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.

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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.

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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

Metro Detroit’s “Big Four” Must Support a Strong Regional Transit Plan

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Metro Detroit’s “Big Four” : Duggan, Evans, Patterson, and Hackel.

For nearly a year, the Regional Transit Authority for metro Detroit has been working with consultants to craft a new transit plan for the four-county region.

That plan will shape the content of a tax proposal which could be the biggest step towards transportation freedom in decades in this region.

If the proposal secures support from the “Big Four” regional leaders, including Mayor Duggan, Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, it would go on the ballot for the region’s people to vote on this November.

When the RTA unveiled its planning effort in downtown Detroit last May, it intended to have a draft plan ready for public viewing by December. That hasn’t happened. Not only was a six-month turnaround an ambitious timeline, but none of the Big Four have yet taken a public position on a transit tax proposal, throwing the plan’s future into doubt.

The Freedom Riders hoped to have a draft plan to comment on by this time. Yet, on account of the delay, we’ve decided we can’t wait any longer. We’re launching a petition to the Big Four, the men who pull the strings on the RTA, asking them to support a regional transit plan that would include three critical components. We believe the Big Four need to get behind a transit plan that would double existing funding for transit in the region; create new regional rapid transit lines; and reserve half of new funding for expanded local bus service. Continue reading

Lack of Funding Will Limit Proposed Express Service

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On January 21st, staff from the metro region’s two major bus systems gathered in a downtown office high above the Detroit River in a show of unity. It’s no secret that DDOT and SMART have often acted as competitors, rather than partners, battling for turf and for the region’s woefully small pool of transit funding. Yet as chunks of ice floated down the river below, DDOT and SMART attempted to show the Regional Transit Authority board that there’d been a thaw in their chilly relationship.

DDOT head Dan Dirks and SMART chief John Hertel were on hand, but this was clearly Neil Greenberg’s show. Greenberg, DDOT Director of Service Development and Scheduling, may be best known to many people for dreaming up the Freshwater Railway fantasy transit maps, which laid out a vision for a regional rail system in metro Detroit. He’s also worked at SMART, and his enthusiasm for transit made him a natural for bringing the two agencies together.

The “refleX” proposal Greenberg put forward was, in many ways, a model for how transit in the metro region could work better. (Read the full document here, courtesy of the Oakland Press.) However, the service’s limited stops raise equity concerns, and the limited funding for the service will make it so infrequent as to threaten its success. Continue reading

Here’s the Lowdown on Proposed DDOT Service Changes

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Note: DDOT is hosting a final public hearing on these service changes on Tuesday, January 19, 5-6 pm in the Rosa Parks Transit Center (upper level). Hope to see you there!

Last month, the Detroit Department of Transportation announced a series of changes in scheduled bus service, the first major overhaul of scheduled service in years.

As everyone knows, DDOT buses don’t always run according to schedule. But performance has improved a great deal since the Motor City Freedom Riders first met with new DDOT director Dan Dirks in early 2014, and the service changes can help tell us where the system’s headed. Read on for our analysis. Continue reading

Victory: DDOT Is On the Dashboard!

ddotdashboardIn February of this year, the Freedom Riders launched a petition to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, asking him to add DDOT bus performance information to his “Detroit Dashboard,” his weekly online progress report on city services. The Mayor had, after all, said that improving bus service was his most important priority, yet the Dashboard contained no information on that front.

Over the coming months, we collected more than 500 signatures on the petition.  And, at long last, the Mayor’s Dashboard features DDOT performance information, including both morning and afternoon “pullout,” the number of buses that get out of the garage and onto the road each day.

It’s a small, symbolic step. But it sends a strong message that decent bus service – used mostly by the city’s poorest citizens – is every bit as important as police services, fire protection, and other essential city functions. It also shows the power of what we can do together. Continue reading

Elections Next Week Will Shape Transit Prospects

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Post-election update: Transit won in Scio Township, with fully 67% of voters in support. In Rochester Hills, pro-transit challenger Yalamanchi fell short with 39% of the vote to incumbent mayor Barnett’s 53%.

2015 is an off year for elections in Michigan, and many of us are looking ahead to November 2016 – not just for the presidential election, but for the anticipated Regional Transit Authority ballot proposal that could give a historic boost to transit in metro Detroit.

Yet a number of communities in the metro area do have local elections a week from today, and some of them could be very consequential for public transit. Here we spotlight two elections, in Scio Township and Rochester Hills, of particular interest to bus riders and our allies. Continue reading

SMART Board Debates Restoring Service to Detroit

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For over a year, since the SMART tax millage increase passed last August, the Freedom Riders have urged the transit agency to consider restoring seamless all-day service between Detroit and the suburbs – to little avail. SMART General Manager John Hertel said that wasn’t worth discussing, and dismissed our petitions as “posturing.”

Today, in a special meeting, the SMART board debated a proposal very similar to the one we put forward: restoring all-day and weekend service across Eight Mile on its two most-traveled routes, Woodward (450/60) and Gratiot (560).

The about-face was prompted by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which now controls the division of federal funding between DDOT and SMART. That allocation has been a subject of fierce debate. The power to control that funding split is one of the RTA’s , and it appears RTA staff are now using the power of the purse to push SMART to restore regional service – sparking a spirited debate among the SMART board members. Continue reading