How Detroit ended up with the worst public transit
Off the rails.
Published: March 11, 2014
10 MINUTE WAITS AN ‘INJUSTICE’
That’s not to say metro Detroit’s transit systems used to be in worse shape than the infrastructure of today. Craig, the DetroitTransitHistory.info proprietor, has fond memories of the early 1960s, the time when he discovered his love for buses. The various private operators had problems, Craig says, but the one- to two-hour waits some Detroiters face today were unimaginable. Quotes scattered throughout newspaper clippings from the 1960s he’s collected over the years show riders blubbering about 10- or 15-minute waits.
“Back then, if you waited 10 minutes for a Woodward bus — back 30, 40, 50 years ago — that would be an injustice,” Craig says. “We’ve come a long way, unfortunately, in a downward spiral getting there.” But as ridership levels wavered, the worsening financial conditions of numerous bus operators eventually led to fractured service. So officials and planners set about crafting a solution.
At the time, major metropolitan areas were moving toward regional transit operations, and some local officials were feverishly working to hatch such a plan for metro Detroit on the heels of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Urban Mass Transportation Act. But the initial show of support for a regionalized operation was minimal. Mergers were previously considered, but the 1960s served as a landmark in metro Detroit’s storied history of failed regional cooperation (See sidebar). From this point forward, Detroit’s status in the region as the central core of activity slowly disintegrated, as the lack of cooperation slowly dispersed capital and fractured transit operations outward to the suburbs.
By 1967, state legislators would offer a breath of fresh air with the passage of the Metropolitan Transportation Authorities Act, which formed the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA). The authority was tasked with merging the operations of the numerous transit systems across metro Detroit.
The problem? State lawmakers failed to grant SEMTA the ability to levy taxes for a dedicated revenue stream. This forced the authority to rely on private sources and state grants to get an efficient regional transit system off the ground.
Not far away in the Rust Belt, when the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority was formed a decade later, voters approved a 1 percent countywide sales tax to fund the authority, paying for nearly 70 percent of the operating budget.
The merger became the difficult part. The 1967 riots in Detroit cut loose tensions between an institutionally racist police department and residents, leaving wounds that still linger today. When Coleman Young, the city’s first black mayor, took office in 1974, those tensions heated up again. But Young was seeking to make decisions that benefited Detroiters, in much the same way suburban leaders have worked for their residents ever since.
To say it was simply Young’s rhetoric that widened the city and suburban racial divide and halted regional transit discussions would be wrong. There were legitimate concerns from Detroit surrounding the governance of a regional authority, something neither side appears to have budged an inch on. In a 2012 Urban Affairs Review article by Jan Nelles, she summed up the simmering issues surrounding SEMTA, which represented a seven-county region (Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne).
“Detroit was reluctant to give up control to a regional body dominated by suburban interests, and disputed the distribution of representation from each jurisdiction on the governing board,” Nelles writes. “For its part, SEMTA was wary of taking over the DSR’s liabilities, which included a significantly underfunded [pension liability].”
In the early 1970s, then-Gov. William Milliken was at work to merge the two operations because President Gerald Ford had promised $600 million in federal funds (about $2 billion in today’s dollars) for public transit during his presidential campaign, Nelles writes. The Urban Mass Transit Administration (UMTA) would administer the grant, but the agency required some form of a regional authority that included a true merger of the systems as a stipulation for releasing the funds. Things were looking bright as officials reached a compromise in 1976, culminating in the passage of revamped SEMTA legislation.
FORD TO DETROIT: WE’RE SORRY
Johnny Cash once mused to an interviewer that failure should not be dwelled on. Failure, he supposedly said, should be analyzed, so as to not make the same mistake twice.
It’s an adage worth mentioning, as the transit plan being pursued in the 1970s could’ve been a game-changer. And yet metro Detroit continued to fall into the same trap.
Scott Wagner, then an assistant manager for rail technology with SEMTA, recalls the plans with fervor. The main piece of the project, a Woodward Avenue subway line, would’ve run from the Renaissance Center to McNichols Road, where it would surface and follow the corridor’s median. Then, Wagner says, the service would continue northbound into Royal Oak, where it would shift toward Main Street or Washington Avenue (“We were still negotiating with Royal Oak”), and eventually link up with an existing commuter rail service between Pontiac and Detroit.
It didn’t end there. Rail lines were intended to run along Gratiot Avenue as far northeast as the I-94 freeway, according to a story from the Ann Arbor Sun. An additional commuter line between Port Huron and Detroit would’ve been constructed. A flush light rail system would’ve extended into the suburbs. And, yes, downtown’s People Mover was in the pipeline as a way to link these systems up where they converged.
