The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has been holding open houses to update its regional master transit plan, which it looks to finalize this fall.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has been holding open houses to update its regional master transit plan, which it looks to finalize this fall.

Photo by Mike Koury

RTA finalizing master plan on area’s transit needs

By: Mike Koury | C&G Newspapers | Published September 7, 2021


OAKLAND COUNTY — For the past several months, the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan has been holding open houses to gather information for an update to its regional master transit plan.

A regional master transit plan would lay out a roadmap for what the RTA envisions for public transportation in the counties of Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne.

A virtual meeting Aug. 23 was the last open house the RTA held, hearing from people on what they want to see in their regional transit system, and now the organization, with input received from those meetings as well as online surveys and other ridership engagement, will work to develop its update.

RTA Program Manager Ben Stupka said they will take all the input they’ve received and go before the board of directors for approval of a plan. The document presented will be a baseline for RTA’s next strategic initiative.

“Whether that’d be looking at strategic grant opportunities, new partnerships, ways to keep developing some of the stuff we’re already working on, that kind of sets our platform for like, ‘OK, we’re really gonna focus on whatever the priorities are that come out of this plan,’” he said.

The RTA last updated its regional master transit plan about five years ago. Stupka said the plan this year will be more strategically focused.

“It’s not gonna be at the level of, ‘This community’s gonna get this exact route,’ or, ‘This community’s gonna get this.’ … It will be much more broad,” he said. “It will identify where do we have broad areas of opportunity to make more investments in their transit system, where do we think more frequent services are going to make sense, where do we want to look to expand the system, where are there opportunities for potential capital investments, where would new technology take place?”

Stupka said the RTA is aiming to finalize its master plan this fall.

The RTA has been working with its providers to develop the plan. Those partners are the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, the Detroit Department of Transportation, the Detroit People Mover, the QLINE and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer said SMART and the RTA have been talking a lot through the development of the update, along with the other providers.

Cramer stated SMART, DDOT and the other partners play a big role in the master plan, as RTA currently isn’t a provider, and past master plans have reflected the reality that the providers are the providers.

“A lot of the things they’ve talked about in the past and undoubtedly the things they’ll talk about here again in this effort, probably with a little different twist, that all relies on the current services being good or better and also leverages the current operators to do a lot of that stuff,” he said. “The 2018 plan talked about improving frequencies or improving the span of days the services are available. That’s kind of improving the base first, and all of that was basically the passing through (of) funds to SMART, DDOT and Ann Arbor to carry that load. Because let’s say we do a big fancy line that goes down Woodward. If the other routes that are feeding into that aren’t good, then the benefit’s really gonna be limited to that corridor.”

Cramer said the base that the master plan update lays on is the services provided by SMART and the other providers that blanket the region. It’s the RTA that can come in and fill the gaps to help enhance and build a stronger base.

Right now, the current ridership level for SMART is around 50% of what it was prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is up from the initial 20% level the ridership hit at the pandemic’s beginning. Issues contributing to the decrease include a lack of bus drivers: SMART has 70 open positions.

While 75% of its bus service is back on the road from before the pandemic, SMART still is a way off from what they were, said Cramer. He does believe the RTA’s master plan can help increase ridership; the whole point behind it is that if you make something more useful to people, it will increase the chances of people using it.

“Transit certainly is in that category,” he said. “If you have bad transit, then it’s not gonna be used because it’s not useful. The better that you can make transit, you make it something that people actually consider more and more to be something that can be useful for them for a different variety of trips, different times of day or different days of the week, it’s something they can understand and use that is ready when they need it.”

By and large, Stupka said, what they’ve heard from folks from their community engagement is that they want to see more investment in some of the area’s major corridors in terms of both capital investments to improve facilities and improved stops to help buses run more efficiently, and more frequency in areas that can attract high ridership.

“These are like major corridors, places with a lot of jobs, a lot of density,” Stupka said. “They do want to see an expanded system, particularly in areas at the edges of our current transit network that have a lot of jobs and a lot of density. They definitely want to see services that operate more on the weekends and more in the evenings.”

A lot of what Stupka has seen before has been “very commuter focused,” and many people want to see something that competes with a car ride to a 9 a.m.-5 p.m. job in rush hour.

“While I still think that’s important to people, I think the focus is kind of turning to a more comprehensive network that really serves people’s everyday needs and operates a little bit more evenly throughout the day and a little bit later,” he said.