Metro Detroit panel pushes regional transit

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

A panel of Metro Detroit political and business leaders lobbied for a regional transit proposal Thursday, saying it's critical for attracting talent, transporting elderly people and competing with other major metropolitan areas. 

Oakland County Treasure Andy Meisner


Panelists at the discussion during the Mackinac Policy Conference included Romulus Mayor LeRoy Burcroff, Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner and Barbara Rossmann, president and CEO of Henry Ford Macomb Hospitals.

Burcroff said many businesses in Romulus are struggling to attract talent without a reliable regional transportation system. The lack of mass transit has limited Metro Detroit's growth, Burcroff said. 

“If you compare our region to other areas that are prospering ... we are deficient and we are behind," Burcroff said. “So it is our responsibility to look at those options, to come up with solutions.” 

The regional transit debate reignited this year when Detroit lost its bid for Amazon's second headquarters. The company cited lack of mass transit as a key reason for rejecting Detroit. 

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans in March rolled out a 20-year regional transit proposal that needs voters to approve a $5.4 billion tax later this year. It includes commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit and 15 new express regional bus routes connecting major destinations. 

Meisner said Oakland County communities are already spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on transportation for residents, particularly the elderly. More than 200,000 Oakland County residents commute outside the county for work, he said. 

Meisner believes a more cohesive mass transit plan would be more efficient. 

"Virtually every community in Oakland is investing in mobility," Meisner said. "We are doing this in a manner that is not as cost effective as it could be."

Rossmann said regional transit would help many patients who are often late or miss medical appointments because of transportation issues. 

“It does create drama not only for the patient themselves but also their families," Rossmann said. 

The region needs an integrated, seamless transportation system, and allowing communities to "opt-out" is not helpful, he said. 

The panelists Thursday also challenged arguments made by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, who have both expressed strong opposition to the regional transit proposal. 

One argument the two executives make is that the existing SMART bus system meets the needs of their residents. 

Meisner disagreed.

"SMART does a great job but it’s not a complete regional system," Meisner said. "And so we need to get these entities working in partnership. I think a lot of people are very happy with their SMART services but I think they would also be happy with more service which can be provided by the (Regional Transit Authority)." 

Hackel maintains that Macomb County residents would rather invest their money in roads instead of regional transit. 

Burcroff said the region can have quality roads and bridges as well as mass transit. 

“You have to do both," he said. "I don’t think it’s one or the other.”

Patterson told The Detroit News on Thursday that his position hasn't changed but he would support a less-expensive regional transit plan that allowed communities to opt out. 

"I told them to make their grandiose plan affordable," Patterson said. "I said reduce the size of your plan and then we will have a deal."

Evans recently documented a May 17 trip from Detroit to Best Buy in Novi that required him to take two bus rides and a two-mile walk.

Evans said 83 percent of the people who work in Novi live outside the city. Conversely, Detroit is the top destination for jobs for Novi residents, he said. 

"If I never got on a bus in my life, I would support transit and I would support transit because it is good for our region," Evans said Wednesday during a speech at the Mackinac Policy Conference. "If it helps mobility in this region, it helps me. If we can’t think regionally, we’ve got a problem."


Twitter: @NicquelTerry