A map of new transit services under the RTA’s Regional Master Transit Plan
For decades, Southeast Michigan has struggled to bring about an effective regional transit system. Current transit services in the region do not adequately reach many population hotspots or employment centers, and even in the cases where they do, many routes only run a few times per day and lack county-to-county interconnectivity.
This can change with the implementation of the RTA’s Regional Master Transit Plan.
The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) was created through state legislation in 2012. The purpose of the RTA is to coordinate services between current transit providers and to create a regional transit system throughout Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. After considerable research, planning and community interaction, the RTA released its Regional Master Transit Plan on May 31. With weeks of feedback from community engagement sessions and regional stakeholders, there were a few tweaks made to the plan and roughly two months later, the RTA Board of Directors approved the plan to go on the November 2016 ballot.
The RTA’s vision of Bus Rapid Transit along Michigan Avenue
Central to the plan is the addition of four Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes along major regional corridors: Woodward, Gratiot, Michigan and Washtenaw Avenues. These routes alone will connect communities from downtown Detroit to Pontiac, Mt. Clemens and DTW Airport, as well as from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti. BRT is best described as “superbus” service, as it mimics light rail in nearly all but cost (BRT is substantially cheaper). BRT buses are bigger than standard buses, more fuel-efficient and faster due to specialized infrastructure. These new BRT services will go a long way in making public transit an attractive option for everyone.
The implementation of eleven new “Cross-County Connector” routes will help to break down barriers to inter-county travel that often stymie the region’s current transit providers (as many are not able to cross certain county or city borders). These routes will connect Southeast Michigan’s counties along well-trafficked routes like Grand River Avenue, Van Dyke and 12 Mile Road. No longer will riders along these routes have to transfer to another transit provider’s bus simply because they are traveling between different counties.
Another new service is the introduction of five Airport Express routes, one from each county (except Oakland, which will have two) that will provide quick and convenient transit to and from DTW airport. With this new service, the hassle and cost of having to find a ride or pay for parking can be eliminated for people all over Southeast Michigan who use the largest airport in the state.
Additionally, the plan would add a passenger rail route between Detroit and Ann Arbor; add four limited-stop Commuter Express lines that go from population centers directly to job centers; simplify travel with the introduction of a regional fare card; invest substantially in increased paratransit services; eventually take over Detroit’s new M-1 streetcar (QLINE); and expand upon local service with the additions or extensions of eight local bus routes.
The plan consists of several substantial improvements to regional transit, but what is the cost? The ballot proposal in November will ask for an annual property levy of 1.2 mills. This would raise $3.1 billion over the 20-year life of the millage in order to fund this $4.6 billion plan (the $1.5 billion difference will come from fare revenue, state and federal funding, etc.). At this taxation rate ($1.20 per every $1,000 of taxable home value), the average homeowner would pay about $95 per year, or less than $8 a month.
Why regional transit?
The benefits of regional transit are clear. Research shows that for every dollar that is invested in public transportation, the region sees four dollars in economic benefit. Home values perform 42 percent better on average if they are located near high frequency transit stops. In terms of retaining our young Michigan talent, 73 percent of millennials listed regional transit as one of their top wishes for Southeast Michigan. Fewer cars on the road means a smoother commute for even those who will not be using public transit.
Countless people in this region work in a different county than the one that they live in. Those who cannot afford a car and are not served by our current transit system often cannot hold down a job, even though some employers throughout the region are starving for dependable workers. This is a region and a system in which 78% of jobs cannot be reached in 90 minutes by transit. Transit investment as a region is far behind other comparable metros. Thus, relying solely on the current system would leave Metro Detroit with a crippling lack of regional transit that goes far beyond that of other regions. Some voters are understandably cautious of a new property tax, but should not fall prey to shortsightedness. This regional transit plan is only one piece of the puzzle and it will not solve every transit problem, but is so direly needed in our region that it is a prerequisite to keeping Southeast Michigan competitive with other regions across the country.
Why the most common criticisms of the plan ring hollow
Some of the most common criticisms of the plan, with rebuttals:
- “I don’t like buses. This money would be better spent on light rail.” Certainly there is much to be said for light rail, but in a region that is inexperienced with substantial transit investments, light rail is likely too substantial an “ask” for the transit providers and certainly the public. The goal of BRT is to provide as many of the benefits of light rail as possible while still being affordable. BRT mimics light rail to a degree by being faster and more reliable than a standard bus, due to advancements like signal prioritization and dedicated lanes.
- “The suburbs are not getting a fair deal. All of us suburban homeowners are just paying so that people in Detroit can have expanded transit services.” Out of all of the new routes provided in the plan, only one is located solely in Detroit (QLINE), and that is a project that will happen whether or not this plan is approved by the voters. On the other hand, there are eight new routes that will be solely located in Macomb and Oakland counties. Oakland and Macomb counties still get more back in transit services than they will pay under the millage, as is required under the 85% return on investment clause in the legislation that created the RTA.
- “The money will just go into some politician’s pockets.” All of the funding allocations and routes are laid out publicly in the plan, thus letting the public keep a watchful eye on their own money (as they should). In addition, after Macomb and Oakland County leaders raised concerns about how investments would be divided among counties, a new RTA Funding Allocation Committee was created. This committee is made up of 5 board members, one from each county and the city of Detroit. Any change to the master plan has to be approved by unanimous vote, ensuring oversight from each county.
- “Why should I subsidize a bus I will not use?” The benefits of transit go beyond personal use. As discussed before, communities flourish economically when they have access to reliable, rapid and regional transit. Traffic congestion will be alleviated with less cars on the road. More of our elderly and disabled population will be able to easily get around. There will be fewer drunk drivers on the road after an evening out. We all already subsidize the roads even if we do not personally drive, because we recognize that roads serve an important societal function. Regional transit is no different.
Regional Integration through Regional Transit
This is the best chance Metro Detroit has ever had to provide an effective regional transit system. For the sake of our region, we cannot squander this opportunity. No longer can each county starve on its own island. We need true regional integration and transit is such an integral part. The RTA’s Regional Master Transit Plan must be approved by the voters for the good of the region.
Written by: Matt Genesco, Transportation Policy Intern