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What’s new and what’s next for Oakland Co. suburban public transit?

by Staff

Novi — New fixed public-transit routes, more frequent buses and potentially mass transit are heading down the pike for Oakland County one year after voters approved a universal transit millage which generated $64.3 million in revenue for 2023.

Commuters in Oakland County can currently purchase unlimited rides on buses run by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) for $2 every four hours. The price bumps up to $5 for an unlimited 24-hour pass, $22 for a weekly pass and $70 for a monthly.

“I use the bus daily. … I save a lot, you can go very far for $2,” said Tommy Moore, of Detroit, who uses public transit to visit his sister in Oakland County and commute to work. Moore only has to transfer buses once, and the commute takes roughly 40 minutes, the 34-year-old said. “For a car, it takes a lot of gas to come all the way out here from Detroit so it’s definitely worth it.”

SMART announced a significant Oakland County expansion in September, adding 68 new stops in Novi, Wixom and Bloomfield Hills. This is the first time in 28 years that Novi and Bloomfield Hills have transit services and the first-ever fixed route in Wixom, according to the transit authority.

The recent expansions were made possible by the transit millage, a 10-year tax approved by Oakland County voters in 2022. The millage is universal, replacing a previous tax only required by a portion of the county’s municipalities who opted into the program. It generated roughly $64.3 million in fiscal year 2023, $50 million of which has been allocated to contracts with four transit providers including SMART.

“If you were an opt-out community in the past, and now you’re part of the system, we want to make sure, number one, that every community in Oakland County has a bus service and so… making sure we fill those gaps like Novi, like Wixom, like Auburn Hills and Rochester Hills, that is absolutely a priority,” said Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter.

Plans are already in place for more SMART bus expansions in 2024, including new fixed routes from Troy into Rochester and from Pontiac into Waterford and White Lake along M-59, according to a news release from Coulter’s office. This is the second major fixed route to get added since the millage passed, Coulter said.

“There’s a new route coming this spring, probably… in April,” Coulter said. “It’s going to service Rochester, Rochester Hills, Auburn Hills, Troy and Royal Oak. … It’s an exciting route for us because two of the biggest cities in that route, Rochester Hills and Auburn Hills, didn’t used to be part of the transportation services in Oakland County.”

But some riders think existing routes should get more buses so that they can stop more frequently than once an hour.

“I think they should add more buses to certain lines, like this bus right here should have more buses so they don’t have to run every hour, they can run like every 30 minutes,” Moore said while riding the recently expanded 740 route to Novi and Wixom.

The county does want to make buses run more frequently, but this requires SMART to purchase more buses and hire more drivers.

“SMART is always doing strategic planning in terms of its services, and how they can modify it to be more reliable and more and more frequent and that is part of what they’re exploring around these, both the Novi route and the new Rochester route,” Coulter said. “Some of those logistical constraints are why things can’t happen overnight, but all of those things are being pursued by our partner SMART.”

The low fares are key for many commuters like Michael Little, of Novi, who has a car but still uses the bus to commute to Warren, where he manages properties, about twice a week.

“If there’s… a direct route to where I’m going via the bus, I opt to do that because it saves me money,” Little said. “Time-wise they’re very punctual so it makes sense for me to keep wear and tear off my car and save a little money.”

Still, Little, 42, would like to see more routes. He pointed out the lack of bus routes in more western suburbs past Grand River and 12 Mile Roads in Wixom.

“Once you get out to the west side, the west-side suburbs, there’s a lot less routes,” he said.

Micro-transit routes

Micro-transit services are more popular in the northern and western parts of the county, Coulter said, which sometimes run along fixed routes but can also offer rides and pick up residents as needed. Ridership in these areas has increased by more than 20% in these areas over the past year. Ridership data for SMART is tracked every quarter, so information on the newly expanded routes was not available yet, spokeswoman Amy LeFebre said.

The county has also created a Transit Division within the Department of Economic Development. They handle contracts with the regional transit authorities and determine where the expansion of services will have the greatest impact, Coulter said.

“We’re working every week directly with the community to say, you know, where do you need the services? Where do you believe the ridership is where you know, what makes sense for your communities,” Coulter said.

While the county currently does not offer any kind of mass transit, officials are considering building a route along Woodward Avenue that would connect downtown Detroit to Pontiac, Coulter said.

“We’re also actively looking at that opportunity as well — this would be a route essentially that goes from downtown Detroit to Pontiac,” Coulter said. “We don’t have the funds to do that ourselves, but there are federal dollars and state dollars available to do those kinds of things if you have a plan, and so we’re in the planning phases of what we can do along the Woodward corridor.”

The county is considering a bus rapid-transit route for the project, which would be cheaper than installing a light rail train, Coulter said.

“It’s much more cost-effective, but interestingly enough… they are just as fast as trains,” Coulter said.

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