The fight for functional cross-border transit in the Detroit area is nearing its half-century mark — but it took a big step forward last week when the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan launched the first-ever regional master transit plan. It’s a $4.6 billion vision to build the area’s first rapid transit system, connecting 1,125,500 people, 946,200 jobs, 23 colleges and 22 hospitals spread out over four counties, and includes the cities of Detroit and Ann Arbor.
The multimodal plan was a year in the making and funded by a grant from the Federal Transit Administration. It includes new bus rapid transit lines along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues, and between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti; new express lines from five different cities to Detroit Metropolitan Airport (none currently exist); commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit; door-to-door paratransit service for seniors and people with disabilities; and improvements and coordination among existing buses, as well as the 3-mile M-1 Rail, or QLine, that is currently being built up the Woodward Corridor in Detroit. The streetcar system is expected to begin operating next year; the RTA will begin managing it in 2024.
As well, the plan proposes 11 different bus routes that cross county lines, which will link up the existing bus networks in Detroit and the suburbs, providing speedier pickups and drop-offs, and easing the need for transfers. There would also be four new commuter express routes on weekday rush hours. Transit users would be able to use a universal fare card to move across the network. (See county-by-county highlights of the plan here.)
It’s an ambitious plan. But the RTA and its supporters must move quickly in making the case for its worth. Pending approval of the plan by the RTA board in July, voters in the four-county region will be asked to approve a transit millage in November that would raise $2.9 billion with a 1.2-mill, 20-year property tax. This would be combined with state and federal funding that the RTA anticipates.
What might seem like ordinary business is, in the historic heart of the auto industry, quite radical. The RTA was created in 2012 by the legislature after four decades of 23 failed attempts to coordinate regional transit in Michigan. Metro Detroit was the last major metropolitan area to lack a coordinating transit body. The city once boasted of the largest municipally owned streetcar system, but it ended operations in 1956. The reasons for its demise — along with, over the ensuing decades, a system of privately owned buses and commuter rails — are numerous and anxiety inducing.
Without a fully navigable system, the Detroit area has suffered with patchy transit, exacerbated by city and suburban agencies competing with each other for federal dollars. It has effectively contributed to the region’s segregation and it seriously hampers resident mobility. Jobs, school, participation in civic events — all of this is virtually out of reach for people who do not have a car. And in Detroit, which has the highest car insurance rates in the nation, residents are ultimately left with no good choices.
So, the creation of the RTA was itself a victory. Significantly, there are no “opt-out communities” in the authority. Re-routing around towns that don’t want to be part of a transit network is one of the reasons that the existing SMART bus line has limited functionality, a fact memorably highlighted last year by the “Walking Man” story in the Detroit Free Press.
The case for the millage won’t be an easy one. If passed, it would be added on top of those that property owners are already paying in Ann Arbor and suburban communities served by SMART, as well as the yet-to-be-revealed fares paid by transit users. Articulating the problems takes some delicacy: RTA ran into trouble this spring by airing ads that criticized the region’s current system as “worst in America,” which offended its partners at SMART. And as the Detroit News points out, voters may be feeling “tax fatigued” after passing a spate of regional millages in the past few years, including ones that supported SMART, the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo.
For the owner of an average-priced home in the region ($78,856), it would cost $95 per year, or about $8 a month. It would cost about $120, or $10 a month, for the owner of a $200,000 home. Most new transit services and other improvements would happen within five years, while the most ambitious projects — rapid bus lines and the 38-mile commuter rail — wouldn’t take shape until sometime between 2022 and 2026.
But the millage would make it possible for the RTA to apply for matching federal dollars. The RTA emphasizes the economic impact of the plan’s implementation: about $4 in returns for every $1 invested.
The release of the plan launched four weeks of public comment that will take place at a series of meetings, and may lead to changes. Meanwhile, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is launching a pro-millage campaign.
It’s a crucial and uncertain time. But now, at least, the conversation about regional transit in metro Detroit, has something solid to anchor it. And there are “aligning stars,” from the city’s recovery to shifting generational attitudes, which give reason to believe that this transit plan has a real shot at becoming a reality. We’re finally beginning to see what’s possible with a forward-thinking regional vision.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist in Detroit. She has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, NBC News online, Pacific Standard and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review. Anna is the editor of A Detroit Anthology and author of Michigan Literary Luminaries: From Elmore Leonard to Robert Hayden. A former Fulbright fellow, she is also the director of applications for Write a House. Her website is annaclark.net.