the DDOT funds, but noted that SEMCOG hasn't been "as involved in putting together the master plan as the RTA."

 

In August 2014, Michael Ford, previously CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, was hired as CEO of the RTA.

 

Some critics felt that the regional transit adopted legislation was written to favor bus rapid transit, rather than any kind of light rail project, because it is less costly. According to the Harvard Kennedy Center, on average, bus rapid transit can be one-half the cost to build as light rail. "However, in some situations BRT (bus rapid transit) can be more expensive per mile than LRT (light rail transit), and some LRT systems have exceeded the per-mile cost of metro rail transit projects," a report, "Bus versus rail: Costs, capacities and impacts," stated. 

 

The report also asserted that bus rapid transit is associated with greater land acquisition costs than light rail, and light rail can carry a significantly higher amount of passengers than bus rapid transit.

 

If the RTA does choose to opt for any rail projects, the RTA board will have to have a unanimous vote. So far, it has not been a consideration.

 

But how the board will decide funding was one of the final obstacles that was overcome at the final hour. The master plan originally called for majority rule – and with two members of each county, it could quickly skewer favor away from federal and state funding for a county like Oakland, towards the city of Detroit, for example. That was changed to now have similar approval to the Cobo Hall and Great Lakes Water Authority boards, where there must be one vote from every county and the city of Detroit approving a measure in order for a funding issue to be approved in order to provide fairness and an image of regionalism.

 

The goal of mass transit, in any region or city, is to carry people to work, whether they are rich or poor, from the city to the suburbs, or within the city; for those who cannot afford a car or choose not to use one to go to and from work or for leisure activities. For some, it's an essential part of obtaining their livelihood; for others, it improves their quality of life. In either case, proponents of mass transit note it's an essential component of economic vitality for an area.

 

"When you look at the Detroit region and you look at the assets, and the number of Fortune 500 companies, the number of really great educational institutions, the great talent, we're in the busiest border crossings in North America, yet why is it the Detroit region has consistently been a laggard in economic performance?" asked Sandy Baruah, president and CEO, Detroit Regional Chamber. "There is no one answer, but one of the glaring omissions is that successful regions have a way to move people efficiently to make money and spend money."

 

This is not the first go at the rodeo for regional transit in metro Detroit. Actually, this is believed to be the 24th attempt over 40 years, although this will be the very first time it will be on the ballot for the public to vote on, according to the RTA. However, there was one previous attempt to put a mass transit issue before voters, but Gov. William Milliken, in 1974, worked to put a $1.1 billion mass transit bonding proposal on the ballot, but it failed.

 

"The number one myth about transit systems is about urban poor people, who cannot afford cars," said Paul Hillegonds chairman of the RTA board. "While there is some truth to that, what a really good transit system does is it grows the outlying suburban area that is connected to the urban area. Not everyone wants to live in an urban core. Right now, millennials want to live in an urban core, and we need to cater to that. But for those who don't want to, we also need to provide people with the ability to connect with jobs and recreation. It allows them to live where they want and work where they need to."

 

A 2014 study by University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute determined that 9.22 percent of households in the U.S are without cars – but that includes cities with excellent public transportation systems, like New York, which is number one, with 56 percent of households that don't have a car, and Washington D.C., where 38 percent of households are carless. Detroit ranked eighth, with 26 percent of households without a car, or about 176,865 people out of a population of 680,250 in 2013.

 

Believe it or not, years ago Detroit actually had successful public transportation systems, with streetcars, rail cars and busses. And despite common mythology, it wasn't the automobile companies that killed them, or proposals to develop a vital subway system, but Detroit Mayor James Couzens in 1920, and homeowners' organizations that worried that the underground mass transit would bring racial integration.

 

In the mid-1870s, the Detroit Railway Company carried 2.9 million people on four separate lines of horse-drawn streetcars. A decade later, electric streetcars were born, and commuter rail lines began in 1880 between Chicago and southeast Michigan. Detroit's streetcar system, which had consolidated from several independently-owned companies into one of the first municipally-owned systems in 1922, went out of business in 1956, after it was converted to all buses in 1953. 

