‘It’s not perfect, but it’s something’

Faith leaders, residents, officials debate transit plan

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 19, 2016

 Roslyn Schindler, of Huntington Woods, said she supports the transit plan and considers public transportation a social justice issue.

Roslyn Schindler, of Huntington Woods, said she supports the transit plan and considers public transportation a social justice issue.

Photo by Tiffany Esshaki


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD — What was supposed to be an informational meeting about the public transit proposal heading to the ballot this November turned out to be more of a pep rally for the Regional Transit Authority of Southeastern Michigan.

From speakers to attendants, the crowd gathered at First United Methodist Church of Birmingham Sept. 14 seemed to agree that the metro Detroit area is in need of some kind of improved public transportation.

The what
The presentation was led by the Rev. Louise Ott, pastor of Congregational Church of Birmingham in Bloomfield Hills. For her and much of the faith community, she said, the public transit proposal isn’t about a property tax levy of 1.2 mills — it’s a social justice issue.

“This is the 24th time we’ve tried to get (public transit) in 40 years,” Ott told the crowd. “You might ask, ‘Why do we need this if we have bus service?’ We need something that can work in a coordinated fashion to get across county lines, across city lines, to get you where you need to go.”

Explaining the basics of the RTA plan was Marie Donigan, from A Coalition for Transit, a broad group of individuals and organizations supporting reliable regional public transit. First United Methodist Church of Birmingham is a member of ACT, and the Birmingham City Commission unanimously passed a resolution Aug. 8 to join the group as well.

The why
Among the highlights of why improved public transportation is necessary, Donigan stressed, is the region’s shift in where residents live and where they’re likely to work. Currently, more than 75 percent of jobs are located at least 10-35 miles outside of Detroit’s central business district, largely in the suburbs, according to the Brookings Institution and the U.S. Census Bureau.

She explained that there’s an estimated 2 million available jobs in metro Detroit — about 92 percent of the area’s total employment —  that can’t be reached within 60 minutes using existing transit.

The farther out from Detroit you go, not only are more jobs available, according to that data, but those jobs also are likely to pay more. But without reliable public transit, those jobs aren’t accessible to people without a vehicle.

Donigan also cited independence for seniors and people with disabilities as groups with a growing need for transportation options, along with students and younger professionals, who often cite public transportation as a major factor when they decide where to get an education or settle down with a family. She cited a Crain’s Detroit Business survey that found that 73 percent of millennials listed regional transit as their No. 1 desire for southeast Michigan.

The how (and where)
The solution to southeast Michigan’s transit troubles, according to the RTA, is the approval of a master transit plan that would cost homeowners with a home assessed at just over $78,500 in Macomb, Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties an average of $96 per year for 20 years. More than $160 million is expected to be collected in the first year if the levy is approved.

With those funds, a number of transit options would be added to existing bus services like the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation. A bus rapid transit system, described as light rail cars on wheels, would be implemented on Gratiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Michigan Avenue and Washtenaw Avenue, into Ann Arbor.

There would also be the addition of a regional rail with eight daily trips to and from Ann Arbor to the Detroit area.

Cross-county connectors would utilize buses to cross-county lines, where current bus lines now stop, while local buses and the new QLine on Woodward Avenue in Detroit would be available for residents traveling locally.

A commuter express line would be available for weekday rush-hour service along I-75 and M-59, as well as from Ann Arbor to Canton. Finally, an airport express line would act as a premium shuttle service from Detroit Metropolitan Airport to various stops throughout the region.

All of the services would be accessed using a single payment system, and the priority would be for each form of transit to communicate with the others to improve efficiency and eliminate missed or late rides that plague the existing bus lines, according to Donigan.

According to the RTA’s timeline, the entire project, if approved, would begin in 2017 and wrap up in 2027.

The who
Donigan stressed to the audience during the meeting that she’s a member of ACT and not the RTA, so she was only presenting information and not encouraging voters to mark their ballots one way or the other.

But there were plenty of others who were there to promote the plan.

“I’ve seen the challenges Detroit families face that prevent them from meeting their daily needs,” said Dr. Elliot Attisha, from Henry Ford Health System’s school-based community health program. “Getting to the grocery store, getting to the doctor; it’s things we take for granted every day.”

