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Former MEC staffer is driving force behind ambitious plan for regional transit in Southeast Michigan

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Ben Stupka is tired. That’s no surprise—he and his wife, Laura, have a two-year-old son and a daughter born in August.

But there’s another reason Stupka yearns for a nap. When he isn’t changing diapers or reading bedtime stories, he has another baby to nurture.

As Planning and Financial Analysis Manager for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of Southeast Michigan, Stupka led the development of a master plan to finally provide coordinated, high-quality public transportation for Metro Detroit, which today is widely recognized as one of the most transit-poor major cities in the country. A ballot measure in November will ask voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties to fund the plan with a 1.2 mill property tax over 20 years.

Now Stupka—along with MEC and many partners in Southeast Michigan—is working to engage and educate the public about the benefits of rapid, reliable, regional transit.

Obvious need

That part is relatively easy, Stupka says, because the shortcomings of the current system are so clear.

Metro Detroiters spend $69 a year per capita to support public transportation. In Atlanta, it’s $119. Cleveland and Minneapolis-St. Paul spend $177. Seattle: $471. “We have fundamentally underfunded transit in this region,” Stupka says. “The results of that are pretty obvious.”

Nearly three quarters of people who work in the City of Detroit live outside the city limits, yet direct bus service between downtown and the suburbs is available only for six hours on weekdays, and not at all on weekends. The lack of coordination between the region’s transit providers means some commuters have to change buses at county lines. Detroit and Ann Arbor are completely disconnected by transit. The list goes on.

Ben Stupka

Ben Stupka

“Anybody who’s been anywhere with a good transit system looks around and says, ‘It’s so strange that we don’t have this,’” Stupka says

Some residents say they won’t use the improved transit services, but Stupka sees a light bulb go on when he tells them to think about their aging parents who might not be able to drive much longer, or nurses working third shift at Beaumont Hospital without a car. Others start to pay attention when he notes that transit projects typically return $4 for every $1 invested. “And frankly, with some people it’s, ‘Wouldn’t you love to go to a Tigers game and have a couple beers and not worry about driving home?’”

The first step in creating the master plan was to take a detailed look at where people live and work in Metro Detroit. Next, Stupka and colleagues compared that information to a map and timetables of existing transit services to see which routes could support greater frequency. They also analyzed the services, finances, ridership trends and other details from each transit provider and put it all together in a “state of the system” report.

Complementing all that technical work were three rounds of public outreach and engagement to find out what Metro Detroiters value in a transit system, gather their input on key transportation challenges for the region and get their reaction to a draft plan before completing the final version.

Major improvements

Rather than adding another layer of complexity to Southeast Michigan’s transportation system, the master plan uses the RTA’s coordinating powers to weave together and leverage the strengths of the region’s existing transit providers: AAATA in Ann Arbor, DDOT in Detroit, SMART in the suburbs, and the downtown People Mover. That includes a coordinated fare system allowing riders to use any transit service in the region with the same pass or smartphone app.

The key components of the plan include:

  • Express bus service connecting Detroit Metropolitan Airport with Detroit, Ann Arbor, Dearborn and other communities;
  • Bus Rapid Transit service on Gratiot, Michigan, Woodward and Washtenaw avenues;
  • Regional rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor beginning in 2022;
  • Cross-County Connectors that significantly improve local bus routes across county borders; and
  • Commuter express bus routes providing weekday rush hour service to and from job centers.

Artist rendering of regional rail in Dearborn

Those additional services will complement recent and upcoming improvements.  The 7-days-a-week RefleX express bus service—developed as a partnership of the RTA, DDOT, and SMART—began carrying passengers across city and county lines on Gratiot and Woodward this fall. And the QLine streetcar, formerly known as M1 Rail and set to begin operating in 2017, will connect with regional transit services and come under the RTA’s leadership in 2024.

