Destination: Regional Transit

"All politics is local," quipped former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill early on in his 50-year political career. While Tip was referring to his home of Cambridge, Massachusetts, he may as well have been channeling Detroit’s own course over the last half century. For decades, those famous words have proved our undoing on so many levels. From water, to schools, to coordinated planning efforts, good intentions and smart, progressive decisions have been more often undermined by the short sightedness, fear and self interest of our region’s multitude of municipal power players.
But there is growing hope. One of the most well known casualties of our region’s great dysfunction has been our inability to create, build and sustain a rapid transit system to effectively serve greater Detroit. Taking the first important step, the creation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) to coordinate efforts and raise funds, has been attempted nearly two dozen times since the 1960s. But each time, good intention was thwarted by local politics, and lawmakers had to go back to the drawing board. It’s now 2012 and a new round of effort is underway.

What makes Number 24 (hopefully) a charm? Well, maybe there’s some necessity and urgency aligning the stars.

Statewide, our economy is in the doldrums, housing values are flat, and young educated people have been leaving at a significant rate. So the problems do not reside just in Detroit anymore. And yet, there seems to be growing understanding that the state will not improve until the state’s most important city and region improves. Word is there is dawning awareness by local political leadership that most other regions in the U.S., and indeed, the world, value a diverse and integrated transportation network. In most civilized places what that means is the ability to get from point A to B in more ways than one. Imagine that.
Well, believe it or not, Detroit has a long and rich history of transit options. Over five decades ago, the last streetcars rolled up and down Woodward for the final time, the vestige of what was the country’s largest municipally owned streetcar network. In the early decades of the 20th Century, streetcars got you anywhere you wanted to go in Detroit, and the Interurban got you from Detroit to as far away as Jackson, Flint, Port Huron and Toledo quickly and efficiently.
Yes, it’s true that the automotive era flourished at the expense of rail. But it was not just Detroit.  Rail lines in many cities were dismantled in favor of buses and a gradual scaling back of service. What makes Detroit’s condition unique is the depths and level of dysfunction to which our transit system has fallen. Our fair city consistently ranks as one of the nation’s worst providers of public transit. It’s been hurting us in many ways, from stranding students, workers and families to diminishing our quality of place, to facilitating sprawl to driving away our best and brightest. Our transit myopia stifles our potential.
"I think the region is finally coming to terms with the basic idea that it has got to work together to have a viable future," says Bill Rustem, Governor Rick Snyder’s chief policy strategist. Snyder, a Republican, has been a vocal proponent of transit, especially with regard to its role in Detroit’s future, and is one of the key supporters of the new RTA. "I'll admit, this is more important to my kids than it is to me," Rustem continues, "But that's the whole point and why we’ve just got to get it right this time."
"This time" is taking shape in the form of a bipartisan set of bills introduced at the end of January, Senate Bill 909, sponsored by Republican Senator Tom Casperson and House Bill 5309, sponsored by Democrat Representative Jim Townsend.

"What’s different from earlier versions," says Rustem, "is that this time we’re not proposing to merge DDOT and SMART. This has always been a huge sticking point. Now especially, you simply can’t reconcile the legacy costs with merger or consolidation. This way you can coordinate the existing systems and limit the service overlap. Additionally, we’re also incorporating Washtenaw County which is economically part of the region and has an interest in better connectivity. But they’ve never been included. This RTA proposal is historically different."
Macomb County Commissioner, David Flynn, agrees. He is one of 20 regional county commissioners and city officials who started "R-PATH," short for "Regional Partners Advocating Transit Here," an advocacy group that promotes the RTA. They have hosted regional focus groups for citizens to educate people about transit and how it can benefit them.
"Give people the opportunity to choose," Flynn says, "That is how this is going to work. We can’t force it down people’s throats, but if they can be educated about the benefits, they will see that that the region is not viable without a viable transit system. There is not a city in the U.S. without a robust transit system, and now is our time to make this a reality." R-PATH has already had some success in terms of getting folks on the same page and talking to one another, including a recent well attended workshop at the Detroit Zoo, co-sponsored by the National Bus Rapid Transit Institute.
If Rustem and Flynn’s roles are to sing the RTA’s praises to state lawmakers, others offer a similarly hopeful, but more analytic and pragmatic approach. Richard "Murph" Murphy, Transportation Programs Coordinator for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, a non-profit policy organization that fosters and supports cooperative approaches to the challenges facing Detroit’s inner ring suburbs, is up front in his assessment. "Let’s not flatter ourselves," he says, "the RTA is not going to fix all of our issues, at least not immediately. But it will be able to focus on what is doable and we will start to improve the system piece by piece in a practical way."
Murph is especially excited about the integration of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which utilizes special larger buses on dedicated lanes, as an additional layer of service on major corridors. "It will reduce the demand on bus lines so that there can be a reallocation of resources," he says, "and if it is done right, it can bring in new ridership, as it has in places like Seattle and Cleveland."
Besides the somewhat foreign concept of new riders to a metropolitan Detroit transit system, it may be hard to convince people to pay for an unknown and unproven idea. But the real trick of the RTA, at least in terms of how it interacts with known quantities such as DDOT and SMART, is that it facilitates the raising of funds for improvement and operations. Murph illustrates the point with the carrot and stick analogy, highlighting that the RTA will be able to both raise and withhold operating funds to DDOT and SMART. It also will be able to tap additional Federal funds available for transit projects.

There is just no way around the fact that even though BRT is less expensive than light rail, it has significant costs, ranging from $1 million to $25 million per mile, depending on how much improvement is needed.

"Think about it," Murph says, "whatever we eventually implement through the RTA, to get people to take notice, it must be so visibly different from what people here traditionally think of when they think of transit -- and it must also work consistently so that people can rely on it."
And whether the system ends up as steel or rubber wheeled…therein lies the rub. Are we as a region willing to pony up the extra money to build and maintain such a system? A recent poll by the Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV found that while a majority of people support a regional transit system, only a third would be ok with a tax increase.
Snyder’s policy guru, Rustem, understands. "There will be a campaign. Otherwise it won’t be successful. We need to sell people on the idea and why it will be good for them and their children. The costs will be covered by either a five county millage or an increased car registration fee. It will be tough, but if we can break through on regional transit, I firmly believe that we can accelerate the rate of cooperation in the future."
Whatever happens with the RTA, it is unlikely to significantly change the truth of Tip O’Neill’s "all politics is local" idiom. What is hopeful however, is that with a successful RTA, local political interests will be more amenable to new idioms, such as one coined by RTA sponsor, Jim Townsend, which has a nice ring to it: "Transit is Destiny."
Speramus Meliora. We hope for better things.
Francis Grunow works on public policy issues with three other fine folks at New Solutions Group, a business in residence at the Green Garage in Midtown Detroit.
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