 

One of the first transit plans died in 1920. A rapid transit plan was created to expand the railway, bus and streetcar system with new subway routes, but Couzens vetoed a bond issue to construct a subway, and supposedly a veto override failed by only one vote. Later in the 1920s, there was another attempt to construct a subway line from Detroit to Ford Motor Company's Rouge Complex, to move workers to and from the factory line. It was presented to voters in 1929, and supported by automakers, but the proposal failed due to opposition from homeowners' organizations who were fearful that the subway line would bring racial integration into neighborhoods. 

 

According to Joel Batterman of Motor City Freedom Riders, a pro-transportation organization, in a historical piece on why the proposal failed, "The subway would serve the automakers and downtown businesses, they argued, at the expense of the expanding middle class, which inhabited the city's vast tract of new single-family homes and no longer relied on Detroit's extensive but slow streetcar system."

 

Due to high costs during the Great Depression, streetcars began to be replaced by more economical busses, and by 1949, 10 of the 20 streetcar lines had been discontinued. Increasingly, busses were being used to transport riders throughout the city. By 1956, the same year the last streetcar rolled along Woodward, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which authorized the construction of more than 40,000 miles of interstate highway throughout the United States. 

 

It was official. The car was king. And here in the Motor City, as those highways were built, suburban sprawl followed.

 

Perhaps there was buyer's remorse, or the realization that Detroit, then one of the 10 largest cities in America, was a major city without public transportation, leaving many workers without reliable public transportation. In 1967, the Michigan legislature passed the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act of 1968, which created the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA), which initially included the counties of Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St.Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne, along with the city of Detroit, with Livingston County joining later. By 1971, all of the counties provided SEMTA funds.

 

According to Detroit Transit History, there were plans for SEMTA to purchase the Department of Street Railways bus system, but disagreements arose over Detroit's representation numbers on SEMTA's board, and Coleman Young administration's perception that SEMTA was not maintaining service at a "reasonable fare" for Detroiters.

 

Though there were several attempts to have SEMTA take over the city's bus system, it never occurred. It eventually became DDOT, and SEMTA became SMART.

 

"Unfortunately, any dedicated source of funding to support mass transit within the entire region never materialized, and the anticipated takeover of the city-owned system by SEMTA never transpired," Detroit Transit History wrote on its website. "What many anticipated as being a temporary arrangement between the city and its transit system has basically continued now for over (sic) 32 years."

 

One of the most significant attempts at transit – and a symbol of its failure – is known as the downtown People Mover Project. It was begun in 1983, and was intended as the first phase of a connector to an intended Woodward Avenue subway. It was plagued by mismanagement, construction problems, and $66 million in cost overruns (in 1984 dollars) were projected. A federally-funded project, there were threats the feds would cease all funding for the rest of the project. Instead, Coleman Young reached an agreement with transit officials to abandon the rest of the project, and turned over operation and control of the People Mover to the city. 

 

SEMTA became SMART in December 1988, by an act of the state legislature, downsizing the seven counties to a three-county agency, leaving out the city of Detroit. In the mid-1990s, attempts were made to merge SMART and DDOT service, but they failed. 

 

For many who use either system, which lacks seamless coordination, the system has failed them. The poor, those who need to get to jobs, or school, to shopping or doctor's appointments, traveling on buses often means waiting out in the open for long periods of time for a bus which may, or may not, come. It means hoping to catch a connection to another route to get to where they're going. In a metro area of 4.3 million people, it can be a ticket to nowhere.

 

In December 2012, after 23 other attempts, the Michigan legislature approved Act 387 of 2012, the Regional Transit Authority Act, which states it is "An Act to provide for certain regional transit authorities; to provide regional public transportation; to prescribe certain powers and duties of a regional transit authority and of certain state agencies and officials; to authorize the levy of an assessment and to provide for the issuance of bonds and notes; to collect certain taxes; to make appropriations; to provide for the pledge of assessment revenues and other funds for bond and note payments; and to repeal acts and parts of acts."

 

Since its approval, the RTA has been established, with Hillegonds chairman of the board and Michael Ford its CEO. County executives appointed two representatives to the board for three-year terms, and meetings were held to develop a master plan, which was unveiled at the end of May. After what appeared to be last minute maneuverings by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel (but which were actually issues each had been addressing since last November), a regional transit authority ballot proposal for southeastern Michigan was approved to go before voters on November 8. 

