Will metro Detroit suburbs buy into regional transit?

Highland Park resident Mike Seunagal was more than halfway to a degree in Management Information Systems at Livonia's Madonna University in 2006 when the busses stopped running.
"That stopped me from being able to go to Madonna," says Seunagal, who is visually impaired and does not have a driver's license. "I take the bus wherever I need to go."
In 2005, the year before Seunagal dropped out of school, 55 percent of Livonia voters approved a proposal to opt out of SMART, metro Detroit's regional bus system. Seunagal told his story to the Livonia City Council on March 16 by phone because he had no way to travel to be there in person. The council was discussing a request to consider opting back in.
"I basically stated to them about that I was a student there and had to drop out," says Seunagal. "I had heard that not one single person was affected when the busses stopped running. Well, I'm at least one single person."
Despite testimony by Seunagal and several other transit advocates, Livonia's city council voted 6-1 against taking any action that night, though it agreed to take up the issue for further study.
According to Megan Owens, executive director for public transit advocacy group Transit Riders United, the story of James Robertson, a man whose daily 21-mile walk to and from work went viral earlier this year, has galvanized suburban communities to re-address their stance on public transportation.
"This whole story certainly drew the media's attention to the issue of communities opting out of SMART bus service," says Owens. "We decided to just seize on that and make sure people realize this isn't just one guy -- that there are thousands of people like him who have to go through extraordinary efforts just to get to work or to school."

Infographic: Transit access in proximity to colleges, universities and low wage jobs in metro Detroit

Map data sources: Bus Routes: AATA/The Ride, Data Driven Detroit Open Data Portal, U.S. Census Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics 

Owens recounts several such transit horror stories over the past several years, each illustrating the brokenness of metro Detroit's transit system in a unique way.
"There was a woman a couple of years ago who traded her house for a car so that she could make sure she could get to work on time," says Owens. "There was another guy before that who missed some potentially life-saving cancer treatments because he couldn't get to the hospital."
Frequently these stories fizzle out with little in the way of concrete action, says Owens.

