Will metro Detroit voters approve mass transit that most will not use?

The two Detroits – the comeback city and the still-stuck one – can see one another across Woodward Avenue at Grand Boulevard.

On one side, New Center, a white-collar employment hub, part of the reawakening comeback. On the other, the North End neighborhood, showing signs of movement toward revival, but with lots of ground yet to cover. But the M-1 Rail tracks are being laid this far north, right down the middle of Woodward, so optimism is called for. And on this overcast day, a knot of Detroit residents are waiting for something residents of other cities take for granted – a bus, one that runs on time, that moves quickly between limited stops, i.e., an express.

In the classic tradition of Detroit mass transit, it’s late. But just by a few minutes.

The RefleX bus, painted a teal blue, branding it as a thing apart from the city and suburban bus systems, pulls up and passengers board. Anyone riding its entire length can travel from just off Campus Martius in downtown Detroit to the Somerset Collection mall, in Troy, stopping 14 times, arriving in an hour, for $1.50.

By Detroit mass-transit standards, this efficient, cross-county trek qualifies as something close to a miracle.

And this is the promise of the Regional Transit Authority, the RTA, birthed by the legislature in 2012 and wobbling to its feet this year, with a master plan that, if approved by voters next month, will bring a coordinated bus system to southeast Michigan after decades of false starts. The RTA plan will make partners of DDOT, Detroit’s city bus service; SMART, the suburban service; AATA, Ann Arbor’s transit service; and, eventually, the M-1 Rail streetcar line along Woodward. The plan pledges to coordinate service in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties -- from low-wage Detroit residents riding to jobs in the suburbs to elderly suburbanites who need to get to the doctor. It would serve the must-ride demographic on one side of Woodward with the more affluent choose-to-ride urbanites on the other, with more crosstown and cross-county fares to carry riders between corridor routes.

It has chambers of commerce on its side, marshalling facts and arguments: Detroit is the largest metro area in the country without regional transit, with longer commutes and workers whose jobs lay by and large outside the city limits.

But what it doesn’t have, yet, is an affirmative vote to fund it.

That comes Nov. 8, when voters in the four counties will decide whether they want to pay a 1.2 mill increase in property tax for the RTA to finally flower as the 24th effort at true regional mass transit in a region that has often been too divided, too hostile, too indifferent or too car-bound to make it a priority.

Including the state and federal funds approval would trigger, the RTA expects the measure to generate $4.7 billion in funding over 20 years. Of that, $3.3 billion will come from the property tax, which would cost a household assessed at $100,000 about $120 more per year.

A business necessity

Dennis Cowan is the former chairman of the Oakland County Republican party and former mayor of Royal Oak. He said he started believing in mass transit during his term as mayor, in the 1990s, when the southern Oakland city was starting to become the nightlife and dining destination it is today. Restaurant owners complained it was too difficult for their employees to get to work. The problem was bad enough that the city helped set up jitney services for them, an imperfect solution.

“I just ran into the head of the (local) restaurant association the other day,” Cowan said. “They have the same problem.”

On the other side stands Leon Drolet, a former state representative from Macomb County and anti-tax activist. He is helping lead organized opposition to the RTA measure, a group calling itself No Massive Transit Tax. The name is a spoiler for his argument.

“We already pay a lot for mass transit,” he said. “There’s already a 1 mill tax in Oakland and Macomb (for SMART, which serves those two counties).” And all for what Drolet calls “very substandard service. To ask us to double what we pay, and give it to the same groups that have failed us, is not a very inspiring proposal.”

And so, as it has so often in the past, the arguments for and against public transit depend on what part of the public you’re talking about. Even its proponents acknowledge that Metro Detroit is not New York City, and that most people will continue to commute via private vehicles.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, whose Lansing public-relations agency is speaking on behalf of Citizens for Connecting Our Communities, the vote-yes advocates, puts the transit-commuting figure at 12 percent of voters in the four-county area.

But RTA advocates ask voters to consider the possibilities: Not only when busboys and grill cooks can get to Royal Oak on a bus, but when low-income Detroit residents like “walking man” James Robertson, who commuted 23 miles one-way to his job, almost half of them on foot, walk for the exercise, not out of necessity.