It’s an important point to remember, because bitter locals, out-of-towners, writers parachuting into Detroit and others easily forget that the People Mover, which exists as a lonely and generally useless 2.9-mile fixed-route light rail system above downtown’s business district, was intended to be more.
Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), recalls the plans, as he started work at the planning agency around the same time. He echoes points about the issues that strained relationships between the suburbs and the city over public transit.
“A lot of that is tied to revenue, a lot of that is tied to having two separate and distinct systems that serve different populations,” Palombo says.
The reason there’s no subway running under Woodward Avenue today linking Oakland County and Detroit is a “difference of perceived needs between elected officials,” he says.
Merger discussions continued as late as 1979, culminating in the passage of a half-cent gas tax in the tri-country region for the new transit system, the University of Detroit Mercy report says.
Again, like clockwork, the plan would fall apart due to disagreements between the city and the suburbs. Mayor Young was opposed to SEMTA’s plan for a light-rail system along Woodward. He wanted the high-capacity heavy rail system as a condition of the merger, according to the UDM report. Young and county leaders began a public back-and-forth over the Woodward proposal.
The price tag for Young’s heavy rail technology brought the regional transit project to nearly $1.5 billion, Nelles writes, diminishing lawmakers’ interest.
Wagner says the price shouldn’t have been an issue, pointing to the significance of the $600 million federal commitment. “We could’ve gotten the [Woodward] subway for that kind of money,” he says. “That would’ve been one hell of a start.”
With a successful subway, Wagner says, momentum would’ve likely shifted in favor of mass transit.
What’s readily evident, he says, is metro Detroit had the bones to make mass transit work as late as the 1980s: Between the existing commuter rail and bus services, the $600 million regional proposal floated three decades before would’ve laid the groundwork for modern public transit in Detroit. A 1-percent sales tax to support the project was on the table, he says, potentially generating hundreds of millions of dollars to support capital costs. It never went anywhere.
By the mid-1980s, the lack of a shared vision made the regional transit plan near impossible to complete. SEMTA dissolved a 45-minute commuter train route it had been operating between Detroit and Pontiac for nearly a decade; a year later an Ann Arbor route was cut.
Wagner lived in Ann Arbor during this period and remembers taking the commuter rail line at $15 per month for a train pass, “which was a lot cheaper than driving downtown,” he says.
Amtrak offered to restart service with funds to support a commuter rail line between Joe Louis Arena and Ann Arbor, but local funds were never identified and the project was axed. Although officials ensured that construction of the People Mover would move forward, it would come without the much-needed feeder lines to make it viable, Wagner says.
“The People Mover was never supposed to be standalone project,” he says. “That was supposed to be the downtown distributor for three lines that never got built.”
The People Mover’s bay area at the Joe Louis parking garage was initially thought to be an ideal station for the commuter rail service. When the feeder lines never commenced, the People Mover was eventually extended into Joe Louis Arena, Wagner says.
“We were going to run 11 trains [daily] between Joe Louis and Ann Arbor.”
Then, the $600 million federal commitment, which had survived three presidencies, was revoked. Stifled by personal comments made by Young and a lack of any concrete regional authority in place, President Ronald Reagan yanked the pledge off the table.
The inability to capitalize on the $600 million federal pledge is “arguably the most damaging decision to the Detroit region in the last 50 years,” says Keith Schneider, former director of the Michigan Land Use Institute.
By the end of the decade, SEMTA was dissolved by the state legislature, citing the inability to merge operations in the region. Under the newly minted Regional Transit Coordinating Council, which would operate under SEMCOG as the pass-through agency for grants, the SMART bus system was created. The bus system’s footprint covered Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
“The thing just fell apart,” says Craig. “It got so bad that by the time you got to the late ’80s, the sentiment was that we need to scrap the whole thing.”
Nelles writes in Urban Affairs the reason that public transit has gone nowhere in Detroit falls to the relationship between the city and its suburbs.
“Almost all of the challenges to the creation of a single regional transit system in metropolitan Detroit can be traced to power asymmetries that manifested in disagreements between the city and its suburbs over money, power and routes,” she writes.
MAKING THE CITY ‘ACCESSIBLE’
Elisabeth Gerber, professor at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, says metro Detroit’s problem is that leaders have never “gone to the whole region and made the case for expanded regional transit.”
In other metropolitan areas with successful developments of mass transit, “you can find a prominent leader who kind of stepped up and made this their issue,” says Gerber, a Washtenaw County representative on the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). “For whatever reason, you don’t see that in metro Detroit.”
Bill Bradley, columnist at Next City, an online magazine that covers urban issues, says a lot of people don’t realize how improved transit infrastructure can affect the economy and workforce.
“Economists and lawmakers like to talk about transit-oriented development,” Bradley says. “But I’m far more interested in making jobs more accessible to the people who need them most.”
