Can the Regional Transit Authority plan for SE Michigan be salvaged?

Several weeks ago, when I had Ben Stupka from the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) on the Saturday Six Pack, we talked at some length about why it was that his organization’s new regional transit master plan seemed to be advancing through the political process so smoothly, when the 20-some previous attempts to coordinate mass transit across southeast Michigan had all ended in disaster. Stupka and our other guests, Gillian Ream Gainsley from the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA) and Megan Owens from Transit Riders United, as you might recall, talked about how the timing was finally right. They talked about how attitudes concerning both Detroit and mass transit had changed in recent years, and how politicians and business leaders had finally come to agree that a comprehensive plan was called for. Young Michiganders, they said, were demanding it. And this time, they said, it looked as though it was finally going to happen, assuming, of course, that the voters of Wayne, Washtenaw, Macomb and Oakland counties voted in favor of the RTA’s proposed transit millage. Here’s Stukpa explaining the RTA’s proposed millage, which would cost the average homeowner approximately $95 per year, and the process by which he and other RTA officials built consensus over the past few years to get us to this point.


[You can listen to episode 46 of the Saturday Six Pack here.]

Well, it now looks as though we may have been a bit premature in our declaration that things had finally changed, and that the surrounding suburbs were, at long last, ready to come to the table and work with Detroit on a meaningful regional solution, instead of just building the walls between our individual communities even higher. In a last minute move a few days ago, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County’s L. Brooks Patterson, who had given every indication up until now that they were solidly on-board, issued a 19-page list of concerns that, unless they could be addressed immediately, would keep them from supporting the master plan. The following analysis comes by way Detroit Free Press Editorial Page Editor Stephen Henderson.

…Mark Hackel and L. Brooks Patterson sounded all the echoes last week of past leaders who have sought to sow more division than unity.

Their rank and disingenuous last-minute opposition to the funding proposal for basic, until-now mythical, regional transit is a call to keep building walls in southeast Michigan. Their assertion that what they’re doing is meant to protect citizens in Macomb and Oakland counties, respectively, is a cynical and erroneous dog whistle, meant to evoke the bad old days of rancor and antagonism in the region…

Probably the most infuriating part of Hackel’s and Patterson’s shenanigans is the timing.

Here are two guys who have gone along with, even if a bit grudgingly on Patterson’s part, the entire regional transit discussion and development. They supported the legislative creation of the Regional Transit Authority and have participated in all of the planning

Why didn’t we hear these objections before? Why didn’t they work through the process that all the other jurisdictions did to address their grievances? Why now, with a planned vote in November and a pretty urgent need to get the proposal out in front of the public for consideration, are Hackel and Patterson lodging fatal grievances against the plan?

Their 19-page list of gripes certainly suggests this is about something else…

Hackel wants to be a leader in Macomb, and maybe beyond. But how can you do that if you won’t actually lead. He keeps falling back on the idea that Macomb residents won’t vote for something that doesn’t favor them in crass, individual terms — but why not confront that as the code we all know it is? If Hackel can’t muster the spine for that, what good is he in Macomb, or anywhere else?

Hackel and Patterson’s specific problems with the RTA are also maddening.

Patterson has been troubled by the fact that the RTA plan doesn’t include — in the short term — services that reach every place in his county, including the furthest northwest communities that are among the wealthiest and least densely populated parts of Oakland County…

The inherent problem is the way he defines “left out.” It assumes transit is like garbage pickup or something, a service that is about individuals more than communities. Truth is, the RTA master plan would provide enormous benefits to everyone by making it easier to get around. Ultimately there’ll be connectors and other hyper-local transit tools to reach, literally, every community.

Meantime, the plan now gets transit going in a bigger sense — making it easier for people to get to work, education and entertainment without a car. You can’t do that now — and that visits most harshly on the poor, who are locked away from opportunity by our lousy, selfishly configured current public transit.

Patterson certainly understands that — he just doesn’t think it’s his problem, or his voters’, which is where he’s dead wrong. The region can thrive on more inclusive economic growth if poor people in the city and other jurisdictions can better get to the region’s job centers, which are mostly in the suburbs, and especially in Oakland County.

And it’s worth it to all of us to pay for that. The dividends pay back region-wide…

For what it’s worth, it doesn’t sound as though the deal is completely dead yet. As it’s been explained to me by people who know, there are still two weeks to get Hackel and Patterson on board if we want to get the RTA millage on the November 18 ballot. A particularly optimistic friend even went on to remind me that, even if it doesn’t pass, we’re still better off than we were before. We’ve still got an adopted plan, he said, and we could have some success over the next two years trying to find funds so that specific pieces of the plan might be adopted.

