Tax push for $4.6B Detroit area transit plan begins

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Regional Transit Authority officials on Tuesday are beginning the journey to sell a tax increase to Metro Detroit voters to fund bus rapid transit, a commuter rail line, an airport shuttle service and a universal fare card, among other upgrades to regional transportation options.

The initiatives are part of a $4.6 billion, 20-year master plan to be unveiled at a 10 a.m. news conference at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield. RTA officials say the proposed 20-year, 1.2-mill tax to help fund the plan would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

The plan emphasizes better coordination, reliability and extension of service into unserved areas to supplement the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation and the Detroit Department of Transportation. And it paves the way for the RTA to take over operations of the upcoming QLine streetcar system in 2024.

While acknowledging challenges with tax-fatigued voters who have already approved regional millages for SMART, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo, RTA officials say residents in Washtenaw, Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties will have have better access to jobs and see an economic development boom in return for their investment.

No city or county can opt out of the millage if a majority of voters in the four counties approve it on Nov. 8.

“We’ve underfunded transportation in this region for many years,” said Michael Ford, the authority’s CEO, in a briefing about the plan last week. “As it may be somewhat bold, it’s also financially responsible. We were looking at the political and financial landscape and what can be doable in this region. We’re way behind. I think this plan starts to get us where we need to go.”

Authority officials say the plan, a year in the making, will be on display for the public in a series of hearings in June.

In addition to the RTA master plan kickoff Tuesday, pro-millage advocates led by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce will host a forum on the need for more transit options at the chamber’s annual Mackinac Island conference on Wednesday.

The majority of the plan would be implemented in its first five years. It includes:

■ Bus rapid transit routes up Woodward between downtown Detroit and Pontiac, Gratiot between downtown and M-59, Michigan between downtown and Detroit Metropolitan Airport and on Washtenaw between downtown Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The service will have dedicated lanes with minimal stops or transfers to speed travel.

■ Commuter rail between downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit, with stops in Ypsilanti, Wayne and Dearborn and planned shuttle service to the airport. The 38-mile route would use existing Amtrak lines.

■ Express shuttle service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport from Ann Arbor, downtown Detroit and Macomb and Oakland counties.

■ Region-wide, door-to-door paratransit service for seniors and riders with disabilities.

■ A universal fare card system with state-of-the-art access to all Metro Detroit transit entities.

■ New cross-county connector and commuter express buses providing service across municipal and county lines.

■ New local services for communities with no other transit options, bringing them into the regional network.

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, said the master plan will “connect people with jobs, connect communities with one another” and bolster economic development and aid the region’s population of seniors and people with disabilities.

“Southeast Michigan is the only major urban area in the country without a viable, coordinated public transit system,” he said. “If we are going to be competitive in a 21st-century global economy, developing a transit system that meets the needs of a changing world is absolutely essential.”

The campaign to promote the millage started months ago with TV commercials that stirred controversy. SMART officials objected to a phrase in two of the ads that called Metro Detroit’s regional transit system one of the worst in the country; the ads were pulled.

If approved, the millage would raise $150 million annually, with at least $5 million of that going toward RTA administration and additional planning.

“To realize all the pieces in here, we’re going to have to keep studying, keep refining, keep understanding in more and more detail what’s in this plan,” said Ben Stupka, manager of planning and financial analysis for the RTA, which was created by the Legislature in 2012 to promote regional transportation coordination.

Stupka said the public will be able to see specifics such as how to connect from the bus rapid transit lines to communities such as Birmingham, Troy and Livonia.

“And now we have some answers here in the plan,” he said. “We hope the plan’s answering those questions.”

The plan’s anchor is the bus rapid transit routes, which are used in several cities across the country, including Grand Rapids. Plans call for 50 to 60 hybrid buses for the combined routes, at a cost of $1.2 million apiece.

The plan boasts of supporting more than 67,000 jobs in all four counties and giving Metro Detroiters multiple modes of travel to get them where they want to go. RTA officials estimate the average weekday ridership will be 63,000 people for all four bus rapid transit routes and the regional commuter rail line.

“Southeast Michigan, Wayne County and our communities and residents will benefit from the rapid transit bus routes across county lines, specialized services for seniors and people with disabilities and commuter rail that will connect people to jobs, opportunities and services and spur economic development that works for and benefits all in the region," said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans.

Ford described the plan as “progressive and innovative,” saying it takes in as many options as possible to maximize its usage for a public thirsting for more transit.

“Getting people to jobs is hugely important,” Ford said. “People aren’t able to get to or get home from a job. Their life is really impacted. People are stuck in neighborhoods. I think we looked at a lot of those things and we tried to put the best minds together and create a plan that starts to meet all those needs.”

Ford said there “could be some tweaks” to the plan during the public inspection period next month but that so much input has already been presented.

“The plan that we’re bringing has been out there getting input over the last year and a half from the providers, to the unions, to businesses to social service agencies to Joe Q on the street,” Ford said.

“So what we’re really coming back to say is, did we get it right? It’s not real until it’s real. We can talk concepts all day. But unless you have pen to paper, lines on a map, and people can now start seeing what is in it for me.”

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Transit timeline

If a majority of voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties approve a 20-year, 1.2-mill levy this fall, the Regional Transit Authority plans this schedule of transportation upgrades in the next 10 years:


■Express bus service on Woodward and Gratiot

■Para-transit/mobility management

■Detroit-Detroit Metro Airport express service


■Eight Mile cross-county connector

■12 Mile East cross-county connector

■12 Mile West cross-county connector

■Grand River Avenue cross-county connector

■Greenfield cross-county connector

■Utica-Mount Clemens local service

■Ann Arbor-Canton commuter express

■Ann Arbor-Livonia commuter express

■Michigan Avenue service


■Nine Mile cross-county connector

■Fort/Eureka Road cross-county connector

■Van Dyke cross-county connector

■Middlebelt local service

■Ford Road local service

■I-75 commuter express

■M-59 commuter express


■15 Mile cross-county connector

■Jefferson Avenue cross-county connector

■Rochester local service

■Northville-Southfield local service


■Oakland-Detroit Metro Airport express

■Macomb-Detroit Metro Airport express

■Highland Road/White Lake local service

■Groesbeck local service

■Plymouth Road cross-county connector


■Woodward bus rapid transit

■Detroit-Ann Arbor regional rail


■Gratiot bus rapid transit


■RTA takeover of QLine streetcar


■Michigan Avenue bus rapid transit

■Washtenaw Avenue bus rapid transit

Source: Regional Transit Authority