Guest Blogger: Hayley Roberts

Hayley Roberts is the communications director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, where she helps tell stories for the organization, its cities and the region. A Michigan native, she worked in PR in Atlanta before returning home to earn a Master of Arts in Digital Rhetoric and Professional Writing from Michigan State. She worked in usability and accessibility research and consulting prior to joining the Suburbs Alliance in 2010. 

The State of the Region: Mass Transit

Almost a year ago, Gov. Snyder signed into existence a Regional Transit Authority for metro Detroit. About six months later, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments voted to forge ahead with billions of dollars of spending on outdated, illogical highway expansion projects, while the RTA looks like it will be closing out the year without yet having a long-term funding stream. Based on these two high-profile occasions, it would be easy to declare 2013 more of a mixed bag than a banner year for metro Detroit transportation. But it would be wrong.

Over the past year, metro Detroiters worked together, spoke in unison and ultimately changed the conversation around transportation—and it was remarkable. As a result, the RTA is now kicking into gear, the debate over spending billions to expand highways is, well, a debate, and the region is poised to start thinking differently about how we invest in our future.

In 2013, metro Detroit transportation advocates fielded one question more than any other: "So what's up with the RTA?" It's a difficult question to answer with specificity; the RTA is still in its infancy, and already is charged with unifying a set of agencies rooted in fragmentation, while building a brand new rapid transit system. Though their respective responsibilities are daunting, leaders from M-1, DDOT, SMART, AAATA, DTC, SEMCOG and MDOT seem genuinely happy (and maybe a bit relieved) to have both the impetus and means to collaborate. One of the RTA's first acts was to establish a "Providers' Advisory Council", where these agencies come together to discuss opportunities for improving service across their boundaries—the first time in years many of these agencies have formally worked together, and a way for the RTA to guide improvements even before having its own funding to bring to the table.

With that in mind, the first concrete change the RTA will make should be improved coordination between DDOT and SMART. While it doesn't sound all that glamorous, it will save time, money and hassle for passengers. Better coordination will mean an improved standard of service that could be life-changing for residents who currently have no way of knowing if they can get to work or school on time. Furthermore, a smoother system will introduce into metro Detroit the concept of an actual regional network—a long overdue introduction.

A single-fare system will be another priority, and (I like to think) slightly more glamorous, but it's a prime example of a deceptively simple-sounding task. As a rider, I just want my transit pass. But to create a universal fare card would mean that riders would pay one entity for ridership on systems that are not only financially separate but also financially complex. Still, a single-fare system, along with routes based on people rather than boundaries, will serve the long-term interests of the RTA as well as the people of metro Detroit, and we should expect movement on this in the coming months.

Of course, most of the buzz is not around more efficient scheduling or transit passes, but the possibility of bus rapid transit, or BRT. A more affordable option than rail, it offers many of the same benefits. It's an exciting option for metro Detroit, if we do it right—which means funding it at the ballot box. It's still unclear whether the RTA will put a ballot initiative before voters next year. But whether it's this election or the next, the decision to move forward with regional transit will ultimately rest with metro Detroiters. If we want BRT in metro Detroit, we need to make sure our investments line up with our priorities. 

To that end, the RTA's process for accomplishing work might be as important as what they choose to tackle next year. In coming months, they'll take on some of the responsibilities currently held by SEMCOG, our region's metropolitan planning organization (MPO). For many area residents, this distinction doesn't mean much, because SEMCOG's processes and decisions haven't been highly visible. By contrast, the RTA's Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) establishes intentional public engagement from the start. When the RTA announced the initial CAC list, they received criticism from groups who felt they were underrepresented, so they expanded the CAC. I find both of those responses pretty comforting. If we can get past the alphabet soup inherent to the world of subcommittees, the CAC is an opportunity to set a precedent of transparency and participation in transportation planning. 

Back in June, metro Detroit had a glimpse of what happens when people see and participate in these decisions. At SEMCOG's General Assembly meeting, residents from all around the region delivered well-reasoned, passionate arguments against the planned expansions of I-94 and I-75. Though delegates ultimately voted in favor of the expansions as part of a larger plan, the public zeal for transportation planning was new and different. Decision-makers noticed. Since that meeting, MDOT has responded meaningfully to communities like Hazel Park, working with officials to reduce some of the project's worst impacts. The region said "we deserve better," and now we are getting something better. Imagine if we'd been going to SEMCOG meetings all along.

It wasn't a win. It's still disappointing to watch as 20th-century strategies tear at our urban fabric even as we work to mend the mistakes of those same policies. But in metro Detroit, where it's easy to feel like everything has always been the way it is, the act and asking our representatives to invest differently in our communities marks an important shift in thinking. Our region will be shaped with or without our input, and our voice is stronger when we speak up for our shared interests rather than against our divergent ones. The level of engagement around transportation in the past year was, indeed, remarkable. As we look ahead to a new year, with its fresh possibilities and persistent challenges alike, we should remember what happens when we get together and say "Metro Detroit deserves better." 
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