Whatever happened to that whole regional transit thing?

Whatever happened to that whole regional transit thing?
By Nat Zorach

Southeast Michigan’s struggle with a patchwork of underdeveloped public transit infrastructure has long been a subject of debate. The topic came up again after Amazon dropped Detroit from its short list of possible locations for a second headquarters.

Many are asking: Hey, what did happen to the Regional Transit Authority proposal that was narrowly defeated on the 2016 ballot? Are we going to vote on it again? The short answer is we probably will be, but we don’t really know yet. Why?

Well, it’s currently being kicked around at the “executive” level. On March 15 Wayne County Executive Warren Evans announced a new RTA plan, proposing expanding corridor improvements that would let certain communities retain some local control over the transit funding. Will it get anywhere? That remains to be seen, as the Big Four county executives of Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw must all weigh in.

Regional transit could become a greater reality in Southeast Michigan if a plan recently announced by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans gains support.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson recently said he would oppose any proposal that would keep the “opt-out” communities in the RTA, claiming these taxpayers are footing a disproportionate amount of the RTA’s bill. But his concern might be addressed by Evans’ allowance for more local control. Many of the opt-out communities declined by a fairly slim margin (the proposal-at-large failed by only 1 percent with millions of votes cast).

Oakland County’s official website goes so far as to claim that “Detroit has paid nothing into SMART (the regional bus system), yet still receives some services.” This is somewhat misleading if you take into account that Detroit supplies a large amount of labor to Oakland County and Oakland County sends a large number of commuters into Detroit as well (consider that in Ferndale, for example, fewer than 10 percent of the residents who live in that municipality also work in that municipality). The office of the Oakland County Executive has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel went so far as to say buses were an “obsolete” form of transportation (insert “scream emoji” here).

But, in light of Evans’ announcement, we might be starting to get somewhere after all.

Evans’ spokesman Jim Martinez called the plan “a year of work, building off lessons of the 2016 defeat.” He pointed out the “hometown service” revision that allows flexibility in outlying communities that might have previously opted out of RTA service (many of these still pay for on-demand Dial-A-Ride or para-transit services). While he’s aware of possible challenges getting support — Patterson, for example, has since mocked the idea of transit spending with a somewhat misleading property tax calculator on his official county web page — Martinez suggests getting the initiative back to the voters is a strong possibility: “People support transit across the region, so why wouldn’t we put it on the ballot?”

To address support public awareness around the issue, TheHUB is working on a region-wide stakeholder engagement project that will factor into coverage of the RTA and transit in general. The reporting will focus on a few different sectors of the economy, including healthcare, education, workforce and business development, specifically looking at communities not served by the RTA, or underserved by Detroit Department of Transportation. Stay tuned.




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