The future of Ann Arbor transit, part 4: Thinking regionally

AAATA. DDOT. SMART. Metro Detroit has a regular alphabet soup of public transit authorities, and until recently we were the biggest American metro area without a regional transit authority to link them together.

That wasn't for lack of trying, however. Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in 2012 establishing the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) after several decades of numerous failed attempts to create such an agency. Area transit advocates say that lag is due in large part to metro Detroiters' allegiance to the area's signature industry.

"Transit has not been a priority for the Detroit region for a long time," says Alexis Blizman, legislative and policy director for Ann Arbor's Ecology Center. "We're an auto town. But things are changing. Millennials are demanding transit, people don't want to drive cars as much and we have an aging population who at some point may not be able to drive. They need to be able to have ways to get where they need to go."

The RTA is tasked with coordinating existing transit services and establishing new forms of rapid transit between major destinations in Washtenaw, Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. As far as the Ann Arbor area is concerned, the main priority is developing some form of continuous service along what's been dubbed the "Michigan Avenue corridor," running from Ann Arbor through Ypsilanti, Romulus and Dearborn to ultimately reach Detroit. 

"Right now you literally can't take a bus from Ann Arbor to Detroit," says Elisabeth Gerber, a public policy professor at the University of Michigan and one of Washtenaw County's representatives on the RTA board. "I think both helping people who live here get to Detroit, and then helping open some of the career opportunities within Washtenaw County to folks who live in the rest of the region, is what it's all about."

Speedy planning for a long game

Plans to make that happen are taking shape quickly. With a set of planning studies complete, a series of public meetings focused on the Michigan Avenue corridor will take place October 8 and 12-14. From there the RTA will create its master plan with the intention of putting a funding request before voters in next year's general election, as stipulated by the RTA legislation.

"It's going a million miles an hour," Gerber says. "You can't even imagine how fast this process is going. It has to."

The upcoming public meetings will likely bring out plenty of new insights as to what area residents want out of a regional transit plan. But several key RTA players agree on one element that Ann Arbor and Ypsi residents are definitely going to demand: rail connecting the Ann Arbor area to Detroit. 

"We have people from both of those communities saying, 'Look. If we don't have some sort of a rail option, you're just not going to have the support of the folks in Washtenaw County,'" says Alma Wheeler Smith, Washtenaw County's second representative on the RTA board.

That's not to say bus rapid transit (BRT) and traditional bus service aren't also in the running for potential Michigan Avenue corridor service. But Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority board member and Ypsilanti Township-based transit advocate Larry Krieg says those options can't provide the speedy solution that commuters will want. 

"You're looking at about a 47-mile line," Krieg says. "Typically a bus rapid transit line will have a stop every mile or so, which would mean it would be roughly a two- or two-and-a-half-hour trip into Detroit. It doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense to have a bus rapid transit line the whole way."

Even once the RTA's master plan is complete, and if voters approve it, Ann Arbor-to-Detroit BRT or rail will still be a long way off. Gerber says the first noticeable impact of any voter-approved RTA project will be expansion of preexisting bus routes, with an emphasis on making connections between local transit authorities at the boundaries of their areas of service.

"You'll see a lot of improvement in local service immediately, which will be ramping up to support the new service on those big corridors between major parts of the region," she says. "It'll take probably two years to ramp up to close-to full service."

Look to Utah!

In an area with no preexisting regional transit infrastructure and a longstanding car-crazy mindset, it might seem that the RTA has its work cut out for it. But metro Detroit might take some inspiration from the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which has enjoyed major expansion and success over the past two decades despite some regional anti-transit mentality. In 1995 the UTA provided strictly bus service to Salt Lake City and neighboring communities; since then it's grown to include 170 miles of light rail, 90 miles of commuter rail, BRT service and a streetcar line. And that's all in a known hard red state with a metro region less dense than metro Detroit.

"We're generally considered a conservative state, which some say doesn't bode well for mass transit," says UTA spokesperson Remi Barron. "But the local elected officials here realize that whenever a rail line is put in or mass transit is expanded in the area, it creates an economic benefit that is measurable."

Barron says numerous businesses and housing developments have sprung up around the new transit lines, but economic benefit is only the secondary driving force behind UTA's growth. As with the trend Blizman notes in metro Detroit, Barron says the Salt Lake City area's growing millennial population is more interested in using transit than owning or driving cars, and the UTA has simply been responding to that demand. UTA's most popular rail line runs from downtown Salt Lake City to the University of Utah, home to 30,000 students and 15,000 employees (sound familiar, Ann Arbor?). 

Asked what advice he'd give to southeast Michigan as we develop our regional transit plan, Barron says to "involve the local communities early and often."

"Start planning based on what people want rather than based on what might be initially most cost-effective or easy to put in," he says. "Ask people what they want, because ultimately if you're not putting in a service that people want you're not going to get the ridership that you need."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate. He will be reporting on local transportation issues over the next year.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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