 

"We still have a ways to go, but we're hopeful that people will see the value in good regional transportation," Ford said. Previously head of Ann Arbor's transit system, the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority, Ford noted that a regional transit system is "good for quality of life, to get them to jobs, to educational institutions, to fresh food, doctors appointments, it creates more mobility for seniors and people with disabilities. It's not just about moving people back and forth; it's about amenities, and making the whole experience for transit riders. It builds on the foundation of the providers – of DDOT, SMART, the People Mover, and Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority."

 

If voters approve the regional transit authority proposal in November, besides adding a 1.2-mill property tax to their taxes, there are questions as to how new transit will be incorporated in the metropolitan Detroit region, and when. The millage is designed to fund a bus rapid transit system with major routes built along Woodward from Detroit to Pontiac; on Gratiot from Detroit to M-59 in Mt. Clemens; on Michigan Avenue from Detroit to Dearborn, and then on to Detroit Metropolitan Airport; and on Washtenaw Avenue between downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti. Work on those routes would begin in 2017 through 2020. 

 

The first bus rapid transit route to begin construction would be Woodward, which would start immediately after the millage is approved, with the goal of getting environment clearance in 2016, having construction begin in 2020, and be operational by 2022. The other route the RTA would begin quickly would be the Gratiot line, with environmental clearance planned for 2017, construction planned for 2020; and operational in 2022, with a rail activation plan to begin development in 2021.

 

The Michigan and Washtenaw avenue lines would be operational in 2026. Cross-county services would begin in 2018, with lines added in staggered formation. M-59, through Oakland near Rochester into Macomb County, is scheduled to begin Commuter Express Services in 2019.

 

Bus rapid transit is considered a regional network that allows other transit providers to fill in with more localized service to destinations. Bus rapid transit is different than regular buses in both appearance and how it runs. In a bus rapid transit system, buses run in dedicated lanes in the center of the roadway at much higher speeds. Cars can still drive in those lanes, but signals would prioritize for the buses. As designed for here, the buses will run in the center of the roads, against medians where they exist, with priority signaling that senses when the bus is coming. 

 

The buses operate a lot like trains, with specialized train-like wheels. Doors open flush to the platform, making it fully accessible for wheelchairs, people with disabilities, or strollers. Raised station platforms will be built in the center of the roadway, and there will be room for future economic development, such as coffee shops and dry cleaners, experts note. There are currently intended to be stops every mile along the four major bus rapid transit routes.

 

Ironically, when the Detroit Street Railways Commission closed down its last streetcar route in 1956, it argued that replacing streetcars with buses would allow more flexibility in scheduling routes, eliminate mid-street loading, allow curbside passenger pick-up, which would increase safety, and reduce operating costs. Sixty years later, bus rapid transit proponents urge the complete opposite for the identical reasons.

 

"Bus rapid transit stops will not look like a regular bus stop. It's very clear what it is. In most cases, it's in the center of the road, in medians, with routes, and not with regular buses. They only stop along designated stops; you can't pull a lever and stop along the way. Those will have very specific designated stops and will have development around those (stops), like coffee shops and dry cleaners," Sandy Baruah said. He emphasized it will happen in the suburbs, and not just in the city, where blight would be replaced with redevelopment. 

 

"If my experience (living previously in Portland, Oregon and Washington DC) is any indication, at first, only the early adopters will use it. It will be lonely, and then one business, and then another and another. It will grow over time," he said. "Then later, an apartment complex will develop by the site, because people want to hit a button and just go. In DC, even in the very distressed area, we have seen great development.

 

"It's a process. This doesn't happen overnight," he continued. "Even once they're up and running, you'll still see skeptics."

 

Some wonder where people will park to ride bus rapid transit. RTA board chair Hillegonds said that some of the park and ride locations along the routes have already been identified, and others are yet to be targeted. He said there are other options, as well. "MDOT has made arrangements (in the past) with big box stores, etc. There is flexibility in the ways to go with purchasing land (in densely populated, developed areas along routes)," he said. "It's all about growing prosperity."

 

All of the stops along the way are to be determined, per the state statute establishing the RTA, by joint decision making between the RTA and local road agencies, like the Road Commission of Oakland County, and similar commissions in Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit. 

 

SMART and DDOT are incorporated into the RTA master plan as ways to provide feeder and connector routes to the bus rapid transit routes, as well as with commuter buses that can provide service in parts of Oakland and Macomb counties that do not yet connect to main routes. Currently there are 109,600 daily DDOT riders over 14 routes in the city of Detroit and 44,000 daily riders on SMART over 43 routes throughout Oakland and Macomb counties. As a matter of fact, Mark Hackel, Macomb County executive, said, "You see these little commuter buses driving around Macomb County all day long."

