Washtenaw County's Piece of the Regional Transportation Puzzle

Although separated by fewer than 50 miles, Ann Arbor and metropolitan Detroit can seem worlds apart to those who live and work in the region.  
Ann Arbor, often perceived as a cosmopolitan, if quixotic, oasis of affluent, progressive, highly-educated residents, has been dubbed by some as "six square miles surrounded by reality"  that reality being the remainder of the metropolitan region. 
The data backs up these perceptions. According to the American Community Survey, Washtenaw's unemployment rate is lower than that of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties, and the percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree or graduate degree higher is significantly higher. Median income exceeds all but Oakland County's. Washtenaw residents are more likely to be employed in management, business, science and arts occupations. Obviously, the University Of Michigan plays no small part in its impact and influences.
But economically, Ann Arbor and metro Detroit are inextricably linked. 
According to a Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG),  a substantial number of daily commuters flow between Washtenaw and metro Detroit. Between 2006 and 2010, 20,478 workers commuted from Washtenaw to Wayne each day, and 26,486 commuted from Wayne to Washtenaw. Another 6,620 commuted from Washtenaw to Oakland, and 7,491 commuted from Oakland to Washtenaw. 
Those numbers are only expected to increased in the future, according to Ryan Buck, Director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study
"In our long-range plan, we are expecting a significant increase in employment, but not a commensurate increase in population,” says Buck. "What that means is we are going to have more people commuting to the area and we have to come up with a way to address that."
One way to attend to commuter needs is to diversify transportation options between metro Detroit and Washtenaw County, and that's why regional leaders included Washtenaw in the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA), says Elisabeth Gerber, RTA representative for Washtenaw County and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
The RTA, created in December 2012 by the state legislature, is a new public body charged with coordinating transit between Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties and the City of Detroit,  including issuing and enforcing coordination directives across 4 distinct transit provider agencies: the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, The Detroit Department of Transportation
"When we're talking about transit planning we can't just stop at our borders," says Buck.  "Being able to remove those barriers to inter-county travel is critical.”
Ann Arbor Transit Authority's new AirRide service provides a success story for inter-county transit, according to Gerber. The service, a partnership between AATA and the privately held Michigan Flyer, provides a public transit option between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metropolitan Airport. 
"AirRide is a fantastic example of an effective public-private partnership that is low-hanging fruit for the RTA to expand on," says Gerber.  
An Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail along the I-94 corridor is the number one regional transit priority for Washtenaw County, according to Washtenaw County Commission Chair Yousef Rabhi.  
"Just look at the jobs flow numbers," says Rabhi. "There is a need for this connection that goes beyond the automobile.  We need other options for environmental and affordability reasons."
Don Kline, public relations coordinator with the AATA, agrees.
"There are major medical facilities, 10 different college campuses, and thousands of people who commute daily along the corridor," says Kline.
According to Carmine Palombo, director of Transportation Programs at SEMCOG, progress so far toward implementing the commuter service includes the lease and refurbishment of nine bi-level stainless steel cars.  The Michigan Department of Transportation is the lessee on the cars and has secured federal funding for needed infrastructure improvements and two new rail stops at Ypsilanti and Detroit Metropolitan Airport.  Engineering and construction of these improvements is expected to take at least two years. Initially MDOT will manage the service, but it is expected the RTA will eventually take over, says Palombo. One of the refurbished cars will be on display at the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival in August. 
The Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail project is not the only opportunity for inter-county commuter service, according to Gerber.
"We have a lot of commuters from the Plymouth, Canton, Northville, Dearborn, east Romulus, Inkster and Belleville", says Gerber. "There are other possibilities, such as bus rapid transit or light rail along Michigan Avenue and Washtenaw Avenue." 
Another way to address the commuter challenge, according to Buck, is to take a closer look at how communities develop.
"We no longer think of land use and transportation planning as separate issues," says Buck.  "Our agency is becoming increasingly involved in land use issues because we recognize them as being the same issues as transportation and so we need to plan for them together."
Buck points to Ann Arbor's Transportation Master Plan as a model.  The plan explicitly links land use and transportation plans, calling for increased density along transit corridors.
"I think recognizing Ann Arbor's success will help other communities include some of the same ideas into community master plans and long-range thinking,” says Buck.
Achieving functional regional transit will require the financial support of citizens in each of the four member counties.  According to budget documents provided by RTA staff, an estimated $905,000 annually will be required to cover basic salary, office space, and contractor costs. The RTA was given a one-time $500,000 allocation by the state to cover start-up costs for the first two years. 
Options available to the RTA for generating revenue include fees on public transit, federal, state and local grants, loans, appropriations or contributions, proceeds from the sale of public assets, and a motor vehicle registration tax or a regional millage. A tax or millage would have to be approved by the full RTA board and a majority of regional electors.
The challenge of making the case for regional transit in Washtenaw was underscored earlier this year, when the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted in April to dissolve the newly created Washtenaw Transit Authority due to a lack of municipal buy-in. The countywide authority would have expanded transit service to outlying areas of the county. Since the dissolution, AATA has pursued expanded transit with interested municipalities through an Urban Core Transit Program.
Encouraging Washtenaw residents to see themselves part of the Detroit metro region and support regional transit will be a major challenge, according to Gerber.
"I think its fair to say there really wasn't a strong grassroots effort to develop the RTA,” she says. “Leaders within the region who think about economic development and transportation see the opportunities, but the public really hasn't been brought into that conversation.” 
Rural residents may have an especially hard time grasping the value of regional public transit, according to Gerber. 
“I think the folks in the southwestern and southeastern parts of the county have a harder time seeing the value of public transit, since they're not likely to use it frequently themselves," she says.
"We are going to have to make a case that this whole idea of regional transit has net benefits for the whole region, and I don't think people see that quite yet."

Nina Ignaczak is project editor for Issue Media Group's statewide transportatioon series, underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council.

All photos by Doug Coombe except Elisabeth Gerber photo courtesy Elisabeth Gerber
Signup for Email Alerts