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.
Oakland and Macomb Would Receive the Biggest Share of New Investment
In a 19-page memorandum to the Regional Transit Authority, dated July 5, Oakland County board members Chuck Moss and Timothy Soave asserted:
“…the plan is designed to force the ‘outer portions’ of Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne and Macomb Counties, the north and west areas, are to be compelled [sic] 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. Given this, and absent a clearly demonstrated ROI [return on investment] for outer areas being asked to pay, little support for this draft plan will likely be offered.”
In fact, as demonstrated in an RTA chart of member jurisdiction return on investment, Oakland County would receive the largest return on investment (measured in transit service funding) of any jurisdiction in the authority: $1.3 billion over 20 years, easily surpassing the $1.2 billion it would contribute via the new transit property tax. Macomb County would receive $800 million in transit services, well above the $600 million it would contribute. Together, the counties would receive over $2 billion in new transit services.
Detroit, it is true, would also receive substantial benefits: $1.1 billion, mostly a function of the federally subsidized capital investment in bus rapid transit lines connecting city and suburbs. (The majority of all three bus rapid transit lines in the tri-county, however, lie within the suburbs, not within the city of Detroit.) Washtenaw County would receive about $400 million, less than one-third of Oakland County’s total.
The RTA Plan Would Dramatically Improve Transit in Oakland and Macomb County
What would that investment go for, specifically?
Of the 37 new transit initiatives in the regional plan, Macomb County would receive 15, including:
- 6 “cross county connector” bus routes, operating 20 hours a day at 15- 30 minute frequencies: 8 Mile, 9 Mile, 12 Mile, and 15 Mile
- 3 new local service routes on Canal, Dequindre, and Groesbeck Highway
- 1 commuter express route along M-59 between Pontiac and Mt. Clemens
- 1 airport express route starting at Lakeside Center
- New facilities and transit centers
- Regional fare integration
- Mobility management program
- Bus rapid transit on Gratiot to M-59
As the largest revenue provider, Oakland County would receive 17 new services, including:
- 6 “cross county connector” routes on 12 Mile, Greenfield, Grand River, 9 Mile, 8 Mile, and 15 Mile/Maple
- 3 new local service routes on Middlebelt, Dequindre, and Highland Rd
- 2 commuter express routes along M-59 and I-75
- 2 airport express routes from Troy and along I-275
- New facilities and transit centers
- Regional fare integration
- Mobility management program
- Bus rapid transit on Woodward to Pontiac
Of all 37 new transit projects proposed, the QLINE streetcar is the only service that operates solely inside the city of Detroit. By contrast, 8 of the new services (4 Cross-County Connectors, 3 new local bus routes, and 1 new express bus route) will operate only within Oakland and Macomb County.
The QLINE, a focus of Oakland County’s complaints, would account for only 2% of the total cost of the regional plan. The Ann Arbor – Detroit rail service would account for an additional 6%.
SMART Would Benefit More Than Any Existing Transit Provider
The Oakland County board members also profess concern that the RTA would direct revenues away from SMART, the bus service currently subsidized by property taxes in Macomb County, as well as portions of Wayne and Oakland. “We will not accept any plan,” they state, “that damages the ability of SMART to perform its existing service levels or prejudices its ability to secure operating and capital resources necessary to execute its mission.”
In fact, under the RTA plan, SMART would receive the biggest additional subsidy of any existing transit provider: $34.7 million, or more than half of SMART’s existing budget. It is SMART that would operate many of the new transit services listed above, as well as others in suburban Wayne County, greatly expanding its extremely limited crosstown services.
Presently, SMART only operates 3 routes at what is considered ‘frequent’ service by transit experts, every 15 minutes or better, during peak period (rush hour). SMART has no frequent service on weekends or evenings. Due to Oakland and Macomb County leadership’s failure to adequately fund SMART, the agency has also drastically reduced service in recent years, most notably in 2011.
