Washtenaw County, Michigan is joining forces with Wayne County and others in search of an alternative mass transit solution after Oakland and Macomb Counties pulled out a regional proposal floated earlier this year.
The original proposal would have put a regional mass transit funding plan on the November ballot.
On Thursday, Washtenaw County’s board of commissioners approved a resolution directing county staff to begin talks with officials in Wayne County, the city of Detroit and possibly other entities and conduct research on potential transit options.
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s said during his state of the county address last Wednesday that he would oppose asking voters across all of Oakland County to help fund a regional mass transit system that would "force" communities into a millage vote against their will. Macomb County's board of commissioners has called for a resolution that focuses on upgrading existing roads instead of working on a regional transportation system.
“In terms of the viability of a reduced footprint transit plan, it absolutely can work,” Washtenaw County Commission Chair Andy LaBarre, D-Ann Arbor, said in a phone interview. “Now whether we can agree to something with our counterparts in Wayne, the city of Detroit and other public entities – I don’t know.”
LaBarre said the effort envisioned by Washtenaw County commissioners would operate on a parallel track to the RTA.
He said that a transit plan without Oakland and Macomb was “absolutely viable from a technical standpoint” but that is different from viability as it relates to “political realities.” “We are not going to sit on our hands while Oakland and Macomb hold the RTA up and at the very least if RTA can’t get anything on the ballot we are able to say we looked into the issue, gave it proper attention and had an alternative plan at least discussed.”
LaBarre said his constituents want improvements in bus service, including connections between eastern Washtenaw and western Wayne counties, but are also very interested in regular rail service. Commuter rail between the two counties using existing Amtrak facilities had been envisioned as part of the failed RTA millage effort in 2016. “I think the heart of such a plan would likely be daily roundtrip commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, but again it’s all speculation until we see something formal that we can act on,” LaBarre said.
Officials in Wayne County and the City of Detroit said they are also ready to move forward if necessary.
“Regional transit is vitally important. The right answer for the region is a four-county transit system. However, on a parallel track we are willing to explore any option, including exploring a Wayne-Washtenaw partnership,” David Massaron, chief operating officer and senior counsel to Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, said in a statement.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said in statement he believes “there’s enough support for transit in this region that it’s going to come in some form.”
“We need to build something. Ideally it’s with the entire region on board, but we can’t wait forever for everyone to be on aboard, the stakes are too high,” Evans said.
Patterson had been meeting with leaders in Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, and Duggan, to try and work out a new transit plan since late last year. The hope was to put together a ballot proposal and millage, under the umbrella of the four-county Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.
In November 2016, a $4.6 billion Regional Transit Authority millage request failed 50.5% to 49.5%. While Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, Oakland County voters were split and Macomb County rejected it.