Attisha told the story of one of his young patients who had asthma. Upon the next checkup, despite being prescribed medication, the child’s condition had not improved because her mother was unable to get transportation to the pharmacy to get the necessary drugs.

Oakland Community College student Samantha Perkin, of Hazel Park, also spoke to the crowd and described having trouble finishing her education in a reasonable amount of time because without a vehicle, she’s not able to take as many classes.

“I take a 10 a.m. bus to a 1 p.m. class, and that’s if it’s not late, which it usually is,” said Perkin. “I do this in the cold, in the extreme humidity and in the heat because I want to get an education. But (existing transit) limits the amount of classes I can take because I run out of time. There’s not enough hours in the week to take classes and take public transportation to get there.”

John Waterman, the executive director of Programs to Educate All Cyclists, or PEAC, spoke on behalf of the participants in his nonprofit program, which promotes independence for citizens with disabilities by educating them about biking and alternative modes of transportation.

“Michigan led the way to end institutionalization,” Waterman said to the crowd. “But we really imprison those with disabilities in their own homes. We literally put up walls around our communities.”

But not everyone was ready to rally around the plan. One resident shouted out from the audience to ask what happens to homeowners in communities that are already paying for SMART millages.

“You’re asking us to have another millage, now will the DDOT and SMART (communities), will those millages disappear?” asked the resident. “Where’s the social justice when Detroiters pay two millages but Bloomfield Hills residents, where they have cars, pay nothing?”

The Bloomfield Hills City Commission voted 3-2 last summer not to include a proposal on the next ballot to fund SMART service in the city. One of the votes against bringing SMART to the city was cast by Commissioner Sarah McClure, who was in the audience for the RTA presentation.

She declined to comment on the RTA plan other than saying she hopes residents will review the information and head to the polls to vote this November. She did ask presenters, though, where voters can go for more information.

“As one of the magazines said, it’s a plan for a plan, and it’s hard to get behind it,” McClure said, citing questions she’s asked that have gone unanswered by RTA officials, including where Park & Ride lots would be located, why bus lines are planned where she said the RTA’s own research showed express lines would be better, and how much municipalities would have to put up to build transit stops.

“For the express bus up Woodward, it’s going to be $5 million, but they’re looking at spending $300 million and taking out the medians and doing all the infrastructure changes with the lighting. And there’s concerns if a stop is put in, how much does the municipality have to pay for the structure? That question hasn’t been answered, and it would be nice to have those kind of questions answered for us,” McClure said.

Donigan responded to both questions by saying she was unable to answer technical questions since she’s a member of ACT and not the RTA. Ott replied to McClure’s assertion that an RTA should exist by saying that if the plan isn’t passed in November, as she understands it, funding for the RTA ends.

The when
In closing, presenters reminded attendees that 85 percent of funds collected would stay in the county they came from, and the RTA board of directors, with representatives appointed by county executives, would oversee the distribution to keep finances in order.

The Rev. Greg Larsen, of Congregational Church of Birmingham, said the transit system in his native Grand Rapids could be as much a success in the metro Detroit area as it was for the west side of the state, but voters need to give it a chance.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s something,” he said to the crowd.

On Nov. 8, it will be up to voters to decide if the more than $4.7 billion plan is what southeast Michigan needs to speed into an economically sound future. Ready to vote yes is Huntington Woods resident Roslyn Schindler, who agreed with the reverend when describing public transit as a social justice issue.

“I’ve been living in Detroit for more than 42 years, but I’m originally from New York,” she said. “New York is the ideal for public transit, but Detroit needs something badly for all the reasons included in these materials.”

On the other side of the coin, Bloomfield Hills resident Margaret Brophy isn’t quite convinced yet.

“I came here looking for information, but it was a very one-sided meeting,” she said. “It was full of cheerleaders, and if you wanted to ask a question, you were cut off (by others).”

For more information on the plan, visit rtamichigan.org. You can also attend another informational presentation about the RTA plan 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, Oct. 1, at the Bloomfield Township Public Library, located at 1099 Lone Pine Road in Bloomfield Hills.