Mapping the RTA Vote


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


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, (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


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.


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 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


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

Brooks-Hackel-BRT-2 copy

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


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


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


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