Rick Haglund: Absence of viable regional transportation continues to hurt SE Michigan

Detroit People Mover entering the Bricktown station. | iStockphoto

I recently traveled to an appointment in Dearborn, about 20 miles from my home in Oakland County. Good thing I own a car. 

The trip took about 30 minutes. But traveling to my destination and back home by bus would have required a mile-long walk to the nearest bus stop, multiple bus transfers and gobbled up nearly six hours of my day.

You (not me) might have gotten there faster by bike, if you weren’t hit by a car, or by a gargantuan SUV that mistook you for a speed bump. But that’s another column.

Such is the sorry state of public transportation in metro Detroit.

“It’s embarrassing and it really financially hurts us,” said Ned Staebler, vice president for economic development at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Amazon, for example, cited the lack of a regional transit system as one reason why it rejected Detroit in 2018 as a site for its $5 billion second headquarters, which might have brought thousands of six-figure salaried jobs to the area. 

Metro Detroit is regarded as having one of the worst public transit systems of any major metro area in the country. The region’s 4.2 million residents are mainly served by two unconnected and inadequate bus systems: DDOT in Detroit and SMART in the suburbs.

There’s also the People Mover, an elevated train that rings downtown Detroit, and the QLine, a 3.3 mile-long streetcar that runs along Woodward Avenue from New Center to downtown Detroit.

Both have been shut down since the start of the COVID pandemic last year, but are scheduled to resume service in the coming months.

Local metro Detroit leaders have been trying for more than 50 years to build a comprehensive transit system that would serve the 4.2 million residents of Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

They came close in 2016, when voters narrowly defeated a tax plan by the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), established in 2012, that would have raised $3 billion for a variety of rail and bus transit initiatives.

An effort to put another proposal on the 2018 ballot was thwarted by opposition from Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and then-Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson.

And a 2020 proposed ballot plan was derailed by then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who refused to put it up for a needed vote because of opposition from northern Oakland County lawmakers who said their constituents wouldn’t benefit from it.

“Funding is the key issue. We’re kind of stagnant here,” said David Gifford, a board member of Transportation Riders United and founder of Transit Guide: Detroit.

But despite the COVID pandemic that decimated public transit ridership, other metro areas that compete with Michigan for business investment are moving ahead in building and upgrading transit systems.

Last year, voters across the country approved 47 out of 52 public transit proposals on local ballots, according to the American Public Transit Association.

The biggest was in fast-growing Austin, Texas, where voters in November passed a $7.1 billion plan that will pay for new rail lines, a bus rapid transit (BRT) network, a downtown transit tunnel, e-bikes and more.

An additional $300 million was approved to prevent transit-related real estate development from displacing low-income Austin residents from their homes.

“They’re making investments in their future,” Staebler said about Austin’s ambitious transit plans. “If you don’t invest, you don’t succeed. We’re a case study of that.”

Despite a lack of funding, there have been a variety of improvements to public transit in southeast Michigan.

Gifford points to the DART pass, introduced in 2019, that allows unlimited rides for fixed periods of time on DDOT and SMART buses, and the QLine.

And D2A2, a pilot express bus service connecting downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor, suspended days after its launch last year because of COVID, will likely relaunch soon, Staebler said. D2A2 is a joint venture of the RTA and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority.

The region also is expected to receive about $300 million from various COVID relief programs. Much of the money will be used to backfill lost transit revenues during the pandemic.

“But there’s a significant amount of money in the system available for future and long-range transit needs,” said Staebler, a Washtenaw County representative on the RTA board of directors.

Staebler said the RTA will begin an extensive public engagement process this summer as part of an effort to create a new transit master plan. The goal is to again ask voters next year to approve funding for the plan.

“It’s going to be a full-court press over the summer to help us inform the next master plan that will be more reflective of the needs and desires of the community,” he said.

But because of past failures at the ballot box, Gifford said the RTA should consider an alternative funding source. He noted major road investments are mostly funded by state and federal governments without voter approval.

“A millage proposal is a lot more emotional,” he said. “We feel it in our wallets.”

The RTA has hired GUD Marketing in Lansing to conduct a community engagement process, which will include involvement of a variety of business, citizen, nonprofit, political, faith-based and senior groups.

“We’re going to be all over the geography, from Macomb to Washtenaw,” Staebler said.

Better transit can make Southeast Michigan a more attractive, equitable and economically vibrant region.

“Every place that invests in transit benefits from it,” Staebler said.