Where Did the RTA Fail in Southeastern Michigan?

In November 2016 the concept of regional transportation in Southeastern Michigan lost again. On the Nov. 8 ballot was a question asking residents of Macomb, Oakland Wayne (including Detroit) and Washtenaw counties if they would fund a 1.2 mill tax (about $120 a year for a homes with a taxable value of $100,000) for 20 years.

If passed, the millage would have created main transportation routes along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues (some of which would have eventually used Bus Rapid Transit), along with connector lines going east to west throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. However, only Wayne and Washtenaw counties supported the millage overall. In Oakland County the millage fell short of approval by 1,109 votes (50.1 percent of voters voted against it) and in Macomb County the measure failed with 60 percent of voters voting against it.

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Currently in Southeastern Michigan, public transportation is fragmented, at best. Parts of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties are serviced by the Suburban Mobility Authority of Regional Transit (SMART), a transportation system that was created in 1967. However, in Oakland and Wayne counties communities can opt-out of the system, meaning they do not need to support its funding or have routes accessible in their community. Macomb County, through legislation passed by the County Board of Commissioners, is an entirely opt-in community. This means either the majority of the county supports SMART funding when it goes up for renewal and/or increases or it doesn’t; the county as a whole has historically supported SMART.

RTA Vote - Municipality Level - SMART Communities_Borders&Labels_JPEG

Despite Macomb County being completely opt-in for SMART, only one municipality supported the RTA millage in November; it was Mount Clemens-the county seat. According to the Macomb County Clerk’s Department 55 percent of voters in Mount Clemens supported the millage and 45 percent voted against it.

In Oakland County, 23 of the 51 municipalities in the region supported the RTA millage, with the inner-ring suburbs like Ferndale (72% yes), Pleasant Ridge (74% yes) and Huntington Woods (76% percent yes) showing the highest support. Unlike Macomb County, Oakland County is not an entirely “opt-in” community for SMART, meaning individual municipalities decide whether they want to fund/participate in the region’s current form of public transportation. Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge and Huntington Woods all opt-into SMART, as do some of the Oakland County communities that were just above 50 percent of voters supporting the RTA millage; these communities include Bloomfield Township and Birmingham. Troy and Bloomfield Hills are two communities in Oakland County though that participate in SMART but did not approve the RTA millage.

In Wayne County, where there are SMART routes and where the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) operates, communities like Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Dearborn and Redford Township (which all participate in SMART) voted to approve the RTA millage. However, communities on the western side of the county and a majority of the downriver communities (despite some participating in SMART-like Trenton) did not approve of the transportation millage. Overall, 53 percent of Wayne County voters voted to approve the RTA millage.

Washtenaw County does not participate in SMART (the transit system is limited to Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties) but it does have the Ann Arbor Transit Authority (AATA). Of those who voted on this measure, 53 percent supported the millage in the county. Overall, eight of the 27 communities in the county supported the millage. However, those with the highest populations (Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti) showed high support for the regional transportation tax.

Despite not having a long-term funding mechanism, the RTA currently operates RefleX, which is a supplemental ride system along Woodward and Gratiot avenues; these services did not eliminate any SMART or DDOT stops/lines. However, the RTA is only funded by the State through Sept. 30, 2017. After that though, its future is uncertain. With the regional transportation millage failing, the RTA is left without a solid funding source and cannot go to the voters with another tax proposal until 2018. According to Public Act 387 of 2012 (which created the RTA), the RTA can receive money through voter approved millage funding and/or an additional fee that may accompany state driver registration fees. Ballot initiatives can only be placed on ballots during presidential or gubernatorial elections.

Members of the RTA Board of Directors or Executive Staff have not publicly stated their future plans or ideas for funding mechanisms. While funding mechanisms would need to be identified, negotiating interlocal agreements between communities that want transit might be an incremental means of supplementing the fragmented systems currently in place. For example, there are no direct public transportation routes between Ann Arbor and Detroit[1] even though Ann Arbor, Detroit and DTW are the most desired routes, according to surveys. Both Wayne and Washtenaw Counties voted for the RTA, so it seems feasible that enterprising public officials in those two counties could negotiate an agreement to move forward on creating services, knowing both that their residents voted for services and that they want those routes.

[1] It might be possible for an ambitious soul to take a bus from Ann Arbor to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) and then shift to a SMART bus and transfer to a DDOT bus into Detroit.
[1] It might be possible for an ambitious soul to take a bus from Ann Arbor to the Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) and then shift to a SMART bus and transfer to a DDOT bus into Detroit.

Part III: Metro-Detroit Region Working Toward Wide Spread Transit

In our last two posts we discussed several regional authorities that governments and voters in Southeast Michigan have approved, especially in the wake of Detroit’s financial problems. In this post, we will consider regional efforts to coordinate and fund mass transportation in the area. Transportation planning in Metro-Detroit has long been a fragmented issue. Currently, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), which was created through Public Act 387 of 2012, is placing the finishing touches on its Regional Master Plan. This plan is to include main transportation routes along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues, along with connector lines going east to west throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. It is these four counties that the RTA encompasses and, in order to have sufficient funding for a robust regional transportation system, the RTA is expected to put a ballot initiative before the voters of these four counties (Detroit included) asking for a yet-to-be-determined amount of funding through a millage. According to Public Act 387 of 2012, the RTA can receive money through voter approved millage funding and/or an additional fee that may accompany state driver registration fees. Ballot initiatives can only be placed on ballots during presidential or gubernatorial elections.

