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Experts say more funding needed for the future of public transportation in SE Michigan

Posted at 5:56 AM, Jul 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-08 06:58:05-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — Offices are slowly starting to bring their workforce back, which means more people hitting the roads and, potentially, our public transportation system.

Even before the pandemic, metro Detroit is known as having one of the worst public transit systems of any major city in the country. Local leaders have been coming up short for decades, trying to build a mass transit system in southeast Michigan.

While some are sticking to working from home, some jobs have to be done in person. The need for public transportation is not going away; in fact, the need could be increasing in the years to come, according to transportation experts.

“A lot of people are able to work from home and aren’t commuting in and that is convenient and helpful for many of us, but there are an awful lot of jobs where that is not a choice,” said Megan Owens.

Owens is the executive director of Transportation United Riders, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bettering public transportation.

She says with people getting hit hard financially during the pandemic, along with soaring car sale prices, there could be a chance more people will need to use public transportation in the future.

“There’s a lot of questions — this is a new time,” said Owens.

In 2016, the Regional Transit Authority asked voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties to approve a tax hike that would have generated $3 billion for public transportation in our region. It would have also generated another billion in state and federal funds.

Voters did not approve the ballot measure, missing approval by only 18,000 votes.

“There isn’t a specific plan at this point for running a ballot measure here but the need still remains," Owens said. "There are a lot of places you still can’t get to at all on the bus and there aren’t enough buses running as frequently as people need, so we, as a region, only invest in about a third in what most major metropolitan regions invest in their transit systems. A ballot measure is likely the only way to substantially increase the amount of service that is available."

The lack of transportation has put economic development in a bind in the past. For example, Amazon chose not to build a second headquarters here in Detroit back in 2018 and instead opted to build in Crystal City, Virginia, citing not only a lack of talent, but a lack of transportation.

Bus systems in metro Detroit are taking note to try to adapt to transportation needs.

“Even in just the last couple of years with all of the additional logistics types development, you know Amazon, Penske have done a lot of developments," SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer said. "Those workers need transit seven days a week and so even as we'll bring the same amount of hours of service back, we are looking at where best to put it so that it really services people who need it post-pandemic."

Even if bus systems do adapt, Owens said money will still have to be set aside at some point to help with public transportation if we want to keep up with metropolitan cities around the county.

Another part of the issue is a lack of bus drivers. SMART is looking to hire another 70 drivers while DDOT is looking to hire 100 extra drivers.