After RTA defeat, piecemeal approach to transit is Detroit’s best hope

A rendering of a proposed bus rapid transit stop in Eastern Market.
A rendering of a proposed bus rapid transit stop in Eastern Market.

I’m finally coming up for bit of air following the bleakness of last week’s election results. In the interest of preserving sanity, I’ve largely blocked out political news and Twitter for a few days (though it must be said that Dave Chappelle’s turn as host on SNL was powerful and essential for the healing process).

At any rate, I am ready to say a few things about the disappointing vote rejecting the Regional Transit Authority proposal.

Obviously, it was a disappointing result—though probably not surprising given the larger voting trends. I heard from a couple friends who said, essentially, we’ll push it through in 2018. Over at the Freep, John Gallagher couched it as a disappointing but inevitable setback after an improbably long “winning streak” for Detroit.

But there is something that feels soundly demoralizing about this vote.

Car culture wins again

This was, according to Stephen Henderson, the host of WDET’s “Detroit Today,” the 40th attempt at getting a credible mass transit plan put together for Detroit.

It was easily the most ambitious and well thought-out plan in years, if possibly ever, representing years worth of dilligent work listening to community members and planning.

Major business groups like the Detroit Regional Chamber and Business Leaders for Michigan threw their weight behind it. Crain’s did a poll of its readers that found better than 70 percent support for it.

We were finally going to get Detroit-Ann Arbor passenger rail and rapid bus transit to Metro Airport, for chrissakes.

And yet, voters rejected it.

The RefleXIn a statement, RTA Board Chairman Paul Hillegonds and RTA CEO Micheal Ford said the defeat “is a deeply disappointing setback for efforts to create a modern transit system that would position southeast Michigan to be a stronger competitor in the 21st century both nationally and internationally.

“It leaves southeast Michigan as the only large region in the nation … without a functioning regional rapid transit system.”

Running the numbers

In the end, the proposal lost by 18,000 votes. That’s 18,000 out of 1.8 million votes cast—a narrow .01-percent margin. The proposal was approved in transit-friendly Washtenaw County and in Wayne County, as expected, but lost in suburban Oakland and Macomb. It figured to face and uphill climb in both of those sprawling places.

Voters in Macomb trounced it by a whopping 75,000 votes, a nearly 60-40 rejection. But the proposal went down by only 1,000 votes in Oakland County. The political leaders of both counties are frankly never going to lift a finger to support this idea, especially not now.

So the time has come, I believe, for transit backers to cut their losses and rein in our ambitions. The narrow vote total there suggests Oakland County could be in play next time, when voters demographics or other factors may better favor it. Ferndale, for example, showed strong support for it.

AAATA bus But Macomb is obviously a lost cause.

So I’m with my friends at Daily Detroit:

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who has the political capital, should reach out to the leaders of Wayne County, the Ann Arbor Transit Authority and the city of Ann Arbor and forge a new path that involves both counties and whatever neighboring cities in Oakland County that want to play such as Ferndale to set up a new coalition.


It’s time to move on transit without Macomb and much of Oakland. Their vote made it clear. They simply don’t share the belief that investing in transit is an important part of being a world class region or their own success.

Obviously, such a plan would leave huge holes in areas rich with jobs where employers are struggling to fill them. But it’s now clear that baby steps forward are all we can hope for.

So the RTA should find a way to extend the 2-year pilot program for the Reflex express bus service between the suburbs and Detroit. The QLine will need to find a permanent, long-range source of funding, and probably find a way to extend the line to 8 Mile or even 9 Mile.

People have also been talking about reinstating passenger rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit for years. We probably just lost our best chance at it, but that proposal makes too much economic sense and will no doubt live on to see another day.

So transit in Detroit isn’t completely dead, but it did suffer a staggering blow. What do you think we should do about transit in Detroit?

Creative Commons photo via VasenkaPhotography

2 thoughts on “After RTA defeat, piecemeal approach to transit is Detroit’s best hope

  1. I was very disappointed by many things last November from the presidential election to the RTA vote. I am a big public transit supporter but I see one very important thing missing from our public transit supporters: ridership. I am guilty of it too. We have a two car household. It is just easier and faster to hop in a car. The bus stops 10 miles short of my work. According to Google it would take me 2 hours by bus and 3.5 hours to walk compared to 40 minutes by car. I was really excited to move from Rochester (transit desert) to Warren near a 9 Mile bus stop. I hate that I can ride the 9 Mile bus into Ferndale for dinner or a night out but can’t get home because the bus stops running east at 8pm. SMART said they could run later if they had the ridership which they do not. Between now and the next RTA vote we need to do what we can to increase awareness of what we currently have, promote it and increase ridership. I’m not sure how to reach those in Macomb who voted no. The only feedback I saw that made sense it that the RTA plan didn’t add any new routes that would service McMansionville. These are people who look for a return on each dollar from their $400K house to their Costo membership. The truth is they will pay $80 for private car service to the airport or $100 to leave their car in a lot but they won’t pay $100 in yearly taxes to help out the region if the service doesn’t directly help them.

    1. Definitely agree that the RTA didn’t do a good job selling itself to voters, but I also know they’re pretty hamstrung financial and otherwise in what they can do under the legislation that created the agency.

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