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. Continue reading

It’s Time to Rally for Real Regional Transit

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A picture is worth a thousand words.

UPDATE: Note that the Detroit rally will now be happening at Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit.

The champagne will be flowing on Friday, May 12, when the 3-mile, $140 million QLINE streetcar opens to a planned celebration by “local officials and dignitaries.”

But what about real regional transit that serves the needs of riders and doesn’t just duplicate existing service? Or that helps to patch the gaps left by the massive cuts to our bus systems over the past decade?

No one in the Detroit region’s political elite seems to know – or care. After the narrow 51%-49% defeat of the Regional Transit Authority ballot proposal in the Trumpocalytic election of November 2016, transit allies are staying quiet, while the enemies of transit are, to paraphrase Yeats, “full of passionate intensity.”

Witness, for example, Oakland and Macomb County’s efficient ousting of RTA CEO Michael Ford, who was unceremoniously relieved of his position last month. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel blamed Ford for the defeat of the RTA proposal, conveniently omitting mention that Hackel, under the malign influence of Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, had refused to support or campaign for the measure himself.

We can’t let this political inertia continue. Not when every day, thousands of people, and our entire region, are held back by the lack of effective transportation. It’s time to rally for real regional transit and hold our politicians accountable.

We’re hosting rallies at three locations on Friday, May 12, to coincide with the opening of the QLINE streetcar. The biggest will be in Detroit, 8-10 am, at Grand Circus Park downtown. (Join and share the Facebook event at this link.) We can’t let the region’s political elite celebrate their streetcar without reminding them (and the media) of the continuing transit crisis in our region, a crisis they have a moral responsibility to address by putting a transit plan back on the ballot in 2018.

We’re also holding sister rallies in downtown Ann Arbor that morning (link) and in downtown Ferndale that evening (link) to demonstrate that there’s demand in the suburbs as well as the city, and that we demand action not only from Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and Wayne County Executive Mark Hackel, but from the suburban leadership: Patterson, Hackel, and Washtenaw County leaders.

These rallies will kick off a call-in and petition campaign targeting these regional leaders. Transit is a huge public need – and if they refuse to lead on the issue, the people will. Spread the word. We’ll see you on the buses and in the streets.

Mapping the RTA Vote

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Support for RTA ballot measure by precinct. Map by Steven Wiltse.

The narrow defeat of the ballot measure for regional transit last month was a serious setback in our ongoing struggle for transportation freedom.

However, the results of the vote can help us map our path forward after this defeat.

The proposal lost by a margin of just one percent: 18,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast in the four-county region. It was defeated, 60-40, in Macomb County; essentially tied in Oakland; and won a majority in both Wayne and Washtenaw County.

Some articles have blamed Macomb County for the defeat, even characterizing the vote as “Macomb versus everybody,” but that’s more than a little misleading, as the map above, prepared by Steven Wiltse using public election data, indicates. (Many thanks are due to Steven for putting this together. Find a high-quality version of the map at this link.)

The proposal got the strongest support (green, in the map above) in Detroit; Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and environs; and southern Oakland County, from Ferndale to Southfield and north to Birmingham. The vote was close to even in most other suburban areas – the yellow areas forming a ring around Detroit and south Oakland.

However, the plan drew strong opposition in the outer, less-developed rural and exurban areas of the metropolitan area. That’s not terribly surprising: for the most part, these places would not be served by fixed-route bus service under the RTA’s regional plan.

Metro Detroit is, of course, a highly segregated place, and race clearly played a role in voting patterns as well. Voters in majority-African American cities, including both Detroit and black suburban enclaves like Southfield, Pontiac, and Inkster, supported the plan at far higher rates than white areas did. Some white voters, like the New Baltimore Trump volunteer who told the New York Times he opposed the proposal because it would “speed up the transport of drugs from the inner city,” were likely motivated by racial fears regarding transit.

The RTA results, however, make clear that metro Detroit’s longstanding racial differential doesn’t capture the full story of the vote – and gives hope that a stronger, people-powered campaign for transit can prevail in future. Continue reading

“Massive Transit Tax” Would Cost Average Metro Detroit Homeowner Three Coneys Per Month

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Bus rapid transit on Michigan Avenue (left) and one of Lafayette’s finest (right).

How much would it cost? That’s one of the most common questions about the regional transit proposal on tomorrow’s ballot.

The folks opposing the regional transit plan for metro Detroit call it a “massive transit tax” – as you might infer from the name of their website, NoMassiveTransitTax.org. (The group apparently consists of a few deep-pocketed donors and former Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, who headed the 2006 initiative to repeal affirmative action in Michigan.)

