Editorial: New bus plan should build off today's systems

The Detroit News

There’s no plan yet to go with the restart of regional transit efforts in Metro Detroit, and no price tag. But early signals that this latest initiative will build off existing bus systems rather than add yet another layer are hopeful.

The leaders of Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit said Monday they’d use new legislation, if it passes, to again ask voters to increase funding for mass transit in the region. Macomb County is opting out.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel says the current SMART suburban bus system is already meeting his county's needs, pointing out that all of Macomb’s communities are participating and connected.

That's a good model for Detroit, Oakland and Wayne. 

Attempting to build an entirely new system to cover the shortfalls of the current system, as the 2016 Regional Transit Authority (RTA) plan attempted to do, is the wrong approach.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said as much at the Monday press conference, noting, “We don’t need to create a new bus system to drop on top of what we already have. We're already seamlessly coordinating between SMART and DDOT.”

A SMART FAST bus picks up riders along northbound Woodward Avenue at Grand Circus on Thursday, July 26, 2018.

And that’s where the focus should stay in putting together a new plan.

The legislation offered by Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, would permit a regional transit agreement between the three counties and Detroit, and allow each to ask for a countywide tax of up to 5 mills to support the plan. Macomb could join at any time.

The money would go to the RTA to be redistributed to the various, existing bus systems.

The countywide tax would mimic Macomb’s current approach in that it would not allow individual communities to opt out of the new bus levy. The existing SMART millage in Oakland and Wayne lets individual communities vote to suspend the tax and forgo bus service, and 53 do, including Livonia and Bloomfield Hills.

The opt-outs create gaps that make it impossible to travel seamlessly throughout the region by bus.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said a new plan would stress flexibility. He added that it would likely be cheaper than the 1.5 mill, $5.4 billion proposal he pitched unsuccessfully in 2018.

Hackel and the late L. Brooks Patterson, then county executive of Oakland, opposed Evans’ plan and blocked it from the ballot.

This time, without Macomb participating and with Patterson replaced by Democrat Dave Coulter, securing a vote should be simpler.

But backers will still have to sell it to voters, most of whom don’t ride buses.

Keeping the plan less costly and focused on both filling in the service gaps and adding enough new routes to make commuting by bus a practical option for more residents will be key.

Hackel offers good advice. Noting that with the auto industry surging ahead with driverless technology and ride sharing services becoming ubiquitous, he doesn’t “believe buses are the way of the future” and planners should be mindful of where transportation is headed. He’s likely right.

So Evans’ promise of flexibility must be kept top of mind. The region should not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a bus system that will be out of date before it’s paid for.

The best start is assuring that the various transit systems are coordinated so that all areas of the region can be reached by bus.