Bradley, 28, has lived in New York City since 2007. A daily rider of the city’s robust public transit system, Bradley says it’s “undeniably the best, most reliable public transportation system in the country, even for low-income residents [in] the outer boroughs.”
And while he says improved public transit infrastructure in Detroit would likely benefit those who already rely on it the most, a vast operation with increased efficiencies would “make jobs in the suburbs or far-flung parts of the city that were previously out-of-reach more plausible.”
“Detroit is a car city, no doubt,” he adds. “But there are more low-income people in the city sans cars than [most] might think.”
But public transit comes at a cost. Whether it was taxpayers not willing to pump the necessary resources into such initiatives, or leaders failing to hash out a compromise, the fact is, the money to make it work has never materialized.
The capital for transit projects in metro Detroit continues to come from the state gas tax, Palombo points out, and that hasn’t increased since 1987.
“How can you build a transit system when you don’t fund it?” he says.
James Bruckbauer, policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute, says it’d likely take time to win over lawmakers and residents wary of public transit. And even if the money was there, constructing an effective transit system takes time.
Officials need to construct “a plan for transit that the public can get its arms around and understand and see the benefits of, before we start asking people to pay for it,” Bruckbauer says. “Look at Cleveland; they’ve had an established transit system since the 1970s; they’ve been able to show results to their transportation, but it still took them [several] years just to build seven miles of [bus rapid transit].”
FAILED MERGERS AND THE FUTURE
In the 1990s, DDOT and SMART managed to reach one agreement that remains relevant: a regional bus pass. Besides that, the region continued its tradition of failed mergers — lots of talk and studies and promises that fizzle before dying on the planning table.
Discussions were moving forward to consolidate DDOT with SMART as recently as 1994.
Then, according to Crain’s Detroit Business, the two main issues that derailed discussions during the Young administration reappeared: funding and control. The proposal gave Detroit the upper hand in governance of a regional system.
Then-Mayor Dennis Archer stuck to the same argument Young touted, Crain’s reports. Archer felt the proposal “makes sense because the Detroit Department of Transportation’s system has many more buses and riders than SMART.”
Archer told Crain’s at the time: “It would not be unreasonable for the city of Detroit to want to protect its interests.” Archer, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and other leaders never reached a compromise.
By most accounts, the most recent — and relevant — blunder came from former Gov. John Engler’s veto of the proposed Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority legislation in 2002. Engler axed the bill on his way out the door in 2002 to spite those holding up an eleventh-hour bill that would authorize the construction of 15 charter schools in Detroit.
According to The Michigan Daily, Engler said of his veto: “… if the region couldn’t get its act together on education, it didn’t make sense to help transit.”
So after nearly four decades — four decades of lagging behind other metropolitan areas — metro Detroit was nowhere closer to crafting a regional solution to transit.
That is, until 2012. After 23 previously failed attempts, an effort by the state legislature to establish an effective regional transit authority got the governor’s signature.
Signed into law by Gov. Snyder, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was created to represent Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. Under the legislation, the 10-member board representing the RTA would be tasked to oversee current transit operators across the four counties and develop a proposed 110-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) system.
The legislation didn’t come without controversy. The RTA’s bylaws show a clear distinction, and, some say, preference to bus options over rail (see sidebar). The authority’s board would need a supermajority to ask voters to approve a tax that would fund future operations and capital costs for the BRT system. To construct or operate a rail line, the board requires a unanimous vote.
And in the face of high expectations, the RTA underperformed in its first year. Its first pick as chief executive officer, John Hertel, stepped down from the job after just four months. When the RTA legislation was approved in 2012, it earmarked $500,000 for startup costs. That wasn’t enough. Hertel cited the lack of funds as a chief reason for quitting. Without additional support, he was unable to hire an administrative staff needed to prepare for a ballot campaign.
And when funding isn’t in place, the temptation to economize hurts more than bureaucracies. There are growing concerns that transit planners working without necessary resources might cut corners while designing a Bus Rapid Transit system, resulting in a phenomenon known as “BRT creep.”
The seminal piece on BRT creep comes from transit planner Dan Malouff. Writing for BeyondDC in 2011, Malouff says the ability to cut back on true BRT elements are endless: Buses running in shared expressway lanes, rather than true dedicated lanes; dedicated stations become “stops;” prepay fare and no priority is given to the buses at stop lights.
“There are a thousand corners like that you can cut that individually may or may not hurt too much, but collectively add up to the difference between BRT and a regular bus,” he writes.
Significantly, the RTA also recently voted to hold off on pursuing a ballot campaign until the 2016 general election. State law says the authority can only go to voters during general elections.
