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If Not for Trump, Last Night Would Have Been Great for Transit

Last night had the makings of a historic election for transit. Voters in cities as varied as Raleigh, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles turned out to support ballot measures to dramatically expand bus and rail service. But the election of Donald Trump and the retention of GOP majorities in both houses of Congress cast a pall of uncertainty over transit agencies everywhere, with continued federal support for transit suddenly in doubt.

Transit backers had a stellar night in local elections, but the Trump win brings funding uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber

In local elections, transit ballot measures performed well, but the Trump win brings broader uncertainty. Photo: Seattle Chamber

In the regions with major transit ballot initiatives, the returns look good. (You can track the results at The Transport Politic.)

Indianapolis area voters approved a comprehensive transit expansion package that will significantly upgrade bus service throughout Marion County.

Raleigh and the rest of Wake County voted for a similar package of additional bus service and BRT routes, as well as a commuter rail connection to Durham.

Atlanta handily passed a half-cent sales tax that will expand MARTA’s rail and bus networks, as well as a separate measure to fund local complete streets projects.

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Transit Vote 2016: With Historic Decision, Detroit Could Heal Old Divides

The highlight of metro Detroit's $4.6 billion transit plan is four bus rapid transit routes connecting the city to suburban job centers. Map: Michigan RTA. Click to enlarge.

The highlight of metro Detroit’s $4.6 billion transit plan is four bus rapid transit routes connecting the city to suburban job centers. Map: Michigan RTA. Click to enlarge.

We continue our overview of what’s at stake in the big transit ballot initiatives this November with a look at Detroit. Previous installments in this series examined Indianapolis and Seattle

The four-county transit ballot measure before voters in Southeast Michigan this November is truly historic.

It took 40 years and 23 failed attempts for Detroit and its suburbs to establish a regional transit agency. They finally won state support to establish the RTA in 2012. At the time, Detroit was on the verge of bankruptcy, and its general-revenue-supported transit system was in dire condition.

Transit service in the region is fragmented and unreliable, even though a quarter of city residents don’t own cars. The severity of the problem was encapsulated by the story of James Robertson, whose commute to a factory job in the suburbs required taking two buses and walking 21 miles.

The Detroit region is the largest U.S. metro area without a unified regional transit system. This photo shows a suburban "Smart" bus. Photo: Michigan RTA

The Detroit region is the largest U.S. metro area without a unified transit system. This photo shows a suburban “Smart” bus. Photo: Michigan RTA

The RTA can’t deliver a better transit system without funding, and that’s where the vote in November comes into play.

The Detroit region has put together a $4.6 billion, four-county plan to improve transit. The centerpiece is a network of bus rapid transit lines extending out from downtown. Funded by a 20-year property tax increase, the measure would cost the average homeowner in the region about $95 a year.

Megan Owens, director of the advocacy group Transit Riders United, says the measure is important for a few reasons. Right now, urban and suburban transit services are poorly integrated. That’s what messed up James Robertson’s commute — the suburb he worked in opted out of the suburban transit system. The lack of coherent transit connections makes the region’s notorious job sprawl an even bigger problem.

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End of an Era? Detroit’s Suburban Power Broker Won’t Block Transit Vote

A rendering of what Gratiot Avenue would look like with bus rapid transit. Image: Michigan RTA via Curbed

A rendering of Gratiot Avenue with bus rapid transit. Image: Michigan RTA via Curbed

There was a time when Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson could appeal to white racial anxiety and do lasting damage to the Detroit region. It almost happened again last week when Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel nearly scuttled a vote on a regional transit tax that would fund a significant expansion bus and rail service.

Over the course of 40 years, 23 attempts to create a unified regional transit system had failed. Why would this time be any different?

Well, it’s looking more and more like the politics of the Detroit region have changed. Reversing course, Patterson and Hackel have reportedly reached an agreement to put the transit expansion measure before voters in November.

The details of their deal with other board members of the Detroit Regional Transit Authority haven’t been made public. But Patterson told the Detroit Free Press he is satisfied that his base of support in the affluent, sprawling northern Oakland County suburbs won’t be “left out.”

