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.

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.

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7 Replies to “Mapping the RTA Vote”

  1. People like me won’t move back to Detroit without mass transit. I grew up in Oakland County but have lived in DC, Tucson, Albuquerque and Montreal in the last 20 years…all of which have better transit options that Detroit. If Michigan is serious about bringing back educated professionals to the state it would help fund better transit options. But the GOP does not want educated liberals moving back from the coasts.

  2. I can almost see the little red dot in Ann Arbor that represents myself and my neighbors, getting taxed completely out of the city. You are correct, some Ann Arbor voters knew exactly what we were getting from the RTA millage – nothing but a bigger tax bill. We’ve been getting gypped and ripped by the transit pushers for years, usually they can sell it as an environmental issue to our more gullible liberal elite neighbors, but not the rest of us. We know the environmental effects are always slimmer than promised.

    For others it’s an excuse to feel progressive, to erase any sense that they might be a little racist at heart, living as they do in mainly white wealthy areas like Ann Arbor or Birmingham. Why not vote yes when you make $250-300K a year what’s another $500 on your tax bill for a service you will never use? You won’t even miss the money. Heck, some of you have shoes that cost more than that you never use either. But the rest of us who earn less miss the $100 taken from us much more. One or two fewer times we can take our family out to dinner somewhere decent (anywhere really), a week of brown-bag lunches for school day and two working parents, new-to-us winter coats for the kids from Value World. Hoping to force a tax like this on the rest of us without it meeting a minimum participation threshold is bad enough, knowing that RTA will be back to the well again and again, like Mike Ford was in Ann Arbor – I don’t wish that on any community.

    There was zero benefit to a majority of us in this overblown proposal. Sending a 20 year stream of money to Wayne County would not make our life better in any measurable way.

    I know RTA will be back with it’s collective hand out again. It will use comments like this to tune it’s message. Try more of the things you did this time – make promises of free rides for protected employee groups like gov’t workers, “downtown” workers, etc. Keep making not-so-subtle suggestions that the people who oppose excessive spending are really racist and ageist, trying to keep blacks from taking the train to sell drugs and old ladies from getting to the doctor. As for lack of transit options keeping the educated liberals and millennial’s away, the further away the better if my experiences of late with these two groups is any indication.

    1. Sorry about your financial struggles. Sounds like you could really use some reliable public transit in your daily life. Think how much $$$ you would save. Gas money slashed, no monthly parking costs, car repairs much less frequently, lower insurance, and maybe you could even live without a car! How much money would any of those things save you? If a sizable chunk of people could rely on transit, then the tax burden of projects like widening I-75 (which won’t help ease traffic, according to science) wouldn’t be justified. The fact is, in regions with successful mass transit, the system is an effective investment in helping the least fortunate that just happens to benefit the majority of people.

      PS, the racial issues that tinge opposition to this issue are very real, especially in Detroit’s suburbs. And just so you know, “gypped” is a racially derogatory term, though I’m assuming you didn’t mean it that way.

    2. Please sign my Petition to get Federal and State funding on the voting ballot and increase ridership and passenger fares. Doing so could help throw a monkey wrench into the RTA plans of coming back in 2018 without first filling up buses with fare box paying customers. There is no excuse with advanced computer and radio technologies available making it easier to make better use of limited transportation tax dollars.


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