All Aboard, RTA 2020: The Business Case For Transit

I’m moving into the end of the year with an announcement about some exciting upcoming goings-on. RTA 2020: The Business Case For Transit will be a multifaceted initiative to study, analyze, and educate Southeast Michigan about the implications of a regional transit expansion ballot initiative in November 2020. The study will focus primarily on the parallels between public finance and consumer finance in thinking about transit accessibility. I will be working with Transportation Riders United, Metro Detroit’s largest transit and mobility advocacy nonprofit.

And, of course, it will all be chronicled here. The initiative will cover:

  • Nuts and bolts: How infrastructure projects like this get funded, functionally.
  • Tradeoffs in the infrastructure development process.
  • Dollars and cents: How consumers benefit from transit expansion (microeconomic).
  • How the region as a whole will benefit from transit expansion (macroeconomic).
  • How RTA expansion would happen¬†on a functional level.
  • Managing risks to implementation.

TAKEAWAYS FROM THE LAST TIME AROUND

The project will build on surveys conducted in 2018 about the viability of the RTA proposal to hundreds of nonprofit, public sector, and private sector respondents while working with TheHUB. This research generated a few articles including this very long one, but did not ever get finished in its entirety. We ran out of funding. I started a new job. And transit isn’t really much of a priority for TheHUB’s leadership– so it goes, Michigan. I did, however, learn a great deal from these surveys, which got a total response rate of about 1/3 out of about 400 respondents.

Stories were spread across the map, but the takeaway was pretty simple:

  1. We need better, more affordable ways to get around the region.
  2. Lack of transit is a huge hurdle to economic development.

While we learned a great deal, the study did not come to any earthshattering conclusions. The biggest takeaway was that RTA was extremely limited in its outreach efforts. A primitive funding structure limits the RTA by statutory fiat. Leadership and organizational vision, in the opinions of a number of respondents, are similarly hamstrung. I’m trying to fill this gap by pushing for direct outreach to stakeholders, both to educate and listen. I’m also trying to embrace an approach that will bring policymakers and leadership together with community stakeholders to better communicate about what’s going on.

This will hopefully inform a more stakeholder-led process of figuring out what a better plan would actually look like. RTA’s limited revision last summer didn’t get much traction, but it also lacked much in the way of concrete details. People want more details– and they want to be involved. It’s also a catch-22, because the RTA itself can’t conduct much outreach without more funding. And SEMCOG and MDOT frankly seem to be far more worried about highway expansion than building an equitable mobility landscape.

It is possible to imagine this process getting easier with the recently proposed Macoxit, if you will, from the RTA, wherein Macomb County would leave the RTA and Washtenaw, Wayne, and Oakland would continue on their own. I’ve already written about what this will mean, and the takeaway from many onlookers is, well, “have fun going it alone!”

We are, however, hopeful, and I’m looking forward to telling some good stories.

COMING SOON TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

I’m not yet sure about the pace of production for articles. But I’m hoping for a major update every month leading up to the hopeful inclusion of a transit expansion millage on the 2020 ballot. Meanwhile, my dear readers have enabled this through your loyalty and periodic contributions! We are now up to a whopping $75 a month in contributions. Please consider subscribing to the tune of an affordable 25 cents a week or more!

In the mean time, stay tuned. I will link to new articles on my new Mobility page and will continue working on Detroit Park City.

Looking forward to seeing what we can put together in 2020.

Nat Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP is a city planner, community development professional, and MBA candidate at American University's Kogod School of Business, based in Detroit.

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