On the bus
Push for a regional transit authority gains traction locally, but not with Lansing
Published: October 3, 2012
As the sun was rising last Thursday, a small group of transit activists piled into a converted school bus at Northland Mall and headed off to Lansing, hoping that 24 will turn out to be their lucky number.
Among those on board was Detroit resident Cindy Reese, 64, who recalled a conversation she had with her grandson a few years back. The boy was about 18 at the time, and Reese, who is African-American, was telling him how he had the same opportunities as anyone else.
He disagreed, pointing out how the lack of good public transit made it difficult getting to school or work.
She had to concede the point.
As she testified before the House Commission on Transportation, Reese told the story again, pointing out for legislators just how long the people of southeast Michigan have been waiting for a comprehensive public transit system to be established.
Her children struggled along without one, she said, and now her grandchildren are doing the same. Soon, she said, it will be her great-grandchildren. And, before long, when she's unable to drive anymore, she's the one who will be stuck.
"Things will have come full circle," she told the committee.
After agitating for better public transit off and on for the past 30 years, she said, it was beginning to seem that she might not live long enough to see it become a reality.
But Thursday's hearing gave her hope.
"It lifted me up today to here so many people in support," said Reese, testifying at the end of a hearing that lasted more than two hours. State, county and local officials, as well as representatives of the business community and fellow activists all voiced strong support for a proposal to establish a regional transportation authority.
No one spoke in opposition to the plan.
Since the early 1970s, legislation to create a Regional Transportation Authority for the metro Detroit area has been introduced in Lansing, and 23 times that legislation has gone nowhere.
Now, a 24th attempt is under way, and many involved say things are different this time around. Leaders from across the region have lined up to support a regional authority that will coordinate existing transit services and create a "rolling rapid transit system" utilizing specialized buses using dedicated lanes along Woodward (connecting Detroit and Pontiac) and Gratiot (Detroit to Mt. Clemens), as well as linking both Detroit and Ann Arbor with each other and the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. There would also be a route connecting Troy and Mount Clemens.
"Rather than dissolve existing public transit agencies, this legislation creates an authority empowered to coordinate and rationalize transit service and receive state and federal funds. This last point is essential because the federal government has made it clear that creation of a regional transit authority is a prerequisite for large-scale federal investments in mass transit in southeast Michigan," testified state Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak) who introduced the bill after similar legislation stalled in the state Senate.
What's different this time around?
The answer to that question was on display at Thursday's hearing, when representatives from Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Macomb counties sat shoulder to shoulder as Detroit's Chief Operating Officer, Chris Brown, squeezed in alongside.
All said they fully support creation of an RTA, though there might yet be some wrangling over how the authority is governed. As it is now, the proposed legislation calls for a 10-member board with Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw each getting two members. The Wayne County executive would appoint two members as well — one of whom must be from Detroit. In addition, the mayor of Detroit would appoint one member, as would the governor.
In addition to the support voiced by county leaders and the city of Detroit, Gov. Rick Snyder is also fully on board.
In fact, the breadth of support for the plan, especially in a region that can be as polarized as southeast Michigan, is stunning.
"Look around the room and listen today," Bill Rustem, Snyder's director of strategy, told the committee. "Listen to who's talking. It's the business community. It's local executives and elected leadership in southeast Michigan. It's people. It's labor. It's everybody. It's all the major interests who understand this is critical to rebuilding Michigan. We gotta do this."
So why has the legislation been bottled up in both the state House and Senate all year?
Because Republican leadership has kept the legislation from coming up for a vote.
Supporters are hard-pressed to find any legitimate reason to be against the plan. The best answer they can supply points to the influence of the Tea Party on the state GOP. For the far right, it seems, anything involving the expenditure of public funds for the public good is something to be opposed.
A letter to The Detroit News about the issue essentially sums up the thinking of those who think funding a regional public transit system is a bad idea:
"We pay for Cobo, the DIA in a fixed election, the zoo, next Belle Isle through the state. WE don't want to pay any more for Detroit's failures. Let it go bankrupt, you bunch of do-gooders. Or write a check and let us off the hook. Can you so-called LEADERS spell FAILURE? The best transit systems only get 50 percent back from fares. Do you run your businesses that way?"
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