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Need for Transit Grows

RTA plan connects region, critical to economic future

By Paul Hillegonds

Leaders from Southeast Michigan and across the state convene at this conference to take on issues vital to our future. Few topics have been on our agenda longer than building a modern, coordinated regional transit system for a more competitive and prosperous region.

This year, the pieces are in place to make history and finally make regional transit a reality for Southeast Michigan, truly connecting Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties. In late 2012, county and city leaders, lawmakers, the governor, and business and community leaders came together to create the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). And this week, after nearly two years of public engagement, planning and analysis, the RTA released a cost-effective, achievable and visionary plan that can be put before voters in November.

Since the conversation began decades ago, the need for regional transit has only grown.  Few modern trends rival mobile young talent selecting communities with high-quality transit – with businesses and investment following. A study of 500 corporate relocations found better transit and walkability to be a near universal factor. A survey of 350 national CEOs ranked transit near the top of qualities that matter in considering our region. And Crain’s Detroit found 73 percent of millennials put regional transit at the top of their wish list. If we want to grow our economy and keep our young people here, regional transit is a must.

Transit is about creating and connecting people to opportunities – with jobs, education, and vital services like health care. We are the only major region in the country without true regional transit, and we invest dramatically less in transit than any peer region. Each of our existing providers do the best they can, but these constraints mean only limited connections between Detroit and our suburban communities, and virtually no connections between Metro Detroit and Ann Arbor – or to the airport.  Entire areas – key job centers – are unserved by transit altogether. Service is not frequent enough on key routes to meet community needs.

The impacts are real and profound. Nearly 80 percent of jobs can’t be reached within 90 minutes using public transit. We all know the story of the Walking Man; the reality is similar challenges affect too many fellow Michiganders daily as they strive to get to work, school or the doctor.

The RTA’s master plan will change all of this and move our region into the future. It’s a smart and balanced approach, serving the region equitably and investing resources wisely.

It will deliver Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on Woodward, Michigan and Gratiot Avenues – providing light rail features, including powerful economic development effects, at a fraction of the cost.  The plan uses existing infrastructure to finally deliver commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor, connecting two major hubs of the regional economy at 1/15th the cost of new rail projects in other cities. And it delivers new, coach-quality express service to the airport.

The RTA plan will also ensure frequent, seamless service on major regional corridors and key connectors instead of today’s fragmented and limited options.  It does this by building on current services and providing the funding and coordination for our existing providers to work together to deliver regional service. This, coupled with targeting investment to routes with the greatest demand, ensures the best use of every cent.

Critically, seniors and people with disabilities will benefit from increased funding for specialized transit, helping advance their independence and quality of life.  And the plan includes opportunities for partnerships with companies like Lyft and Uber, necessary for a forward-thinking system to harness new mobility technologies and address critical challenges like first and last mile service and hard-to-get-to areas.

We have long agreed that regional transit is vital to Southeast Michigan’s ability to grow, compete and meet the needs of our citizens. The way to make it happen is now before us. It is my hope that everyone reading this and attending this conference will get behind this effort. We can make history – if we do it together.

Paul Hillegonds is the chairman of the Regional Transit Authority of Michigan’s Board of Directors and a strong proponent of frequent, reliable and connected regional transit to help bolster economic growth and quality of life for the Southeast Michigan region.