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Suburban Separatists Threaten Detroit’s Dream of Functional Transit

In the last few years, it seemed like Detroit and its suburbs had shaken off the deep anti-urban pathologies that had always stood in the way of a robust regional transit system.

Brooks Patterson, the poster boy for Detroit's culture wars, is threatening to kill plans for regional transit. Photo: Twitter

Brooks Patterson, a long-time antagonist of the city of Detroit, is threatening to kill plans for regional transit.

Almost four years ago, officials from the Detroit region won state permission to establish a regional transit authority (RTA), the result of a heroic effort. It was the first step toward fixing a transit system in crisis.

Detroit’s transit problems go beyond its woefully underfunded system with no dedicated revenue stream. That weakness is exacerbated by regional dysfunction. Unlike most other regions in the country, Detroit and its suburbs have maintained a bifurcated system of suburban and urban transit networks, creating all sorts of hurdles for riders, like indirect routes and too many transfers.

In 2012, Detroit and its suburbs formed the RTA, following 40 years of effort and 23 failed attempts. This year was supposed to be when that cooperation really began to pay off. The RTA board, which consists of members from the city of Detroit and the suburban municipalities, plans to seek voter support in November for a property tax increase that will raise $2.9 billion over 20 years to build a respectable four-county transit system.

The RTA has been developing its plan for regional transit for months. The major pieces are three bus rapid transit lines that would connect Detroit to major job centers in the suburbs.

But now Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson — Detroit’s famously self-styled “sprawl king” — and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel are threatening to scuttle the whole effort, reviving the ugly, racially-charged dysfunction that has devastated central Detroit.

Last week Patterson and Hackel threw the whole process for a loop by refusing to sign on to the ballot measure. Without their approval, it can’t be put to voters in the fall.

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The Fight for Better Access to Jobs in Detroit and Milwaukee, Using Buses

Low-income residents of Detroit and Milwaukee face formidable obstacles to job access. These two Rust Belt regions are consistently ranked among the most segregated in the country, and neither has a good transit system.

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched by DDOT

Bus riders in Detroit. Photo: Ditched By DDOT

In both regions, the places that have been growing and adding jobs fastest have been been overwhelmingly sprawling, suburban areas inaccessible to people without cars.

A 2013 Brookings study ranked Detroit number one in the U.S. in job sprawl. According to that report, 77 percent of the region’s jobs are at least 10 miles outside of downtown. The national average is 43 percent.

Detroit’s woeful job access issues were perhaps best illustrated by James Robertson, a factory worker who commutes to a suburb that “opted out” of the regional transit system. Robertson’s brutal commute went viral, and while it was extreme even for Detroit, it highlighted a disjointed transit network that limits opportunity for many other residents.

Milwaukee faces a similar set of problems. As of December 2014, Milwaukee County had only regained 35 percent of the jobs lost during the recession, while outlying counties had regained 70 percent, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis. A 2013 study by Public Policy Forum found that about a third of the region’s 29 major job centers were inaccessible by transit. A local civil rights group recently prevailed in a suit against the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for its continued prioritization of costly highway projects at the expense of vital transit connections.

Now, both Detroit and Milwaukee are considering similar measures to improve job access: high-quality bus service that will connect workers from the city to suburban job centers.

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Parking Madness: Louisville vs. Troy

So far Streetsblog readers have voted on seven head-to-head matchups in our 2016 Parking Madness tournament. Soon we’ll be down to the Elite Eight of parking craters. (You can still vote in the Long Beach vs. Muncie poll, which we’re extending to account for the holiday weekend in California.) But first, there’s one more pair of asphalt horrors in the running to win the coveted Golden Crater.

Rounding out the competition are these parking craters in downtown Louisville and Troy, Michigan, outside Detroit.

Louisville

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Branden Klayko runs the local blog Broken Sidewalk and nominated this part of downtown Louisville. He writes:

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The Complete Case Against Highway Widening in Detroit

Detroit in 1949 versus how it appears today. Images: AtDetroit.net via Streetsblog

Detroit in 1949 versus today. Images: AtDetroit.net

Michigan DOT wants to spend $1 billion rebuilding and widening I-75 to Detroit’s sprawling northern suburbs, at the expense of the city and close-in suburbs. Royal Oak, a walkable suburb that borders the city, is not having it.

