Better public transportation could be coming to Southeast Michigan, but it won’t come easy nor without a cost.
The Regional Transit Authority, a relatively new government body, announced today its master plan to connect the public transportation systems across Southeast Michigan, including SMART and DDOT.
SMART and DDOT working together doesn’t mean hell has frozen over – yet. But it does mean that in the future, it could be easier for city residents to get to jobs in the suburbs, and vice versa. Here’s the basics of what you’ll need to know about the plan, how much it’ll cost, and when you can expect to see changes if they are approved.
What is the Regional Transit Authority? It seems like I never heard of it until today.
You wouldn’t be incorrect if it seems like the Regional Transit Authority is new to you. The RTA was only formed in 2012, and has a goal to “plan and coordinate public transportation in the four-county region, including the City of Detroit, and to deliver rapid transit in a region where none exists.” The RTA came about through Michigan Public Act 387. A 10-member board oversees the authority, and board members are appointed by Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb county executives, the chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and the Mayor of Detroit. The entire authority is governed by Gov. Rick Snyder, but Snyder (thankfully?) has no voting power.
What exactly does the RTA want to do?
In short, make it easier for people to get around Metro Detroit (and Ann Arbor) with public transportation by using existing transit systems. RTA does not replace the Detroit Department of Transportation, SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) or the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA), but seeks to unite them through Bus Rapid Transit (a form of bus transportation used in other cities that is speedier and more conducive to wheelchair-users and bicyclists) and Light Rail Transit (exactly what it sounds like: a “light” rail system, something like the M-1 rail going up Woodward that connects cities in a region, not quite on the same level as, say, Amtrak).
Do other cities have transportation authorities like the RTA?
Yes. As a matter of fact, Detroit is one of a few major cities that doesn’t have one. Other cities have multiple modes of public transportation which are governed separately, but the individual public transportation systems that serve in and around Detroit don’t work together cohesively, which is the goal of RTA.
So what is the Master Plan?
RTA is looking to improve service along major corridors in Southeast Michigan. This includes bus rapid transit on Gratiot Avenue between downtown Detroit and M-59, Michigan Avenue between downtown and Metro Airport, Washtenaw Avenue between downtown Ypsilanti and downtown Ann Arbor, and Woodward Avenue between downtown Detroit and Pontiac. RTA also seeks to implement “cross-county connectors” on 12 Mile, 15 Mile, 8 Mile, 9 Mile, Fort and Eureka roads, Grand River Avenue, Greenfield Road, Jefferson Avenue, Plymouth Road and Van Dyke Avenue; a new, regional rail service between Wayne and Washtenaw counties; “commuter express” transit between Ann Arbor, Plymouth and Livonia, in Canton, along the I-75 route and along M-59 between Oakland and Macomb counties; a new “airport express” commuter that can get people to and from the airport quicker; and new or extended public transit services along other major routes.
Wait, a commuter service to the airport?
Yes! Manna from heaven!
Surely there’s a cost for all this, right?
There’s no such thing as a free lunch and there’s certainly no such thing as free, improved transportation. Now, you’re not paying anything now for these improved services because, well, these improved services don’t exist and can’t exist without taxpayer millages. RTA will seek a regional millage to begin 2017, where residents in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. It will be a 1.2 transit millage – a $1.20 property tax for every $1,000 assessed value of a home. (So if your home is worth $100,000, you’d pay a $120 millage every year.) The millage, proposed to be collected from 2017 to 2036, is only approved from your vote. Proposed funding for the RTA’s plan will also come from existing millages already voted on by those communities served by SMART and AATA. Additional funding comes from federal, state and local sources.
Keep in mind, though, that RTA’s funding model is partially based on a projected increase in Southeast Michigan’s population. Yes, Detroit’s population is decreasing somewhat, but RTA is banking on a projected increase in the region’s population – specifically an increase of 0.05% each year from 2017 to 2040. RTA is also banking on property values increasing by 0.16% annually from 2017 to 2040.
I ride the bus. Am I going to have to pay an additional fare to fund this?
Probably not. The master plan does not detail any fare increases, though anything could happen with DDOT, SMART or AATA.
Will there be new buses with these proposed changes?
If the plan is approved, when will I expect to see improved service?
Not tomorrow. Not next week. Not for some time, actually. RTA will spend 2017-2022 “establishing an regional transit network for Southeast Michigan,” which means immediately introducing the airport commuter service and the aforementioned cross-county connectors. The first five years are described as a learning process for RTA.
After 2022, RTA will ramp up plans for bus rapid transit and building a rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit. (Also of note: RTA assumes control of the M-1 Rail during this time.)
So what should I do in the interim?
Hmm. Study the plan (and maps) in the RTA’s master plan here. Look out for a millage on the next ballot, and decide if it’s worth your vote. If the vote should pass, prepare yourself for either transit hiccups along those routes as the system learns itself, and go ahead and get ready now for construction headaches if more light rail is on the way.