And for the remaining 88 percent who don’t currently use mass transit, consider this: A commuter train between Detroit and Ann Arbor. A bus between downtown and Metro Airport, or to a weekend or evening ballgame. Using public transit because it’s easy and convenient, not because you have no other options.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that voters truly recognize (Detroit’s regional transit) is among the worst in the country,” said Rossman-McKinney.

To which critics like Drolet say, have you heard of this thing called Uber?

But what of the cost?

He’s serious. Ride-sharing, now in its infancy with services like Uber and Lyft, is the future of public transit, Drolet said.

“This is a 1980s proposal that will trap us,” he said of the RTA bus proposal. “It anchors us to decades of dinosaur mass transit.”

With driverless cars on the horizon, ride-sharing can do what buses do now, Drolet contends, and perhaps at the same price, if governments stopped subsidizing public transit.

“Of course this couldn’t happen overnight,” he cautioned.

Indeed, those who study mobility management, as it’s called in academic circles, say ride-sharing services like Uber, Lyft and others have a role to play in getting people around metropolitan areas, as part of a “multi-modal” framework of choices.

Ride-shares or driverless cars could help commuters with a piece of the daily commute – getting to or from a bus or rail stop, said Clark Harder, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Public Transit Association, which advocates for the state’s urban and rural transit systems.

“It’s popular for anti-transit people to point to Uber and say that’s the answer,” said Harder. “There’s a potential for public transit to work with Uber to help deliver rides for people. But I’m highly doubtful it could ever replace good public transit.”

The people on the bus

Melissa Roy understands the frustration of both sides. As the executive director of Advancing Macomb, a business leadership group, and one of her county’s representatives on the SMART board, she recently found herself without a car -- it was in for repairs -- and vowed to walk the public-transit talk, commuting from her home in downtown Detroit to her office one county away in Mount Clemens.

It isn’t easy, she is the first to note. But Macomb has gone all-in on SMART. Unlike Wayne and Oakland counties, no Macomb communities opt out of the system, she said. (A feature of the SMART system is that it requires affirmative community votes to join and pay for the service, and many Oakland and Wayne communities don’t, leading to a patchwork system that leaves some commuters, like walking man Robertson, out in the cold).

“SMART has overwhelming support, even from the (county’s) northern communities, where they don’t see regular buses. The delivery is good and voters are happy,” Roy said. “Where transit has fallen down is that we have two systems, one focused on one city, the other with a lot of opt-outs.”

Another hurdle to a yes vote was a midsummer balk, by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, at a scheduled RTA board meeting where a vote was scheduled to approve the measure for the November ballot. Hackel and Patterson issued a joint statement claiming the plan would cost more than voters were being told and not deliver services commensurate with its cost to both counties.

The 2012 legislation contained a clause stipulating that 85 percent of RTA monies collected in each county be spent on transit service in that county, seen as critical to getting regional support. The strongest need for better transit is in Detroit, and both men seemed to doubt the suburban counties would get enough value from the deal.

The two said they were satisfied by a compromise hammered out a week later, that stipulated an annual review of spending, to ensure all counties were getting their 85 percent. But neither has come out with strong support for the RTA measure. Hackel spokesman John Cwikla said both were standing neutral, preferring to let the public decide.

Roy said her SMART board service has taught her that transit funding based on property values can be a delicate thing. Following the collapse in property values in the 2000s, the SMART system had to make painful service cuts. If that happens to the RTA, she said, Macomb didn’t want “one part of the region (to be) marginalized. Everybody has skin in the game. This is really the first regional governance structure that has a physical, capital impact on everybody the region. The (Detroit Institute of Arts), the zoo, Cobo all have a specific location. This hits everyone from all standpoints. It’s really important that we do this right. And that we work together as a region.”

Michael Ford, executive director of the RTA, added that “coordination will be a huge cornerstone and mandate,” should the vote succeed. That means that the three transit entities, eventually to be joined by M-1 Rail, the light rail line running up Woodward Avenue, will have to work in sync for the region to prosper. That means not doing away with, for example, the Woodward Avenue DDOT line, but adding services like the cross-county RefleX, to improve the total experience.

