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Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide

» Developing common goals is more productive than forcing a merger of regional transportation agencies. An authority for Detroit comes closer.

If there’s anything Detroit needs most, it may be regional cooperation, where it finds itself distinctively behind the times. While some major cities like New York or San Francisco are large and wealthy enough to be able to close themselves off politically from the surroundings, Michigan’s largest metropolis benefits from neither of those characteristics, so it must find ways to make agreements with nearby municipalities.

Frequently mentioned is the idea of a regional transportation district, which would coordinate funding and spending activities at the metropolitan scale. A proposal for one is currently being considered in the Michigan legislature. But it’s not clear that the creation of such an agency will resolve some of the structural issues complicating politics in this metropolis.

The biggest problem is the metropolitan area’s racial and class disconnect: While the city is largely poor and black, surrounding areas in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne Counties (the city is a part of the latter), which are its nearest neighbors, are mostly middle class and white. These differences — perhaps the starkest inner city/suburban divide in the country — have resulted in opposing decision-making about issues of metropolitan concern, including land use, the environment, and of course transportation.

The existing public transportation system is particularly balkanized, with inner-city trips being provided by the city’s DOT and connections between downtown and the suburbs by an agency called SMART, originally formed in 1967. This has produced a number of operational and perceptual difficulties, certainly not aiding in matters. To make matters more confusing, the M-1 Rail streetcar line planned to run 3.4 miles from downtown to the New Center along Woodward Avenue is to be built by a private consortium.

Hoping to stave off the further decline of their region — Detroit is one of only six large metro areas (of 52 larger than one million) that actually lost population between 2000 and 2009 — local leaders have called for greater cooperation, notably in the form of a regional transportation district, which would have the power to collect revenues from multiple counties and then be able to spend those funds on upgraded roads and transit. Detroit politicians have noted with interest the success of cities like Los Angeles and Denver in promoting such agencies and the resulting growth in their respective transit systems.

The problem for Detroit is two-fold: one, such a regional transportation district is unlikely to pass through the Democratically-controlled Michigan House, let alone the Republican-held Senate, neither of which have been particularly enthusiastic about increasing local funding; two, neither the City of Detroit nor Oakland County is particularly enamored with the current proposal, the first because of its conviction that the tax should come before the agency, the second because of its criticism of labor protections included in the bill.

Editorial boards for several of the local newspapers have suggested that the region must move past local parochial concerns if it is to find a way to survive the upcoming decades, which are unlikely to be any less difficult for Michigan than has been the recent past. And indeed, everyone, from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing on down, seems to agree that regional cooperation is necessary, and that transit corridors in the city would eventually benefit the suburbs.

But the assumption that the creation of a five-member authority with control over the region’s transportation finances will solve problems ignores the vastly different needs and wants of the inhabitants of different parts of the region. It seems useless to move forward with such a transportation district without first establishing regional, coinciding goals. Otherwise, the transportation district — even outfitted with a large amount of money under its control — could collapse into an infighting monster, certainly not anyone’s ideal outcome.

At the moment, Detroit’s biggest stumbling block seems to be the choice between a variety of potential future transportation modes. While many of the suburban areas are campaigning for a 67-mile “golden triangle” bus rapid transit system, the city has focused its resources on an eight-mile long version of the Woodward streetcar line. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor, 40 miles to the west, continues to campaign for a commuter rail connection. None of these projects seems likely to be fully built out without the support of a new regional transit district and its new revenue source. But the expectation that all programs could be constructed using the funds — as a sort of grand compromise necessary to getting both suburban and urban leaders on board — also seems unrealistic (especially in a time when SMART is seeing serious fiscal difficulties). Someone will have to choose what to prioritize at some point.

The example of Charlotte, North Carolina is worth highlighting. Back in 1998, the city and the surrounding towns in Mecklenburg County joined together in a Metropolitan Transportation Commission designed to eventually allocate funds received from a new 1/2-cent sales tax. A series of rapid transit projects designed by the Commission were supposed to provide services to every town — it was a “let them all eat cake” situation. Like most areas, however, Charlotte has seen a vast decrease in collections over the past few months, and its expansion program has been massively cut, with even the full extension of the popular recently built light rail line likely to be delayed for years.

