Detroit Metro Area May Finally Get Better Transit

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

The death of a high-profile transit foe may finally free the Detroit metro area to establish a regional bus system — which could help break down the racial segregation that for decades has undermined social and economic progress in the region.

L. Brooks Patterson, the long-time executive of Oakland County, died earlier this month of colon cancer.

Patterson, a proponent of suburban sprawl, for years stymied efforts to levy funds for a bus system, preventing a new referendum after a ballot measure seeking $4.6 billion failed by only 1 percent in 2016.

A divisive politician, Patterson trafficked in segregationist dog whistles as he sought to keep majority-black Detroit separate from the wealthy, majority-white northern suburbs.

“The only thing holding this back for the past few years was Brooks,” said Kevin McCoy, a transportation expert based in the region. “The region needs regional transit investment — big time.”

It now has a proponent of such investment.

Patterson’s replacement, Dave Coulter, the first Democrat to lead Oakland County in 27 years, told Detroit’s NPR station this week that he would support a ballot measure next year in order to expand transit across the four-county metro region.

The Detroit metro area has struggled for decades to establish a seamless regional transit system serving both its city and suburbs — leaving city residents without a car at an enormous disadvantage in seeking employment in the suburbs. Detroit’s suburbs operate a separate transit system from the city, SMART, creating all kinds of headaches for riders.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Transportation prevailed on regional leaders to establish a united regional system, and local advocates were able to win state approval to build a four-county transit authority with taxing power. But funding was missing — until now.

“There are people that would like to get another ballot proposal on the ballot next year and that strikes me as a reasonable goal to try and shoot for,” Coulter said in an interview with NPR this week.

Republicans have said they will seek to challenge his appointment.




5 thoughts on Detroit Metro Area May Finally Get Better Transit

  1. The RTA’s proposal failed in Oakland County by just 1% not because there was just slightly less than even support from residents across the county but rather because there was heavy support from people within cities that would be served by the proposed transit system and heavy opposition from people within cities and townships that would not be served by the proposed transit system. The reality of population changes in Oakland County is that people are moving out of the inner ring suburbs (read: those that would be served by the RTA’s proposed system) and to the outer suburbs (read: those that would not be served). These people are likely not going to be supporters of a transit system that they’re expected to pay for but from which they receive no benefit.

    In addition, the 2016 proposal failed in absolutely dramatic fashion in Macomb county. The likelihood that a massive number of Macomb County residents will change their minds about supporting a system that they previously rejected – for pretty much the same reasons that Oakland County residents in to-be-unserved communities rejected the proposal – in 2016 is not very great.

    The fact is, Michigan needs to revisit how transit proposals get onto ballots and how they’re paid for. Either allow communities that aren’t to be served to opt out of voting for and paying for a regional transit system or change the funding mechanism to a county-wide income or sales tax. Forcing homeowners in communities that aren’t to be served to pay for the system that they’re not going to benefit from is simply not going to result in the growing populations in those communities lending their support to any such proposal.

    The RTA and supporters of mass transit in metro Detroit need to lower their sights and chase after good-enough-for-now instead of what’s most ideal. The insistence on going after what’s most ideal has resulted in absolutely no progress, which is worse than some progress.

  2. Everyone benefits when more people have access to employment and services. You might not use the service yourself but the person who stocks your grocery store might. Allowing them to get to work is good for you too. Its why it makes sense that everyone pays for schools even if you don’t have kids. This idea that your taxers should only help you directly is destroying the nation.

    Also, the inner ring suburbs are growing along with the outer areas. Royal Oak & Ferndale are doing well. Walkable neighborhoods are in demand even in places outside of Detroit’s city limits.

  3. Except from a statistical perspective – that first statement of Brandon’s is entirely false. There is no benefit aside from feels for much of this. The person who stocks my grocery store lives in my community – which would be 20 miles from the nearest bus stop and over 3 hours and 4 bus swaps from downtown. Its a 35 minute drive.

    That its tied to property taxes is odd in that when you have a tax that specifically benefits only other areas – that tax effectively devalues one’s home while at the same time its being used to inflate the value of someone else’s home. Which transit certainly can do.

    I’m a proponent of transit – but I’ve firmly fought against the last 2 rounds of MI’s RTA plan for a few reasons. They’re massively predicated on local bus delivering value allegedly in a way that not one single analysis shows an indication of. They’re also wildly disparately in favor of the southern 2 counties, one of which has put, utter f all into anything regional – that being Washtenaw.

    What I find most galling is that to start with – the rationality for foisting “BRT” on Macomb/Oakland is to be cheap to start off with – that’s all. Just a way to do less…and with that being the start point the RTA then, unceasingly cuts a part off… dedicated lanes? light primacy? limited stops? Actual stations instead of a bench?

    As soon as you do that – any benefit of what you’re calling BRT that isn’t BRT no longer exists. And why? Because if the RTA starts with cheaping out for the areas paying most – you can be damn sure they’re going to cheap out the whole way.

    I have zero trust in the RTA to deliver anything to my area. That started with their original regional map… my community was under the legend. I’ve seen little improvement in the plan since then.

  4. @Brandon Kovnat: The workers who live and work in places like Commerce Township (where I live), West Bloomfield, White Lake, Waterford, and many other communities that, together, are home to a huge percentage of Oakland County’s residents would not be using the RTA’s proposed system to get to and from their jobs – or anywhere else for that matter – within or outside of these communities…because the proposed transit system entirely left out these and other communities. A person living in places not served by the RTA’s proposed transit system would benefit just as much from the RTA’s proposed transit system as they would from the transit system of New York, Los Angeles, London, or any city anywhere else in the world.

    Also, most of the communities that lay outside of the proposed transit system’s coverage area are simply not designed for walkability. They’re either very expansive with no dense residential, commercial, or industrial districts or have already been built in such a way as to make sidewalks and bus stops either cost-prohibitive or simply not at all feasible. Here in the lakes area of Oakland County, bus stops and sidewalks simply aren’t possible along the roads that border the lakes – because there’s simply no room for either (even if there was room, placing bus stops on roads with no room for passing would bring already hellish rush hour traffic to a standstill).

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