If the plan fails to pass in all four counties, the RTA would be seriously diminished, but would be free to try voter approval again, although not until 2018 (the law says that millage requests can only be made in general elections, in presidential or statewide-election years). There really isn’t a Plan B, but Rossman-McKinney said waiting two more years for another regional vote would be a “long, dark time” to rebuild.

Susan Pollay is chairwoman of the RTA’s Citizen Advisory Council and executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, which is in favor of the RTA. To her, the significance of holding the vote in 2016 shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots,” she said, the cataclysmic event that accelerated the atomization of what had been a relatively cohesive metro area, sparking white and middle-class flight and leading directly to the growing impoverishment of the city.

“Wouldn’t it be something if we could pass something that finally starts to bring the region together again,” Pollay said. “That would say something.”

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 10/13/2016 - 9:55am
As a retired person with no pension, which essentially is no cost of living increase ever as any increase in social security immediately goes toward increased medicare expense, I am so sick of these "it's only pennies a day" millage requests. Couple the RTA request of 1.2 mills with the Wayne County School millage request of 2.0 mills, and it is an extra $580 per year that I must come up with somehow. It would make sense (something we should not expect from government) to have a law that states if a millage request is rejected by the voters, then it can not be voted on again for the term of the initial request. In the case of transit where the request is for 20 years, if this request is defeated in the 2016 elections, we would not have to vote on it again until 2035. In the case of the school, it would stay off the ballot for 6 years. If you want a rapid transit system, then let those that would use it, along with their employers, pay for it. It is not uncommon for places of employment that need an employee base to offer bus passes or parking chits as a benefit to its employees. But please, keep your hands out of my pocket as there are only crumbs left there now.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 10:05am
AMEN, bro!
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 11:02am
Only crumbs left? You live in a house worth over $350k. Maybe the problem isn't taxes, but instead your financial management skills. Or perhaps you're using hyperbole to advance a personal agenda?
Fri, 10/14/2016 - 12:15am
Steven, It seems you feel anyone that works and earns their income doesn't deserve it. Why shouldn't there be some accountability? Why don't the proponents set some performance metrics with 'mile-stones' and if those 'mile-stones' aren't achieved than program/trains/buses are ended and the remaining moneys returned to those who were paying for the mass transit? It sounds like more people lack confidence in those spending the money than in what the money is to provide. I think you could garner more support if you address the trust issue rather then question people's work ethics and financial responsibilities.
Fri, 10/14/2016 - 8:21am
Duane, I've always wondered why these type of measures don't come prepackaged with performance levels that have to be met or the whole system is given a sunset provision for closure. I've come to the cynical conclusion that proponents know their projections are nonsense so they front load costs for these systems banking on the fact that most voters forget, don't pay any attention or remain impressed with their good intentions. As we watch the much heralded Silver Line significantly miss its promised usage you wonder shouldn't the officials in question at least lose their jobs? I've got to stop dreaming!
Fri, 10/14/2016 - 8:33pm
Matt, There are a couple of reason why and both have to do with you point. The other is that I have been around long enough to have seen an actual change in the public's interest. You are right about the politicians, especially the career politicians. And that is also true of those who actually spend the money, there careers grow with the more money they spend. The other reason is the lack of experience and understanding of program accountability, actually delivering claimed results. A simple example is how the public holds goods and service providers in the private sector accountable by how they spend their money, and we live the ever improving quality and lowering cost of that accountability. Whether it is in the government or even in the non-government organizations they do grasp why and how program accountability contributes to ever improving results, so they fear accountability and especially avoid public accountability. The hope is how people just like you and I are now openly talking about it, while for generations that was not happening. Then is when it moves from 'dreaming' to hope and action. Effective accountability isn't about people losing their jobs, it is about them changing what is being done so the expected results are achieved. The part that those who ask for the money and those spending money don't understand is that when they achieve the expected results the battles over money are manageable and not