With his decree that the transit tax plan for Metro Detroit is dead, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel is engaging in political practicalities as he seeks to roadblock a bus transportation plan that is loaded with impracticalities.
“It’s time to put it to rest,” Hackel told The Detroit News. “It’s that simple.”
Hackel has the veto authority to kill the 1.5-mill plan by way of his representatives on the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) that seeks a November regionwide ballot proposal.
As the annual Mackinac Policy Conference got underway today, the county executive surely told those on the island criticizing his decision – government and business leaders alike – that his county must focus on road improvements, not more frequent bus service. After all, hundreds of thousands of Macomb motorists faced an outbreak of potholes just several weeks ago that turned many major local roads into a Third World version of modern travel.
But Hackel also seems also to have absorbed the growing critique that the transit expansion plan offers little for the far-flung suburbs, especially the semi-rural northern areas of Macomb and Oakland counties.
In terms of practicalities, I would suggest the plan’s flaws reach all the way into the inner suburbs that lie not far from Eight Mile Road. Despite it’s $5.4 billion price tag, the RTA vision of public transit would still leave gaping holes in the transportation grid for suburbanites. The plan offers “premium” bus service on five routes: Woodward, Gratiot, Michigan, Grand River and Mound/Van Dyke.
No easy path for people to express buses
But the problem here is not limited to how frequently buses run down Gratiot or Woodward avenues. The basic shortcomings revolve around the inability of people to tackle the first leg of their commute and get to bus stops on those major thoroughfares.
Consider this: The proposed RTA service map leaves big gaps in bus service in Mark Hackel’s Macomb County, within a vast area between Dequindre and Gratiot, and between 12 Mile and Hall Road.
Suppose the RTA plan is put into place flawlessly, a person living anywhere near 15 Mile and Groesbeck in Clinton Township (the most populated township in Michigan) would still have to wait for an infrequent bus heading east or walk about a mile to the Gratiot bus stop.
Someone living anywhere near 18 Mile and Dequindre in Sterling Heights (the fourth-largest city in Michigan) might face a hike of two to three miles to the nearest Van Dyke bus stop.
Even a robust, young commuter in her 30s would endure an awful, early morning walk to the bus in the rain while carrying a purse, an umbrella, a computer carrying case and a lunch bag. Sipping a Starbucks would be out of the question. Southeast Michigan is not Miami. Imagine walking just several blocks to the bus in six inches of snow and sub-freezing temperatures.
Southeast Michigan is also not Manhattan. In many cases, people can’t live close to a bus stop on a major route even if they wanted to – the property that lies on or near those thoroughfares is mostly commercial or industrial, not residential. No one steps out the door and grabs a seat on a bus.
The gaps in this plan are no less formidable for Detroiters heading to jobs in the suburbs, as the inner city’s population is also far from compact, in many cases situated away from major roadways due to the demise of so many neighborhoods.
Without doubt, Metro Detroit suffers from an underfunded, limited transit system that ranks behind even modest metro areas such as Columbus, Ohio. In recent months, the local media has presented horror stories of multi-hour commutes and long walks to a bus station endured by Detroiters trying to reach suburban job sites using public transportation.
Yet, the ultimate RTA idea of an integrated urban-suburban area linked by buses is just that – an idea.
The most daunting drawbacks for those urban planners who envision a seamless metropolitan transit system is that the Detroit area over several decades grew into a huge, sprawling territory where population density is extraordinarily thin compared to many other U.S. metropolises.
The numbers bear this out.
Detroit area is not New York or Chicago or San Francisco
In Manhattan, where subways and taxis and Uber are the main forms of transportation, the population density is 66,940 people per square mile, according to the Census Bureau. In Macomb County’s Macomb Township – consistently one of the fastest-growing communities in all of Michigan, with an outdated population figure of 87,000 – the population density is 2,352 per square mile.
In many other big U.S. cities with a robust transit system – Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia – the populace is concentrated within an urban area that is much smaller in geography than Detroit’s core.
In fact, Detroit, which has far fewer people than Macomb County, suffers from a population density that lags behind dozens of cities. The large Miami suburb of Hialeah features more density than the Motor City.
The Detroit metropolitan area as a whole – generally defined as six or seven counties – also does not rank highly in density metrics. Many would be stunned to learn that the most densely populated community in southeast Michigan is Hamtramck.
****In recent years, the local media has presented several horror stories of multi-hour commutes and long walks to a bus station——-The Livengood example—is that fixed by this plan?
Beyond all this, the RTA plan is based on county boundaries, so it would affect every property taxpayer in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw. That’s a key reason why officials from the northern suburbs are pushing for state legislation that would allow cities, townships and villages to opt out.
Introduced by state Rep. Jeff Yaroch, a Republican from Richmond, a quaint town located in the northeast corner of Macomb County, the bill would allow local elected bodies to vote for a self-imposed exemption from the tax.
No buses within 17 miles
At a legislative hearing in Lansing earlier this month, the elected supervisor of Addison Township, located at the northern edge of Oakland County, pointed out that no bus service would exist within 17 miles of his community, under the RTA proposal.
“I think RTA has already opted me out,” Bruce Pearson said.
Independence Township Supervisor Patrick Kittle told lawmakers his community (home of the DTE music theater) would see “little to no benefit” from the transit millage. Yet, his constituents would pay $2.4 million annually, which is more than the $1.6 million general fund millage that funds most township services.
Those examples represent why Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson is fully on board with Hackel in deflating the bus expansion plan.
Logistics and practicalities remain troublesome for the RTA, even after improvements were made to the previous transit authority ballot proposal that narrowly failed in November 2016. One of those upgrades was a tardy realization that the overall plan requires numerous commuter parking lots across the region for long-range bus trips.
For example, the 2016 tax plan – slightly lower in cost at 1.2 mills – promoted the opportunity for express public transit to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
In fact, for someone living in that rapidly growing community of Macomb Township (or any number of large suburban communities nearby) the airport express plan would have required this pre-flight itinerary: Drive several miles to Hall Road and I-94, find a parking spot since no designated commuter lot exists, take two separate buses to the airport, and transfer your luggage three times.
To be clear, Hackel has not gone into the weeds about numerous logistical issues facing his constituents. His focus these days is on preserving the basic, modest SMART bus service that is designed mainly for the elderly, poor and handicapped. The SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) system already has a tri-county 1-mill renewal on the August primary ballot. That tax levy has passed by wide margins in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb in the past.
SMART is basic stuff
But the worries by Hackel and many other suburban officials are that an August SMART millage, followed up quickly by a new RTA 1.5-mill tax in November, may inspire many suburban voters – among the vast majority who don’t use buses — to reject both tax levies.
I recently moderated a Macomb Community College class for retirees about current political issues. When the subject of public transit funding came up, I ask the audience of about 120 seniors for a show of hands: How many had ridden a bus within the past year? Within the past five years?
Not one hand went up.
For me, this was a prime example of the car culture engrained in the Detroit area over many decades, including an aversion to riding buses. To be fair, this was probably not a group of frail elderly folks dependent on SMART buses or the system’s small-bus, curb-to-curb service. But the unanimous non-vote certainly served as a reminder that the future of public transportation in the Detroit area is not about shiny subway cars or commuter trains.
At that same MCC forum, Hackel railed against the regional transit plan as a Detroit-centric offering that is out of step with suburban life. He offered a message to the crowd featuring a double-entendre.
“The RTA,” he said, “is not SMART.”