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that we have a different perspective.

The 1.2-mill property tax would cost the owner of a $200,000 home $120 per year, or $10/month. The average home in metro Detroit is worth less than $200,000, though, so the average homeowner would pay about $95 per year, or less than $8 per month. (In the city of Detroit, of course, the average home is worth rather less than the regional average, meaning most Detroiters would pay an even smaller amount.)

Today, as the vote approaches, we decided to do our own investigating. We stopped by the hallowed corner of Michigan and Lafayette to calculate how much the transit proposal would cost in terms of one of the Detroit region’s most-purchased consumer goods. Continue reading

RTA Win Would Mean Big Boost for DDOT

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DDOT service on Grand River would get a major boost under the RTA proposal.

As Election Day rolls around, a number of bus riders have been asking us what the RTA ballot proposal would mean for DDOT bus service in Detroit.

In brief: a lot. If the “Yes” votes prevail on November 8, DDOT service would be increased by more than 25%. In addition to brand-new routes connecting Detroit and the suburbs, there would be more buses on existing DDOT routes, making for shorter waits for riders. The number of buses on the road would increase dramatically, to a peak of 258. See the chart below for details.

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And moreover, that’s all assuming that no surplus DDOT service on bus rapid transit corridors – that is, Woodward, Gratiot, and Michigan – would be reallocated to less serviced routes. Since the RTA would be providing frequent rapid transit service on those corridors, it could be possible for DDOT to reduce the number of buses on those routes, and instead provide more service on crosstown routes. (Obviously, that’d have to be done carefully; there’d still need for continued DDOT service in order to serve the stops in between bus rapid transit stations.)

The bottom line: the RTA ballot proposal would give long-suffering DDOT a much-needed boost. Continue reading

Take the Pledge to Vote on Regional Transit!

It’s just two months till the historic vote on regional transit – yet too many people across the metro region still don’t know what it’s about.

At our meeting last night, we unveiled a new tool to change that: a voter pledge form to spread the word, secure voter commitments, and recruit new volunteers.

Can you help us get the word out by collecting pledges from voters? If you didn’t make it out last night, you can download the pledge form at this link. Take a stack on the bus, or to work or school, along with a clipboard and a pen. Ask people if they can commit to vote. After they fill out the form, tear off the bottom (folding first helps!) and give it to them to keep. After collecting pledges, scan or take photos of the forms and e-mail them to us at motorcityfreedomriders@gmail.com so we can follow up with the signers.

Someone also asked us if we had an online version of the pledge form. Well, now we do! You can access it at this link, or find it embedded below. Thanks for all you do!

 

Join Us as a Fall Fellow

It’s just two and a half months until the most important vote on transit we’ve seen in decades – but many bus riders still haven’t heard about the regional transit plan we’ll be voting on.

To make sure bus riders know about this vote, and build our membership in the process, we’re hiring on riders as Fall Fellows to help us spread the word on the buses in September and October. In exchange for spreading the word, Fellows will get a modest stipend of $200/month, plus transit expenses up to $50/month.

If you ride the bus and want to help make a difference improving public transit in metro Detroit, we encourage you to apply! Fellows will start September 1, so don’t delay. Read the full description below the break.

Continue reading

Oakland County Would Get Biggest Benefits from RTA Plan

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SMART’s 710-Nine Mile route is just one of many suburban transit routes that would receive vastly improved service under the RTA transit plan that Oakland County leaders decry.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel have unleashed a media assault against the Regional Transit Authority’s 20-year transit plan for metropolitan Detroit. They charge that the plan “fails on virtually every level,” threatens the suburban SMART bus system, disproportionately benefits the cities of Detroit and Ann Arbor, and represents “taxation without transportation” for suburbanites.

We have to wonder if they’re looking at the same plan that we are.

In fact, the RTA plan yields the greatest benefits to Oakland and Macomb County; greatly enhances SMART bus service; and focuses some of the most prominent new transit investments on “opt-out” suburbs that would be taxed at a lower level than their peers under the plan. In summary:

  • Oakland County would receive the largest transit investment of any jurisdiction: $1.3 billion.
  • SMART would receive the biggest additional funding boost, $35 million annually, of any existing transit provider.
  • The RTA plan extends transit to major Oakland County job centers, including Rochester Hills, Novi, and Highland, that currently receive no transit service.

We’ve prepared this analysis with the assistance of transit planner Steve Wiltse. Read on for details.

Continue reading

Let the People Vote on Regional Transit

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Oakland County Executive Patterson and Macomb County Executive Hackel previously said they’d let the people of the region vote on the RTA’s regional transit plan, but they’re now prepared to block it.

