The RTA Plan: A Giant Step Forward for Transit in Metro Detroit

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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

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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

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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

Here’s the Lowdown on Proposed DDOT Service Changes

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Note: DDOT is hosting a final public hearing on these service changes on Tuesday, January 19, 5-6 pm in the Rosa Parks Transit Center (upper level). Hope to see you there!

Last month, the Detroit Department of Transportation announced a series of changes in scheduled bus service, the first major overhaul of scheduled service in years.

As everyone knows, DDOT buses don’t always run according to schedule. But performance has improved a great deal since the Motor City Freedom Riders first met with new DDOT director Dan Dirks in early 2014, and the service changes can help tell us where the system’s headed. Read on for our analysis. Continue reading

Victory: DDOT Is On the Dashboard!

ddotdashboardIn February of this year, the Freedom Riders launched a petition to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, asking him to add DDOT bus performance information to his “Detroit Dashboard,” his weekly online progress report on city services. The Mayor had, after all, said that improving bus service was his most important priority, yet the Dashboard contained no information on that front.

Over the coming months, we collected more than 500 signatures on the petition.  And, at long last, the Mayor’s Dashboard features DDOT performance information, including both morning and afternoon “pullout,” the number of buses that get out of the garage and onto the road each day.

It’s a small, symbolic step. But it sends a strong message that decent bus service – used mostly by the city’s poorest citizens – is every bit as important as police services, fire protection, and other essential city functions. It also shows the power of what we can do together. Continue reading

Elections Next Week Will Shape Transit Prospects

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Post-election update: Transit won in Scio Township, with fully 67% of voters in support. In Rochester Hills, pro-transit challenger Yalamanchi fell short with 39% of the vote to incumbent mayor Barnett’s 53%.

2015 is an off year for elections in Michigan, and many of us are looking ahead to November 2016 – not just for the presidential election, but for the anticipated Regional Transit Authority ballot proposal that could give a historic boost to transit in metro Detroit.

Yet a number of communities in the metro area do have local elections a week from today, and some of them could be very consequential for public transit. Here we spotlight two elections, in Scio Township and Rochester Hills, of particular interest to bus riders and our allies. Continue reading

SMART Board Debates Restoring Service to Detroit

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For over a year, since the SMART tax millage increase passed last August, the Freedom Riders have urged the transit agency to consider restoring seamless all-day service between Detroit and the suburbs – to little avail. SMART General Manager John Hertel said that wasn’t worth discussing, and dismissed our petitions as “posturing.”

Today, in a special meeting, the SMART board debated a proposal very similar to the one we put forward: restoring all-day and weekend service across Eight Mile on its two most-traveled routes, Woodward (450/60) and Gratiot (560).

The about-face was prompted by the Regional Transit Authority (RTA), which now controls the division of federal funding between DDOT and SMART. That allocation has been a subject of fierce debate. The power to control that funding split is one of the RTA’s , and it appears RTA staff are now using the power of the purse to push SMART to restore regional service – sparking a spirited debate among the SMART board members. Continue reading

Biden Buses Good…But Won’t Get Where the Jobs Are

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For Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s main bus garage was a triumphant finale to his effort to secure more new buses from the feds.

For DDOT’s riders, the 80 new buses are a welcome sight on city streets. Yet sadly, they still won’t get us into the suburbs, where the great majority of the jobs are, because DDOT service is still confined to the city of Detroit.

In his speech, Vice-President Biden alluded to the disconnect between Detroiters and jobs. “100,000 Detroiters don’t have automobiles,” he said, “and jobs are places where people who need them the most aren’t. What’s the use of having a job if you can’t get there?” Metro Detroit, he noted, has the worst “job sprawl” in the nation,  with more than 77% of jobs located more than 10 miles from downtown. Continue reading

Solidarity with Bus Drivers Across Michigan

This Labor Day, as in the past, the Freedom Riders were proud to march with the DDOT and SMART bus drivers of Amalgamated Transit Union Locals 26 and 1564. As we walked down Michigan Avenue – over the tracks once used by ATU Local 26 streetcar drivers – we couldn’t help but think about the need for more displays of rider-driver solidarity.

Too often, riders and drivers are pitted against each other. Across the country, bus drivers have been assaulted by angry passengers pushed to the limit by service cuts and fare increases. If you’ve been on one of the new DDOT buses, you’ll have seen the plastic shields around the driver’s seat, a newfangled design intended to insulate against attacks.

This is a tragedy for all of us. We’ve got to go in the opposite direction, the way shown us by “Boo-yah,” the legendary DDOT driver who greets riders with a friendly fist-bump. We need to build a closer bond between riders and drivers – because both riders and drivers are under much bigger kinds of attack. Continue reading

Dirks: DDOT Will Be At 100% Pullout by September

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On May 29, the Freedom Riders met with Detroit Department of Transportation Director Dan Dirks at DDOT headquarters on East Warren. These meetings have become a familiar, almost casual fixture of our work. Despite DDOT’s continued struggle to get buses on the road, Dirks was perhaps more optimistic than we’ve ever seen him. He told us Detroit would be getting all its scheduled buses running by this fall, for the first time in years, once his new drivers-in-training have graduated.

“This thing didn’t break overnight,” Dirks said, “so fixing it will take a little time. We now have more buses than we have drivers.” However, by July, he expects 60 more drivers to have finished training. “By September,” he says, “we should make it.” Continue reading