FutureStructure

Another Go for Detroit Regional Transit Improvements

Advocates saw the $4.7-billion plan as the best opportunity in decades to move past the many previous failed attempts to create a connected transit system for southeast Michigan.

by Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press / July 5, 2017
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(TNS) -- Visions of four metro Detroit counties joined by one regional transit system may be in for something of a revision.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan is weighing whether to shrink the size of its taxing district, cutting off rural parts of Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties from the taxes and services that would be part of any future transit plan.

Such a prospect raises a host of questions, including whether the state Legislature would need to weigh in, but it could help with a key hurdle for transit plan advocates. A significant portion of the resistance to the 1.2-mill, 20-year property tax that failed at the polls in November came from areas that would not have been directly served by the plan to fund rapid buses on several major corridors, a commuter rail connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit, expanded local bus service and express buses to and from Detroit Metro Airport.

The discussions are an effort to head off the political pushback that could come from regional leaders such as Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who says he will actively campaign against another RTA plan if it is unchanged from the one rejected by about 18,000 votes last fall. Advocates saw the $4.7-billion plan as the best opportunity in decades to move past the many previous failed attempts to create a connected transit system for southeast Michigan.

The plan was criticized, however, for what was perceived as its limited scope. Although a range of new and expanded services were envisioned, premium features such as bus rapid transit would have run on only a handful of routes, going as far north as Mt. Clemens in Macomb County and Pontiac in Oakland, for example, and no bus rapid transit lines were proposed for key corridors such as Hall Road, Grand River or Fort Street.

The RTA board is weighing whether to try for another millage at the polls in 2018 or 2020.

Related:

RTA millage rejected by metro Detroit voters

RTA may consider Wayne, Washtenaw transit connection

Regional transit's big question: When to go back to voters?

Patterson said the idea of shrinking the RTA has merit "so people who want the service in that district can pay for it and then nobody’s got a complaint."

The RTA board, which is made up of representatives of all four counties, the City of Detroit and Michigan's governor, is not in agreement on the idea, but the organization's staff has been researching the topic and the issue was debated at length during a meeting last week.

According to the RTA, 28% of last year's 'no' vote "came from outer-edge rural communities where it is difficult to plan for and deliver conventional fixed-route transit solutions. There are, however, areas in the region with more of a demand for regional transit where there may still be an opportunity to move forward. One strategy for accomplishing this goal is to limit the size of the taxing jurisdiction in the RTA region to communities that are easier to serve with fixed-route service."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who has been involved in recent discussions with other regional leaders about the RTA, cautioned that a smaller taxing jurisdiction could lead to even higher taxes for fewer people and "I don't think it will fly with those voters." He also questioned whether voters within a smaller RTA footprint, presumably outside of Detroit and Ann Arbor, would want to financially support the QLINE, Detroit's streetcar system, or the commuter rail. The QLINE is expected to eventually become part of the RTA.

Hackel also downplayed the interest in regional transit in his county, saying the requests he hears for more transit are less common than requests for better roads and infrastructure. He said Macomb County residents are satisfied with the transit they already have — bus service provided by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

A message seeking comment from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan was sent to his spokesman, who provided a response from Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks.

"We are always open to exploring any viable option that will lead to a more robust and integrated public transportation system in our region," Dirks said in an e-mail.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder noted the ongoing regional discussions.

"We are aware that a variety of options are under consideration...but the discussions are still preliminary at this point and no solution has been reached. The governor is keeping in touch with county leaders and Mayor Duggan on this and other regional issues," said Snyder spokeswoman Anna Heaton.

One prominent regional transit advocate is open to considering the idea of a smaller RTA.

"I think it's very much worth exploring," said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United.

Owens said she initially opposed the concept because of fears that one of the potential legal mechanisms to creating a smaller footprint could result in a setup similar to the SMART system, where communities have to opt-in, limiting the effectiveness of —and the funding available — to the bus service. However, the RTA staff has been reviewing a number of options and wants to avoid a repeat of SMART's opt-in provision. SMART is one of four transit agencies that fall under the RTA umbrella.

Owens said in addition to potentially easing political resistance from Oakland County, a more urban-centered transit plan also acknowledges some regional realities.

“It’s hard to provide transit much north of Pontiac or much west of Ann Arbor or much south of Downriver," she said.

Alma Wheeler Smith, one of two Washtenaw County representatives on the RTA board, argued against shrinking the RTA, in part because she is concerned it would require a years-long change in the RTA statute. She said a change in the message used in a future millage campaign makes more sense. She said there's no way around the fact that people who oppose taxes sometimes have to pay them.

"I don't know a tax on Earth that doesn't affect people who vote no," Wheeler Smith said.

But Tim Soave, an Oakland County representative, said there is a clear dividing line between the areas where transit is provided and where it is not.

"It isn't messaging, it's lifestyle," Soave said of the differences in the areas that support regional transit and those that do not.

He suggested that a better approach is to build a good system and invite those not included to join.

©2017 the Detroit Free Press Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.