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.
The Knowledge Gap
The majority-white Ann Arbor area and the South Oakland suburbs supported the plan – in some cases, at higher rates than many areas of Detroit. Several factors help to explain that. Those areas have large concentrations of young people, who tend to be far more supportive of transit, and the cities there tend to be relatively affluent places where residents support higher taxes for excellent city services.
Most importantly, however, voters in those areas knew what they would be getting out of the RTA proposal – while most others in the metro area may have had little knowledge of what the plan actually contained.
In Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, a rail connection to Detroit, part of the RTA plan, has been talked about for nearly two decades and extensively discussed by local officials. In the South Oakland communities, there have been dozens of public meetings over the last several years regarding a Woodward Avenue rapid transit line – also included in the RTA proposal. (The RTA proposal also received particularly strong support along the Woodward corridor in Detroit.)
Outside of those areas, it’s likely that most voters didn’t know what the RTA proposal would mean for them. The RTA proposals for rapid transit on Michigan Avenue and Gratiot Avenue were rushed through the planning process fairly recently, and there was very little public outreach to educate people about the expanded crosstown bus service that the RTA plan would include. None of the publicity materials produced by the official campaign, the business-funded “Coalition for Connecting Our Communities,” actually described what the regional transit plan would build, or provided a map of proposed regional transit improvements – in stark contrast to the successful campaigns in Seattle and Indianapolis, among other places.
When voters didn’t know what the proposal would mean for them, in their communities, it should be no surprise that many balked.
Indeed, many voters probably didn’t even know that the proposal was on the ballot at all. In Detroit alone, fully 24,000 voters skipped the RTA ballot question. That’s more than the 18,000 votes that defeated the proposal.
The Way Forward
The defeat of the RTA proposal is an undeniable blow. But it shouldn’t be cause for despair.
The results indicated that even in suburban areas where no transit exists at present, a huge number of people are still ready to vote to raise their taxes for regional transit service.
In suburban Novi, which “opts out” of SMART bus service, 48.5% of voters supported the RTA proposal. In affluent Rochester Hills, where Mayor Bryan Barnett has claimed he doesn’t hear from anyone who wants transit service, 47% of voters supported the RTA plan.
For decades, politicians like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson denied the people of metro Detroit a chance to vote, together, on regional transit. The RTA vote should give those politicians a clear signal that huge numbers of people in Detroit and the suburbs do want better transit, and are prepared to pay higher taxes to pay for it.
The inept management of the “Yes” campaign, which put virtually all its resources into TV ads and failed to engage grassroots organizations to help get out the vote, sealed the fate of the RTA proposal of 2016. But this must not be an end, but a new beginning.
We’re hosting a meeting on Wednesday, December 14, 6-7:30 pm at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church/ Cass Corridor Commons, to talk about where we go from here. (More information at this link.) We hope you’ll join us. Now as never before, we need to organize to hold our elected officials accountable and ensure that the momentum for transportation freedom continues.