The lack of a cohesive mass transit system in Metro Detroit is among the bigger things holding back the region’s economic growth. Everyone agrees on that. And yet getting buy-in for a regional transit plan may be one of the year’s toughest political battles.
Members of the new Regional Transit Authority are on Mackinac Island this week to build support for their proposal to unite Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor in a transportation system that relies largely on a sophisticated network of buses.
They must convince voters in November to add 1.2 mills to their tax bills to raise $150 million a year to fund the authority and build the necessary infrastructure.
The RTA has a compelling plan, and it promises within five years or so that commuters in southeast Michigan will be able to meet most of their transportation needs by bus, without long delays or multiple transfers, in coaches that are clean and safe.
That’s a great pitch. The major challenge is to convince a region where more than 90 percent of residents never ride a bus to change its transportation habits. That means coaxing them out of their automobiles
A number of factors work against that mission, not the least of which is cheap gasoline.
Metro Detroit has a poor history with bus service. Both the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART have struggled with chronic financial woes and at times inconsistent service. Coordination between the two has not been effectively synced. And they’ve been seen as a vehicle primarily for low-income residents.
In addition, while downtown Detroit is gaining jobs at a rapid pace, most workers in the region are employed in the suburbs, where every building has an adjacent parking lot and an expansive freeway network makes the commute painless when compared to most big cities — as long as I-75 can be avoided. That’s one reason several suburban communities have opted out of SMART.
The RTA added a commuter rail line between Detroit and Ann Arbor to sweeten the package, but it does not go directly to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a major flaw.
The task for the RTA is to make a car-crazy region see the value of adding yet another bus system — and another bus tax. But SMART communities and Ann Arbor passed significant hikes to their transit taxes in 2014.
There certainly is value in the RTA plan, particularly for the growing number of downtown commuters. Parking spaces are becoming scarcer and the feeder highways more congested during rush hour.
Too many workers in places like Detroit are shut out of jobs in other communities, and too many employers are cut-off from workers who lack transportation.
A quality bus system has the potential to be a major driver of economic development. If the RTA funding isn’t improved, it’s hard to see another mass transit option for Metro Detroit. Subways and wide-scale commuter rail lines are a nice pipe dream, but the funding doesn’t exist to build them.
It’s buses or nothing. The rapid buses that will travel on dedicated lanes along three major corridors—Woodward, Gratiot, and Michigan avenues, have great potential, with the proper coordination with DDOT and SMART. The RTA says it has integration covered, and that since it will control all federal and state bus funds for the region, it has the leverage to bring the feeder systems in line.
The claim that Metro Detroit is the only major metropolitan area in the country without mass transit is not quite true — this region built more freeways than anywhere else, and they’ve served to move commuters around effectively.
But that’s not a model for the future. As the region grows, and as the costs of commuting climb, the workforce of the future will expect an efficient, hassle-free transit option that doesn’t involve fighting for a parking space or spending large chunks of their day in traffic jams.