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Bus-dependent seniors on board with Metro transit tax

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Norma Regenold is in rare company. She is 84 years old and the Royal Oak resident has never driven a car.

Regenold

Widowed and living alone, Regenold gets to her doctor appointments primarily by public transit, either by hopping on a SMART bus or a senior van provided by the suburban bus agency that’s funded by a voter-approved tax increase last year.

Another proposed millage on the Nov. 8 ballot sponsored by the Regional Transit Authority to widely expand transit — and opposed by critics as unnecessary — is critical to her, she says. It may take her downtown on faster bus routes down Woodward or to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on a shuttle service, none of which are currently available.

“We have to have better transportation,” said Regenold, who when working as a teacher many years ago in Warren used two buses to get to work. “We have got to have it. It’s so sad. It is important for the elderly to have independence. We don’t want to ask our relatives. We don’t want to ask our friends. We want to be able to do it ourselves.”

Advocates of the RTA’s 20-year, $4.6 billion millage say elderly residents such as Regenold, as well as military veterans who are disabled or don’t have cars, stand to benefit from increased transit options. Those include three bus rapid transit routes from downtown Detroit to the suburbs, a universal fare card, an airport shuttle service and expanded routes and better coordination for SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation.

The 20-year millage would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually, RTA officials estimate.

Critics, such as Leon Drolet, treasurer of the NoMassiveTransitTax.org, a group opposing the millage, say although there are needs for the elderly, veterans and the disabled, this plan doesn’t address seniors directly.

“That is 90 percent of the campaign, but 25 percent of the priority,” Drolet said. Current tax dollars, he said, already go to local communities for those services to help seniors and people with disabilities.

“The majority of the seniors and disabled need point-to-point transportation,” he said. “That’s not the priority or the centerpiece of this plan. The big buses are really not what they need.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Citizens for Connecting our Communities, an advocacy group pushing the millage, said seniors and those with disabilities “benefit greatly” from the plan.

“The proposal offers a single dispatch service to help provide cross-county connections, making it as easy and streamlined as possible,” she said. “And it includes at least a 33 percent increase for paratransit services — the on-demand, specialized, door-to-door services — for seniors and people with disabilities in each of the four counties.”

According to an advocate group promoting the millage, there are 622,992 seniors 65 and older living in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, the latest figures from the U.S. Census population estimate updates for 2015.

And those same Census numbers show nearly a quarter of the state’s population will be 60 or older by 2030 — a jump of 32 percent from 2012.

Marie Donigan, transit projects coordinator for the Harriet Tubman Center, which has been advocating for better transportation options in Metro Detroit among the elderly and veterans, said their needs have been apparent for years.

“It’s clear as day to me that we need a transit system that is connective, that connects people to life,” Donigan said. “The basic things that we do in life that people simply cannot do.”

Donigan said seniors on fixed incomes she’s met at senior homes haven’t expressed concerns about paying more in taxes because they are already paying for cabs or other private services if they don’t have family to take them around.

Army veteran Aaron Walton, 78, of Detroit boards a bus at a stop along Woodward. He said he relies on DDOT buses.

One of them is Aaron Walton, 78, who lives at the Village of Brush Park Manor Paradise Valley’s senior living facility. Walton, who has a cane, uses DDOT buses to get to the grocery store, to the doctor’s office and to run other errands — and the bus stop is often several blocks away.

He longs for the days when a DDOT bus used to do more regular pick-ups in front of his facility. He’s hoping the millage would create more options for him and others who want freedom to get around.

To those who would oppose the tax increase, Walton said, “Take a walk in my shoes. It’d be like catching a bus in the winter time, walking over snow and ice, waiting for a long time for a bus, getting out there in the rain.”

Joan Grady, 81, who also lives in the Brush Park Manor facility, said she uses DDOT buses to get to her doctor’s office. When she needs to visit family, her children come get her.

Even though she doubts she’d benefit much from expanded mass transit, she still believes the need is there.

“It helps the people of Detroit,” she said. “And it brings people into Detroit. Why not? It’s a good thing.”

Michael Parker, 63, who served in the Marine Corps from 1976 to 1980 and now lives in Piquette Square, a 150-unit apartment complex for once-homeless veterans in Detroit, sees a dire need.

Parker, who doesn’t have a car, takes a bus out to Wayne Community College in Taylor to take automotive classes so that he can learn how to fix cars himself and save money if he ends up buying one.

The commute takes two to three hours “just to get to class” on the bus.

With the millage, “the connections would be a lot more simpler, it would be faster because of the time schedules they are trying to produce, it would save me time where I wouldn’t have to get up as early as I did in the past.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter: @leonardnfleming

Expanding Metro Detroit transportation

The Regional Transit Authority’s $4.6 billion millage is part of the transit agency’s master plan that seeks to:

■ Establish three bus rapid transit routes on Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues with dedicated lanes and faster boarding.

■ Create a regional rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit on Amtrak rail tracks.

■ Start an airport express service that would take passengers to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

■ Expand paratransit service to those who cannot use traditional transit such as seniors and the disabled.

■ Provide local bus service and extensions of existing service on bus providers.