The City Council passed a resolution unanimously this week officially opposing the widening of I-75 as well as the expansion of I-94. The two highway projects combined would add up to $4 billion in misplaced spending for a region that is badly in need of new strategies.

The text of Royal Oak’s resolution is pretty great [PDF]. It eviscerates the state’s plans and lays out a policy vision that would be great for the region if Michigan DOT ever gets smart enough to change direction.

Take a look:

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With Widening of I-75, Michigan DOT Will Deliver Another Blow to Detroit

The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia

The widening and reconstruction of I-75 north of Detroit will cost $1 billion and take 14 years. Photo: Wikipedia

The city of Detroit lost a stunning 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. Even as the city struggles heroically to repair the damage, the Michigan state government is undermining Detroit’s fragile recovery.

Leave it to Michigan DOT to come in and make Detroit’s problems worse. The Detroit Free Press is reporting that the state DOT wants to pour $1 billion into the widening and reconstruction of 17 miles of I-75 north of the city, serving residents of the region’s affluent, racially segregated far northern suburbs.

Everyone agrees the highway needs to get repaired, but widening it is a different matter. A bigger road will siphon residents and economic activity from the city and close-in suburbs. Transit riders, environmental groups, and representatives of inner ring suburbs are protesting that the project will fuel sprawl, squander resources, and lead to more inequality.

Pushing for the project are suburbs that have benefitted from the exodus from Detroit, gaining jobs and businesses even as the regional population has flatlined.

Brooks Patterson, executive of wealthy, suburban Oakland County, is a leading supporter. Patterson, who famously cheered that “your sprawl is my economic development,” has referred to I-75 as the county’s “Main Street.” He told the Free Press the project would boost quality of life in his community by easing congestion and promoting economic development. Officials from the sprawling suburb of Troy are also big supporters.

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Detroit Bus Driver Contract Offers Bonuses When Ridership Rises

A new labor contract between the Detroit Department of Transportation and ATU Local 26 explicitly ties bus driver bonuses to ridership increases.

If farebox revenue goes up, 30 percent of the increase will belong to drivers, up to a certain point, DDOT announced earlier this week. Individual drivers’ bonuses are capped at $350 per year the first year and can rise to $750 in the fourth year of the contract.

The bus drivers union ratified the agreement on Friday. “With fare box sharing, if DDOT succeeds, our drivers will share financially in that success,” Fred Westbrook, president of ATU Local 26, said in the press release.

Megan Owens of Detroit’s Transportation Riders United said she’s generally supportive of the revenue-sharing provision.

“If they have a little extra reason to help out a new rider to have a good experience or be a little more patient with a frustrating rider … that appears to be a worthwhile investment,” she said.

Steven Higashide of TransitCenter said revenue-sharing is a “really innovative and fascinating provision” that he hasn’t seen elsewhere.

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Detroit Breaks Ground on First Protected Bike Lane Project

Detroit broke ground this week on its first protected bike lane. Image: Jefferson East Inc.

A parking-protected bike lane is coming to Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. Image: Jefferson East Inc.

The Motor City is getting its first taste of on-street protected bike infrastructure. Work has begun on a street redesign that will bring Detroit its very first bike lane where parked cars will protect riders from motor vehicle traffic.

The bike lane is part of a road diet for Jefferson Avenue in the historic Jefferson-Chalmers business district. Construction crews have begun adding landscaped islands to the street, and later in the year, the road will be resurfaced and protected bike lanes will be added, reports Jefferson East Inc., the nonprofit group helping lead the planning process.

“It will be the first in the city and, I believe, the state,” said Justin Fried, who manages the project for Jefferson East. “The goal is to calm the street, narrow the road and improve safety.”

The intersection of Jefferson and Chalmers has been a particular problem, according to Jefferson East, with a number of crashes injuring pedestrians. The first phase of the project is only seven blocks, but a second phase will extend it three miles to Grand Boulevard.

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