Buss: RTA tax ignores Detroit’s mobility future

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Ridesharing and other innovative mobility solutions are utterly transforming the way people get around. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, live in a city, suburb or rural area. Grabbing an Uber or Lyft ride is relatively cheap and very efficient — and will only continue to get better.

So why is Metro Detroit now considering a massive tax hike for the next 20 years to fund what will be a dated, comparatively inefficient regional public transit system by the time it’s built?

Yes, Detroit needs more transportation options. But with a transportation revolution brewing, the region should look forward to its future, not backward. The next generation of transit will involve a whole lot of Ubers, Lyfts, commuter and health care carpools of all kinds — and self-driving vehicles.

Terrible public transportation is a decades-old problem here due largely to the fact the region birthed the auto industry, pushing it to invest in car dependency and suburban sprawl while other cities were building rail lines and subways.

Now we’re grasping at buses as the solution. The Regional Transit Authority proposes a new tax on the November ballot for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties that amounts to $120 a year for 20 years for a home valued at $100,000. It would raise $3 billion in local funds, plus $1.7 billion in federal funds, to build out new regional rail options and commuter bus service.

But buses are less convenient and more expensive than ridesharing, which gets you directly from point A to point B without having to walk to and from a bus stop or train station. That’s critical for the elderly and disabled to get around, and would save time for low-income public transit commuters. But those options aren’t even part of the RTA plan.

Government-subsidized Uber rideshare programs can begin for the city’s residents today. The infrastructure is already there. The RTA plan calls for a five-year build-out.

“We’re rebuilding the city in a way that few American cities have had the chance to in the last 100 years,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the World Mobility Leadership Forum, held recently at Detroit Metro Airport.

That’s exactly why the city should think outside the box on public transit. Traditional options haven’t succeeded here. It’s time to embrace an entirely new construct, and one that doesn’t carry such a hefty price tag.

The region could instead invest that money into making Metro Detroit the place for the mobility future: the destination for testing new models and vehicles. Detroit’s Big Three are already heavily invested in this future.

Beyond the initial costs, once traditional transit is up and running, it’s a continual drain on taxpayers.

Passenger bus fares in Detroit typically provide only 15 to 18 percent of the funding for their operating expenses, according to federal reports. The rest comes from state funds via fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees.

The Detroit People Mover, a system that’s failed miserably, gets just 11 percent of its support from rider fare and is more of a novelty ride than an effective transit option.

But the kind of growth ridesharing has experienced is staggering, and it’s profitable.

Lyft sold one million rides in 2012. Today it provides 14 million rides per month. And its alternate carpool service Lyftline was in 200 cities last year.

“Lyft rides will cost pennies on the dollar,” says Emily Castor, director of Transportation Policy at Lyft, on the company’s future plans for autonomous ridesharing.

As Detroit helped bring the car to the masses 100 years ago, the city’s transit system should represent the next century’s mobility innovation.


Twitter: @KaitlynBuss