• By Lisa Brody

Riding into the future


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.