Will Metro Detroit buy into regional transit?

Climbing the corporate ladder towards a six-figure salary at age 39, Sabrina Simmons never thought she'd need anything other than her two cars to get around. Then she started to lose her eyesight.
 
That was four years ago, and Simmons is now legally blind as a result of diabetic retinopathy. She remains active working as a trainer for the computer screen-reading software JAWS, participates in multiple community organizations, volunteers and works out at the YMCA, and cares for her 14-year-old son.
 
But now that her driving days are over, Simmons has to rely on others to get her to and from those commitments. She prefers the independence of using public transit instead of asking family or friends for rides, but she says using existing transit service can be a frustrating proposition if she's traveling any significant distance from her home just east of the Detroit-Dearborn border.
 
"For me to go anywhere beyond Fairlane, on average it's going to take me about four hours," Simmons says.
 
That's thanks to the often complicated interactions between DDOT and SMART's bus systems, and the even spottier connections to service in the Ann Arbor area. But Simmons has hope that more convenient new service may be on the way if Metro Detroit voters approve the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan's (RTA) ballot proposal in this November's election. The proposal would fund the RTA's Master Plan by levying a 1.2-mill property tax assessment on Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties through 2035.
 
The master plan proposes passenger rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor, as well as bus rapid transit lines along Woodward from Detroit to Pontiac, Michigan Avenue from Detroit to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Washtenaw Avenue from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, and Gratiot between Detroit and M-59. Continued improvement and coordination of existing bus service is also included in the plan. RTA CEO Michael Ford says the plan is long overdue.
 
"We're one of the last metropolitan cities that doesn't have regional transit," he says. "It's critical to get people to jobs and back home from jobs and to hospital appointments and to educational institutions. It's just the quality of life that's desperately needed to help connect people in the four-county region."
 
However, the RTA's proposal has already faced considerable opposition before even making it onto the ballot. RTA board members representing Oakland and Macomb counties voted against the RTA's ballot proposal language in July, mirroring objections from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. The board later agreed upon a last-minute compromise providing for Oakland County to shift millage funds to paratransit services in the northern part of the county, and for more stringent reviews to assure that funds assessed in each county are used in that county.
 
But the plan is still a hard sell in many communities. Multiple Oakland County municipalities have passed resolutions opposing the RTA's plan. Oxford Township supervisor Bill Dunn is one of those who voted for such a resolution. Dunn says northern Oakland already has its own transit agency, which exists to serve seniors, shut-ins, and the disabled, and that Oxford Township would be "strictly a revenue source" to the RTA.
 
"It won't do anything for us," Dunn says. "Northern Oakland County is not going to be helped one bit."
 
Anatomy of a campaign
 
So how to address viewpoints like Dunn's while also delivering the kind of regional transit service that residents like Simmons are hoping for? Jason Jordan, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Transportation Excellence, says the RTA and its supporters have their work cut out for them. In Jordan's 15 years of studying and advocating for transportation funding campaigns nationwide, transit funding measures pass 71 percent of the time – but often by a slim margin.
 
"That suggests to us that how a campaign is run, and how the benefits and the accountability measures are communicated to voters, is important to maintaining that level of success and to securing a decent level of trust with voters," Jordan says.
 
Examples of how to run such an effective regional transit campaign can be found around the country. One particularly influential recent example is the 2010 Proposition A campaign in St. Louis County, in which voters approved a 0.5-percent sales tax to fund expansion of the region's MetroLink light rail system. Tom Shrout is the former executive director of Citizens for Modern Transit (CMT), which campaigned for Proposition A with the slogan "Transit: Some of us ride it. All of us need it."
 
"The underlying message was you may not use transit, but the people you rely on may," Shrout says. "Therefore you benefit. The people who fix your coffee and the people who take care of you in the hospital have a way of getting to work, and all of society benefits with a good transit program even if you don't ride it."
 
As in Metro Detroit, Shrout says there's often conflict in the St. Louis area between urban dwellers who use transit heavily and suburbanites who feel taxation is an unnecessary burden for a service they don't use. However, Proposition A passed with 63 percent of the vote.
 
"I'm not sure if we changed minds, but I think that we informed undecideds," Shrout says.
 
Strong messaging isn't the only key to selling non-believers on transit, however. Who the messaging is coming from also makes a big difference. Kim Cella, the current executive director of CMT, says the Prop A campaign benefited hugely from recruiting major community figures as first-time transit advocates. The chancellor of St. Louis' Washington University and the president and CEO of BJC Healthcare, a major employer in the St. Louis area, both were visible public figureheads for the Prop A campaign.
 
"We needed to demonstrate to the general public and the voting public that there are transit champions in this community," Cella says. "People that they might not ever tie into transit became our transit champion and our spokesperson for the project."
 
Brad Williams is vice president of governmental affairs at the Detroit Regional Chamber, which is heading up the RTA campaign. He says the campaign has mustered a diverse coalition of local stakeholders and has included paid media advertising, mailings, and door-to-door canvassing. Jordan says that kind of broad approach will be crucial to the campaign's success.
 
"I don't think this is about just one television ad or one charming image that's used to communicate," he says. "I think it gets down to the grassroots level."
 
Beyond Election Day
 
Of course, challenges for regional transit in Detroit don't end on Election Day. Shrout and Cella note that it's important for a transit agency to follow through on its campaign promises, and it may fall to transit advocates to keep up the pressure to move things forward. In Utah, where voters in 17 of 29 counties last year approved a sales tax increase for transportation funding, signage will draw residents' attention to the new benefits they're getting for their tax dollars.
 
"At every new route, every new bus stop, there's going to be a placard that says, 'Thank you voters of XYZ County. This is brought to you by Prop 1,'" says Abby Albrecht, director of the Utah Transportation Coalition. "You voted for this. This is what you're getting."
 
Of course, the RTA and its supporters must also consider the possibility that there won't be a victory party the night of November 8.
 
"There is a very good chance that anyone going to the ballot, especially in this November election, will fail," says James Corless, director of Washington, D.C.-based Transportation for America. "I don't care if you're a ballot referendum that's polling above 70 percent or you're a political candidate who thinks you're skating to the finish line. Nothing is safe, no one is safe, in this election. It is completely topsy-turvy."
 
Jordan notes that it's "not uncommon to see a loss before a win," and the experiences of numerous other transit advocates nationwide back that assertion up. Before Prop A's success in St. Louis in 2010, a similar proposal lost by a slim margin in 2008. Cella says transit advocates in St. Louis engaged in a "definite regrouping" afterwards and took away valuable lessons that helped them win by a much more definitive margin in 2010.
 
"We really went back and looked at our messaging and we knew that we had not impacted the voters who may not be using transit," she says.
 
Jordan, Cella, Shrout, and Albrecht all note the vital importance of maintaining a transit campaign coalition even in the wake of a loss. That includes not just keeping up internal communications among the coalition members, but maintaining public visibility and taking full advantage of whatever time elapses before the next shot at the ballot.
 
"You've got to keep educating voters," Albrecht says. "You've got to keep explaining it to them. Don't stop, even if you don't pass it."
 
As Simmons' story proves, there are always minds to be changed. Simmons notes that before she lost her sight, she wasn't much of a public transportation supporter herself.
 
"I may have at one point had the mindset, 'Well, that doesn't affect me,'" she says. "But when I take a look at it on an overall basis ... it may not affect me, but how is it affecting the others around me?"
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