Shuttle plan between Detroit, Metro Airport takes off

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Affordable public transportation to augment hired cars and cabs between Detroit Metropolitan Airport and downtown Detroit could begin as early as next spring and eventually expand to cover the tri-county region.

Regional Transit Authority officials are expected to announce Thursday that they will formally solicit proposals from transportation companies for shuttle service.

The service, which RTA officials estimate may cost $6.5 million, would be subsidized with various grants when it starts. If it is successful, the cost would be folded into the tax increase the authority is seeking in the November 2016 election, when voters are being asked to fund the RTA and other transit projects.

Specific fares and pickup and drop-off points have not yet been determined, RTA officials said.

“It’s just something that’s long overdue,” said RTA CEO Michael Ford, who helped create the Michigan Flyer airport shuttle service when he was the head of the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority. “Obviously, as my experience in Ann Arbor has indicated, the service is something that continues to grow. I think it will have that same effect for the city of Detroit, as well as Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties.”

Standard fare on Michigan Flyer coaches from Ann Arbor to Metro Airport is $12 one-way and $22 round-trip. Michigan Flyer also provides a shuttle from East Lansing to the airport with a one-way standard fare of $30 and $50 for a round-trip. For travelers who drive to the airport and leave their cars in long-term sites on airport property, or at nearby private lots, the range is roughly $9 to $12 a day.

Transit officials say that they will keep the bid process open until the end of July. The RTA service, unlike private transportation companies, will not have to pay a $10 “departure” fee by the airport authority, officials said.

For years, hotel and business and transit advocates have griped about the lack of affordable transportation service to and from Metro Airport and have pressured airport officials to help reintroduce service.

But previously, most companies’ airport shuttle operations struggled and the last full-time service folded in 2001 after years of losing money. Limousines and taxis charge passengers between $45 and $60 one way and each one pays an airport departure fee.

The SMART suburban bus system offers service to the airport through its Fort Street-Eureka Road route through the Downriver area, but the ride runs more than an hour from downtown Detroit and sometimes involves transfers and limited hours.

Michael O’Callaghan, the executive vice president and CEO of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, is hopefulthat the RTA will be successful.

“We recognize that reasonably priced transportation options to and from Metro Airport into downtown Detroit and other parts of the region is very important for our region,” O’Callaghan said. “Particularly now that we’re making serious inroads to bringing more conventions and meetings into Metropolitan Detroit, transportation is key.”

O’Callaghan said he hopes the service can help Detroit “become more competitive to cities like Chicago and Atlanta and others who already have a real good transportation system in place.”

Tiffany Gunter, the RTA’s chief operations officer, has been negotiating with Metro Airport officials for months on the shuttle service. Gunter said the RTA has been working with officials in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to determine the best pick-up locations.

“We are in the process of trying to secure grant funding and getting close to having the funding to make this a reality prior to November 2016 so people could feel an experience of what regional transportation looks like in some form,” Gunter said.

Gunter hopes the commuting time would be 30-60 minutes, depending on the route.

Brian Sadek, the general counsel for the Wayne County Airport Authority, which runs Metro Airport, said the RTA’s decision to seek proposals “represents a great opportunity to advance regional transit.”

“We were glad the RTA reached out to us, and we’ve had very productive conversations with the RTA,” Sadek said. “It’s been a very positive outcome. I think it’s really helped that Mike Ford and his team have experienced running airport service and we have folks including me that have experiece working in transit. So we are able to speak a common language and come to a common understanding on how airport service should look.”

Statistics have shown, Gunter said, that downtown Detroit would likely have the highest ridership, “but we do want to work with our partners to make sure that the understanding is clear that we are moving forward from a regional perspective.”

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