Back on Track?

A mass transit plan was almost derailed by the usual political potholes. But regional cooperation is finally in the hands of the voters.


Published:

 Getting a comprehensive transportation plan for Southeast Michigan has been more than a “third time’s the charm” scenario. Way more, in fact. How about nearly 30 times? 

For decades, advocates for a functional local transit system have tried and failed to gain any traction. But after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears — and politics, of course, it’s always politics — metro Detroit voters will finally get a chance to vote on a plan this November. 

That vote almost didn’t happen. The culprit? More of the usual city/suburb infighting that’s beset our area for decades. 

For the past four years, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan — which consists of representatives from Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit — has worked to painstakingly hammer out a comprehensive plan. 

Yet almost at the midnight hour, the chance to vote on it nearly got shot down by Oakland and Macomb county representatives. 

At RTA meetings in late July and early August, the voices of the people were loud and clear. 

The RTA’s chairman Paul Hillegonds laid out the basic argument.  

“Southeast Michigan is the only major urban area in the country without a viable, coordinated, public transit system. If we are going to be competitive in a 21st-Century global economy, developing a transit system that meets the needs of a changing world is absolutely essential.” 

During the course of several meetings, a striking amount of those on hand for public comment backed Hillegonds’ stance. 

And notably, there was an outpouring of suburban support, as citizen after citizen — from Ypsilanti and Waterford Township to St. Clair Shores — got up to voice their opinions. 

Their main argument: Obviously, the city of Detroit would benefit. But so would the entire region. 

People with disabilities and impairments maintained that a lack of transit options makes a virtual “prison” of the homes of those who need to get to services or jobs. 

Advocates for seniors noted that most people will outlive their ability to drive by some 7 to 10 years. Better transit would allow people to “age in place.” 

There were metro Detroiters who depend on transit to get to school, work, or medical care. 

Ferndale’s mayor pro-tem cited the fact that 92 percent of the city’s population leaves the city to work. Wouldn’t it be convenient if some of them didn’t have to drive?

Other examples included mention of a Macomb County company that decided not to expand its operations locally because potential workers wouldn’t be able to get to the jobs. The company ended up expanding elsewhere. 

Sure there were detractors: a Detroit bus drivers union rep claimed the plan didn’t offer enough improvements to the inner city. And a Taxpayers United advocate (surprise!) called it “unconstitutional.” 

Eventually, a compromise was hammered out, and now the voters in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb will get to vote on the 1.2-mill, 20-year transit plan — one that will raise some $4.7 billion. 

That sounds like a lot of billions. But it will only cost the average homeowner $95 a year (see opposite for more facts and figures).

Advocates are hoping the public will get on board. It will take a simple majority across the four counties for the proposal to be enacted.

Joel Batterman, a coordinator of the Motor City Freedom Riders advocacy group, heard about the compromise to allow a vote while — appropriately enough — riding a train to Chicago. He believes there’s strong support in both Oakland and Macomb, especially South Oakland communities that would “love to have rapid on transit Woodward,” he says. 

And yes, many people have focused (rightly so) on Michigan’s Main Street of Woodward Avenue. But other counties and corridors would benefit, as well. If the plan is adopted, there will be better networks on many routes — north/south and east/west.

And that’s the challenge for Batterman and his like-minded advocates: Enlisting broad support means making sure the public is educated about what the plan contains — and showing that it’s not just benefitting a few corridors. It’s a whole system. 

Consider just a few of the major thoroughfares that will get better bus service: Van Dyke Avenue, Fort Street, Greenfield Road, Grand River Avenue, the Jefferson/Harper corridors, and the many mile roads — well beyond Eight Mile. 

The goal is to have some buses come every 15 minutes — with no need to get transfers between those run by DDOT and SMART.

There will also be what’s called “bus rapid transit.” It’s sort of a light rail on wheels that will run along Woodward, of course, but also Gratiot and Michigan avenues. 

There’s even something else that will benefit residents and tourists alike: express service to Metro Airport and a commuter rail between Ann Arbor and the Amtrak station in Detroit. 

Yes, politics will still be involved. The compromise that got the master plan on the November ballot put in place a “funding allocation committee.” The committee must give unanimous approval for the use of federal and state funds and the changes to routes. That essentially provides each jurisdiction with veto power. 

Will it all work? As Washtenaw County representative to the RTA board member Alma Wheeler Smith noted before her final “yes” vote, it’s a leap of faith. There is still plenty of that good old-fashioned city/suburban strife and mistrust to overcome. 

Here’s the bottom line: The plan is not perfect, but it’s the best chance we’ve got to start acting like a real region — at least as far as our transportation needs go. Who knows? Such cooperation just might be contagious. 

And after nearly 30 tries, it might be a long time before we get this chance again.

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