From his new Midtown apartment at Woodward Avenue and Kirby Street, Michael Ford can look out and see construction on the M-1 Rail system. The new commuter rail line linking downtown Detroit to Midtown won’t be done until late 2016, but Ford is already focusing on what’s next.
Ford, the leader of the new Regional Transit Authority, envisions a future along Woodward with “robust activity, more storefronts and businesses, heavy pedestrian activity and substantial mobility options that are frequent, comfortable and always on time.”
He has a lot of work to do. And he has 21 months to do it.
The future of public transportation in metro Detroit is at a critical moment. Ford is racing to build the foundation of a better transit system in Metro Detroit, while also building enthusiasm for an anticipated millage vote on the November, 2016 ballot for residents of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.
“Doing nothing is not an option,” Ford said. “Our time is now to make improvement toward better, sustainable mobility options for the region.”
A lot of residents may think that’s already in the works. Tracks for the new M-1 Rail are being placed along Woodward Avenue. New city buses are hitting the streets in coming weeks with more on the way within the year, replacing a partially dilapidated fleet. But those two efforts are just the beginning of what Ford and other proponents hope will be a revitalized and coordinated mass transit system serving the most populated region of Michigan.
“I think strongly that you’ve got to get some appetizers out there,” Ford said. “I think people have got to see some change before they believe. It’s not real for people until it’s real.
“My focus right now,” Ford said, “is I have two years to get a millage passed.”
An old problem
For decades, poor mass transit has been a frustration for Detroiters on par with burned-out street lights and high auto insurance rates.
Diminished routes and other service cuts by SMART – the regional bus system – have lowered its annual ridership. Livonia – a city of 100,000 people – doesn’t even have access to the bus system.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) has a fleet of 421 buses – 158 of which were purchased 12 or more years ago. Due to the constant need for repairs, 30 percent of city bus services have been cut since 2010, according to the city.
The lack of good public transportation – critical for Detroiters for everything from getting to college classes to grocery stores to jobs – hobbles economic growth in a city where at least one third of residents don’t own a vehicle.
Ford, 53, is the first CEO of the Regional Transit Authority, a body created by the state legislature that will play a key role in the future of transportation in southeastern Michigan.
Ford assumed his RTA role in October. Three weeks later, on Nov. 10, he was thrust into the spotlight, speaking with attendees of the Transportation Riders United fall meeting at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, where he laid out a broad vision for regional transit. He said that his goal is to give people options without obstacles. He envisions a transit system that allows for easy and reliable connections – something that is rare today, a point dramatically underscored by the worldwide attention given to the 21-mile daily walk undertaken by Detroiter James Robertson to get to his factory job in the suburbs.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Transportation approved a $25.9 million grant to Detroit for the purchase of 50 new coaches. They will be cruising along city streets within two years in addition to the 31 buses rolling out in the next few weeks and months as part of a previous order.
Added to that will be the M-1 Rail, a 3.3-mile streetcar system being built along Woodward Avenue at a cost of about $140 million.
M-1 Rail COO Paul Childs said, “We’ve always wanted to be a catalyst for regional transit.”
Indeed, many agree that it will be a catalyst.
Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit dedicated to improving regional transit in southeastern Michigan, is also a member of M-1 Rail’s community advisory council. She said the new streetcar will be an easier and more convenient way to get around the corridor.
M-1 Rail “is a demonstration of what’s possible,” she said. It will help “a region that hasn’t had real transit in a generation see the benefits of frequent and high-quality transit.”
RTA chair Paul Hillegonds, said he was excited about the potential for the M-1 Rail to be near completion as the region will likely consider a transit ballot proposal. “I hope it will excite the imagination of the region,” he said.
Due to be operational in late 2016, it will have 12 stops as far south as Congress Street and as far north as Grand Boulevard. Most of the route will run curbside, although it will run in the median at the Congress stop and the three northernmost stops: Amsterdam, Amtrak and Grand Boulevard.
Another People Mover?
While many deem it a catalyst for regional transportation, the M-1 Rail has drawn criticism from people who compare it to the much-maligned Detroit People Mover, which began to take shape above the streets of downtown in 1982. Officials hoped it would help to revitalize the downtown area. Meanwhile, the lackluster bus system was wholly ignored. Before the People Mover was even completed in 1987, an article in Time said, “Many Detroiters, whose only other public transportation is a creaky bus system, scorn the People Mover as ‘a rich folks’ roller coaster.’”
The driverless, 2.9-mile elevated People Mover has 13 stops around downtown. According to the American Public Transportation Association, just over 2.2 million people used the system in 2013. When compared to the over 28.5 million who rode DDOT buses, it’s easy to discredit the usefulness of the People Mover. Moreover, what these numbers don’t take into account is that many of these rail riders are suburbanites who use it on weekends or before sporting events in conjunction with their cars. Otherwise, the People Mover is sparsely populated, revolving around downtown many days like a forgotten, remote-controlled model train.
Though they are similar in length, the M-1 Rail is different in several respects from the People Mover.
The M-1 Rail actually goes somewhere. It is much more likely to be a viable transit option for those who live in the area, even though it will only move about 5,000 to 8,000 people per day, according to the M-1 website, which equates to about the same amount of People Mover riders.
Ned Staebler, vice president of economic development at Wayne State, said that the university is an investor in M-1 Rail because it fosters Wayne’s commitment to get more students on campus. Staebler said, “The students, faculty and staff that we want to attract to come to Wayne State – to work or study – and to live in an environment that has transit options.”
