Editorial: Merge RTA with SMART

The Detroit News

The need for an effective mass transit system in Metro Detroit is evident from the region's jammed rush hour freeways, the increasing scarcity of parking spaces for workers in downtown Detroit and the desire of a new generation to move around the region in something other than automobiles.

So it is encouraging to see the planning process get underway today for the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, which intends to create bus rapid transit lines to move commuters throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

This is a key stage in a process that began in 2012, when the Legislature approved Gov. Rick Snyder's transit plan for Detroit and other communities. Grand Rapids already has its RTA system up and running.

The planning will seek to determine the needs of Metro Detroit commuters and design a transit plan to make bus commutes a viable option for all residents. The RTA will operate along three main routes — Michigan Avenue from Detroit to Ann Arbor (connecting to Detroit Metro Airport), Gratiot from downtown to M-59 in northern Macomb, and Woodward from downtown Detroit to downtown Pontiac.

Along the routes, it will connect to buses operated by the Detroit Department of Transportation, SMART and Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, as well as to the People Mover and M-1 Rail line.

It could be an answered prayer for commuters frustrated by traffic jams, and appalled by the soaring rates for parking in the city center. But as part of the planning, supporters of the RTA should carefully consider what went wrong with Proposition 1, the recently defeated measure to raise the sales tax to pay for road repairs.

The RTA will have to go to voters in November 2016 to ask for a millage in all four counties to pay for the rapid buses.

The authority is hoping the planning process will help it make the case to voters that mass transit is a critical need worthy of increasing their tax burden.

If Prop 1 is a guide, that may not be enough. Voters who turned down that tax increase by a ratio of 4 to 1 did not dispute that the roads are in desperate need of repair. But they did not agree that extra taxes were necessary to fix them.

RTA backers will face a similar selling job. Voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties already pay a millage for the SMART system, a tax they increased last year to 1 mill from a half-mill. Yet a vast majority never ride the bus.

Convincing them to pay another tax for another bus system they may or may not use won't be easy.

The request would be easier if it included combining the new bus system with the existing SMART system.

One system, one tax, at least in the Metro Detroit suburbs. Combining SMART and RTA will make coordination of routes simpler and hopefully eliminate some of the infrastructure needed to operate two systems. Shelters are an example. Part of the RTA planning will include where to locate shelters for the new buses. SMART already has some shelters along RTA routes.

But the most important consideration is that merging the two systems will make the funding proposal less confusing for voters.

And as was affirmed by the Prop 1 defeat, confused voters tend to say "no."