 

Unlike Oakland County, which does not have access to public transportation from SMART in about 40 of its 61 communities because of opt-out options, "Macomb County is not an opt-out county," Hackel said. "It makes it so much easier. There is an incredible amount of service in the northern part of Macomb County."

 

Access to transit was a particular sticking point for Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, whose deputy executive Robert Daddow noted that for northern and western Oakland County, "540,000 residents in 40 communities would get virtually no service, but they would pay the millage. That's just 200,000 residents less than the entire city of Detroit who would get no service – but would pay for it. It just didn't make sense, and we have a lot of communities making resolutions against it."

 

One of those communities, Rochester, passed an "Opposition to taxing local government/residents for the residents for the Regional Transportation Authority Millage" at their meeting on August 8. On the converse, Birmingham passed a resolution supporting a Coalition for Transit the same night.

 

In late July, Patterson's office raised again a number of objections, which also included concerns about a provision called the "85 percent rule" – where 85 percent of taxes collected in a county in a year must be spent in the county, and how that would be overseen, as well as Hackel's objection to the funding process of the board. It looked as if this attempt at putting the RTA proposal on the ballot would be derailed. 

 

"The 85 percent is one of the things we demanded full accounting of. We wanted to look at both the expenditures and revenues. They just wanted to show us the revenues," said Oakland County's Poisson. "The statute set an absolute floor so Oakland County, and Macomb County, and Wayne, and Washtenaw and the city of Detroit, can get their full 85 percent back. We have an ongoing discussion telling them that you need to look at growth (of the communities), you need to keep updating – because this is government, and you spend the money you have. They wanted to look back and adjust after 10 years. You can't adjust in 10 years – if you don't do it all the time, and don't have a reserve, you'll find yourself in quite a pickle. It's an ongoing conversation we're still having with them."

 

Despite widespread media claims of racism and regionalism, Daddow said, "We've been talking with these folks and raising these questions since November (2015). They shared snippets with us, but we never had the financial information, and the first time we saw the plans were in late May. Our questions were, what are our folks going to get for their tax dollars; when are they going to get it; and how can we guarantee they are going to be honored. Our questions were asked, and asked, and asked, and never answered. We're being castigated for asking the questions. The media is so hellbent on any plan, they don't go into details."

 

A week of intense discussions between the local leaders led to answers, and more satisfactory responses. A public letter was written from area CEOs of business, civic, and cultural organizations, including Quicken's Dan Gilbert, Gerard Anderson of DTE, John T. Fox of Beaumont Health and Nancy Schlichting of Henry Ford Health System, and James Nicholson of PVS Chemicals, directed to Patterson and Hackel, urging them "to come to a resolution of the issues you raised so the people of this region, as a region, can have a chance to decide something so fundamentally important to our collective future." Whether they influenced the county executives and members of RTA leadership is unknown, but compromises were made. The RTA millage proposal went before the board, and with their county executives guidance, approvals were given to unanimously put it on the ballot.

 

"What you are seeing is regional collaboration at work. It's messy, but it works," said Melissa Roy, executive director of Advancing Macomb, as well as the chairperson of the SMART board of directors. "Anything we do regionally should build a stronger region for everyone. Everyone recognizes the importance of building a regional transit system, and voters can make a decision in November."

 

"You could look at it as political maneuvering, that everybody was looking at it from their own perspectives – what's best for us, what am I, my constituents getting. For the two county executives, that's a fair thing to do," noted David Dulio, chair of the political science department at Oakland University. "Yes, it's a regional thing, yet a fair part of the bill is going to be footed by voters in Oakland and Macomb counties. They are entitled to know what they are getting. And it's what they need to do."

 

According to the RTA's Ford, the finalized master plan "calls for more service for the northern Oakland County suburbs, with $40 million more over 20 years. We will be building more infrastructure, building more trunk lines, to have services that circulate in those communities, or to take you where you want to go on those main lines. We will continue working with those partners, groups, SMART, to (focus) where the needs are, to make sure the plan is relevant. I think we have to work with the communities and municipalities in partnerships to see who and what is best suited for those developments along those corridors."

