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Detroit Chamber says transit plan is critical to region’s economic growth

The Peninsula 

By Tracy Rozens

September 26, 2016

The Detroit Regional Chamber has launched a campaign to educate voters on the economic benefits of a $4.7 billion transit proposal for southeast Michigan appearing on the Nov. 8 ballot, a long-awaited plan to connect the largest metropolitan area in the nation currently lacking true regional transit.

“If we are going to get people into the workforce, giving them access to move across communities and county lines to where the jobs are will be incredibly important,” Brad Williams, vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber, recently told the Peninsula.

The plan from the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) would connect 4.2 million people living in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

Ninety-two percent of the jobs in southeast Michigan are currently not accessible within 60 minutes using existing transit services.

“Anecdotally, we hear from members who have jobs open that are difficult to fill because one of the first questions you ask on any job application is: do you have access to reliable transportation? And too many people in our region can’t answer that question with yes,” Williams said.

The new transit system would feature bus rapid transit, regional rail and a new cross-county connector service that will provide frequent, seamless service on major routes, among other initiatives. The projects are viewed as key to getting people to work, helping the elderly and those with disabilities remain independent, and boosting economic development.

Over a 20-year period, the Regional Master Transit Plan would support 67,800 regional jobs, add $6 billion in gross regional product and help support an increase in personal income of $4.4 billion, according to a Michigan Department of Transportation economic impact analysis.

Voters will be asked to authorize the RTA to levy a $1.2 million property tax assessment within the four counties that will generate $3.1 billion in local transit funding over 20 years, according to a financial analysis of the plan. The RTA would seek federal and state funds to make up the rest of the cost of the project.

The cost of the plan to homeowners would be approximately $95 per year for the average home assessed at $78,856.

Southeast Michigan, at $69, invests significantly less per capita in regional transit than any other comparable city, including Chicago at $283, Pittsburgh at $232, Minneapolis-St. Paul at $177, Cleveland at $177 and Atlanta at $119.

“The regions we compete with are blowing us out of the water,” Williams said.

If the regional transit plan is approved, the southeast Michigan region’s per capita investment would rise to $157.

Under the authorizing statute for the RTA, each county would receive 85 percent of their contribution through the millage in enhanced services. When federal funds are included, counties would receive more than 100 percent.

“That’s good news because that is all taxpayer dollars folks in our region have been paying for decades and have not seen the benefit of because we didn’t have a coordinated system that connects our communities,” Williams said.

The issue of how to improve transportation in the region has vexed officials with competing interests from cities, counties and suburbs for almost half a century.

“We’ve tried this 23 other times and each time politics has gotten in the way,” Williams said.

This marks the first time a regional transit measure will go before voters in southeast Michigan.

“We’re confident that voters will recognize that this is an investment worth making,” Williams said.

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