OpEd: What's next for mass transit

Megan Owens is the executive director of Transportation Riders United (TRU), Detroit's nonprofit transit advocate, dedicated to improving public transit throughout greater Detroit. She also serves on the Oakland County Public Transit Authority, which oversees SMART bus service, and leads the new Connect4Prosperity coalition.

A lifelong Michigan resident, Megan has experience with the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment, PIRGIM (the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan), the Detroit Regional Chamber's Leadership Detroit (class 31), the Michigan Nonprofit Association's Executive Leadership Fellowship and the Center for Progressive Leadership.

What's Next for Mass Transit

Is Detroit transit at a turning point? For decades, Detroit area transit has been a national laughingstock. At a national transit conference last month, when I introduced myself as from Detroit, nearly everyone responded with a shocked "Really?!?" as if they didn't think Detroit had transit.

Well we do, and I believe transit in our region has reached a major turning point.

Don't get me wrong, Detroit area transit is still extremely poor. Try to ride the DDOT bus five times and odds are strong that two of your buses will be late and one won't show up at all. It's still nearly impossible to find a bus from Detroit Metro Airport or definitely impossible in Livonia, Canton or two dozen other suburbs who refuse to join the regional bus system. This far into the 21st century, that's not only an embarrassment, it's an outrage. 

Growing support for Detroit transit
The good news is that many of our region's leaders and voters are starting to understand how essential transit is. Gone are the days of "Transit? Who cares? We're the Motor City!" Rare are the whines of "Well, sure it'd be nice to have better transit, but it will never happen here." 

Today, fully 86% of likely voters think southeast Michigan needs improved public transit. The success of the SMART millage in August was powerfully telling, with 65% of voters in SMART communities voting to increase taxes to support and maintain SMART bus service. That's impressive support levels, especially when asked to pay more just to keep the same service running.

Good things are happening for regional transit
Southeast Michigan finally has a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in charge of coordinating and improving transit throughout the four-county region. They started work last year with a ten-member board of directors and a Citizen's Advisory Committee and other committees. Following false starts and delays, the RTA's first CEO begins work this month. 

Michael Ford is wrapping up five successful years as CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority. During his time there, Mr. Ford led the agency in a countywide transit master planning process, expanded to two additional communities, and persuaded voters to overwhelmingly approve a new transit millage that will provide 44% more transit service to the community. Hopefully he can achieve much the same here.

The RTA has already been working on plans for rapid transit on Woodward Avenue and will soon begin analyzing rapid transit potential on Gratiot and Michigan Ave as well. The RTA's Transit Providers Advisory Committee has created the first unified map showing all transit service in the four-county region and is working on ways to better coordinate transit fares, routes, and more.

Detroit's first streetcar in 60 years 
While the RTA's biggest projects are years away, other transit improvements are already underway. As anyone who's been in downtown or midtown Detroit recently has no doubt noted, Woodward Avenue is under construction. Not only is Woodward getting its first complete rebuild in decades, Detroit's first streetcar in sixty years is being built into Woodward Avenue.

The M-1 Rail streetcar project, once completed in 2016, will provide modern electric streetcar service every 8-12 minutes between downtown Detroit and the New Center area.  While only 3.5 miles in length, it will link Campus Martius, the stadiums, Wayne State, DMC, the DIA, Detroit's Amtrak station, and much more. It will operate on rails built into the street, with a driver following all normal traffic laws. Residents and visitors alike will purchase tickets from attractive sidewalk stations, allowing for quick sidewalk-level entry and exit from the train and an easy convenient ride up and down Woodward.

While it's not true rapid transit and the streetcars will sometimes get stuck in traffic, it will be an attractive new option, providing convenient ways to get around the busy greater downtown area. If well-connected, it could be a gateway to broader transit use for some currently afraid of buses.

And while the construction creates a bit of a headache, the M-1 team is doing everything they can to speed construction and minimize road closures and other disruptions. Learn lots more at M-1Rail.com or their local office at 1426 Woodward.

Even Greater Things Are Coming
Our current transit travesty was decades in the making, and will take many years to reverse. But the first steps are in place.

Next up? With Mr. Ford and a few staff in place, the RTA will soon engage in a regional discussion about how transit can help improve the region and what transit improvements are highest priorities, updating a Regional Transit Plan into a blueprint for transit improvement over the coming years. Broad discussions will be held and important decisions made. These will be especially important because transportation shapes our future. 

In 2016, voters will likely have an opportunity to decide whether improved transit is worth paying for. We've got just two years to develop a transit plan they can understand with benefits they can get behind, to fund a transit system that will support us all.

Is Detroit transit at a turning point? Yes. Is there a path available towards a great transit future? Absolutely? Is success guaranteed? No, far from it. A great deal of work and investment are required.

Yet when I told national experts at my conference last month about all the things Detroit is doing to improve transit, I received genuine interest and enthusiasm in response. If we can build support for transit in the Motor City, truly anything is possible.

Stay tuned, share your input, and get involved, at www.DetroitTransit.org, www.Facebook.com/DetroitTransit, and www.Twitter.com/DetroitTransit
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.