If you haven’t signed it, here’s the direct link to the petition to the County Executives.

Last Thursday, we traveled to the Regional Transit Authority’s monthly board meeting in downtown Detroit, expecting to cheer on an RTA vote to put a regional transit proposal on the November ballot.

What we didn’t know was that that morning, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel had opened a last-minute attack on the RTA plan – and, in effect, the very idea of regional transit itself.

In a press release that morning, Patterson and Hackel claimed they lacked assurance that the RTA wouldn’t siphon off tax dollars from their counties to Detroit, and, asserted that the RTA plan, which we previously analyzed here, “fails…on virtually every level.”

In an earlier memo shared with the press release, the Oakland County RTA representatives argued that “the plan is designed to force the ‘outer portions’ of Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne and Macomb Counties…to be compelled to pay for the services mostly beneficial to the Cities of Detroit, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. This is a thinly veiled effort to create regional tax based sharing relating to transit.”

In fact, as we discussed here, the RTA plan is highly favorable to Oakland and Macomb, which receive the lion’s share of new local transit services. But without support from the Oakland and Macomb representatives, the RTA board was forced to schedule another meeting for next Thursday as the window for placing the RTA proposal on the 2016 ballot ticks to a close. (August 16 is the final deadline.)

It’s Time to Act

We’ve come too far to let this happen now. We can’t let Patterson and Hackel thwart a vote of the people on a issue of surpassing regional concern. We’ve been waiting for decades, and we need action now.

Please sign our online petition to Patterson and Hackel, urging them to allow a vote of the people on regional transit, and share it with your friends, family members and coworkers, especially those in Oakland and Macomb County.

On Tuesday, July 25, join us in telephoning Patterson and Hackel’s offices (more information here), and ask them to allow a public vote on the regional transit plan. Patterson’s office number is (248) 858-0480; Hackel’s, (586) 469-7001.

And on Thursday, July 28, join us at the RTA board meeting – tentatively scheduled for 1:30 pm at the Detroit Regional Chamber office, at Woodward and Jefferson – to raise our voices together for the transportation freedom we’ve been denied so many years.

The RTA Plan: A Giant Step Forward for Transit in Metro Detroit

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The full draft RTA regional transit plan.

Woodward, Gratiot, Michigan Avenue, and M-59.

When a bill to establish a regional transit authority in metro Detroit came before the  Michigan Legislature four years ago, it named only those four regional corridors as the agency’s focus, prompting concerns by some – including ourselves – that the authority might overlook the pressing transit needs across our whole region.

Thankfully, the draft Regional Master Transit Plan released by the RTA at a series of public meetings this month is so much more than that.

If voters approve a 1.2 mill property tax in November – equivalent to $8/month for the owner of a $200,000 home – the plan will create a transit system better than anything metro Detroit has seen in generations.

The plan puts forward a comprehensive strategy for improving transit across Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw County, including rapid transit lines on major corridors, express buses to Metro Airport and downtown Detroit, and – importantly for the tens of thousands of people in the region who rely on transit as their primary mode of transportation – major improvements to existing DDOT, SMART, and AAATA bus service. (Check out the full map here.)

In so doing, it also largely satisfies the provisions of the Motor City Freedom Riders petition to the Big Four regional leaders: doubling existing funding for transit in the region; creating new regional rapid transit corridors; and reserving nearly (though not quite) half of new funding for bus service through the existing transit agencies, DDOT, SMART and AAATA.

Is the plan a panacea for our transit-starved region? No. In order to placate the Big Four, and ensure the plan has a solid chance at the ballot box in November, the tax ask was limited to 1.2 mills, roughly doubling existing regional funding for transit. That puts us in the funding ballpark of regions like Cleveland and Atlanta, which have some rapid transit and (within their service area) slightly more extensive bus service than metro Detroit. Yet it still leaves us a far cry from places like Pittsburgh, Denver, and Seattle, which provide transit with three or four times more funding per capita.

Another major limitation is the “parochialism clause” inserted in the RTA legislation at the insistence of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a longstanding transit skeptic. The clause requires 85% of revenues raised by the RTA to stay in the county in which they are raised. In effect, that means the wealthiest counties get the most transit – whereas those that have a lower property tax base (notably Wayne) get the least. You don’t need to be a socialist to see the problems with this provision, given the role of downtown Detroit as a major regional job center, and the fact that Detroit has the greatest number of people who rely on public transit to get around.

Despite these restrictions, however, the RTA plan manages to balance regional interests to provide a strong framework for expanding transit for everyone in metro Detroit. Read on for more of our analysis. Continue reading