Decisions on how and when to seek public funding are made through the RTA’s Board of Directors. This is a 10-member Board, with each Board member serving three-year terms. The County Executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties each appoint two board members, the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners appoints two members, the Mayor of Detroit appoints one member and the Governor appoints one member. The Governor’s appointee serves as chair but does not vote, according to the RTA’s website.

Prior to the establishment of the RTA, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit (SMART) was created in 1967, and it still operates in portions of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Up until recently, SMART did not coordinate with the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT), and because of the way SMART initiatives can be placed on the county ballots (by individual counties), Macomb County is the only county in which all communities support the suburban transit authority and are all thereby affected by the authority’s ballot initiatives. In Oakland and Wayne counties, communities have the option to “opt-out” of supporting the authority.

The percentage of opt-out communities as of February 2015 was as follows:

  • Wayne County: 38.6%
  • Oakland County: 57.6%
  • Macomb County: 0%

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SMARTBus

Most recently, the County Board of Commissioners in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties placed a 4-year 1 mill request for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit (SMART) on the ballot in August of 2014. The 1 mill request, which included an increase from the original 0.59 mills, was approved throughout the tri-county region as follows:

  • Wayne County: 63.45% yes
  • Oakland County: 73.6% yes
  • Macomb County: 59.6% yes

 

While SMART, RTA, DDOT and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) are now expected to coordinate with one another, it has taken about 100 years for the region to develop even a semblance of a coordinated regional transit system.

 

Starting with streetcars in the early 1900s, Southeastern Michigan once had the largest transportation system in the country, according to Tobi Voigt of the Detroit Historical Society in a 2015 Detroit Free Press article. Although the streetcars were once nearly all privately owned, in 1922 the voters of Detroit voted to buy the streetcars, lines and all other materials that made them operational at a cost of $19.8 million. Having bought an aging system, and then with the Great Depression and World War II, the once vibrant streetcar system could no longer be maintained with the funds the city had. The aging infrastructure, however, did not deter people from using the system. According to Voigt, during World War II ridership actually doubled because of widespread difficulty in obtaining gas, tires and vehicles during World War II.

 

While World War II meant increased ridership, post-World War II meant the beginning of a more developed highway system and more wealth to afford vehicles. These societal changes lead to the retirement of Detroit’s last streetcar on April 8, 1956.

 

Following streetcars came busses, a mode of transportation still used today. Similar to today’s operations, the DDOT (formerly the Detroit Department of Street Railways) attempted to coordinate with a regional entity—then called the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA). Created by the Michigan Legislature in 1967, SEMTA was intended to provide service to the seven county region. However, SEMTA did not have the authority to ask voters for operating funds. This, combined with decreasing ridership and President Ronald Reagan’s decision to cut federal funding to regional transit authorities in 1985, caused SEMTA to cut down to bare bones operations. By 1989, SEMTA became SMART, an authority with the power to seek millage funding.

 

With its 2012 creation, the RTA is now the entity charged with coordinating and planning for public transportation in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties; applying for state and federal transportation dollars; and dispersing those dollars to the appropriate entities.

 

Despite the RTA’s status as the “official” regional transportation authority, collaboration between it, SMART, DDOT and the AATA is expected to take place so truly robust, connected and coordinated system can exist.

 

Regionalism never strongly existed in the Metro-Detroit area until the financial downfall of Detroit began, and even though we are now seeing a surge in regional coordination, the coordination between those regional entities remains fragmented.

 

 

Opting-Out limits manufacturing employment opportunities for the transit dependent

James Robertson, has been coined Detroit’s “walking man” because of his tenacity in earning a perfect attendance mark at his suburban factory job all while walking nearly 21 miles round trip from Detroit to Rochester Hills. Without a car, Robertson must hobble together a defunct set of bus routes, leaving him no choice but to walk most of the distance into the Detroit suburbs. This story is surely one of many in the Metro-Detroit are, begging the question: Why is the public transit system in the Detroit area far less than mediocre?

Drawing Detroit sets out to illustrate the issue and to discuss how allowing communities to opt out of transit service can limit employment opportunities and create a situation of economic injustice.

Below is a map showing the number of manufacturing employees reported to the 2012 Economic Census of the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012 along with the transit status of communities in Wayne and Oakland counties. Aside from the Detroit Department of Transportation, the only existing transit system that is close being considered somewhat regional is Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit (SMART). SMART has bus lines that run throughout Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. In Wayne and Oakland counties municipalities have the option to either opt-in or opt-out supporting SMART, and therefor having it run through their community. In Oakland, the majority of communities-55 percent of 33 of 60- have opted out. In Macomb County, all municipalities support SMART; they do not have the option to opt-out. Because of this, they are irrelevant to the discussion.

Some critics of the Free-Press article on Robertson indicated that there has been little need for low-skill workers in Detroit and other poorer communities to travel into these opt-out communities for employment or otherwise, characterizing these suburbs as bedroom communities with limited job prospects for transit-dependent workers. A quick examination of the map below indicates this is a fallacy. Many manufacturing jobs have moved to the suburbs, following its workforce and also seeking out new facilities and campuses in unsettled areas. Opt-out communities including Oxford Township, Novi and Canton have in excess of 2,000 manufacturing jobs located in their boundaries; Livonia had 9,447 manufacturing jobs in 2012.

In total, 38,461 manufacturing jobs were located in opt-out communities in these two counties, representing 34.1 percent of all manufacturing jobs in the two-county area. Broken down by county, it is 29.6 percent (19,484 manufacturing jobs) of Wayne County’s manufacturing employment and 40.6 percent (18,977 manufacturing jobs) of Oakland’s manufacturing employment.