Mass Transit, News, Regional Transformation

The new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority: A solid step forward, but many more ahead

SMART bus at night in downtown Detroit

It’s been a long time coming but Metro Detroit has finally joined the ranks of numerous other cities with a regional approach to transit. Forty one US cities to be exact, like Paso Robles, California, Corpus Christi, Texas, and Worcester, Massachusetts (as well as the major ones you probably assume like New York, Chicago and Boston) have pursued this route with the goal of ensuring that its citizens have viable and functioning mass transit options.

“It is an economic imperative to have strong transit.” says Heaster Wheeler, assistant Wayne County Executive while at the Transit Riders United annual meeting at the Qube (Chase Building) in downtown Detroit.

Transit Riders United panel

Transit Riders United panel

So we know we need it, but how do we get there from here? Well, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The passage of the legislation was only the beginning.

The new authority’s purpose is clear, but the actualities swirling around Detroit’s transit issues are not. The RTA is seeking to coordinate, orchestrate and improve transit for Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne Counties including the city of Detroit. Other counties can throw their lot in with the RTA, but there are no opt- outs for municipalities within the member counties of the RTA.

For example, reports that there is a movement in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to have Washtenaw County to leave the authority. However, that action is unlikely as it would require a change in the RTA legislation.

This changes the precedent as SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation), cannot mandate that cities not be a part of the system. 41% of suburban Metro Detroit communities have not been part of any sort of mass transit system up to this point, according to Data Driven Detroit.

One of the places that may surprise you as a strong supporter of transit has been Macomb County. Every single community there has opted in to the SMART program, and the leaders are enthusiastic supporters of the RTA.

SMART bus at night in downtown Detroit“What we can achieve in this region is so amazing. By 1965 we could roll a car off the line in under an hour. Right now it takes a woman from Detroit an hour and a half to get to Livonia. We can roll 50-100 cars off the line (in 2013) in an hour. Why can’t we move people?” said Melissa Roy, assistant Macomb County executive.

Part of the growing list of responsibilities the RTA is tasked with is overseeing the existing transit providers. They are SMART (The Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation), DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation), AATA (Ann Arbor Transit Authority, DTC (Detroit Transit Corporation is the People Mover) and the upcoming M1 Light rail, which starts construction this summer.

It’s important to note that this is not a merger of agencies.

Our new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority will be overseen by a board of directors that is appointed by county executives, the Mayor of Detroit and the governor. The board members cannot be elected officials, employees of involved counties or transit agencies. The aim with this style of governance is that the RTA can serve the riders, and region and not individual agency’s agendas.

The last layer to the proverbial onion is the objective to plan, fund, and operate a functioning rapid transit service along major corridors. A proposal on funding, probably through additional vehicle registration fees for those who live in member counties of the RTA is a year and a half away in November 2014 (beyond initial costs, the authority is not funded as of yet). A chief operating officer won’t be elected until this summer.

The part of the system the new RTA will operate is the upcoming four Bus Rapid Transit lines, which will run down Woodward, Gratiot, M-59 and to the airport and beyond. That will then coordinate routes with the individual agencies.

Bus pulling out of Rosa Parks Transit Center in DetroitSo what does that mean in the interim? Metro Detroit will continue to operate on current levels, but with the knowledge that people are in place to begin fixing a long-awaited resolution.

However, in the short term, due to how SMART and DDOT are funded, it looks like my colleague is still going to have to wait at the state fairgrounds for her transfer as there isn’t going to be one regular bus going down Woodward (outside of a small rush hour window) for the foreseeable future. That basic level of coordination needs to be added as a priority to fix now while we’re making big plans for the future.

As usual things in Metro Detroit take time. Patience and perseverance are attributes we are asked to carry in ever growing loads. Time will tell how well The RTA can orchestrate a harmonious symphony of transit in the region, but one thing is very clear, it’s about time we started.

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3 comments on “The new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority: A solid step forward, but many more ahead

  1. The power of regional cooperation as a catalyst for sustainable change is undeniable, given the progress to date of the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority and the Cobo Center transformation. That change began with one small step, and so it will be for the Detroit Regional Transit Authority. I do believe we're about to make some substantive progress towards addressing our longstanding regional transportation issue.

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