There would still be shortcomings and gaps, but plans to shore up our embarrassingly inadequate public transportation system in metropolitan Detroit carry the distinct whiff of a credible and functional system that can compare with those found in other big cities.

On Thursday, I stopped by the second of two public workshops held by the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan to view plans for express service between the suburbs and city along Woodward and Gratiot Avenues. I spoke with Travis Gonyou, the RTA’s community outreach and communications manager, about plans for bus rapid transit, service to Detroit Metro Airport and passenger rail connection between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

The RTA will propose a yet-to-be-specified tax levy on the Nov. 8 ballot for voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne Counties to support ongoing operation of the system. Gonyou said unlike the tax levy for SMART bus, there will be no ability for individual communities to opt out of the system and create holes in bus service.

“Right now if the majority of the region passes this, it goes into play,” he said.

There’s of course a long way to go to build support for better transit in Detroit, but in the meantime, here’s a rundown of what’s cooking.

A rendering of a BRT station in Mt. Clemens.
A rendering of a BRT station in Mt. Clemens.

The Three Big Initiatives

  1. Express bus service. The RTA scored a major coup when it managed to get SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation to agree to split local, state and federal funding to operate seven-day-a-week express bus service along Woodward and Gratiot Avenues for a three-year pilot program. The key to overcoming the traditional turf battles between SMART and DDOT, Gonyou said, was convincing both that the express buses would be an add-on and not take away any existing, local route service (DDOT and SMART will also operate the express routes on Woodward and Gratiot, respectively). A draft route schedule shows that buses along Woodward, for example, would make stops at six stations from Somerset Mall in Troy and Cadillac Square in downtown Detroit, with express buses running in roughly 45-minute increments.
  2. Bus rapid transit along Michigan, Woodward and Gratiot Avenues. The dedicated BRT lanes would alternate between center- and curb-running, depending on street width and other factors, but would feature buses that trigger traffic signals ahead of them. “It gets you longer distances in a shorter amount of time, and that is truly a rapid system that is competitive with a car in a lot of instances,” Gonyou said. BRT would involve infrastructure improvements including covered stations, pre-board ticketing machines and level boarding platforms akin to stepping onto subway cars.
  3. The RTA Master Plan. This comes out May 31 and is expected to offer significantly more details on things like BRT, paratransit services for seniors and the disabled, and commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit (more on that below). It will also outline a plan for more coordinated service on routes such as Grand River Avenue that encompass urban DDOT routes but also suburban SMART routes and other local services.

Commuter Rail and Airport Service

Service between Ann Arbor and Detroit has been in the planning stages for years, Gonyou said. “We took the project over essentially knowing we had the opportunity to kind of push this over the finish line.”

With Amtrak and freight tracks already in place, and existing stations in Detroit, Dearborn and Ann Arbor, and another on the way in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town, much of the costly infrastructure already exists.

While a few studies are still needed, the RTA is recommending installing eight round-trip routes per day using rail cars already owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The agency is still working out details but says it plans a mid-corridor connection to Metro Airport — possibly via a BRT connection from a train station. Anyone who’s used public transit in other big cities to catch a flight knows how sorely overdue this service is in Detroit.

Whither The QLINE?

Construction on the M-1 Rail in Detroit.
Construction on the M-1 Rail in Detroit. Creative Commons photo by the Michigan Municipal League.

Left mostly unsaid is how the QLINE, the roughly four-mile light rail line under construction that was formerly known as the M-1 Rail, will be incorporated into the RTA. Under terms spelled out in funding agreements, M-1 will sign over operation of the QLINE to the RTA in 2024, Gonyou said.

When Can You Have Your Say?

There will be a pair of public hearings held on Wednesday, May 25:

  • From noon-2 p.m. at St. James Church, 241 Pearson St. in Ferndale
  • From 5-7 p.m. at Matrix Center (Community Hall), 13560 E. McNichols in Detroit
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