Now, the city and its suburban partners are stuck in a rut. The city’s priority is an inner-city streetcar, whereas towns to the north want a commuter rail line. Because of the make-up of the regional Commission, those latter interests will inherently win out — because they represent a majority of the votes on the board, and because if they don’t support the transit system’s advancement, they could simply pull out altogether, leaving the center city in an impossible situation with inadequate funds to get anything done. A similar situation is plaguing recession-hit Dallas as well, which has had to compromise a downtown light rail route in favor of one heading towards the suburban city of Irving.

The existence of the regional transit district in itself, in other words, cannot ensure regional agreement about how to proceed with investments when there is a limited budget. Though Charlotte and Dallas have indeed been able to construct major new transit projects over the past decade, their advancement was largely due to a growing economy that made projects throughout the region possible. Adjusting to new fiscal realities won’t be easy for any of these cities; their transit authorities are not guaranteed to stay intact once certain areas of the region are denied funding for their desperately wanted new projects.

Thus, instead of rushing into an inter-municipal compact, Detroit might want to focus on first developing solutions that appeal to everyone involved. Everyone should agree on the same priority list — with funds to be spent in a clear order, if and when money is available. Establishing such a compromise may be an intractable quest, but so may be creating a functional regional commission during tough economic times.

Image above: Downtown Detroit Rosa Parks Transit Center, from Flickr user Buddahbless

15 replies on “Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide”

I have one quibble with the article:

I think that you might be very mistakenly conflating the City of San Francisco with the Bay Area (where the City of SF is not even the largest city). Besides, there is quite a bit of cooperation amongst regional transit authorities (could always be better) through the Bay Area Rapid Transit a train system that connects Oakland with its suburbs and SF and the peninsula.

In any case, it is a quibble, but otherwise, I appreciate your article!

I agree totally with the conclusions of this post, but you should fact-check your assertions of the demographics of the various parts of the Detroit area. Far from being “mostly African-American”, Macomb county is about 7 1/2% black, about the same as Wayne County ex Detroit, and less than Oakland County (about 12 1/2% black). All data are from the Census Bureau.

In my opinion, Detroit as it is has to leave behind the idea of a downtown-focused transit system to focus on getting people to where the jobs are. Presently, someone who lives in Detroit who finds a job in Troy has a daunting task to get to work without a car. Perhaps it would be better if downtown Detroit was once again the home to the majority of jobs in the area, but it’s not. I haven’t been able to find data on office centers in the region, but I’m sure downtown isn’t even the largest single source of office space (Troy, Southfield, and probably Dearborn are bigger). While efforts continue to redevelop Detroit proper, the area should work on ensuring the residents of Detroit (and Pontiac, Highland Park, Hamtramck, etc.) can get to jobs that are available without having to spend money on a car for that purpose.

I know little about the Detroit area, however, here in the Bay Area the fragmentation of transit agencies is not the main problem. While the suburban bus operators’ services are less productive per vehicle hour than the urban operators like Muni and AC transit, their operating costs are also lower. For example it costs WestCAT (a suburban bus operator) $69 to operate a 40′ bus for an hour. It costs Muni $152.37 to perform the same task. It is likely that were all the agencies to merge that their cost structure would move to one like Muni’s. This is especially suggested by the very high operating costs of VTA ($156.84/veh hour) which is a largely suburban agency with urban style inefficiency. This means that the net effect of merging the SF Bay Area’s transit agencies would likely be a dramatic reduction in suburban service with no corresponding improvement in urban service. These numbers also make a strong case for switching from directly operating bus service to contracting bus service (most of the low cost operators are contracted, all of the super-expensive ones are directly operated). Were Muni or AC Transit really interested in serving their customers rather than catering to their unions (does a bus driver really need a six figure compensation package?), then they would fire all their drivers and contract out the service which would allow twice the service for the same money.

Actually, a plan for what transit should be built when was created and unanimously agreed upon by the leaders of the Counties and Detroit in December of 2008.

Here are the brief highlights of the plan (which totals hundreds of pages) –

The RTA is needed to implement this plan. While it is not a silver bullet solution, it is a vital next step to improving and expanding transit in southeast Michigan.

The problem with that plan is exactly what I highlighted in this article:

» It suggests that the region build the BRT project, the light rail program on Woodward, and the commuter rail line to Ann Arbor (all by 2012), despite the lack of funds to build all three.

» It doesn’t prioritize those projects, treating them all as equals (what I suggested is the “let them all eat cake” solution, only possible during good economic times).

» It doesn’t provide a framework for deciding which projects should be built first, an absolute must if anything at all is going to be constructed.

The RTA is supposed to be the framework for deciding which projects will be built first.