As for there being two weeks to make something happen, it may actually be a little more narrow than that. According to State Representative Jeff Irwin, while the RTA board has until around August 16 to get something put forward, he’s heard that “a plan has to come together by around the 9th (of August) in order for changes to be published and meetings to be noticed.” So, if we’re going to get Paterson and Hackel to change their minds, we’ve only got a little over a week to do it.

I encourage you, if you believe that the voters of Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties deserve an opportunity to cast their ballots on the widely-supported, and, in my opinion, absolutely critical RTA plan, to write to @MarkHackel and @BrooksPatterson, and let them know that they should stop their obstructionism… And be sure, if you live in Oakland County, to tell Patterson that you know he’s up for reelection.

Patterson has said on social media that he and Hackel are just “taking the time to get it right like region did with @cobocenter,” but it seems like there’s something more going on. Here, with more on what that could be, is a little more from Henderson at the Free Press.

…Some folks told me last week it’s about the Great Lakes Water Authority, another fledgling attempt to manage an important part of the region cooperatively.

Macomb and Oakland still have deep-seated suspicions that they’re getting rooked in the deal, which gives them shared control over the water system Detroit built in exchange for yearly $50 million payments.

But even if those objections were legitimate, they have no business creeping into the debate over transit — mostly on principle but also because of the tragic disservice our patchwork transit system has visited upon the region for decades.

And let’s not ignore the stark racial tones that run through this dispute. Patterson, in particular, needs to tread carefully in that territory. His legacy stretches back to the bitter fight over school desegregation (he was on the wrong side) but also casts forward to days when he has been far more mindful of equality, if not perfect. I’ve written before about his complicated record, and how more of it has been about regional cooperation than most folks think. But those are nickel-and-dime efforts; this is a dollar-down rebuke of the region’s neediest citizens, at the precipice of hope for something better…

For whatever reason, unless Patterson and Hackel come back to the table, the people of our four counties won’t have an opportunity to vote on this, and the deal is dead for the next several years. And, as you might imagine, this isn’t sitting well with Michigan’s business leaders, who know that the future of our region depends on mass transit. Following is a clip from a recent article in the Detroit News about a letter that was sent from several such leaders to Patterson and Hackel.

…A group of the region’s most influential business and civic leaders late Wednesday sent a letter to the respective county executives, urging them to “work through any open issues in the days ahead to ensure that the people … have the opportunity to vote on the regional transit plan.”

Emphasis here on “the people” and “opportunity to vote.” They can be quaint concepts easily sacrificed in an election year, especially if parochial political concerns threaten bureaucratic control and regional hegemony.

“Our employees live across the region,” the business and civic leaders write in their letter to Oakland’s L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb’s Mark Hackel. “Our facilities are located across the region. Our students come from across the region. Our ability to attract and retain talent is tied to what we have to offer as a region.

“It takes but a glance at successful regions across the nation to know that the issue before us is one of the most important regional issues of our lifetime. We have come too far, after too long, to see our best shot at regional transit in a generation fall before the people are able to decide.”

They’re right. Voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties deserve a shot to vote on a tax to support the $4.6 billion transit master plan over the next 20 years. It would include bus rapid transit, a commuter line between Detroit and Ann Ann Arbor and service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

It’s about time. RTA says 92 percent of the jobs in the region are not accessible by public transit; that regional transit spending per capita in 2014 was less than half of what Cleveland spends and a quarter of Chicago’s; that 73 percent of millennials want better access to mass transit — altogether a dismal picture…

This could all be posturing on the part of Patterson and Hackel, one last opportunity for them to remind everyone how important they are, before allowing it to come to a vote. My sense, given what I know of Patterson, however, is that he never wanted this to happen in the first place, and just played along until the very last minute rather than stand up at the beginning of the process and saying, “Over my damn body.” Let’s hope I’m wrong about that, though.