“There have been a lot of major improvements to the region’s transit system over the past several months, and I think people are getting excited by these glimpses of what’s to come,” says Kajal Ravani, a Metro Detroit resident and MEC transportation associate who has been discussing the RTA’s master plan with local organizations and individuals. “I’m hearing from people in the city and in the suburbs who understand how transformative high-quality transit can be for our region and are eager to see this plan move forward.”

While there’s widespread support for the RTA’s master plan, getting to the point of having a plan to propose—or an RTA to propose it—has been grueling.

There were 26 failed attempts, spanning half a century, to win legislative approval to establish regional transit in Southeast Michigan, long the largest American metro area without it. Finally, with strong support from MEC, the Legislature approved the authority in 2012. The RTA went to work hiring staff, laying the groundwork for a transit plan and implementing some immediate fixes, such as 24-hour service on key bus routes.

Then, this summer—just days before the deadline for putting the transit plan on the ballot—executives from Macomb and Oakland counties nearly scuttled the plan over last-minute objections.

Fortunately, regional leaders came together and reached an agreement in time to give voters their say on the plan into which Stupka has invested so much time, energy and passion.

‘Transit touches everything’

Stupka grew up in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham, where he admits he didn’t pay much attention to transit. “I probably saw thousands of SMART buses and looked right past them,” he says. “Never even thought about it.”

Ben and Kajal

Stupka with MEC's Kajal Ravani

As a student in Michigan State University’s James Madison College, Stupka began to consider the social and environmental costs of an auto-centric approach to transportation planning when he wrote a senior seminar paper on the construction of the interstate highway system.

On the hunt for internships while at MSU, he decided on a whim to Google a phrase he may have heard somewhere but knew nothing about:  Michigan Environmental Council. As it turned out, MEC was looking for an intern to work on land use issues, and he soon landed the spot.

“Ben always struck folks as low-key and easygoing, but that was deceiving,” says Brad Garmon, MEC director of conservation and emerging issues, who worked with Stupka on farmland preservation, community development and other land use issues. “He was also really, really smart and liked to dive deep into an issue, know his stuff inside and out and tackle big things.”

While at MEC, Stupka grew increasingly interested in transit, seeing it as a critical factor in several issues he cared about deeply, such as alleviating poverty, creating a more just society and protecting the environment. “It all came back to that one fundamental thing every time,” he says. “If I can’t get anywhere, then I can’t get access to opportunity. Without opportunity, I can’t move forward. It’s fundamental to what we’re all looking to do in this region across multiple sectors. Transit touches everything.”

Stupka’s next stop was in Ann Arbor, where he earned a master’s degree in planning from the University of Michigan. Upon graduating, he decided he could learn the most by working in a city with well-established transit, and soon accepted a job with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. There he managed more than $90 million a year in sales tax funds for transportation projects in the City of San Francisco—“everything from speedbumps to billion-dollar subways.” After six years in that role, he spent two years working for the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, where he managed grants and oversaw a long-term capital budget.

The whole time he was studying transportation planning at U-M and learning how to implement those plans in California, Stupka had a bigger goal in mind.

“All of this was done with the hope that, one day, there would be an RTA,” he says.

Corktown BRT

Artist rendering of bus rapid transit in Corktown

Now there is. Stupka was hired in March of 2015 and got right to work. For now, the RTA is small, with just five staff members. But Stupka estimates the work they’ve done on the master plan since he joined the staff would have taken 10 years for most transit authorities. “It has been a big lift,” he says.

If voters approve the plan on November 8, the work is just beginning. Stupka firmly believes a plan is no good if you don’t know how to pay for it and put it into action. He notes that the RTA master plan is rare in that it comes with a fairly detailed implementation strategy, including a hiring schedule for growing the staff and deadlines for submitting grant proposals, reaching operating agreements with railroads and ordering buses, among other steps.

If voters reject the measure, the RTA has another year of funding secured. They’ll continue making improvements to the region’s transit system while laying out a plan for the long-term future of the RTA.

Either way, Stupka will cross that bridge November 10.

“Because on November 9th,” he says, “I’ll be sleeping.”

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