From a 2020 ballot measure to smaller projects, what's next for regional transit?

As the 2020 election approaches, Washtenaw County transit advocates are continuing to work towards expanding regional transit service that could connect area residents to Detroit, its suburbs, and beyond.


A 2016 ballot initiative to levy a millage to support regional transit services across four counties passed in Washtenaw and Wayne counties but was defeated in Macomb and Oakland counties, losing by a slim margin overall. In the wake of that vote, proponents of a regional transit system are assessing what went wrong and whether the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) can garner enough support to get a similar but improved initiative on the 2020 ballot.


"I think what's important that has happened since 2016 is that the Regional Transit Authority as an organization has heard feedback that the plan they put forward didn't fully address people across the region," says Edward "Ned" Staebler, one of two Washtenaw County representatives on the RTA board. "They went back out and did extensive listening tours to tweak the plan."


The RTA wanted to get another initiative on the ballot for 2018 but wasn't able to due to "purely political reasons," Staebler says. An updated plan showing clear benefits for residents of all four counties, and a design that is appealing to low-income riders most in need of the service, are likely to be among the pieces needed for a 2020 initiative to succeed.


Reflecting on the 2016 vote


Staebler and others note the narrowness of the 2016 ballot measure's failure as a positive sign for a potential 2020 proposal.


"If you look at what happened in 2016, the ballot measure was defeated by only 1%, and Oakland County was a large part of that," says Chad Cushman, president of Indian Trails, a Michigan-based charter bus service that operates several regional transit routes around southeast Michigan.


Staebler says the 2016 ballot measure's failure was "a bit of a political fluke" influenced in part by the wave of voter turnout for Donald Trump. He believes it would have passed in any other electoral year. However, he says a lack of proposed transit improvements in areas including Downriver, northern Oakland County, and parts of Macomb County also "dampened some enthusiasm" among voters there.


"There was no support from the leadership of Oakland or Macomb County," Staebler says. "They were willing to put it on the ballot and let voters decide, but they were not willing to lend their support. Clearly, it would have been easier to pass it with the support of those county executives."


New Oakland County executive David Coulter's views on regionalism and transit are markedly different from those of former executive L. Brooks Patterson, and Staebler believes Coulter will be "a big supporter" of the new ballot measure.


Staebler also thinks getting the word out about regional transit's benefits will be important, both at the grassroots and higher levels. The message he wants to convey to voters is that "everyone benefits whether they're going to use it or not." He lists benefits including road congestion reduction, easier commutes, and associated economic development and job growth.


"You go to other areas around the country and see (their transit systems) function, and it's amazing that more people here don't recognize the value," Staebler says. "It really is holding us back."


Regional transit considerations

Smaller initiatives to expand regional transit and study its viability have proceeded in the absence of a broader voter-approved plan. Indian Trails' Michigan Flyer bus recently added service from Ann Arbor and Brighton to Detroit Metro Airport. Cushman says that was in response to a Livingston Essential Transit Service survey that showed Livingston County residents' top desire for new transit service was a bus route from the county to the airport.


Indian Trails' Detroit Connector service also serves passengers traveling between the University of Michigan's (U-M) Ann Arbor campus and downtown Detroit. Cushman says Indian Trails and U-M both recognize the Connector "can't serve as full-blown commuter service from Ann Arbor to Detroit because of lack of frequency." However, he's hopeful that Ann Arbor-to-Detroit service could expand either as a result of a recent request for proposals issued by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority or a ballot proposal next year.


"Perhaps with the change of leadership in Oakland, we'll be heading in a new direction," Cushman says. "We're optimistic that the millage will pass and are supportive of it. Hopefully if the millage does pass, it'll be an opportunity for us as a private sector company operating public transportation to operate some of the expanded service."

Meanwhile, Poverty Solutions at U-M has been studying transit rider preferences in low-income areas and how mobility-on-demand and ride-sharing services might play a role. Poverty Solutions recently released a paper examining whether low-income riders in Detroit and Ypsilanti would prefer fixed-route bus service or RITMO, an on-demand ride-sharing transit service recently piloted at U-M.


Survey respondents indicated a slight preference for RITMO, although male riders and those with higher technological proficiency were more likely to prefer the on-demand service. The report concludes that "incorporating mobility-on-demand services into the service suite of public transit is likely to gain widespread support among local residents," noting that such services should be implemented first in areas less served by traditional fixed-route service.


The study notes technological proficiency as one key barrier to the success of a mobility-on-demand service, but study coauthor Tawanna Dillahunt says there are ways to break down that barrier. In another study, Dillahunt and other researchers created mobility-on-demand service accounts for riders and helped them with the technological aspects of the service. Those participants were much more enthusiastic about the on-demand model.


"They loved being able to see that there was a car on its way," Dillahunt says. "That was much more than what they had with the bus. Some people felt like they were waiting on a bus that wasn't going to come. On the app, they can see where the car and the driver are, and they loved that."


She says proponents of regional transit need to examine the reasons, either political or personal, that voters say "no" to a regional transit plan.


"I think there is a bit of empathy required, and letting people see the bigger picture," Dillahunt says. "We need to (convey) the benefits of a regional transit system (and) show them here's what things could look like in terms of a stronger economy, more people with jobs, people moving to the region. I think people sometimes have a hard time envisioning what a great transportation system could do for your community."


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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