The new SMART-operated local route extensions and “cross-county connectors” described in the RTA plan would dramatically expand bus service on existing SMART routes, as well as extend service to suburbs that have historically refused to participate in SMART.
Exurbs and Rural Areas: Part of the Region, Part of the Benefits
Although the Oakland County memorandum targets only Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti explicitly, an apparent underlying concern is the issue of intra-county subsidies. Press releases from the County Executive’s office intimate that rural and exurban areas of Oakland County would subsidize more urbanized areas of the county under the RTA plan. “I won’t sacrifice 40 communities on the altar of regional cooperation,” Patterson is quoted as saying.
The Oakland officials are correct that not all areas of the county will receive fixed-route bus service under the plan. The County Executives refused to support a regional transit tax greater than 1.2 mills, limiting the funds available for implementing transit services throughout the country. As a result, the RTA has been forced to focus new proposed routes on the most urbanized areas, where transit investment will produce the greatest bang for the buck. (One would hope that the proudly penny-conscious county officials would see the logic in that arrangement.) The more rural areas, however, will receive significantly improved paratransit (dial-a-ride) services from the RTA.
Moreover, Patterson’s claim that these communities will see no benefit from the plan makes little more sense than asserting that they see no benefit from the Detroit Zoo, Detroit Institute of Arts, or Cobo Center millages, simply because those facilities are not located in South Lyon or Lake Orion. A transit system is a regional asset that serves everyone in the region, whether directly or indirectly.
The billion-dollar reconstruction and widening of I-75, which Patterson proudly supports, is funded by all Michigan taxpayers. Should they demand their money back? Indeed, I-75 touches only a handful of Oakland County’s 61 different municipalities. Are the others paying millions “in exchange for nothing,” to quote Patterson’s remarks on the RTA?
Most people recognize that highways (for better or worse) are regional assets, used by people from all across the metropolitan area, whether or not they happen to live on an on-ramp. Transit is no different. Park and ride facilities linked to rapid transit and express bus routes will serve commuters from across the metropolitan region.
Finally, the vast majority of jobs in Oakland County are clustered in the urbanized southern area of the county, not in the primarily agricultural and residential north. While population has continued to disperse north and west, the bedroom communities of the outer county are reliant on the more urbanized areas for their existence and growth. A higher level of service for the more urbanized areas simply makes sense. The Oakland County memorandum acknowledges this reality, stating that “many communities in western Wayne and Oakland Counties, and in northern Oakland County, don’t lend themselves to line-haul [fixed-route bus] operations.”
The Regional Disconnect
Perhaps the most troubling element of the Oakland County memorandum is the section regarding opt-outs from the SMART bus system. The Oakland County representatives claim it is “incorrect” to assert that municipalities have created gaps in the region’s transit system by choosing to opt out of the SMART bus system. They complain that the regional plan “presents [opt-outs] as a pejorative,” whereas such communities actually “acted reasonably” to minimize their tax burden.
It is remarkable that the Oakland County representatives continue to defend the ability of some jurisdictions to evade participation in the regional transit system, particularly when many of those jurisdictions include some of the region’s largest cities and job centers. The opt-out community of Rochester Hills is a city of 73,000 people, about the size of Kalamazoo. The opt-out community of Novi is home to a convention center and one of the largest commercial centers in the metropolitan region.
In his July 21 press release, Oakland County Executive Patterson asserted that he was not an opponent, but a supporter, of regional transit. “There are growing business clusters throughout Oakland County with thousands of jobs that people must be connected to,” he was quoted as saying.
Oakland County can’t have it both ways. Either the suburbs that contain those “business clusters” are connected to transit, or they aren’t. Either we invest in regional transit in a fiscally responsible manner, accounting for population and employment density and other demand factors, or we don’t.
To the county’s shame, it appears that its leadership may be prepared to continue the course of massive resistance to regional transit, no matter how dubious the grounds, and no matter how much Oakland County itself stands to benefit.