Why Rally for Real Regional Transit? A Guide for the Perplexed

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The media can sometimes alter perceptions of transit reality.

Over the past few days, we’ve received a number of questions from well-meaning people asking why we’re holding demonstrations today to coincide with the QLINE streetcar opening. Here’s an effort to answer some of those questions. Thanks to Moses Maimonides for helping to suggest the title.

Why are you out here demonstrating? This is an exciting day for transit, isn’t it?

We’re demonstrating because we’re tired of waiting for real regional transit. For too long, the political and corporate leadership of metro Detroit has been kicking the can down the road, and that has to change. We’re calling on Mayor Duggan and other regional leaders, including Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, and Washtenaw County leaders, to support putting a revised regional transit ballot measure before the public in November 2018, so we can start building the truly regional transit system we need.

But isn’t the QLINE a step in the right direction?

Some people who’ve never taken the bus before will take the QLINE, and that could be a good thing, especially if those people start advocating for expanded public transit across the region.

The fact is, though, that the QLINE doesn’t really improve on existing transit service. At least three different DDOT and SMART bus routes already provide service along the same corridor, at the same level of frequency, at an equal or greater rate of speed…or did, until they were shunted off the lower part of Woodward to accommodate QLINE construction. Unlike the QLINE, those bus lines also provide service north of Grand Boulevard.

The QLINE stations are pretty nice, though, and our bus stops should look more like them. Most bus stops in the region don’t even have a shelter, let alone a heated one, and many in the suburbs don’t even have a sidewalk.

You’re saying bus service was shunted off Woodward to accommodate the QLINE?

Yes. Until 2014, there were DDOT and SMART bus stops along Woodward south of I-75, including at Grand Circus Park, where the QLINE opening ceremony is taking place. Those were removed during QLINE construction, and bus riders must now walk several blocks from Cass and the Rosa Parks Transit Center to reach destinations along Woodward.

Won’t the QLINE eventually get extended to Eight Mile, and even up Woodward into Oakland County?

This is, in theory, possible. It’s also unlikely, because of the design chosen for the QLINE.

Back when the planning for the original Woodward Light Rail project was happening, transit advocates, including Transportation Riders United and members of the Freedom Riders, advocated for the city’s center-running rail design, which would have put the trains in their own lanes, separated from traffic, to allow faster travel. Unfortunately, the private investors who helped pay for the QLINE preferred a slower, side-running design, with the streetcars running in traffic and making stops every several blocks.

As a result, the QLINE will take more than 20 minutes to travel from downtown to New Center. In periods of heavy traffic, such as downtown sporting events, it could take much longer. So even if extended, the QLINE will never offer rapid transit from suburban areas to the downtown, unless it is entirely reconstructed with the center-running configuration that we originally recommended. The advantages of that design are discussed in more detail in this 2011 animated music video.

Geez, that’s pretty depressing.

It is unfortunate. Still, although the QLINE story has been frustrating, and we’ve lost one-third of the transit service that existed ten years ago, we are optimistic about the future of regional transit in Detroit.

Wait, we’ve actually lost transit service? I didn’t think we had any to start with.

Yes. Metro Detroit funds transit at one-third the level of average U.S. metro areas, but we still have some public transit. Unfortunately, we have much less than we used to have. Over the last ten years, because of declining property tax revenues, both DDOT and SMART have dramatically cut back transit service. Many SMART routes used to run between the suburbs and the city all day, seven days a week. Now SMART only runs into the city during weekday rush hours. The Regional Transit Authority’s new Reflex service on Woodward and Gratiot has done a little bit to restore that connection, but in fact, we’ve actually moved backward over the past decade so far as regional transit service is concerned.

Wow. How come I haven’t heard about this?

That’s a good question. One reason is probably because the news media haven’t covered it as much as they have the QLINE. We think this probably has something to do with the fact that currently most, though not all, metro Detroit bus riders are poor and working-class people and people of color, and the media don’t tend to be so concerned with those people as they are with downtown redevelopment.

Huh. You said you were optimistic, though? Even though the Regional Transit Authority proposal lost last year?

Yes. We’re optimistic because the RTA proposal lost by less than one percent (18,000 votes) winning majorities not only in Detroit but in Wayne and Washtenaw County overall and virtually tying in Oakland  County. If you took the “outer ring” of sparsely populated townships (think Holly and Chesterfield) out of the picture, the proposal would have passed.

To top it off, this was in an election where turnout in Detroit was down, and after a campaign run by corporate lobbyists who didn’t know how to run an effective campaign and spent almost all their money on TV ads that didn’t even make an effective argument for transit, and that many people in the region didn’t even see. In Detroit alone, more than 20,000 people did not vote on the RTA proposal, more than the margin of defeat.

It sounds like we could easily get a transit proposal passed next time around. So why aren’t elected officials working to put it back on the ballot in 2018?

That’s a good question, too. It’s not too hard to figure out the answer when it comes to Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, who’s never been a fan of transit. When first elected in the early 1990s, he said he wanted to phase out SMART unless it could turn a profit, which no transit agency in the country does. (Roads don’t pay for themselves, either, but that hasn’t stopped Brooks from promoting the billion-dollar project to renovate and widen I-75.) Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel seems to be following Brooks’s lead, and he’s got to be mindful of the fact that a majority of Macomb residents opposed the 2016 proposal, although a majority supported the 2014 SMART millage increase.

The more difficult question is why Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan haven’t been stronger champions of a 2018 RTA measure. Both of them supported the 2016 proposal, but they haven’t taken a position yet on a 2018 measure. We assume this is because they’re juggling a lot of things, such as making sure their jurisdictions don’t go bankrupt in consequence of Michigan’s profoundly unfair system for funding local government. Still, we think they need to take a strong stand for a 2018 measure, and Brooks and Hackel should, too.

Sounds about right. How we can we make that happen?

Thanks for asking! We’re encouraging everyone in the metro area to call their elected officials, urging them to support a 2018 regional transit ballot measure, and getting their friends, family, and hairdressers to do likewise.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan:                                     (313) 224-3400

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans:                  (313) 224-0286

Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson:           (248) 858-0480

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel:                 (586) 469-7001

Over the long term, we’re trying to build a stronger citizens’ movement for transit, in the city and the suburbs, in every county in the region. To do that, we need your help! Please “like” Motor City Freedom Riders on Facebook and come to our next meeting to get more involved. Our monthly meetings are typically in Detroit on the first Thursday evening of each month, and we have local meetings around the metro area. It’s only through people getting together to call for change that we’re going to make a difference, and build a more connected metro Detroit with transportation freedom for all.

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