Could It Be Time for a Wayne-Washtenaw Transit Strategy?

 

 

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Almost as soon as the regional transit election results rolled in last year, some people started asking whether it might be time for a south-of-8 Mile transit strategy in metro Detroit.

Both Wayne County and Washtenaw County had racked up majority support for the Regional Transit Authority tax proposal: 53% and 56%, respectively. North of 8 Mile, it was a different story. In Oakland County, a razor-thin majority of 50.1% opposed the transit plan, while in Macomb, where many white suburban voters were pumped up on Trump, the final tally was 60% opposed. (See our full analysis here.)

At first, we were skeptical of a Wayne-Washtenaw proposal. After all, the full RTA proposal clearly could have won with a stronger campaign, one that encompassed grassroots organizing and lawn signs printed more than two weeks before the vote. (When it comes to regional transit, it’s a winner-takes-all vote, so with just 20,000 more “yes” votes around the region, less than 1% of the total, we’d already be rolling towards a regional transit system.)

Trouble is, for us to get a public vote on regional transit, the region’s political leaders have to put it on the ballot. Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel barely let transit onto the ballot last year, and they’ve given no indication that they’ll support putting it on the ballot at the next opportunity: November 2018.

Brooks has led a storied career fighting desegregation busing, transit, and pretty much anything else that might benefit Detroit – or poor people in Oakland County, for that matter. And Hackel has big political ambitions; he’s mulling a run for Governor of Michigan, on a self-described platform of “fiscal conservatism,” and after last year’s Trump-inflected vote, it’s hard to see how a switch to supporting transit would endear him to his suburban base.

At last month’s RTA board retreat, Detroit representative Freman Hendrix made a strong case for putting transit back on the ballot in 2018, supported by the two Washtenaw County representatives. Unfortunately, Oakland and Macomb have veto power over that proposal, as they made very clear last year. And at the retreat, their representatives indicated they were in no rush to put transit back on the ballot.

Let’s be clear: we support putting regional transit back on the ballot in 2018. That would be the ideal. But it’s looking like it’d be very difficult to do that in all four counties, via the RTA mechanism, unless Brooks and Hackel experience a miraculous religious conversion. So perhaps it’s time to look at a more incremental strategy in the interim: putting a plan for expanded transit on the ballot in Wayne and Washtenaw counties, tying together the two most transit-supportive parts of the metropolitan region and building momentum for a more comprehensive, four-county measure down the road.

How It Would Work

Putting a Wayne-Washtenaw proposal on the ballot wouldn’t happen through the RTA. It would require action from the county governments themselves: namely, the Wayne County Commission and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. (Yes, the two bodies have different names; Wayne County, being much more populous, has a rather different structure of county government, including an elected County Executive, which Washtenaw lacks.)

Both of these bodies would need to vote to put a plan on the November 2018 ballot for the public to vote on. It’s pretty simple, in theory. In practice, it’s a little more complicated, because elected officials in the two counties aren’t used to talking to each other. The proposal would also almost certainly need the support of Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. He’s the big dog in Wayne County, the county’s “mayor,” if you will, and could play in important role in championing the measure. Without his willingness to champion transit, the Wayne County Commission might be reluctant to put a new tax before voters. In Washtenaw, support from local elected officials in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and other areas would also be essential. That shouldn’t be too hard, as most of them vocally supported the RTA proposal.

The only real option to fund a Wayne-Washtenaw plan would be a property tax millage, like last year’s RTA proposal. The question is, how much of a property tax? The RTA proposal was for a 1.2-mill property tax, which would have cost the average homeowner in the metro region about $8 per month. A Wayne-Washtenaw transit proposal should probably ask for about that amount, or perhaps a little more, say 1.5 mills, in order to compensate for lost revenue from Oakland and Macomb. The answer, of course, also depends on what we’d like the proposal to pay for.

What We’d Get From a Wayne-Washtenaw Plan

So what transit improvements might come out of a Wayne-Washtenaw plan?

To some extent, the RTA’s regional plan could provide a starting point for filling the yawning gaps in transit in the two counties (below), including expanded local bus service in Detroit and western Wayne County and new express services to downtown Detroit, Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro airport.

However, the RTA plan was also criticized for failing to provide enough new services to the Downriver area and Washtenaw County, as well as for having a relatively long timeframe for implementation.

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Existing transit service in Washtenaw and Wayne Counties. Pink = TheRide, green = DDOT, brown. Blank space = no fixed-route transit service whatsoever.

In a Wayne-Washtenaw measure, it’ll be crucial to roll out new services as quickly as possible, in order to make the case for an RTA measure in 2020. That might require sacrificing some more capital-intensive projects for the time being, like the long-awaited commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit. But the transit needs of the region are so severe, and the area so under-served, we need to focus on projects that offer the biggest transit bang for the buck in the short term. If all goes well, we’ll have another shot at funding more capital-intensive projects, like the train, come 2020.

In figuring out what services to fund, it’s also critically important that we work closely with the existing transit providers: DDOT, SMART, and AAATA (TheRide). DDOT and SMART felt like they weren’t properly consulted on the RTA’s regional plan, and it’s important to have their support for any new transit measure.

Get Us Halfway There

Is a Wayne-Washtenaw proposal a long-term solution? Certainly not. The majority of the region’s jobs are in Oakland and Macomb County, and there’s a continuing need to improve transit across 8 Mile, as well as within Oakland and Macomb, which have very little crosstown transit service off a handful of corridors, like Woodward, Gratiot, and Van Dyke.

However, a successful Wayne-Washtenaw proposal would bring huge improvements for the 2 million residents of those two counties, connecting people to job centers in Detroit and Ann Arbor, expanding transit to suburbs like Livonia, Canton and Plymouth, and increasing bus frequencies in the existing DDOT and SMART service area.

It’d also build momentum for a 2020 regional transit ballot measure. One thing’s for sure: once Oakland and Macomb see that their south-of-8 Mile neighbors have a good thing going, they’re bound to want a piece of the action themselves.

In the coming months, we’ll be meeting with county commissioners and other officials in an effort to pitch this strategy, along with our allies at Transportation Riders United, MOSES, and other groups. And we’ll need help – from people across the two counties, from the city to the suburbs.

Are you in? Contact our staff organizer Mason at mhersonhord@motorcityfreedomriders.org if you want to be part of this work.

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