Megan Owens, TRU
But with the young Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan getting ready to undertake a massive master planning and public engagement effort, this time may be different.
The effort will start in mid-May, according to RTA director Michael Ford, and wrap up early next year in advance of a November 2016 regional transit ballot initiative.
"We really can't address the transit problem until we have a significant discussion so we can create a plan that's realistic, that can be supported, and that has the financial backing that's necessary to make it happen," says Ford. "We want everybody at the table. Reaching out to the opt-out communities will definitely be high on our radar screen because there is a business case -- an economic case -- that will need to be put forward."
Making the transit value case for car-oriented suburbs
When Rochester Mayor Jeff Cuthbertson discovered that it was a Rochester resident, Blake Pollack, who had been giving James Robertson rides to and from work, the story hit close to home.
"It struck me that people who see something that isn't right do something about it," he says. "But I don't think that talking about reliable, sustainable public transportation is predicated on fixing one, albeit terrible, situation. We need to be talking about how we get around in our community 20 years from now."
The city of Rochester opts out of SMART (though it uses state municipal credits to participate in SMART's Community Transit program for elderly residents), as does neighboring Rochester Hills, Robertson's destination on his daily epic trek to work.
Cuthbertson reached out to Ford to find out more about regional transit and how the city can be involved in planning. The two met on Feb. 25.
"I think Rochester should have a seat at the table in talking about what that plan is and how we make sure that it makes sense for Rochester," says Cuthbertson.
Although he sees a need for transit in the community, he says opting in to SMART is not on the table at this time for the city.
"I would characterize it as a well-settled matter," he says. "I haven't seen any push to revisit that decision at present."
As for a future solution, Cuthbertson believes the region should be thinking bigger than a simple merger between SMART, the regional bus system, and DDOT, the city of Detroit's system.
"I don't think a meaningful and sustainable transportation system is a bus-only solution. I think rail has to be a part of it. Just merging SMART and DDOT and adding some high-speed lanes and calling it done is not the solution that we need, and I hope that's not the solution that we're looking for," he says.
Instead, Cuthbertson sees a need for a broader discussion about how regional transit can benefit the community and its car-driving residents.
"Why is it that I should be involved in a solution other than paying for my next tank of gas?" he asks. "Until that value case is made to people who are working jobs, raising families, trying to make ends meet, I don't begrudge them."
That value case might relate to saving the families who live in the city money, according to Cuthbertson.
"There may be ways to get places that don't involve having to have two cars," he says. "If you had a reliable public transportation system that got you most of the places that you needed to, could you live with one car? Think about reducing that expense by half. Or, if you're a three-car family, and you have younger kids, could you go to two? That's a number that matters to people. And with having fewer roads to maintain, maybe we wouldn't be talking about a sales tax increase."
Creating transit connections to other economic and logistical hubs, says Cuthbertson, could also have economic benefits for the community.
"I see Rochester having a link to Royal Oak, Birmingham, and to Oakland County Airport as being a good thing for our community," he says. "I think the magic question is, what's it going to cost, and who's going to pay for it, and when?"
Opting in
A few miles to the west, the city of Auburn Hills opts in to SMART. For mayor pro-tem Bob Kittle, public transit is all about creating a specific kind of community atmosphere and service level to attract and retain residents.
"We're a progressive community that's looking far down the road and realizing that a lot of the next generation folks -- millennials that are coming up -- prefer more livable, walkable, don't-need-to-have-my-own-car communities," he says. "We're trying to promote a college town atmosphere with several universities in our geographic area, with cute downtowns. People need to be able to get around, and, especially with the congestion factor, a public transportation system needs to be available."
Although his city opts in to SMART, Kittle, like Cuthbertson, is looking for a better regional solution than what is currently available.
"I understand all of the history. Everybody is worried about control and looking at the Detroit system as the basis for how not to do it," he says. "In my opinion, we need a better way to move people around without having them have their own car all of the time. When we're talking about adding an extra lane up and down I-75, from downtown out to who knows where, couldn't that money be better spent? I'm not for growing government and having government pay for public transportation necessarily, but there has to be a better solution than what we have today."
Last year, the city of Lathrup Village opted in to SMART after 19 years of opting out.
"Lathrup Village was an opt-out community ever since the first SMART millage in Oakland County in 1995," says Martha Potere, assistant city administrator. "The bus actually came through Lathrup Village, because our main thoroughfare is Southfield Road, but it didn't stop in Lathrup."
Potere began quietly advocating for the city to opt in after she began working there a little over a year ago.
"We had a couple of conversations with city council and our DDA Board, and everyone was very supportive," she recalls. "The feeling was, let's move this forward and see what the steps are to opting in."
A local government can opt in to SMART and levy the millage by resolution without a vote of the people. But last August's vote for a SMART millage renewal and increase happened to coincide with the city's interest in opting in, creating the opportunity for a democratic process.
"We had one of the highest approval rates in the county," she recalls. "People were really on board with it. We have an aging population, like most communities, and residents are really passionate about staying and aging in place."
When it comes to making the case for transit in the community, whether opting in to SMART or a larger regional plan, Potere emphasizes the value of providing a way for people to come into the community.
"In a lot of communities, they don't have a large voice saying, 'Let's opt in' because frankly, maybe their residents don't ride the bus," she says. "I think that's the situation in Lathrup. What they're not taking into account is that a lot of people who are visiting their community, either for work or for shopping, or any of the other amenities that people need, are using public transportation to get there, or at least get as close as they can to that community, if the community is an opt-out. What we saw was that some of our businesses' employees needed public transportation to get to work. They were having to walk an extra half or quarter mile to get to their place of employment."
Owens notes that a lack of public transportation can have a chilling effect not only on those who lack car access, but on communities that lack transit.
"Think of all the people who don't even try to get a job because they know they can't get there, or employers who don't even consider someone who has to take a bus in order to get there because the options aren't available," she says.
While it's not yet evident whether suburbanites will embrace regional transit in time for a millage next November, the discussion has clearly begun.
"Rochester was the northern terminal of the Detroit Urban Railway," says Cuthbertson. "Some of this is in our DNA as a city. The fact that our response to the options that are available now is a settled issue, doesn't mean that our approach to a new plan is in any way complacent. I don't want that to be the case."

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer. She also serves as digital editor for WDET 101.9FM. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.

Photos by David Lewinski Photography.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Nina Ignaczak.

Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.