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RTA updates its transit plan for Southeast Michigan

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Will it be on the 2020 ballot?

Proposed regional transit map

After failing to pass a regional transit millage in 2016, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has unveiled its updated plan for Southeast Michigan. Though it’s still far away, many will already wonder if the plan will be on the 2020 ballot.

As part of its task of coordinating the various transit systems in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties, the RTA is obligated to update its plan with regional goals and priorities, and to set a broader vision that various local authorities (like SMART and DDOT) can work towards. With the release of this most recent plan, the body did just that.

In its broad strokes, the 2020 plan is similar to the 2016 one. It calls for an expansion of the express service along main corridors emanating from downtown Detroit, plus commuter service that would be active during rush hour along 13 regional routes. There would also be a commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit, an airport express line, and bus rapid transit along Woodward Avenue.

“Those were all some of the most popular components of the previous plan that most people agreed made a lot of sense,” says Megan Owens, executive director of the transit advocacy nonprofit Transportation Riders United. Her organization strongly supports the latest version of the plan.

Owens also notes that some of the 2016 master plan, like FAST bus routes and a unified payment system, have already been implemented.

The estimated cost for these services would be $4 billion over 20 years.

There’s also some “aspirational” goals that call for an expansion of the commuter rail line to extend it all the way from Mount Clemens to Chelsea and a light rail line from downtown Detroit to Detroit Metro Airport.

“Instead of trying to detail exactly what the plan would include, the RTA included a long-term vision that articulates what the goal is to work towards,” Owens says.

Transit in SE Michigan today

In order to support both these near- and long-term visions, the RTA will need an additional $105.6 million a year in funding, which would most likely to come, similar to 2016, from a ballot proposal for a tax millage.

That’s obviously a large sum of money—though most experts believe it to be a sound economic investment—and the proposal will surely face political obstacles.

The RTA will first continue to engage with the public to advocate for the plan and hear suggested changes. There will be open houses in each of the four counties over the next four months. It’s also asking citizens to take a survey to better inform the body about people’s needs and desires.

After getting it passed by the RTA’s board in the fall, things get more difficult.

One reason the 2016 ballot proposal failed was due to its unpopularity in outlying cities that wouldn’t receive direct service in Oakland and Macomb counties. The RTA will likely ask the Michigan Legislature to change its charter so that it can choose who to tax—only those that would receive service.

Those residents, in turn, would be the only ones to vote on the millage. Then of course, once it gets on the 2020 ballot, it has to pass.