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Transit authority seeks public input on Gratiot changes

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published November 27, 2015

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EASTPOINTE — The Regional Transit Authority is gathering public input on a proposed rapid bus service along Gratiot Avenue — from downtown Detroit to Mount Clemens — and would like public input before making a recommendation in early 2016.

Michael Ford, CEO of the RTA, and Project Manager Sarah Binkowski gave a presentation at Eastpointe’s City Council meeting Nov. 17 that explained why the RTA wants to have a rapid bus system along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and the RTA’s proposals on how to arrange it on those roadways. Another presentation took place in Roseville during its council meeting Nov. 24.

“This is part and parcel to a larger plan, a regional plan,” Ford said. “It incorporates four counties — Washtenaw, Macomb, Oakland and Wayne — and the city of Detroit. It’s a regional plan to provide connections through the whole of the four counties and the city.”

By building these trunk line routes along Woodward, Michigan and Gratiot, Ford said residents throughout all four counties could more easily get around without using or owning an automobile, and the trunk line routes would free up resources and local buses to improve services in local neighborhoods.

Binkowski said the RTA was formed in 2012 to coordinate the region’s existing public transit systems — such as the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation — and improve local transit services. Part of that effort has seen the RTA researching different mass rapid transit options for those major routes.

“One of the biggest reasons why we need rapid transit along the Gratiot corridor is for better mobility options,” Binkowski said. “Right now we have SMART and DDOT, but people are looking for more options — faster ones that are more competitive with automobiles and have frequent and reliable one-seat service.”

Economically, she said, it makes sense to invest in public transit, as on average every dollar spent on rapid transit sees $4 come into the community in terms of jobs, property tax increases and economic development. Millennials also tend to live in areas with robust public transit options to avoid buying cars, Binkowski said.

While commuter rail, light rail and streetcars were all considered, they were all too cost-prohibitive, she said. The RTA decided that bus rapid transit systems, or BRTs, were the most cost-effective method of getting the kind of public transit enjoyed in other cities, such as Chicago or New York.

Under the proposed BRT system, Binkowski said, travelers would buy a ticket from specialized stations set up along the bus route and board the bus at a platform, as they would a train or subway in another city. The buses either share the road with traffic or travel in specialized lanes; they also have the ability to control traffic signals to minimize stops.

“When we’re looking at the costs of streetcar and light rail to BRT, it’s at least a third of the cost,” Binkowski said. “The cost of a streetcar is $50 million a mile, but what we’re looking at on Gratiot with BRT is $2 million a mile.”

Additionally, using existing rail lines would require the RTA to figure out who owns the lines and work out deals with the companies to run commuter trains.

She said the RTA is seeking public input on where to put these stations — both geographically and where to set them in relation to the roadway. The first option is to have the BRT run in the right lane, but that would mean that it would share the road with local buses and cars trying to turn right.

Bus rapid transit could run in the left lane, which would mean it would primarily have to contend with traffic turning left. Finally, the BRT could have a specialized lane cut down the median along Gratiot to minimize traffic interaction; motorists trying to make Michigan lefts would then face either gates or traffic signals if a BRT was coming, Binkowski said. The median-running option is the most expensive.

Binkowski said community input on the steering committee seemed to prefer the left-lane BRT option, as it would largely retain the median on Gratiot. At the moment, the RTA has not chosen any of those options to move forward, but it wants more public input regarding which one residents prefer. Binkowski added that different stretches of Gratiot could have different options.

“We are currently going out a lot and doing a lot of community meetings,” she said. “We’re evaluating all these options to determine potential ridership of the service, the capital cost — the construction cost, but also operations and maintenance cost.”

Stops would include the mile roads, Common Road and Utica Road in Roseville, and major Detroit streets like Outer Drive and Van Dyke. The RTA also has to contend with Gratiot splitting in downtown Mount Clemens; Binkowski said there are several proposals on the table there.

To make any of it happen, Ford said, the RTA would need a millage proposal on the November 2016 ballot for all four counties. If approved, the authority could move ahead on implementing the BRT system across the region according to a five-year plan. The millage amount would be announced once the RTA has an idea of how much it would need, Ford said.

“If we are successful in November, everyone is in, so we don’t have this Swiss cheese approach to transportation,” Ford said. “Right now, we don’t have ways to get where we want to go from one place to another.”

The millage would need to be passed by a majority of voters as a whole, rather than a majority within each county.

People in attendance at the Eastpointe meeting had mixed reactions. Roseville resident Dave Chesney said that the area needs better transit due to the economic struggles that families and individuals contend with, but he questioned if rapid transit was preferable to simply adding more buses.

Eastpointe resident Walter Jakubiak said he saw issues with BRT placement on Gratiot either way.

“If they do the right side, it eliminates all parking, and that’ll hurt our businesses. And if you do it in the center, all Michigan lefts will go away. I wonder if they considered going up.” Jakubiak said. “I don’t know, or just leave it the way it is and add more bus service. I see real problems with this.”

For more information or to leave feedback, visit www.rtamichigan.org/Gratiot or www.facebook.com/rtamichigan. Binkowski said there will be future public meetings across the region.

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