Right now the region doesn’t have the funding to build anything, which is another reason the RTA is so critical. The RTA will be the entity to put forward a dedicated transit tax so that the region can start building.

Megan is right on this one. The Comprehensive Regional Transit Plan was already approved by the heads of the 3 counties and the city in December 2008.

But the plan is just a framework, and the years are flexible, for exactly the reasons you outline: priorities, needs, and funds. If anything, the plan anticipates trends like the recent comments by FTA head Rogoff to focus on improving regular bus service.

It’s not as exciting as the rapid transit projects listed, but comprehensive improvements to bus service is actually one of the first parts of the plan that is supposed to be implemented. (It just does not appear on the those 5-year maps which are meant to show rapid transit lines/corridors.)

Of course an RTA won’t solve everything, but without it the prioritization Yonah advocates for cannot happen. It’s also a moot point: the feds won’t talk to us anymore until we get an RTA to take the lead on funding sources and projects. That’s Ray’s call, not ours. :)

So while Yonah’s points are well taken, they are misdirected at Detroit and Southeast Michigan. Getting an RTA is not and end in itself, it’s a vehicle to secure funding and prioritize exactly as advocated.

Disagreement aside, keep up the great work and analysis. TTP continues to be great reading for regions like ours trying to catch up but not repeat mistakes already made.

Is downtown detroit the only place for a transfer between DDOT and SMART? I find it amazing that a city the size of detroit has a central downtown bus station for transfers, I thought only small cities had those.

A great new BBC documentary on the decline of Detroit.
Requiem for Detroit

I forget how many different transportation companies Greater Berlin has – I believe it’s 30-something. The issue is not how many agencies there are, but whether they coordinate fares and schedules. The RTD is less important than getting the agencies to agree to some skeletal umbrella management that would coordinate schedules.


You make a good point in the specific case of Detroit, but what about areas with significantly more transit agencies, especially the San Francisco Bay Area? Common goals are nearly impossible to implement if there are over 12 bus agencies and 5 rail agencies with differing priorities. The tiniest bit of coordination, the TransLink fare card, has been an absolute disaster. Do you believe there is an alternative to consolidation in this case? Granted, you did cover this issue in a previous post.

Fare integration is key. With that, disparate transit operators are, so far as users are concerned, one system. At that point, making connections easier is in each operator’s best interest to steal customers from one another. That competition is, from a game theory perspective, stable and results in better service.

Charlotte’s North Commuter Rail Line also has, tucked into the project, the relocation of the main intercity rail station to downtown.

As a result, it probably should be built before the center city streetcar. Unfortunately, the streetcar is the only scheme for connecting the new intercity/commuter rail station to the Blue Line….

I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up with a compromise proposal which builds just enough center city streetcar to connect ‘Gateway Station’ to the Blue Line, and builds *part of* the North Commuter Rail Line. Which would probably be an inefficient mess of a result, although it would be a good starting point to build on….

I think it’s important to notice that regional transit agencies differ dramatically in how their Boards are constructed. Some really are “one city, one vote,” and thus tend to be highly biased against residents of the inner city, which is usually the largest city in the region. Others are more balanced. The case for or against these agencies varies substantially depending on how the Board is designed.

Even in cases where the Board is proportional to population, though, the core city is usually a minority and thus the concerns of outer suburbs tend to form the conceptual centroid of the agency’s thinking. This is universally maddening to core city governments who usually want to advance transit further and faster than the region does as a whole. At the moment, I don’t know that I can think of a core city government in North America that feels its regional transit agency’s service levels are adequate.

In Texas, as you mention, cities can usually opt out of regional transit agencies, and I’m usually all for letting them do that, so long it’s actually possible to exclude them from the network without disadvantaging your other customers. The cities that want out are usually not cities that are generating much ridership anyway, so the agency is often better off (in terms of farebox return or boardings/hour) by having them gone. But as you note in the Fort Worth example, unraveling the financial relationship can be as complicated as any divorce.

The regional transit authority formed in 1967 was not SMART, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, but SEMTA, the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority. SEMTA never assumed control of DDOT, as originally intended, and was reorganized as SMART in the ’80s after suburban opposition to SEMTA’s proposed transit plan and the failure of the merger.

As you note, regional segregation is a significant hurdle facing transit in Detroit. From an article about the coming of HSR to S. Africa: “Officials hope the price scheme will help turn South Africans onto public transport, in a country where such mass infrastructure languished for decades under apartheid policies designed to keep whites and blacks apart.”

The case of Detroit exhibits certain similarities.

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