I was going to end with a rant of my own, but then I happened across the following from one of our Washtenaw County Commissioners: “Few things are more frustrating and disappointing than this insidious last-minute maneuvering by Mark Hackel and L. Brooks Patterson. They present a grossly political series of selfish demands that stands in direct contrast to the sincere public engagement, data-driven research and collaborative process that the RTA board has led for more than a year. Not only do they threaten the future of this region with attempts to undermine key services, they make indefensible claims about the primacy of “their” bus system that cannot be justified in the face of actual policy or real data. This is just another example of the miserable regional leadership that has failed us for generations. Top it off with the fact that all of this emerges in the last two days?! What, you guys just learned about the transit plan? Maybe you weren’t paying attention during the endless meetings of the last four years? Pitiful.”

Yes. Pitiful.

One last thing… For those of you who aren’t familiar with the RTA master plan, which, among other things, would establish a Detroit-Ann Arbor rail line with a stop in Ypsilanti, and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) between Ann Arbor and Ypsi, here’s a map of the proposed rail and rapid bus lines that will be constructed over the coming years, assuming, of course, that those of us who live in southeast


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  1. Demetrius
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I support public transit and I’m willing to pay more to build and maintain it. I also know that public transit works best (is more efficient, an serves more people, better) when it covers large metropolitan areas rather than individual cities/counties. Still, I have reservations about this proposal.

    For decades, we here in Washtenaw County have invested in building one of the most robust and better-run systems in the state. In contrast, our neighbors to the east have traditionally had one of the worst, most incomplete systems of any major metropolitan area in the country. I worry that the quality of AAATA (and our local control over it) will be diluted under this regional arrangement.

    Likewise – as I understand it – many of the proposed improvements in Washtenaw County (BRT, enhanced commuter rail, etc.) won’t be available for years, even though local voters will be asked to begin paying into the system much sooner. I think this will make this proposal a tough sell with voters.

    Bottom line: In general, I like the idea of better transit and more regional cooperation – but I I’d like to see a more incremental approach, and I’d like to make sure we have a solid “opt-out” if things end up not working out as planned.

  2. jcp2
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Would it not make more sense for regional transit plans for Washtenaw County to reflect current commuter patterns from Livingston and Wayne Counties to Washtenaw County, as within Washtenaw County itself?

  3. Jcp2
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    Maybe we could focus on linking cities within Washtenaw County, as well as on existing commuter patterns from Livingston, Wayne, and Lenawee Counties. A link to and from Plymouth/Canton would be nice.

  4. mytatom
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Anyone have an educated guess on how much the average Ypsi tenant would pay for the RTA plan? (“educated” includes understanding that landlords pass costs to tenants and that only a small fraction of people who qualify for housing assistance actually receive it)

  5. Lynne
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Man, is there any politician that has been more harmful for our region than Patterson?

  6. John Galt
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Busses are for losers. Patterson knows this.

  7. EOS
    Posted August 1, 2016 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Only $95 dollars a year to provide mass transit for Detroit. But I am already paying more than that for mass transit in the cities of Ypsi and Ann Arbor and there isn’t a bus within 3 miles of my home. I don’t need a train to Detroit or rapid bus service between Ypsi and Ann Arbor. The problem with RTA is that they want those who get no service, or minimal service, to pay the lion’s share of the cost. Get a job, buy a car, and live the American Dream. Go where you want, when you want. Patterson looked at what Oakland was asked to pay for the little return they get and realized it was a suckers bet. Washtenaw county is in the same boat.

  8. Posted August 2, 2016 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    “Get a job, buy a car, and live the American Dream.”


    Spoken by the white lady with material assets.

  9. Lynne
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Maybe the solution is to work on something between Washtenaw County and Wayne County?

    And while we are at it, I think we should stop paying to plow or maintain the roads wherever EOS lives. I mean, I have no reason to go there and no reason to care if emergency services can access his/her house. If we are going to take this “I don’t use it so I shouldnt pay for it approach” across the board, the real losers would be rural areas.

    I guess I just hate that attitude in general especially because the people who seem to have it when asked to pay for *anything* they don’t personally use usually feel completely entitled to services they use but others dont. We have let hypocrites like that have too much power over the last 30 years. Please go vote today if you actually want change.

  10. EOS
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Look at the map and see what you get. Rapid Transit buses on Washtenaw that stop every couple of blocks and the existing Amtrak trains. I can drive to Chicago in 3 hours less than the train now, even before they add a shitload more stops. Do you perceive any value for your $95 a year? 4.6 billion dollars for 3 bus lines between Detroit and Pontiac, Mt. Clemons, or the airport???

