Will SMART Plan “Revolutionize” Transit, or Marginalize the RTA?

In a 30-second commercial (above) recently aired on local television, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, seen watching a horse race with Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel at the Hazel Park Raceway, claims that the proposed expansion of express SMART bus service will “revolutionize mass transit as we know it in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb County.”

The ad concludes with the tagline “SMART: Ride the Excitement.”

Under this proposal, spelled out in more detail on the SMART website, SMART, the Detroit metro area’s suburban bus system, will take over and expand the Regional Transit Authority’s “Reflex” express bus service along Woodward and Gratiot, while adding a new Michigan Avenue line to Detroit Metro Airport. Operated by SMART and DDOT, that Reflex service was inaugurated by the Regional Transit Authority last year in an attempt to make the case for its four-county regional transit proposal.

That proposal would have expanded SMART and DDOT service and created bus rapid transit lines on Woodward, Gratiot, and Michigan. But it lost by a hair at the ballot box after Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel refused to endorse it, and almost blocked it from making it to the ballot.

In the short term, the SMART proposal is good news for many riders along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan, who’ll benefit from express service every 15 or 20 minutes during rush hour.

Unfortunately, Patterson and Hackel’s framing of the proposal indicates they may use it as an excuse to shut the door on talk of another RTA transit proposal in 2018.

SMART Has Moved Backward, Not Forward, Under Patterson and Hackel

In the TV spot, Hackel states of SMART: “They’ve always been very progressive. And every time people keep talking about transportation in the region, I keep telling ‘em: You know what, let’s build on the SMART way of doing it.”

That is to say, not the RTA way.

The truth is that SMART has moved backward, not forward, under Patterson and Hackel’s leadership. It was under their watch that SMART eliminated 22% of its service in 2011, including all-day regional service into Detroit, following the decline in property values during the Great Recession. These massive cuts created the vacuum that the three express routes will, in a partial way, help to fill.

The cuts didn’t have to happen. But averting them would have required asking voters to invest more in transit. Patterson and Hackel refrained from doing so until 2014. At that point, the deteriorating condition of SMART’s bus fleet forced them to approve an increase in the SMART tax millage request, after resorting to raiding DDOT’s budget as a stopgap funding strategy. With Patterson and Hackel’s support, it passed easily in all three counties. But the new revenue wasn’t adequate to restore any of the service lost in 2011. When we asked about that possibility, our requests were rejected.

Three Regional Routes: No Substitute for RTA’s Regional Plan

If Patterson and Hackel were committed to expanding SMART, they should have supported the RTA plan, which would have done far more to expand SMART service than the current proposal does. The RTA proposed expanded transit across the region, including dozens of new and improved local and express routes operated by SMART, DDOT, and the RTA, as well as the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. SMART would have received the biggest boost of any of the existing agencies, getting a 50% boost to its annual budget.

Instead, Patterson and Hackel would have us think that we can “revolutionize mass transit” by adding service along just three routes, and setting aside any thoughts that we deserve the more comprehensive transit system other regions take for granted.

In the spaces between these three corridors, excitement is much reduced.

Meanwhile, millions of people in the region who don’t live or work near Woodward, Gratiot, or Michigan still won’t have access to frequent transit service. On most bus routes in the region, riders will have to wait an hour between buses, and switch between buses at the Detroit city limit. There will be no regular transit connection between Washtenaw County and the rest of the region, and major job centers like Novi and Livonia won’t have any transit at all.

In that context, it’s hard not to see the SMART proposal as one more case of politicians kicking the can down the road, as they’ve been doing for the past 50 years.

Public Hearings

SMART is holding public hearings on the proposal this week in several locations around the region, below.

We should also mark our calendars for the next SMART board meeting: 2 pm on Thursday, December 7, at SMART headquarters on the sixth floor of the Buhl Building, 535 Griswold in downtown Detroit.

SMART’s board, which includes top deputies of both Patterson and Hackel, as well as Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, needs to hear that while new service is good, we need a real plan for expanding transit throughout the region. Improvements to three routes are no excuse for abandoning the goal of the comprehensive regional transit system we deserve.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 – 11:30 AM
SMART Downtown Offices
535 Griswold, Suite 600, Detroit, MI 48226

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 – 5:00 PM
Oakland Community College – Southfield Campus
22322 Rutland Drive, Southfield, MI 48075-4793

Thursday, November 16, 2017 – 5:00 PM
Mt. Clemens Public Library
150 Cass Avenue , Mt. Clemens, Michigan 48043

Friday, November 17, 2017 – 5:00 PM
John Dingell Transit Center, Dearborn
21201 Michigan Avenue ,Dearborn, Michigan 48124

Monday, November 20, 2017 – 5:00 PM
Ferndale City Council Chambers
300 E. 9 Mile, Ferndale, Michigan 48220

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