INTRO: Most Michiganders don’t want to copy anything from Ohio. But a group of transit professionals and advocates took a fact finding trip recently. They went from Detroit to Cleveland to look at that city’s bus rapid transit system. They found that ridership improves somewhat and economic development improves a lot. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus was on the bus.
Freshwater Transit is a loosely organized group. They raised money for the bus tour. Jenny Torrico is an engineering student. She led the 40 people on board.
“We are currently waiting here on Gratiot and Library Street. We are about to embark on a tour to Cleveland to check out their bus rapid transit system.”
3 hours later Laura Patalino and Abby Wagner boarded a new bus, low to the ground to make it feel more like a subway. They work in Monroe and Ann Arbor respectively to help people with disabilities.
“They’ve got a good bus system and ours sucks.”
“Abby’s comment inside was ‘I don’t really like Ohio but they’ve got us beat on buses.”
Joe Shaffer guided the Detroiters in Cleveland. He’s head of engineering and project development for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, or RTA.
“Because of the synergy with the system all these developments that have happened are happening along Euclid Avenue because people want to be on it. It goes between places people want to go. It links them together. That’s the function of transit.”
In 2008, Cleveland spent $200 million to upgrade a single bus line. It’s called the Health Line because it connects the famous Cleveland Clinic to other hospitals plus colleges and museums. It’s 9 miles long. The city has other buses, some light and even a bit of heavy rail. But ridership has gone up the most on this bus line. The bus rapid transit project modified traffic lanes, sidewalks and power lines. It added flower beds and art. Joe Shaffer says:
“By far and away the growth was by choice riders, the so called suit-wearing people. They could ride in their car if they wanted but they choose to ride on the health line. In addition to the obvious things about speed and convenience, the system is widely perceived as being safe. The stations are in the middle. They are visible.”
Funding didn’t seem to be a problem. Voters agreed to a sales tax in the 1970’s. The $200 million in public money has spurred a $4 billion housing and retail boom.
“The penny sales tax was passed long ago. Otherwise it was an issue of grants and other funding. There was no vote on the system. This system received widespread public support. There was virtually no opposition. In fact many people championed the project in the community because they saw it as something that would improve the city even if they didn’t like or understand the transit portion just getting a new street… people couldn’t wait for it to happen.”
No transit system in the world pays for itself by riders putting money in the fairbox. The fairbox covers just 20% of the Cleveland system. That might be the biggest issue for Detroit: how to pay for it. Haley Roberts works for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
“It was really interesting to hear Joe Shaffer talk about how he thought it was impossible to do something like bus rapid transit in downtown Cleveland having grown up here because I think we face the same perspective in metro Detroit that “it’s just not possible.” While they didn’t seem to face the same kind of voter opposition for funding that we might be challenged with in Detroit to know that where it seems impossible you can still do big projects and transform a region with something like BRT.”
George Stern grew up on the New York City subway then worked for GM and the railroad in metro Detroit.
“Let’s say you wanted a transit line on Woodward Avenue. You had 5 hospitals: St. Joe’s, Providence, Beaumont, Ford and the Detroit Medical Center. You already have five critical people for a health line each of whom would want a health line on a trunk. Then you coordinate service to them.”
Stern has been working with Freshwater Transit on a millage vote campaign. Transit Riders United and other groups are working on this too. Stern factors in 10,000 daily riders on the Cleveland Health Line.
“Could you ask 1.5 million people to pay for better transportation for 10,000. Don’t forget they already had buses. It’s not like they were not being served. It’s the same question we have for SEMTA(he means SMART) buses on Woodward. We’re talking about better transportation for people who already have transportation. We have to know how many people are going to be better served and why 4.5 million people should pay something for them.”
Detroit’s regional transit authority recently decided not to ask voters for money this fall. They’ll wait until 2016. That disappoints dozens of advocates and a lot more people… back here.