  11. Lynne
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Let’s see. Do I get value for my $95/year? I think I do. I like taking the train to Chicago although I haven’t done it in a while. Much better than driving. I get to watch the trains go by my house though and that is fun! I save that much in just a couple of weeks by taking the bus to work, something I would do much more often if there were rapid transit buses. It saves money too because Ann Arbor can afford not to build new parking garages. I am sure someone has worked out how much public transportation saves in terms of commuting time, road wear, increased property values in areas with good transportation, savings to business as they have a larger employee pool to pull from etc. I suspect that even for people who don’t use public transportation the ROI is favorable.

    That is what is so frustrating to me about this. The people who are against it seem just so caught up in the attitude of “I don’t use it, why should I pay” that they can’t see that even if you don’t use it, it can be a benefit.

  12. EOS
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    You can take the train to Chicago now, without paying another $100 a year. You can watch the trains go by now. You can take a bus to work now. Please think hard and tell me what additional benefit you will realize for paying an extra $100 a year. Or, what additional benefit will anyone in the Ann Arbor area receive with this RTA Master Plan.

  13. Awesome
    Posted August 2, 2016 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    “Deal reached to put Regional Transit Authority plan on November ballot”

    A last minute deal means voters may just get the chance to decided on a new Regional Transit Plan.

    Officials worked out the deal Tuesday, during a meeting at the Detroit Athletic Club. It is subject to final details. No specifics have been released.

    The measure was in danger of not being put on the ballot after a meeting last week where the Regional Transit Authority’s board members were unable to agree to the plan at a meeting Thursday afternoon.

    Board chairman, Paul Hillegonds, said at the end of the meeting there was just week left to get the measure approved in time to make it on the ballot in November.

    Oakland and Macomb county representatives rejected the plan which would have gone before voters this fall.

    Ahead of the meeting a long list of prominent southeast Michigan business and civic leaders added their names to a letter urging Oakland County and Macomb County to drop their opposition to the RTA’s regional transit plans.

    The letter was addressed to Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

    The letter was signed by a list that includes Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans, Wayne State president Roy Wilson, Henry Ford Health System CEO Nancy Schlichting, former U.S. Senator Carl Levin, and Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah among others.

  14. Dw
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Shocking. Gilbert signs a letter urging Oakland and macomb put this on the ballot. Who benefits most from surrounding suburbs paying for a regional transit that has Detroit as the central hub? Dan Gilbert. Since he owns 60% or whatever it is of downtown Detroit real estate.

  15. Posted August 3, 2016 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Just because Gilbert stands to benefit the most doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not the right thing.

  16. Dw
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Gilbert has been great in revitalizing the area and I give him tons of credit for it but I don’t think he or the other CEOs should be driving this RTA discussion since it’s the homeowners in the area that will feel the cost of this project. Let the elected representatives work with their constituents. Maybe brooks and hacked have been talking to their residents and they indicated a lack of support.

    It’s does seem like some parts of the region will get far greater benefit from the plan as currently constructed

  17. Posted August 3, 2016 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    I’d argue that a strong, connected Detroit is in the best interest of everyone in our region. We need a city.

  18. EOS
    Posted August 3, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    We’ve got Ann Arbor.

  19. Kat
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Speaking of Patterson.

    “China built a wall 2,000 years ago. In Beijing, they don’t have any Mexicans, so it’s working,” Patterson said during a TV roundtable over the weekend.

    Sounds like a read gem.

  20. Posted August 19, 2016 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Please note in all discussions of the Ann Arbor to Detroit Rail promised by this plan, IT DOES NOT STOP AT THE AIRPORT! A fundamental flaw that will be my main reason for voting NO. What sort of Master Plan fails to include a stop at the largest regional transit hub in the state?

    Not that I need another good reason to vote no, we already have RTA chief Ford’s misuse of public funds, retroactive raise, insane spending on a poorly functioning Blake Transit Center, etc.

  21. EOS
    Posted August 19, 2016 at 3:21 pm | Permalink


    The Ann Arbor to Detroit Rail in the plan is the existing Amtrak. The westbound trains may possibly be used to commute from Detroit to Ann Arbor via Dearborn. However, it is not possible to commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit because the earliest scheduled trains will arrive in Detroit about mid day.

  22. Dan
    Posted August 19, 2016 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    no one from Washtenaw county should vote for this. We get practically nothing except higher taxes. This is a Detroit subsidy. Nothing more. At least the other county leaders tried to stop it. Ours can’t say yes fast enough to more taxes.

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