Detroit regional mass transit plan dead for 2018

The yearlong debate over a multi-billion-dollar mass transit plan for metropolitan Detroit is effectively dead for this year.

Bridge has learned that Oakland County ‒ and possibly Macomb County ‒ is refusing to support allowing voters to decide on the $5 billion plan when they go to the polls in November.

Macomb County has not responded to Bridge requests for comments.

But the resistance from representatives from Oakland County, Detroit’s more affluent neighbor to the north, is enough to kill the deal, for now.

The tentative plan, presented in March by Wayne County Commissioner Warren Evans and strongly supported by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, proposed among other changes, funding express buses that connect the city to the suburbs and the airport along with a train connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor.

The plan would have added a 1.5-mill regional transit tax plan to raise $5.4 billion over 20 years.

Bill Mullan, spokesman for Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, told Bridge on Wednesday that Oakland County will not support placing the issue on the ballot until the governance of the RTA is changed and individual communities are allowed to opt out of the plan ‒ and the tax. Under the existing law establishing the Regional Transit Authority, individual communities are not allowed to opt out of an RTA tax.

“Our position has been the same since May 2017,” Mullan said. “We will not put anything on the ballot until Lansing amends the RTA legislation.”

That effectively kills the tax for this year, since at least one of two representatives on the RTA board from each county must vote to place the measure on the ballot. The tax vote dies if both representatives from any county reject the plan. 

The RTA faces an August deadline for approving ballot language for the November election. There's one more meeting before then, but Oakland officials say they won't approve the measure.

Officials from the Regional Transit Authority held a meeting with representatives from Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties and Detroit Wednesday morning but it did not result in a consensus on how to move forward.

The RTA says it is now scrambling to determine if the plan can be saved, amended and put before voters in 2019 or 2020.

“We’re still looking at a variety of paths forward so the region has a successful regional transit system in place,” said Mario Morrow, a spokesman for RTA.

 Wayne County and Detroit officials issued careful statements Wednesday holding out hope for a resolution. 

“I think most of the region wants to see something put to voters in 2018," said Assistant Wayne County Executive Khalil Rahal. "While we realize with each day that goal is tougher to achieve, we’re committed to working with our regional partners to a resolution that leads to the transit system this region needs.”

Dave Massaron, chief operating officer for the City of Detroit and Mayor Duggan’s point person on regional transit, wrote that the city is "always willing to engage in discussions with regional leaders as to the best path forward. The city continues to believe that this region needs major investment in transit now and the best way to achieve that is submitting this plan to voters in 2018.” 

Andy LaBarre, chairman of the Washtenaw County Commission, said a four-county transit plan is optimal, but that at the same time he will continue to operate on “dual tracks.” He wants to support a four-county plan and at the same time push to develop a transit Plan B for Wayne and Washtenaw counties in 2019 or 2020.

Earlier this year, Wayne and Washtenaw, the counties that have had unwavering support for regional transit, started exploring a plan that leaves out Oakland and Macomb.

“I would bet RTA is not going to be on the 2018 ballot,” LaBarre said.  

But, he added, that doesn’t mean the idea is dead forever. “It’s not a question of if, but when. It’s a timing question.”

The RTA had been working to develop a new plan since the last one failed in 2016, when metro voters rejected a $3 billion mass transit plan by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote, or about 18,000 votes.

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Kevin Grand
Wed, 06/27/2018 - 5:49pm

Good riddance!

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 9:33am

Great News!!!

If you want rapid transit, do the following
1) Do away with the RTA
2) Enhance SMART
3) Concentrate on BRT (bus rapid transit)
4) Right size busses for their intended use, such as larger for the Suburb to Detroit routes, and smaller for the suburb only routes
5) Include walking and bike paths in any planning. I don't mind walking 2 1/2 miles round trip to the local big box store to get a few things, but as a disclaimer, I have nothing but time.
6) Study the usage and adhere to time tables so that there is minimal waiting for transfers. Look at Japan or Europe for how to run a system.

Just a few thought bites.

Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 06/28/2018 - 9:50am

Too often, the supporters of track-based mass transit seem eager to play railroad at one-to-one scale, when a road-based method would work just as well and a lot cheaper.

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 6:27pm

To a point - but there's also this - I can run a track based system where I know there's a high degree of commuter traffic at about - 45 MPH or so. That's the estimated speed between Ann Arbor to Detroit on this.

I can't do the same for bus in this area without taking a lane for that bus. And that's BRT - but this plan had none of it. Not a single line - but rail? Well that was in there for Detroit/Ann Arbor while local bus at about a high speed of 12 MPH was in for Oak/Mac - golly gee... nothing like treating the areas paying the most like second class citizens.

Thu, 06/28/2018 - 10:12am

The problem with the regional transit proposal was three-fold. It wasn't truly regional; SMART, DDOT, AATS all stayed in business as independent systems and all were allowed to keep their existing uncoordinated schedules, often-exclusive stops, and taxpayer subsidies. Second, the proposal demanded much more money from Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw County taxpayers than it would have provided in enhanced services in those areas. And thirdly, the regional mass transit authority was almost totally focused on building light rail, like the Q-Line or the PeopleMover, while ignoring existing Amtrack tracks and service and the very low population density in the metro Detroit area compared to metro areas where light rail systems are operating successfully.

It wasn't a good deal for anyone but the handful of light rail advocates and, maybe, eventually, the companies who would build those light rail systems.

Fri, 06/29/2018 - 8:49am

I know reading comprehension is difficult but the planned Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter HEAVY railroad uses existing tracks and stations! It’s amazing your main concern is already alievatied. But hey, celebrating the fact that our region will continue to suffer brain drain, not be attractive to companies like Amazon so that we can continue the status quo is something.

Kyle A.
Fri, 06/29/2018 - 8:55am

1. Disband the RTA
2. Connect DTW to Ann Arbor, Dearborn, Detroit via light-or heavy-rail and/or BRT (note: Oakland and Macomb Co's. being excluded)
3. Combine DDOT, People Mover, QLine and AATA into one entity.

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 6:40am

Yes, Kyle, I think the whole thing would have been easier to approve at the polls, and with county commissions, if RTA were allowed to fold in or supersede all existing area transit systems, rather than have them keep their separate identities.

Mon, 07/02/2018 - 7:23pm

I don't know if that would have helped, as many people in Ann Arbor do not trust Michael Ford based on his fiscally questionable experience running AATA prior to switching to RTA, and would have voted no if they thought he would be in charge of all the transit funds.

Bob smith
Mon, 08/06/2018 - 10:57pm

Can anyone tell me how they pay the rta employees $$$ car allowance etc?