The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) is back, with a new vision for improved regional transportation in Southeast Michigan. Created in 2012 to coordinate providers and bring regional governance and funding to public transportation, it has struggled to fulfill this mission due to lack of funding.

The RTA tried and failed to pass a 1.2 mill property tax to support expanded transportation services in 2016, and did not get a tax proposal onto the 2018 ballot due to lack of support in Oakland and Macomb counties. It is now 2019, and the RTA has shared a new vision for regional transportation in Southeast Michigan. The group has released some details around eight broad investment priorities and is looking for feedback from stakeholders ahead of the 2020 election season. 

We would like to take a minute to examine these investment priorities in light of what our research into effective regional transportation has taught us.

RTA’s vision for regional transportation in Southeast Michigan

Public transportation is currently provided by five different systems from Ann Arbor to Detroit, with some cooperation, but it lacks regional coverage, policies, and coordination. To address the lack of regional coordination, the RTA has identified eight broad investment priorities:

  1. Local bus: expand service and route options, coordinate providers, expand security, and upgrade infrastructure
  2. Rapid bus services: expand current rapid services and implement additional regional routes, provide more commuter services and cross-county connections, and construct new park-n-rides
  3. Community transit services: provide electronic fare payment system, expand services and hours, and provide more flexibility in trip scheduling
  4. New mobility services: facilitate first and last mile connections, expand public/private pilot programs to evaluate new service models, and ensure equitable access 
  5. Rail services: provide commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor, evaluate expanded commuter rail options, and provide planning and design services for implementation of light rail to Detroit Metro Airport
  6. Airport services: implement Airport Express Service connecting airport to important centers across the region, support and increase FAST service to airport, and evaluate an intermodal facility that will meet the needs of regional transit and Wayne County Airport Authority  
  7. Investments in enhancing the overall system: modernize and provide station and shelter upgrades, design and implement new regional fare collection system and regional fare card, and implement passenger amenities (e.g., WiFi) and facility expansion plans 
  8. Investment in a regional workforce development program: develop, retain, and continually educate a workforce to support transit needs 

Our recommendations to foster better regional transportation services

As the RTA refines and continues to develop its plan around regional transportation, especially as it grapples with funding expanded services, we would like to highlight some policy recommendations coming out of our recent research on regional transit. 

Our first recommendation would be to concentrate on improving mobility rather than specific types of services in urban areas. This will require a focus on regionalism, and integrating all types of public and private transportation options, including ridesharing, car sharing (driven and autonomous), bike and scooter rentals, and microtransit services, among others.

In a related vein, public transportation needs to be viewed as an important and viable option that contributes to a vital urban area if we want it to be effective and attract different kinds of riders. The idea of transit as a subsidized service provided to those too poor to drive does not lead to vibrant systems that improve regional mobility.

Finally, in order to effectively provide regional transportation services, we need regional governance and funding. Regional governance encompasses collaboration among transit providers and local governments, but also a regional focus on policies critical to the success of transit, such as land use and planning and economic development. Cooperation is crucial because transit providers do not have influence over all the local and regional policies that can enhance or derail transit services.

Regional funding is necessary to allow services to be provided seamlessly, across political boundaries. Options to expand regional funding include new local-option taxes (beyond the property tax), tax base sharing, spreading the tax burden among multiples types of taxes, feathering tax rates so that the rates get lower the farther you get from the urban center (where services tend to decrease), and multimodal transportation funding (i.e., combining road and transportation funding).

How does RTA’s revised vision stack up?

The plan put forth is more of a vision and discussion than actual plan. This gives stakeholders and community members time to share their input. The RTA will need a regional consensus to be successful in passing a funding measure and expanding transportation options. This vision is a great start.

The RTA is rightly focused on improving mobility rather than just bus or rail services. With multiple transit options, the RTA is trying to move the discussion beyond fixed-route systems to mobility and how to serve the needs of all residents rather than just the bus needs of those without a car.

The RTA, created by state law, already has a regional governance system. This is one area where Southeast Michigan has a benefit over other regions, West Michigan for example, that don’t have an established regional governance system built in. Other urban regions of the state might benefit from an expansion of the RTA law to allow them to establish a regional authority. Southeast Michigan needs to expand upon the regional governance it already has in order to develop seamless policies around land use and planning, economic development, and related issues.

Finally, the vision does not yet include a discussion of where the needed funding will come from or what the exact number needed is. The priorities identified will cost around $4 billion over the next 20 years, but this is a fluid number. As the discussion moves forward, stakeholders might consider the funding practices we identified as best practices from other urban regions

It is important to remember that the RTA is limited by the state law that created it. It would need additional state authorization to levy different rates across the region and to implement new types of taxes other than the property tax or a vehicle registration fee. Many states allow local sales taxes to support transit services; that is not currently an option in Michigan. It is also important to remember that no new taxes can be implemented without voter approval.

While it remains to be seen what will happen with regional transportation in Southeast Michigan, the RTA is starting the discussion to bring this important issue back in front of stakeholders. It is not an easy task, but consensus around this issue is necessary in order to improve mobility and transportation throughout the region.

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