confrontational. The smart people are those that want the funding to define the desired results and them to establish the metrics/'milestones' for assessing the programs before asking for money. If the proponents were smarter about accountability they would have been more specific about the results rather than claiming everything from the little old ladies to the financial affluent would be riding the 'buses'. Ah well, they would rather do battle and belittle those who challenge their claims then actually deliver results. The barrier to it having an impact is organizations that are supposedly purposed with keeping the public informed are also ignorant and fearful of program accountability, so reporting on what accountability really entails, how it is effectively used in the private sector [and is even required in regulations], and how it can facilitate changing results is avoided or ignored by such groups. When we people start asking about how program accountability works, how it could be made to work for particular programs [such as subsidized travel] than hopes will turn to action.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 2:56pm
As a retired person, I'm surprised that you think a small millage would cost more than what it costs you to own and operate your car yearly. Though I'm sure you feelings are mostly location-based, rather than truly financial-based.
John Q. Public
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 10:46pm
I like your concept, but not the specifics, of re-votes after a millage loss. I'd prefer that proponents can get an millage on the ballot as often as they like, but must either: A: on the second vote for an issue, win by a larger percentage margin than they lost the first election in order to pass the millage, or B: if they lose more than once, have to win as many elections as they lose to pass the millage. That is, if they lose thrice, they must hold the election three more times and win them all to pass the millage. I'm sick of being on the winning side of a 'no' vote four consecutive times by 55-45 margins, only to end up paying when the fifth time passes 50.2 - 49.8. Why should one failure outweigh four victories by 'no' voters?
Fri, 10/14/2016 - 5:06pm
Great ideas! Also make sure the requesting entity bears the full costs of taking their measures to the voters!! And don't let them hide among a bunch of questions. In Grand Rapids the Silver Line was passed by pulling in other almost irrelevant communities to offset communities that would likely vote against this turkey.
Nathan McAlpine
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 10:49am
Do you think this would decongest traffic a bit during rush hour? It's near impossible navigating downtown right now. In large part due to construction but traffic is thick. I'm wondering if filling busses would help cut down the traffic.. Are there any studies on this?
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 2:55pm
One bus can take 60 cars off the road
John Q. Public
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 10:50pm
Yet seldom does.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 2:54pm
But the need for expensive rail transit is also a function of growth and congestion, of which Detroit has neither.
Randall Blum
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 11:13am
The article mentions and then ignores the most glaring problem when stating "Detroit is the largest metro area in the country without regional transit, with longer commutes and workers whose jobs lay by and large outside the city limits". This transit plan is going to spend $4.7 Billion (with a B) on redundant bus lines serving downtown Detroit, when most people do not work or live there. This will not provide any useful transit that could possibly increase ridership. Detroit is large and spread out. It is not large and dense like NYC, Toronto or Chicago. It is not small and compact like Portland, Seattle or Baltimore. RTA is claiming they will have over 13,000 riders without acknowledging that most will be stolen from SMART and DDOT. Even if this number is true, they want to spend over $350,000 per rider. The $4.7 Billion could fix a large portion of SE Michigan's road problems and benefit 4 Million people instead of just 13,000.
Tue, 10/18/2016 - 10:11pm
The city has higher density than you think it does: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/04/150424-detroit-cities-populat...And I don't see how anything in the RTA master plan siphons ridership from existing services. The RTA proposal would launch brand-new or greatly expanded services that does not compete with existing (mostly) local bus services. For example: - BRT does not exist. Rapid transit along the corridors does not exist in any form today. - Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail does not exist today. - Express airport service to/from Detroit and Ann Arbor does not exist today. - Expanded crosscounty connector service: not redundant - it exists now, but with limited operating hours and long headways -- the RTA master plan expands to 7-days with shorter headways - Expanded paratransit is not redundant.
Kevin Grand
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 12:30pm
