Ford’s RTA: The Man, His Plans, and Ours

Michael Ford talks to reporters at the RTA’s Campus Martius kickoff.


It’s here.

More than two years after Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan into existence, the RTA finally has a staff and a plan for moving forward. It also has those 21st-century signifiers of existence, like a website, Facebook page, and tote bags, as well as a quick video introduction. (If you’re new to the RTA story, this one is definitely worth watching.)

This is a relief for bus riders who want a better transit system. For a while, it wasn’t clear that the RTA would come together at all. It didn’t even have a leader for nearly two years. John Hertel, the SMART bus chief and longtime regional pol who’d wanted the job for years, was offered the job in mid-2013 – but never took it, citing the need for more money from Lansing. After six months of delay, the RTA went back to the drawing board, and Governor Snyder’s staffers made a concerted effort to recruit Michael Ford, then CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, otherwise known as TheRide.

The question is, now that the RTA is finally rolling with Ford at the helm, what is it rolling towards?

From West Coast to Washtenaw County

As he sometimes notes, Ford comes from humble transit beginnings. He started out sweeping floors at the Greyhound station in his native Seattle to help pay for college at Pacific University, a small liberal arts school outside Portland, OR. After doggedly working his way up the Greyhound ladder, he managed transit systems in Everett, WA, Portland, OR and San Joaquin, CA before Ann Arbor leaders recruited him to head up TheRide in 2009.

Ford was recruited to TheRide in large part because of his experience with larger transit systems, including Portland’s, which includes an extensive light rail system. Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje was a former realtor and a longtime proponent of expanded transit – especially rail – which he sought to boost downtown development. For years, TheRide had cruised along, providing reliable basic bus service for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, but it had never looked at operating any kind of rapid transit, or expanding beyond its small service area.

Ford set out to change that. Partnering with intercity bus company Indian Trails, he added a shuttle bus to Detroit Metro Airport, AirRide, which paid for itself out of its 12-dollar ticket cost. He also recruited consultants to help prepare a new countywide transit plan that encompassed all of fast-growing Washtenaw County and also explored regional connections to Detroit, Metro Airport, and other points. This plan – dubbed “Moving You Forward” – was finalized in 2012, but local politics threw a wrench in TheRide’s expansion proposal.

In 2012, Ann Arbor voters elected a more conservative City Council that looked skeptically on plans for expanded transit and the higher taxes it would require. At the same time, most of Washtenaw County’s townships bailed on the countywide plan. As a result, the countywide authority concept was scuttled, and Ford moved forward with a more modest transit expansion program, encompassing Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township, under which the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority became the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. A 0.7-mill property tax millage for that plan – dubbed the “urban core” proposal – passed with flying colors in May 2014, winning the votes of 71% of the area’s voters.

Freedom Riders members joined Washtenaw County activists to get out the vote for the May 2014 transit ballot proposal in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area.

The 2014 transit expansion still isn’t fully phased in, but it benefited Washtenaw County transit riders in a host of ways. It sustained frequent bus service on Washtenaw Avenue and Packard between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, where riders can now expect buses every 5 to 10 minutes during peak hours – better than on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. It added a host of new routes to the underserved Ypsilanti area, which has a large population of people without cars. And it also expanded the hours of service across the system; buses now run until 11 pm or midnight on weekdays, whereas they previously cut out at 10. While it still leaves out some of the county’s rapidly developing suburban areas, like Chelsea and Scio Township, it brought new maturity to the fast-growing Ann Arbor area’s transit system.

The Regional Plan

Even as Ford was working to improve transit in Washtenaw County, bus service in Detroit and the tri-county was falling to pieces. In Detroit, as the city struggled to keep up its finances, Mayor Bing oversaw drastic cuts to DDOT bus service, most dramatically in 2011. Suburban SMART service also suffered, as the economic recession and housing crisis depressed millage revenues. Even after a 2009 fare hike, from $1.50 to $2.00, SMART continued to struggle, and in December 2011, the agency cut nearly a quarter of scheduled service, including all buses into Detroit outside peak hours. Only in 2014, as deferred maintenance and capital investment threatened to implode the system, did CEO John Hertel and his board go to the voters for a small tax increase – from 0.59 mills to 1 mill – to keep the system going. (It passed easily.)

