A small but committed crowd of about a dozen residents from Ann Arbor and Detroit gathered outside the Federal Building early Friday morning, carrying signs and cardboard cutouts of buses calling for improved regional transit in southeast Michigan.
The goal of the demonstration, organized by the citizens group Motor City Freedom Riders, is to get a tax for regional transit back on the ballot in 2018 after a proposal to raise $2.9 billion in property taxes over 20 years narrowly failed in November by a margin of about 18,000 votes — just 1 percent of the more than 1.8 million votes casted on the proposal.
Marisa Gies, a demonstrator and member of Motor City Freedom Riders, pointed out that the margin of defeat was smaller than the number of ballots cast with no vote on the proposal.
"It passed in Washtenaw County and Wayne County," she said. "There was depressed turnout in Detroit — 20,000 people voted and didn't vote on the question of transit. We only lost by 18,000 I think."
Cyrus Naheedy, also a member of Motor City Freedom Riders and a member of Ann Arbor's Transportation Commission, guessed the problem was a lack of awareness of the issue ahead of the vote.
"People didn't necessarily even know that it was on the ballot," he said. "If the first time they're hearing about it is at the ballot box, that's a problem."
It has been said that southeast Michigan has a transit problem –– the transportation options for Detroiters are now evaluated among the worst, and according to data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, 92 percent of jobs in the region cannot be reached in under 60 minutes using existing transit.
State Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Ann Arbor), who also chaired SEMCOG's Access to Core Services Task Force, showed up in support of the demonstrators, as well as City Councilmember Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3).
Rabhi said the taskforce used Geographic Information Systems data to evaluate whether the current transportation network served basic needs of households and individuals without cars, such as access to grocery stores and hospitals, and found there were "islands" where people had limited to no access to these services.
"We know that there are households that do not have a vehicle because they can't afford it, that don't have access to core regional services," he said. "So our transportation system is failing the people that they need to be serving. And the only way to solve that is by expanding our transportation network. We are vastly underfunding our transportation network."
To get the issue back on the ballot in 2018, the Regional Transit Authority, comprising Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, would need to approve it first. Demonstrators handed out fliers informing people how to contact their local officials, in the hopes they would pressure the RTA into putting it on the ballot. To get more residents to vote for it, though, Rabhi said supporters would have to do a better job of helping people understand how it would serve them –– though the millage passed by wide margins in Washtenaw County and Wayne County, it was rejected by a margin of almost 75,000 votes in Macomb County.
"I think that's where our work needs to be, of helping to show the people of Macomb County why this is something that will impact them," he said. "One of the main concerns that we heard during the last RTA millage was, 'If I look at the map, I don't see my community being served at all.' So, okay, how do we make sure that everybody in our region is being served to some degree?"
But while more work needs to be done to make sure the millage would serve everyone voting on it, Rabhi said, the infrastructure and organization of the region mean it may simply require some time.
"We're trying to overlay a transit system onto a non-transit-oriented suburban sprawling region, and people are saying 'Oh, this system isn't going to serve me,' " he said. “Well, we have to start somewhere. Let's start somewhere, let's get the ball rolling and let's make sure that we're addressing that concern, that everybody wants to be served by this system, and let's find a way to do that."
Also on Friday, Detroit's QLINE streetcars opened for business. Creation of the 3.3-mile QLINE costed approximately $180 million, according to the Detroit Free Press, and was funded largely by private investors but also by federal and state dollars. The streetcars operate down a portion of Woodward Avenue and can hold up to 125 people each.