Bruckbauer, of the Michigan Land Use Institute, says patience is key. But as the recent RTA board meeting showed, transit advocates are fed up with waiting. Before the RTA voted to delay the ballot campaign, numerous members of the public urged the board to move forward with a proposal this fall, during Michigan’s gubernatorial election.
The concern was if the 2016 proposal failed, as numerous first-tries have, the RTA could continue operating as an organization essentially living hand-to-mouth, while sending hopes and prayers that the state legislature will chip in some additional help. It might be four years before the authority even receives a dime from a steady revenue source.
Lawmakers recently stripped $2 million for the RTA from a supplemental spending bill already approved by the Senate. Officials say it would support the next CEO hire, but at this point the money hangs in limbo. (A conference committee was scheduled Monday between the House and Senate to reach a compromise on the spending bill and possibly re-insert the RTA earmark. No decision had been made before Metro Times went to print.)
That decision, in particular, comes with a hint of irony: SEMTA, the 1970s regional authority, had troubles because lawmakers didn’t enable it to levy taxes. The current RTA can levy taxes, but it lacks the funding to get its feet off the ground.
Nevertheless, the Snyder administration says it fully supports the $2 million appropriation officials still hope to pass. Exactly why the need for more than $500,000 wasn’t recognized in the first place, though, isn’t clear.
Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Transportation Riders United, tells Metro Times she doesn’t “think anyone realized just how much it was going to take to get this agency up and running.”
After the millions of dollars spent on transit studies over the last four decades, how officials and lawmakers showcased a lack of understanding of what’s required to get the agency off the ground is unfathomable.
It also remains to be seen if the RTA might meet the same fate as SMART. Over the last decade, numerous communities have chosen to opt out of the suburban bus system.
State Rep. Kurt Heise, a Republican from Plymouth, turned heads last year when he introduced a bill that would allow communities to opt-out of the RTA, a stipulation specifically left out of the original legislation.
Heise says the communities he represents all opted out of SMART years ago: “I did not feel it was appropriate for me to bind my communities to a new regional transit authority when they have already affirmatively withdrawn from the existing [service].”
Although Heise concedes Gov. Snyder would likely veto his RTA opt-out bill, the representative says “it’s a potential bargaining chip in any potential Detroit bailout or financial assistance the state might provide.” Heise was referencing the $350 million pledge by Snyder to shore up Detroit’s pensions in its ongoing Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition.
“I do believe that the bill is a bargaining chip,” he says, “if the region is going to put money on the table to help Detroit.”
FOREVER LAGGING BEHIND
Back outside the DIA, Storm prepares to head to the museum to start work for the day. Even he runs into the unpleasant side of metro Detroit transit with his golden egg Woodward route. A couple of years back, SMART cut service into Detroit to only run during peak hours. If Storm misses the bus during those times, he has to transfer to the Detroit Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) Woodward route at the State Fairgrounds.
With DDOT, that usually means waiting. “Sometimes that can take a half hour or more,” he says. But the straight shot SMART route “works out well … it’s fantastic.”
He references the M-1 Rail streetcar, a project Nelles describes in Urban Affairs as something that’s “beginning to look like a People Mover II.” Initially, project backers wanted a light-rail line that cut northbound beyond city limits. That was scaled back to end at Eight Mile Road in 2010.
“For the second time, an ambitious regional transit plan was reduced to a single keystone project located exclusively within Detroit city limits,” Nells writes.
Two years later, M-1 Rail was scaled back even further to its current mode, length and form. Transit advocates still have optimistically praised the streetcar line as an anchor project for a long-term initiative. Plans call for the $140 million, 3.2-mile streetcar to run through downtown Detroit with 11 stops before arriving at Grand Boulevard. Officials recently announced a groundbreaking ceremony set to take place this spring, with the projected first streetcar operating by fall 2016. The hope is, if M-1 Rail is successfully operating before the RTA asks voters to approve a tax to fund operations, metro Detroit residents may grow keen to a regional transit plan.
But if the project’s private backers choose to limit the transit line to its current form, forgoing the possibility of future expansion, the streetcar’s function will be limited. It would increase connectivity between residents and employees of a flourishing area in Detroit. But, in a limited state, it’s hard to imagine residents in Northville or Chesterfield Township seeing the benefits of such a line.
Storm says the issues that plague metro Detroit transit operations cross his mind often. Residents like him who have a straight shot, zero-transfer bus ride could probably get by fine without an automobile. But, for the majority of riders, the operation is a sad state of affairs.
He says he’s supportive of the plan to implement the supposedly more efficient bus rapid transit system. But Storm points to the lack of resources in the current systems and offers a question about the BRT proposal that’s sure to cross the minds of many in the coming years.
“If you can’t manage a bus system [now],” he asks, “How are you going to manage that?”
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