Michael Ford now has the delicate task of developing a regional transit plan that satisfies all parties involved – including corporate bigwigs, Detroit bus riders, and the sometimes skeptical suburban fringe. He must also do this while working behind the scenes to get the four transit agencies under the RTA to up their game and make nice with each other – historically a challenge for DDOT and SMART. (At least one SMART employee had the task of distributing SMART schedules to DDOT, but this often seems to have been the extent of the agencies’ coordination efforts.)

Thankfully, Ford doesn’t have to do this alone. His staff at the RTA now includes longtime Southeast Michigan Council of Governments staffer and transit booster Tiffany Gunter (“well-known for her nutritionally wonderful, but aesthetically undesirable ‘green drinks,'” according to the RTA website); UM-trained Ben Stupka, previously a transit planner in the San Francisco Bay area; secretary Virginia Lickliter; and outreach manager Travis Gonyou, formerly of Congressman John Dingell’s office.

Ford’s team has dubbed its new planning effort BEST: Building Equitable, Sustainable Transit. The BEST effort includes detailed studies of rapid transit along three major regional corridors: Woodward Avenue, Gratiot Avenue, and Michigan Avenue./ Wayne-Washtenaw. It also includes a regional transit plan for the metro region as a whole, comparable to the earlier “Moving You Forward” plan in Washtenaw. All are being undertaken by a team of consultants. The RTA video below is a good overview of the process.

As with “Moving You Forward,” Ford’s plan for BEST involves a rigorous schedule of community meetings around the metro area. Ford clearly understands the importance of attention to each county in the region, but he also views Detroit as the region’s undisputed center. (On taking the job with the RTA, Ford moved into the Park Shelton Apartments at Woodward and Kirby, overlooking the Detroit Institute of Arts.) He conducted a week of major open house meetings to start the process, with one in each RTA county, but he kicked things off with a rally in Detroit’s Campus Martius, and held two opening meetings in Wayne County: one in Dearborn, and another at the Wayne County Community College campus in northwest Detroit. The plan is supposed to be complete by this December, giving Ford a full ten months to sell the public before the plan comes to a vote of everyone in the four-county region on November 1, 2016.

What Riders Want

When the Freedom Riders surveyed Detroit bus riders last year, most of them hadn’t heard of the RTA. That needs to change. We need to make the RTA work for us.

So far, as directed by its enabling legislation, the RTA has focused on developing rapid transit along three major corridors: Woodward Avenue between Detroit and Pontiac, Gratiot Avenue between Detroit and Mt. Clemens, and Michigan Avenue between Detroit and Ann Arbor. There are already studies underway.

We need that rapid service. It shouldn’t take an hour to get from Detroit to a job out in Wayne. On the other hand, that rapid service won’t do that much good for those of us without cars if we don’t have adequate local bus service to get to the rapid transit lines. So we also need just as much – if not more – emphasis on improving local transit service: SMART, DDOT, and TheRide. It’s entirely possible that some of the money raised by the RTA could be channeled to the long-suffering local transit agencies – but there’s been no discussion of that so far.

Make no mistake: we’re hopeful for the RTA. A lot of us worked hard to make it a reality. We believe Mr. Ford and his staff have a strong understanding of public transit and a genuine concern for the plight of the region’s hundreds of thousands of carless people. Yet if bus riders ourselves remain largely silent, we risk the chance of the RTA falling short of what it needs to do.

For a glimpse of that sorry picture, we need only look south to Atlanta. Like Detroit, Atlanta tried to build a regional transit system in the 1970s, only to see it hamstrung by suburban opposition. As in Detroit, corporate leaders came together decades later to create a new regional transit authority, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, or GRTA. Unfortunately, to date this authority has focused almost exclusively on running express buses between far-flung suburbs and corporate offices in downtown Atlanta, bypassing the great majority of people who most need affordable, reliable transit. In effect, it’s a big subsidy for downtown businesses, rather than a comprehensive transit network for the region.

In Atlanta, GRTA's Xpress bus service is oriented almost exclusively towards suburban commuters.
In Atlanta, GRTA’s Xpress bus service is oriented almost exclusively towards suburban commuters.

Detroit’s Regional Transit Authority needs to be more than that. It needs to be a vehicle for all of us to get where we need to go: rich and poor, black and white, those with cars and those without. And those of us who already rely on the region’s existing transit systems know best what we need to make that happen.

It’s time for us to start binding our region back together. Bus riders need to be on the forefront. Let’s make a commitment to do everything we can to mobilize our fellow riders to participate in the RTA’s planning, and in doing so, advance the cause of transportation freedom for everyone in this region. You can get started by joining the RTA’s planning page at this link.

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