Some of Metro Detroit’s top transportation leaders gathered with TRU on October 24 to talk about regional transit planning at our latest Transit Tuesday Talk.
Representatives of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA), the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit (SMART), and the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) spoke last Tuesday at the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn. They presented their role in regional transit planning, what progress has been made towards a better transportation future, and shared how members of the public could help shape that vision.
Regional Transit Authority (RTA)
First up was Ben Stupka, the RTA’s chief planner, who announced that his agency applied for $124 million in federal grant dollars for corridor improvements along Gratiot, Michigan, Washtenaw, and Woodward avenues – including bus, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure. The application garnered 61 letters of support from officials across the region, including from TRU.
Stupka also announced that the RTA was seeking requests for proposals by possible vendors for its new Downtown Detroit-Metro Airport express bus. The RTA expects to have finalized proposals by next year.
Though the RTA has not yet announced its intent to levy a ballot measure, the RTA is currently updating Regional Transit Master Plan to meet current trends and community input.
“These goals were established in our 2021 master plan,” said Stupka, “and we’ve kind of held them true throughout all the iterations we’ve been doing. The idea is that [the master plan] is always something we can have if we want to secure a grant or do a ballot initiative or do anything we have a fresh set of goals, strategies, and actions.”
Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit (SMART)
Next to speak was Harmony Lloyd, Vice-President of Planning and Innovation at SMART. Lloyd reiterated her agency’s commitment to hiring more drivers amidst the region’s bus service crisis. She says that SMART is currently negotiating contracts that include pay raises and is trying to streamline the hiring and training process.
“[Hiring] is at the forefront of every decision we make,” said Lloyd. “You could plan the greatest service in the world, if you don’t have drivers to run that service there’s no point. This group is very aware that SMART is still working to negotiate contracts with our drivers, and I can publicly say that they include pay raises.”
Lloyd also detailed new capital improvements and expansions to service, including carrying out the vision of Oakland County transit expansion overwhelmingly approved by voters last November.
January 2024 will see service expansion in Wayne and Macomb Counties, including returning service to Romulus and New Baltimore. In Oakland County, Routes 492 and 790 will return by April 2024. Route 759 in Macomb County will return by summer 2024. Additionally, SMART is taking advantage of federal dollars to strengthen its paratransit program in partnership with the RTA and local operators.
Lloyd also announced that SMART is currently undergoing a bus stop improvement program. Under the plan, all SMART stops will include an ADA pad – the tactile device used to warn people when entering a roadway – and a keywalk, which is the stretch of sidewalk extension used to reach the curb. All new stops are receiving this treatment and all existing stops will be upgraded over the next three years.
However, improvements are being beleaguered by state-level policy decisions. Lloyd announced that certain Michigan Department of Transportation park-and-ride lots have banned the entry of transit vehicles. She says that the agency is working closely with MDOT and SEMCOG to correct this issue.
Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG)
Last to speak was Chris Williams, the regional transit planning coordinator for SEMCOG. SEMCOG is the seven-county metropolitan planning organization for Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, St. Clair, and Monroe counties. SEMCOG partners with the RTA and local transit providers in the region to provide data collection and analysis, modeling, and funding identification for transit expansion in the region.
Williams announced that SEMCOG is in the process of updating its Vision 2050 Regional Transportation Plan, which acts as the blueprint for prioritizing transportation options in the region. The plan has to be updated every four years and is in place to aid the distribution of federal and state dollars.
“For transit,” said Williams, “once the plan is adopted, the policies and actions that are identified in the RTA master plan will be included. Everything that they’re doing we are supporting. But, for the three counties outside of the RTA, we also coordinate with them to determine where their priorities will be and what deficiencies there are with the system.”
SEMCOG is currently taking public input on its Vision 2050 plan at RTPoutreach@semcog.org.
Questions from the Audience
Q: How does equity and environmental justice fit into these efforts by RTA, SEMCOG, and SMART?
- SEMCOG: SEMCOG says that their agency will ensure that these issues are addressed in long term plans. They also plan to create a task force to address these issues and develop data to target non-traditional households.
Q: How are agencies working with the state’s efforts to grow and retrain young talent?
- RTA: The RTA is working on a report related to transit as an aspect of population retention which is expected in December.
- SEMCOG: SEMCOG says that they will be planning transportation on future population models, especially with young folks’ preference for transit and Michigan’s aging population.
- SMART: SMART says that they’re talking with legislators about putting ideas into action.
Q: How is the D2A2 bus going, and what’s the status of the MiTrain proposal?
RTA: The MiTrain would have cost over $500 million for eight round trips a day – without stations – and would require a new operator. Ridership models showed less than one thousand people a day would utilize the service many years ago. D2A2 has established a ridership market, creating over two thousand riders a day. For only two years of service, that is pretty good. However, there is talk about Amtrak and MDOT collaborating to provide a regional train along the Ann Arbor to Pontiac corridor.
Q: Since young people want transit, are there any programs to encourage middle and high school students to ride?
- SMART: Royal Oak reached out about a similar program. Small changes have allowed high schoolers to use the city bus as there is already great demand among students. While no direct programs to replace school buses exist, continuing the ideas of getting people used to transit while they are young and working with schools is key.
Q: Are there plans to continue SMART service into the night for afternoon and evening workers?
- SMART: While the agency states that it very much wants to provide more night service, it currently lacks the drivers to do so.
Q: How can community members help achieve these groups’ goals?
- SMART: Get involved with our planning process! Let SMART know where inaccessible stops are, and continue your advocacy!
- SEMCOG: Learn more about Vision 2050 and send comments to the RTP development team by emailing RTPoutreach@semcog.org.
- RTA: Give your feedback to RTA and ride our services! Let others know to use the system, and tell us how it is.
Additionally, you can join Transportation Riders United to help us aid these great organizations with our advocacy.