M-1 will give people, such as Wayne State students and staff, a reason to park their cars once they’re in the area to use a public transit option that won’t require a prolonged wait.
Wayne State student Chelsea von Pagels drives a car to the campus from the suburb of Dearborn Heights. She doesn’t use public transit now, but said she plans to use the M-1 Rail once it’s completed, figuring it “will be a great resource for going between campus and downtown.”
It will be more accessible than the People Mover, too. Streetcar stations will have level boarding, which will make it easier for people in wheelchairs to board quickly and easily. Also speeding up the process will be the implementation of pre-paid passes – anticipated to range from single-use to yearly passes. They will be dispensed through vending machines at each of the system’s 20 stations.
The six M-1 Rail cars will be equipped with vertical bike racks, surveillance cameras and free Wi-Fi. They will all have drivers and follow normal traffic flow. The runtime from start to finish for the streetcars will be between 8 and 12 minutes, slightly faster than traditional buses.
M-1 Rail won’t fix the city or region’s inadequate transportation systems. But it does act as a starting point.
Michael Ford preaches the need for transit now – not in the distant future. “Regional service is not going to be realized unless local service is working in conjunction with that,” Ford said.
Lessons from Ann Arbor
A Seattle native, Ford came to southeast Michigan after a successful tenure with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, where he led a campaign that resulted in a millage approval in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The new tax gives the AAATA an additional $4.4 million to fund increased bus service.
Under Ford, there was record ridership and national recognition. He also championed a public-private partnership airport shuttle that was launched in 2012, allowing people to get from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro Airport for $15 ($12 with a reservation).
Ford said his success in Ann Arbor relied on community input and involvement. But it was also a result of his ability to effectively communicate. “We told them what we were going to deliver, when we were going to deliver it – we had it down to the gnat’s eyebrow,” he said.
That ability to communicate will be critical as Ford moves forward on a campaign that will likely see a transit millage on the ballot in 2016 for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, which are a part of the RTA region.
Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties have already agreed to a property tax increase that will benefit the SMART bus system, raising the millage rate from 0.59 mills, among the lowest in the state, to 1 mill over the next four years.
Ford said a millage increase will be decided upon based on a plan that meets people’s needs, which he said requires outreach and engagement – “getting out, meeting and listening to people.”
Ford wouldn’t offer a guess as to how large the millage request would be. But he’s heartened by the success of similar ballot measures across the country. According to the Detroit Mercy Transportation Research Center, in 2012, 79 percent of the transit funding referendums in the U.S. passed. A pamphlet handed out at the Nov. 18 Build Transit, Build Business summit at Ford Field noted, “Even regions like Los Angeles, Denver and Cleveland that are ‘traditional auto cities’ are investing in transit and reaping the rewards of their investments.”
Rich history of streetcars
Public transit has a long and prosperous history in Detroit. On August 4, 1863, eight small horsecars went up and down Jefferson Avenue from the Michigan Central Depot at Third Street to Mt. Elliott, then the city’s eastern border. Routes along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues soon followed. At around the turn of the century, electric streetcars replaced horses on the tracks.
During the early 1920s, rail transit was booming with an average of about 350 million passengers per year between 1923 and 1929, according to the Michigan Transit Museum’s two-volume book on Detroit’s railways. Starting in 1924 with close to 430,000 passengers, buses were beginning to run as well. They boasted almost 45 million passengers by 1929.
But ridership fell off with the Great Depression and popularization of automobiles and later, expressways. Regular streetcar service stalled and finally ended on April 8, 1956, 93 years after the first horses pulled railcars on Jefferson. Streetcars still teetered around downtown, but they became obsolete because they didn’t go beyond downtown.
The leader that leaders want
Paul Hillegonds, chair of the RTA board, said Ford is “the right person at the right time.” He said, “Michael is a person who not only runs and manages an authority well, but rides the buses, gets to know the employees, the riders, understands the importance of politics in a region and building support.”
M-1 Rail Chief Operating Officer Paul Childs said that he has been meeting with Ford on a monthly basis to discuss relevant issues. At the top of the list is making sure all the transit options work together.
He said, “We’ve always championed the issue of a unified fare structure,” with the vision in Detroit including being able to get on the rail and hop on the bus with one single, pre-paid fare card. Having a synchronized transit system would drastically improve transit for Detroiters over the current dysfunctional system.
The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments prepared an analysis of what should be the preferred mode of transportation up Woodward Avenue, from Detroit to Pontiac. This is very likely to be the first comprehensive regional transit that the RTA looks to bring to reality. After that, studies along Gratiot and Michigan avenues will follow.
Transportation leaders are looking at a variety of future options for improving the bus system, including larger buses, and dedicated bus lanes with pre-paid fares that can pull up close to the curb and level with the sidewalk, making it easier for the elderly and disabled to board.
More innovative bus systems have been successful in places such as Cleveland and Grand Rapids. Cleveland’s HealthLine has “been a remarkable success,” said RTA chair Hillegonds, and has experienced annual ridership increases, up 60 percent from the old non-BRT route. The 9.6-mile Silver Line in Grand Rapids started running in August 2014.
Ford knows there is a lot of work to do. But seeing change along the Woodward corridor from his window shows him the possibilities of mass transit in the car capital of the world.
“It’s not about the car versus the transit,” Ford said. “I think we all have to work together and give people options.”
Matt Harding is a journalism student at Wayne State University.