Legislating Like It’s 1979: Lansing Ponders Metro Detroit Regional Transit Authority

The Detroit Bus Company’s converted school bus was a little like the DeLoreon from Back To The Future yesterday morning.

Literally speaking, the bus transported a group of metro Detroit transit advocates—the group included suburban businessman, a UAW retiree, and representatives from M.O.S.E.S. and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance—to Lansing for a Regional Transit Authority hearing before the House Transportation Committee.

But, really, this bus was taking its passengers 30 years into the past to correct a grievous error, back to a time when metro Detroit should have (like other major municipalities) created a regional governing authority for public transportation.

Regional transit authorities have been best practice in metropolises across the country for decades.

Typically, things in metro Detroit are a little different. Twenty-three times lawmakers have tried to regionalize metro Detroit’s transit system and 23 times the efforts failed. SMART and DDOT buses continue to chase each other up and down major thoroughfares as the two agencies maintain redundant bureaucracies.

“We are the only large metro that doesn’t have a mass transit system,” testified Rep. Jim Townsend (D-Royal Oak), an RTA legislation sponsor.

This time, however, things may be—or should be—different. The coalition backing the current RTA proposal reaches far beyond the grassroots activists who traveled to Lansing via the Detroit Bus Company.

Business leaders like Rock Ventures CEO Matt Cullen also spoke in support of the RTA legislation.

“The business community really believes strongly that regional cooperation and coordination of the transit system is critical to building an economic revival and strong region,” Cullen said.

Perhaps more impressive than the corporate support was the bipartisan array of local officials including Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Washtenaw County Commission Chairman Conan Smith, Detroit Chief Operating Officer Chris Brown, and Oakland County Deputy Executive Bob Daddow who spoke in favor of the RTA.

Daddow, who raised some concerns about the current legislation’s details, said his boss, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, backs the concept.

“We support the bill,” he told the House committee. “We are asking for some changes…for example right now the authority is developed through a local act. That allows itself to be subject to challenge. Shifting it to a constitutional authority…would provide a level of permanency to the authority.”

Chris Brown nodded his head in agreement with Oakland County’s suggestion, as Daddow explained their constitutional authority modification.

The broad support for the plan, which would pave the way for a high-speed regional bus rapid transit system, the M1 street car, improved bus service, and a greater share of federal transit dollars coming to Michigan, as well as the absence of any counter-argument against the proposal is as much the RTA plan’s weakness as well as the strength.

It’s not often anything has unanimous buy-in from metro Detroit’s top political leaders, the business community’s endorsement, and the support of a well-organized grassroots. Yet, RTA has been stalled in Lansing for most of 2012. Even at the conclusion of Thursday’s impressive display of support, the Transportation Committee could only commit to holding addition hearings on the proposal’s “technical” details.

What more will it take to make Lansing see this as a major and overdue priority?

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, acknowledged after the hearing that the RTA plan’s fate may come down to the whim of two men—Speaker Jason Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville.

“The frustrating thing is it maybe doesn’t matter that we have this incredible support at every level if the two men who can make it happen, Bolger and Richardville, refuse [to bring the RTA bills up for a floor vote] then game over.”

Still, despite that potential roadblock, activists on the Detroit Bus Company ride back from Lansing said they believed the hearing was a positive step toward getting RTA approved. And they used the trek home to strategize winning support from skeptical legislators.

“We can make sure the case has been made crystal clear about the benefits, answers the questions and concerns that are raised, we can rally support,” said Owens. “You can lead a horse to water.”

Given the consensus around this issue, one might assume it unthinkable that this 24th attempt at an RTA would be left wither on the vine, but here we are. Such is the nature of dysfunction in our state’s capitol at this moment in history.

It’s easy to turn the 23 failed RTA efforts into a punchline, but our collective incompetence comes at a great price.

The story of transit in Detroit is a story of lost infrastructure and opportunities.

Bill Rustem, a policy advisor to Governor Rick Snyder, noted in his testimony Thursday that one failed RTA effort championed by the Ford Administration would have funded construction of a rapid transit system. We muffed that effort and ended up with the People Mover as a consolation prize.

“At the time, put on the table by the Ford Administration, was $600 million in federal funds to help build a regional transportation system in southeast Michigan,” Rustem said. “There was one condition at the time, the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Southeast Michigan Transportation Authority were required to merge but disagreements between the city and its suburbs over the question of control resulted in failure. Those federal funds were spent elsewhere.”

A century ago, the interurban and streetcar systems moved people throughout southeast Michigan. Former Macomb County Commission Chairman John Hertel recalled riding on Detroit’s last streetcar run in 1956 during his pro-RTA testimony. He also talked about his grandmother’s memories riding the interurban.

“She said when I first came here from the thumb 'I was 18,' she said, 'I could get back on weekends to Sanilac County by taking something called the interurban',” he said. “It was literally a light rail service that ran from Detroit to Ann Arbor, from Detroit to Port Huron, Detroit to Flint, and it even ran from Detroit to Toledo. That was torn out after World War II. We had had one of the best transit systems in North America.”

The RTA plan represents the best opportunity since Jerry Ford to begin rebuilding that infrastructure. The stars are aligned for a rare moment in metro Detroit, all that’s left is for a state legislature to, you know, do its job. Or rather, it needs to finally do the job legislatures past.

http://www.deadlinedetroit.com/articles/2045/legislating_like_it_s_1979_lansing_ponders_metro_detroit_regional_transit_authority