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Experts say the next 2 years are "make-or-break" for Metro Detroit transit

Feb 26, 2015

Credit Sarah Hulett / Michigan Radio

The next two years are make-or-break ones for the future of regional transit in Metro Detroit, according to an expert panel at Tuesday’s Detroit Policy Conference.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority--just established in 2012--will play a crucial role in coordinating the area’s current fragmented transit systems, as well as supporting and building out any new infrastructure.

RTA CEO Michael Ford said the group already has a lot on its plate, balancing long-term transit priorities with urgent short-term fixes for the region’s inadequate bus service.  

“We need to get a millage passed, we need to get a funding base, and we need to get service on the street right now,” Ford said.

The RTA is eyeing a 2016 ballot measure to establish a permanent transit funding source. It will probably ask voters in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to approve a new property tax millage.

In many metro areas throughout the country, a percentage of local sales taxes are devoted to transit systems, said Megan Owens, Executive Director of the group Transportation Riders United.

But that’s not allowed under Michigan’s state constitution, leaving local policymakers with limited options to fund transit—and some potentially unpopular choices to make.

Dennis Cowan, a former Royal Oak mayor turned transit advocate and partner in the law firm Plunkett-Cooney, said the public needs to be convinced of the “value proposition” of public transit—and be vocal about supporting it.

“We can fix this,” Cowan said. “But it takes political will, your voice being heard, and we need to convince county and Detroit officials.”

Panelists agreed that substantial progress has been made on transit and toward greater regional cooperation, but warned that not following through in the next several years could bring everything to a grinding halt—and jeopardize any positive momentum the region has going.

“A world-class metro region has to have ways for people to get around,” Owens said.