(FOX 2) - Thomas Yazbek wasn't just happy with the passage of the public transit millage in Metro Detroit. He was ecstatic.
"This is a pretty incredible moment. This went beyond our wildest expectations," he said.
Expanding public transit has been a passion for Yazbek for years. He started the advocacy group Rochester Riders after getting fed up with his commute to Oakland University, which required taking four buses to get to school.
But years later, even he couldn't have predicted the support the county millage proposals would get.
"Our first reaction was our jaws dropping."
The last time a millage was up for a vote in Macomb County, it was approved by the slimmest margins. But in the 2022 Midterms when millages were up for a vote in all three counties in Metro Detroit, there was no question about voter's interest. It passed with 65% approval.
‘Yes’ votes came in as far as Bruce and Lenox Township, which are located in the northern part of the county.
In Oakland County, 57% of voters approved the millage. It will boost funding to $66 million in just the first year of the tax and doesn't allow communities to opt out of paying for the bus companies like SMART that service the region.
"In recent years, there's been recognition that ‘okay, someone needs to have choices in mobility,’" said Megan Owens, the director of Transportation Riders United which drove the campaign supporting the millage. "Discussions moved more toward the ‘what, where, and how’ and not ‘if’ and that's been exciting progression."
There are a few reasons why the millage gained wide approval, Owens said. An aging demographic means more seniors need more options for getting to the store or to an appointment, she said. There's also growing interest among young people preferring to take the bus over driving a car.
Businesses have also recognized the need for more transportation options, Owens said.
"Everyone remembers Amazon HQ2," she said. "Having a vibrant city with lots of transit options is an expectation for a lot of talented people who can move around in the world."
David Gifford, who runs Transit Guide: Detroit on Twitter, said the absence of "No" campaigns in Macomb County and a leadership change in Oakland County also made a difference.
"(Oakland County Executive) Dave Coulter brought an entirely different energy," he said, referencing the former Ferndale mayor's elevation after longtime executive L. Brooks Patterson died. "He arrived in the position with a plan of expanding transit in Oakland County."
While some changes might happen within months of money rolling in, others will take years to implement.
Closing gaps in public transit
Twelve Oaks Mall
Communities can no longer opt out of the public transit option with the passage of the millage. That includes Novi, where a lack of available bus routes means there is no publicly available travel option for getting to the mall.
The SMART bus route that travels along Grand River extends from Redford to Farmington Hills, stopping at 10 Mile and Haggerty. From there, riders heading to the mall need to either take a taxi or walk the rest of the way, which includes walking over a freeway.
Since Novi opted out of the old system, there are no SMART bus stops in the city, cutting off any bus access to Twelve Oaks Mall. Yazbek sees the opportunity as the best chance to fill in the gap.
"For people that are walking two miles, that's a trivial expansion for bus driving - but what takes 45 minutes to walk is 5 minutes by bus," he said.
Woodward in Bloomfield Hills
Another hole in the public transit network is on Woodward Avenue. SMART bus stops line the busy road from Detroit to Pontiac - except for Bloomfield Hills. Anyone that needs to go to Bloomfield Hills must get off in Birmingham or in Pontiac.
The three-mile stretch is a black hole for public transit. It's also a symbol of what the patchwork of available travel has become, Owens said.
"Something as simple as adding 2 to 3 bus stop signs, allowing riders to get off is, is probably one of the easiest things to prioritize," she said.
Simple changes like expanding bus routes and planting more bus stops could take just months to implement. However, more money will also mean improved buses, more employees, and increasing the frequency of buses on routes.
The Transportation Riders United group says more funding will be needed before options like trains and rail can be introduced. But with tens of millions of dollars being added, the job of stakeholders will be to expand existing services to make it more reliable.
"This is a modest, but very important expansion," Owens said. "Mostly, it's how do we make sure no senior is trapped at home or how do we get people to their jobs if their car breaks down. This is an essential baseline of transit services."
NOTA, WOTA, and OPC
Communities in Oakland County that aren't covered by SMART access instead use transit services that cater to northern and western portions of the area. Another service called the Older Persons Commission services the Rochester area - another community that opted out of the original millage.
Of the $66.1 million in funding that's expected in the first year, half will go to cover existing SMART services and $12 million to expanding routes to high-demand areas. About $1.7 million would improve the frequency of routes.
An additional $2 million is heading to NOTA and WOTA, while the older person's commission will get $1 million.