All in all, a pretty balanced article. But, one that leaves two nagging questions (I'm feeling generous this afternoon). First, where has this so-called "desire" to improve the already existing transit systems been for so long? We have had mass transit system in Metro Detroit for nearly a century now. Instead of reaching (again) into the pockets of S.E. Michigan Taxpayers, why have Ms. Roy, Ms.Pollay, Mr. Ford or Ms. McKinney not used their expertise to make these promised improvements in mass transit service earlier? I realize that having a captive revenue stream (i.e. already existing SMART millage and yearly Lansing subsidies from Comprehensive Transportation Fund) makes those heading up SMART & DDOT a little slow to make changes, but that "slowness" can lead to major problems, which bring me to me second point. As of last year, SMART is looking at a $229-million bill for pension and retiree health care costs. I've asked this question before and no one is apparently willing to answer it; exactly what is keeping the RTA from using money collected from the RTA Tax to pay for that? I am well aware of the fact that misdirection and politicians go hand-in-hand. However, there are going to be a lot of people who will be very angry if the money that was collected for the RTA goes towards bennies instead of buses.
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 2:53pm
I remember the popular story a few years ago about one Detroiter's struggle to get to his suburban job and the solution that was found was to get him a new car and apartment and everyone seemed pleased with the outcome. That's the culture of transportation in Detroit, not to think of the collective, but the personal automobile. Whereas in conservative Grand Rapids, even suburban Republicans understand the basic need of getting people to work even if that means paying a few more dollars a year in taxes.
Michigan Observer
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 4:31pm
Ms. Derringer says, "Detroit is the largest metro area in the country without regional transit, with longer commutes and workers whose jobs lay by and large outside the city limits." One of the reasons that metro Detroit lacks mass transit is its low density. It would have been helpful to have had some rough idea of the relationship between density and the extent of mass transit.
John Q. Public
Thu, 10/13/2016 - 11:47pm
How much of this tax will be used so Michael Ford can eat lobster a couple of days a week on the taxpayer dime? Will the RTA have a restricted fund set up for compensation to be deferred until he quits for a new job? How many times will he have to attend Mackinac Island conferences to learn how to run a SE Michigan bus system?
Sat, 10/15/2016 - 2:05pm
Uber won't replace transit if you know anything about transit... It can supplement it, but door to door transit isn't how any good transit system works for good reason. You need good routes, short times between vehicles, and, most importantly, dependability (I also don't want to be around in traffic when you replace a bus with a fleet of cars going around everywhere).http://humantransit.org/2016/10/how-should-transit-agencies-respond-to-n...Weird comments on how those won't benefit anyone and doesn't connect jobs when that's the explicit goals of the plan. How much money would you save if you owned one less car because of this system...? You can bank that, or spend it on the local economy, which transit riders overwhelmingly do. Does the money you spend on insurance or gas go the local economy? (Hint: No.) Let users pay for it? Road users do NOT pay for the road system: http://frontiergroup.org/reports/fg/who-pays-roadsSorry, buddy, but even if I don't own a car, I'm still paying for your roads. Know what the hell you're talking about.
Sat, 10/15/2016 - 6:20pm
If I'm paying for this to the tune of $400 a year (and no, I'm not living the "high life" in a fancy house- with my family of 6!) then why would I have to pay even the $1.50 bus fare each way? Didn't the DIA get their pound of flesh with the promise of free admission to the counties funding it? As a traveling nurse, I run from patient to patient each day with emergency supplies, and will NEVER be able to use this system anyway. And who came up with the idea for a bus that would get from Campus Martius to Somerset in an HOUR with numerous stops? Unreal. Try it sometime at rush hour without stopping. This bus won't be airborne, will it? Reality and politicians need to get together and have a legitimate discussion.
Tue, 10/18/2016 - 9:09pm
If a 1.2 mill property tax is costing you $400 a year, then by simply doing the math your SEV is around $333,000, which means your home is valued at $666,000. Your disclaimer about not living the high life sounds dubious. If you can afford to purchase and maintain a $600,000+ home, you're doing rather well in the judgement of most people. To the majority with more modest incomes and homes, your argument doesn't resonate. Sounds like: "got mine, screw you."
Sun, 10/16/2016 - 2:50pm
The state of Michigan has received huge amounts of grant funds from the department of transportation. Why hasn't some of that money come towards these counties? According to the article RTA was birthed out of state legislation. Why doesn't the state fund this experiment. A light rail system was built to support Detroits entertainment comeback. Why weren't those funds used? I'm fed up with the rich getting tax breaks for special projects and the citizens being asked to dig deeper. Voting NO.