Elisabeth Gerber believes Washtenaw County voters will have an excellent regional transit plan before them when they consider the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan
's (RTA) ballot proposal
But if the measure fails, Gerber's not sure there will be another like it anytime soon.
Gerber has been studying transit for more than a decade as a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and is also one of two Washtenaw County representatives on the RTA's board. Although the RTA plan offers a broad range of new transit services in Washtenaw County (see sidebar), Gerber says the key element for the county is commuter rail connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit – something Washtenaw County residents have clamored for
for some time.
"It will be a really outstanding service," she says. "That's the big-ticket item folks in Washtenaw County are going to really benefit from, and it's hard to imagine another opportunity like this coming up anytime soon if the RTA doesn't pass, to get something like this underway."
Voters across Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties will consider the $4.6 billion plan, which would fund new and improved transit services throughout the four counties over the next 10 years with a 1.2-mill property tax for the next 20 years. It's a huge, long-term investment proponents say will boost local economies, increase mobility, and connect the region like never before.
But what's at stake if it doesn't pass? What could we lose out on in Washtenaw County?
What our economy loses
"An economic shot in the arm."
That's what RTA CEO Michael Ford calls the proposal. The RTA estimates its plan would add an estimated 68,000 jobs in the four-county region over 20 years, bringing in an additional $6 billion in regional products and another $4.4 billion in personal income gross to the region.
"You're going to attract more employers, [and] you're going to attract employers who are there because they want to be where the talent is," he says. "It's like a symbiotic relationship, so more economic development occurs."
One such employer is Ann Arbor's Duo Security
. The state's fastest-growing tech firm, Duo expects to hire 300 people in Michigan over the next three years. Jim Simpson, product manager at Duo, says regional transit widens the potential applicant pool from around 600,000 residents in greater Ann Arbor to the five million living in metro Detroit.
According to Simpson, many of those hires will come from a newer generation less interested in driving and owning cars and more interested in metro areas with multi-modal transportation.
"Detroit has a great 'brand' at the moment, and if we are able to make it more compelling for new college grads to stay — or move — here to work, we reduce and perhaps even reverse the brain drain Michigan has seen for the last 15 years," he says.
Duo isn't alone in wanting to expand its talent search. During a roundtable earlier this year at Ann Arbor SPARK, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director Susan Pollay says more than 80 percent of area CEOs in attendance said they want to expand and hire more staff. But there's a shortage of local applicants who fit their needs.
"Almost all of them said the key strategy, and this was before the RTA plan was even put forward in May, was rail transportation to and from Detroit," Pollay says.
Of course, it works both ways. Jobs and amenities in metro Detroit now become more readily available to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti residents, too. As public investments go, Gerber makes transit, especially regional rail, sound like a blue chip stock with imminent returns.
"It sort of always happens," she says. "Not many things in life always happen, but when you invest in regional rail, the system becomes more integrated, and the economic benefits are huge for the entire region."
For example, employers' labor costs drop when they don't have to replace workers who move out of an area or lose productivity when they miss work because of car trouble. And Gerber says adding viable transportation options would help people get hired for tens of thousands of unfilled jobs in the county.
"Even if you individually don't ride the bus or the train, people that matter in your daily life do and will," she says. "If you can reduce their commute, if you can make it easier to access their jobs, that's good for the economy."
What seniors lose
Chances are that some of those people who matter to you could be your aging parents, grandparents, or other senior friends and family members.
As mobility manager for the senior services nonprofit Area Agency on Aging 1-B
, it's Roberta Habowski's job to help seniors find ways to get where they need to go in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, and Washtenaw counties. The agency's surveys show that transportation consistently tops the list of area seniors' needs.
that people live seven to 10 years longer than they can safely drive. And while many have family and friends who are happy to help, Habowski says transit helps seniors maintain their independence.
"It's not just for their medical appointments," she says. "They need to go to the grocery store, to the bank, to the beauty shop, and to visit family, [to] be involved in their communities, be involved in cultural activities, senior centers, movies … they need access to all of that, and the RTA is offering more connections and more options for seniors."
One major change under the RTA plan is access to new parts of the region, since current transit doesn't cross county lines. Whether it's a specialist visit at Beaumont Hospital's top-ranked orthopedic center in Royal Oak or a special sale at Twelve Oaks Mall, Washtenaw County residents will be able to get there without driving a car or arranging for rides.
Per the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), anyone living within three-quarters of a mile of a fixed transit route must be provided with door-to-door paratransit services. So whether it's BRT, commuter, or connector services, an increase in bus services also means expanded access for seniors and people with disabilities.
And according to Pollay, that's more of us everyday – especially outside of the urban areas that experience more of transit's direct benefits.
"We are aging as a community," she says. "Many of our county residents, particularly 'out-county,' are age 65 and older. The RTA millage includes funds for local decisions around how they want to provide flexible services — door-to-door, curb-to-curb services for seniors [and] for people with disabilities. It's an element to allow our residents to continue to age in place."
What Ypsi loses
Perhaps no community in the county has as much at stake in Tuesday's transit vote as Ypsilanti.
Nearly every new and expanded service — commuter rail, BRT, the Connector, and AirRide — will run through and stop in Ypsi, where local proponents say it would change the landscape for a city on the verge.
"Commuter rail is probably the largest thing that could happen in Ypsilanti, let alone Washtenaw County," says Beth Ernat, director of Ypsilanti's Downtown Development Authority. "Commuter rail allows people to choose where they live and how they get to work."
Ernat says quantifying the benefits with dollar amounts is premature, but it's easy to see the difference regional transit has made in other regions. One example is Ernat's native metro Chicago, where she says "commuter rail [is] everything."
"It's an automatic larger population, and it doesn't require us to increase our surface areas for parking," she says. "When new businesses come in, they can look at less parking alternatives than when there's no commuter system."
Pete Murdock, city council member for Ypsilanti's third ward, says the proposal helps Ypsi residents get to and find work in neighboring communities.
"We have a lot of people in eastern Washtenaw County that are disconnected from potential jobs in Wayne County, particularly, but also Macomb if they wanted to get there," Murdock says. "There are jobs available, but they have no transportation to get there at this point."
Last month, Murdock and others on council delayed public input meetings for the proposed $2 million train stop to be built in Ypsilanti's Depot Town
, partly to get funding in order, and partly to see what happens with the RTA vote.
Murdock says the train stop could have an immediate impact in the area, citing the Thompson Building and old train depot properties as potential beneficiaries.
"Every time we talk about the train, we get a little more interest in moving those along," he says.
But the plan has always been twofold, with Amtrak service coming first, followed by the higher-traffic commuter rail.
"If the RTA thing falls apart, then that piece is gone for a while, and we may not be in a hurry to invest a whole lot of money into a train station right away," Murdock says.
For now, that question – and many others for Washtenaw County – will be in voters' hands on Nov. 8.
Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.
Photos by Doug Coombe.