 

In the current master plan, which many note is a work in progress and will continue to change over the 20-year life of the RTA, SMART will provide cross-county connector service on 15 Mile, with a stop at Big Beaver at or near Somerset Collection, east-west along 12 Mile Road, as well as a commuter express bus serving M-59. 

 

As for east-west routes farther north, especially as the population continues to grow in northern communities in Oakland County, as projected, Ford said, "It's something we can look at. The plan is alive. Making changes is part and parcel of what the RTA is about." At the beginning, riders will be able to utilize commuter buses, which can be called for service on demand in many instances. SMART would continue to operate the regional routes, with the RTA subsidizing the full incremental costs of increased service beyond what currently exists. The RTA will also provide funding for station upgrades and other capital projects along these corridors, and according to the current RTA master plan, routes will operate at increased frequencies, allowing for cross-county travel, with no need for further midday, evening or weekend transfers required. 

 

However, whether or not there will be one fare for using bus rapid transit and then switching to a SMART connector, or two separate fares, is still a detail that has to be worked out, as well as the specific fare amount.

 

Funding amounts will also be adapted as population figures change, altering the specific number received back for the 85 percent figure. That means if there is a growth of population in Oakland and Macomb counties, with more residents paying into the RTA pot, more dollars will come back to the counties in the form of transit services annually.

 

As for dealing with communities that continue to opt-out of SMART services, "We will deal with it. Some will choose to pay into it," Ford said. "But the key is, with this millage and legislation, there is no opt out of the RTA, and we want to work with the communities to provide a level of service that is the best we can based on where they are, to connect them to a trunk line, to fixed bus lines, to bus rapid transit, cross-county transit, and para-transport, to address different needs in different parts of the community."

 

Some have questioned adding airport transportation lines early in the process. Ford has an easy answer. 

 

"It's something we can showcase and do quickly. I already did it in Ann Arbor, and did it successfully," he responded. "We have a model that works and we can duplicate it easily. We have experience, and people have a desire to get to the airport. This way, we can show consumers quickly and easily, with reliability and feasibility, what we can do."

 

He said the airport transit would be on luxury buses with storage capacity for belongings, reading lights, free WiFi, bathrooms, "all the conveniences anyone needs. We started it in Ann Arbor in 2012, and that ridership has gone gangbusters." The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority system is funded through a local millage, farebox revenue, and through federal funding allotments and grant awards.

 

A final component of the RTA is what Wayne State University Department of Urban Studies and Planning professor Robin Boyle, who is also a member of the Birmingham planning board, calls "the first mile and last mile challenge," utilizing the new sharing economy. 

 

"It's almost impossible for a metro area such as ours to get everyone within a mile of service. It's very difficult to do it. But the market has given us a new remarkable system to connect space – ride-sharing, ride-sourcing, with Uber, Lyft. It has changed the way we use transportation," Boyle said. 

 

"It's part of the sharing economy. You don't have to own, and it's changing the way we move, changing the way we connect into public transportation systems, and it's happening all over, where public transportation systems are partnering with ride-sharing services, using Uber and Lyft as a way of connecting," he said. 

 

He gave the example of using the new Qline downtown to Midtown Detroit to get to a doctor's appointment at Henry Ford Hospital. "But it is raining, or hot, or you have three kids. The Qline will get you up to Grand Boulevard, but that last mile is long and tough. But, if while on the Qline, which will have WiFi, you can get a car for a few bucks to take you over to your appointment at Henry Ford. That's the way I think the world will move and I think we'll think about connectivity," Boyle explained.

 

Now, regional transit, and the future for southeastern Michigan, is in the hands of the voters. Will voters who may not see its fruition for several years, or have no desire to utilize bus rapid transit or other transit, be willing to increase their tax burden for the good of the whole region?

 

Boyle likens it to school millages, even if you don't presently have a child in school, you want to live in a community with good schools, or gas taxes. "We all pay for freeways, but we don't all use freeways. We pay for our road systems, but we are prepared to pay for it while likely only using a small portion of it," he said. "It's the same theory behind a transit system. You may not personally be connected within three minutes to bus service, but it's part of being a citizen of a metropolitan area. We should also contribute to improved transportation."

 

"I love my cars, and I own four, but from an economic tool, regional transit can't be beat," said the Detroit Chamber's Baruah. "All regional transit projects are works in process, and you have to start somewhere."

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