Voters to Decide if Public Transit is Right for Detroit

October 14, 2016

On November 8 the Motor City will vote on a $4.6 billion light rail and bus rapid transit plan for Southeast Michigan.

The core goal of this ambitious plan is to provide a far-reaching public transit system for the largest American city that has never had one. The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan would spearhead the proposed 20-year “Master Plan,” published in May 2016. The aim of this initiative is to “build a stronger and more competitive regional economy” by implementing:

  • Four new bus rapid transit (BRT) lines running from Detroit to the suburbs
  • Express bus lines to the Detroit Airport
  • A commuter rail line between the Detroit and Ann Arbor
  • Additional paratransit services
  • Plans for a universal fare card system

Funding for the proposed plan would run over the course of 20 years and would increase property taxes by 1.2 mills (that works out to approximately $95 annually for a person whose home is valued at about $78,000). Altogether, this tax increase is estimated to bring in $2.6 billion and will reach the total $4.6 billion when combined with a number of anticipated Federal and State grants.detroit1

If approved, the tax would begin in 2017 and would raise approximately $150 million per year. Included in the plan is a taxpayer protection clause that would prevent increases, renewals, or redirection of any money without voter approval.

Once completed, the new transit system would connect more than 2,600 miles, four million residents, and nearly 2 million existing jobs across four counties.

But this is far from the first time that the city, long home to America’s legacy auto industry, has attempted such an initiative.

In fact, the car-centric region has already attempted 26 similar measures across three or four counties at a time.

Currently, transit service in Southeast Michigan is provided by four separate agencies – the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, the Detroit Department of Transportation, the Detroit Transportation Corporation, and SMART. These agencies are overseen by the RTA (as of 2012) and operate 107 fixed routes, serve 156,000 passengers every weekday, and are composed primarily of buses. Yet there are little to no transit links between all four counties and the city, making the overall transit experience in Southeast Michigan disjointed and inefficient. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) drives the point home with this statistic – “92% of jobs in the region are not accessible within a 60 minute transit trip”.

(Ed. Note: Detroit’s transit troubles were headline news last year when the story of James Robertson’s 21-mile walk to work went viral.)

(Further Ed. Note: In October 1976, President Ford approved Transportation Secretary Bill Coleman’s ambitious plan to provide $600 million in federal funding ($2.5 billion in today’s dollars) to build a rail rapid transit system in Detroit. For the story of how that plan and the others collapsed, see this 2014 Metro Times article.)

So will this be an easy victory for the RTA?

Not necessarily. Several groups have stepped up in opposition to the proposed property tax. A coalition composed primarily of members of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance and the Wayne County Taxpayers Association has created According to the website, the plan will increase congestion (due to the fact that BRT lines will take away one lane from cars), and will block transit innovation by spending money on “old transit tech like buses and rail”.detroit2

Leon Drolet, the website’s treasurer and a former Michigan state representative, added that he believes the plan would “anchor us to a 1980s mass-transit system at a time when mass transit is very likely to be transformed”

In addition, some believe that the plan will lead to “never-ending construction, maintenance, and operational debt”. They argue that there is no guarantee that an expanded system will yield higher ridership numbers, improved service, or cost savings.

However, the RTA proposal has an impressive list of supporters who believe the plan is worth the investment.

Former Michigan Governor William Milliken penned an op-ed earlier this month in support of the proposal. In it, Milliken argues that the proposed transit plan will provide enormous economic benefits that would, in turn, allow Southeast Michigan to again compete with other regions throughout the country and world.

Ford Motor Company has also come out in support of the plan. In a news release Joe Hinrichs, Ford’s President of the Americas, states, “As we’ve expanded our business model to be both an automotive and mobility company, we understand the importance of providing transportation solutions like those proposed in the regional transit plan. A strong regional transit system that meets the mobility needs of both employees and employers is important for our region to grow and compete.”

Other major companies who have endorsed the plan include the Penske Corporation, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan, and Quicken Loans.

Supporters of the proposal also cite healthcare and workforce issues as two major reasons to approve the ballot measure.

In a guest blog for Crain’s Detroit Business, Bob Riney, Executive Vice President and COO of Henry Ford Health System, expressed his support for the proposal. He argues that lack of convenient and affordable public transportation negatively affects public health. Patients miss or cancel appointments because they simply can’t get to the doctor’s office. In turn, minor health issues often spiral into major medical events. Adequate transit could prevent this by offering access to important medical centers.

In an unsigned op-ed for the same publication, the author argues this proposal is a workforce issue. Companies could solve employment problems if potential employees had better transit options – “If an auto supplier assembly operation in Chesterfield Township, or a tech company in Ann Arbor, or a restaurant in northern Oakland County is having trouble attracting entry-level employees, this could help solve that pain point.”

While it remains to be seen which way voters will go on Election Day, if approved, this proposal could redirect the Motor City from its automotive roots and transform the Detroit metro area for the next 20 years.

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