What's going on with the RTA? Five tough questions with CEO Michael Ford

After a long, and some would say torturous, process The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan was finally established in December of 2012. But what's been happening with regional transit since? Depending on who you ask or what portion of the organization you're asking, the answer could be "not much," "who knows?" or "a whole heck of a lot." 

For months, the RTA website was just a single page nested in SEMCOG's web site, and didn't provide much in the way of real-time clues either. The organization's new site -just launched this week- is a good start but noticeably slight on content.

Rumblings from the RTA's Citizen Advisory Council indicate that while their group of 50 volunteer members have been hard at work, getting other arms of the organization, such as the Providers Advisory Council, to take their input seriously — or even share public documents with them in a transparent and timely matter. Still, for something as potentially game-changing as regional public transit for metro Detroit, the silence has been deafening.

So what progress is really being made toward better public transit in Southeast Michigan? 

The one thing that's been easy for the public to follow is the recent hiring of former Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority CEO Michael Ford as the new CEO of the RTA. With an official head finally atop the two-year-old agency, order and progress could be in the works for RTA — just in time for their all-important referendum vote in 2016. 

Ford says the organization is in the process of creating policies and procedures, finalizing its vision and mission, and getting its administrative ducks in a row. He also explains that his calendar has been filling up with meetings with elected officials and advocacy groups. The message is that “things are picking up.”

Still, we thought it important to ask Ford a few tough questions about what the RTA's deal has been thus far, and what we can expect to see in the organization's future. 
Metromode: Why is it so difficult to find information on what's happening with RTA right now? A website exists for the citizen's advisory council, but the RTA site itself long redirected back to SEMCOG. When can we expect more of a public presence for RTA?

Michale Ford: Yeah, we are working on that right now. We hope to have something up soon (the site is now live). It will be rtamichigan.org. This is about transparency and openness and being able to communicate effectively, meaning that agendas will be posted in much more rich details than they have been in the past, board meeting dates, community meetings — details with more substance to them.  

So we are working on just being more transparent, more accessible to the general public and providing a little bit more information on who we are, why are we exist, and providing factual data as to why transportation is important in this region. You will see a lot more information about just staff and what we are trying to accomplish and what we’ve got going on in the next several months.  

We understand there's been some perceived difficulty on the CAC's end with getting RTA, and specifically the providers committee, to take their work seriously and treat them like a legitimate arm of the organization. Have you experienced this to be the case, and if so, how is RTA dealing with it? 

I think they're a very important part of RTA, providing us good information, and helping us, particularly with outreach and engagement, but also on projects. I have actually attended the last two CAC meetings. I’ve been there to hear what is going on, to hear the comments, the issues, and also to address a few concerns while I was there. So I’m trying to show by example that I feel that this is a very important group. Taking some of those issues and moving forward to address them is something I’m working on right now. Their involvement will be essential to making sure that we have the right public involvement and plan going forward.

Transparency was another issue CAC members mention, from not having access to public information, such as RFP-generated proposals, in a timely manner and the COO position being filled without a public posting of the job. Is allowing for public information access a challenge for RTA right now, and what is being done to address it?

About the COO position, I felt that I needed a person who was knowledgeable had a lot of relationships established and could help me move very quickly. So I think that was an excellent hire, and I have no qualms or regrets about that.  

In terms of the other issues…part of my work internally here, in terms of setting up the organization, is to create a way for the public to be more involved. So, with the new procurement policy, we’ve actually enhanced the opportunity for public engagement. We have a process where we will be seeking technical expertise from the public to be part of a RFP evaluation process when we select a vendor.  

That’s different than before. So with that, the posting of the information on the website ahead of time, the more rich agendas…a person coming to a board meeting or a committee meeting will be much more informed than he has been in the past. 

These are changes or distinctions from where we were to where we are now: much more involvement with the public, much more transparency, and looking for their support. I think you will see that in the coming months in terms of how we are operating and moving forward.

The outcome of the 2016 election will be critical to RTA's future. What are your plans in terms of a public information campaign and advocacy, and when will we start seeing that put into action? 

Right now we have out on the street the regional master transit plan, that will, I think, galvanize a lot of focus and energy. The other thing is, we have to do our due diligence in educating people about transportation and why it’s important. I think there are a lot of folks who just don’t know what the RTA is about, what it’s trying to do. It’s really about trying to coordinate services under one umbrella. But the local services have to improve for the regional services to actually really work together in a symbiotic relationship. 

Sometime in January, probably late January, we will be working on outreach and engagement.  We will be working with advocacy groups…and others to help galvanize us under a focus of trying to move forward. Part of this will be getting information out, talking to them and basically hearing what they have to say about what their future needs are. Within the next quarter, we’ll seek a lot of input, and we will be doing that throughout the region to make sure that we speak to everybody.

Obviously, public transit is a big issue in metro Detroit and something that is on the minds of residents on a daily basis. It may be difficult for those waiting for better transit options to feel like progress is being made. When do you feel RTA will be at the point at which tangible results will be happening that residents can see and experience? 

It’s going to be an incremental approach. One thing I’m committed to is doing what we can do with existing resources. In the next couple of months, I think there are things that we will be able to point to. Some things on the docket are just better coordination between the carriers: How we can provide more seamlessness between people over at DDOT, SMART and AAATA, from scheduling to coordinated transfers, to more service or improved services or frequencies. We have also been talking recently about the opportunity for airport service as well. So those are some of the things that hopper right now. 

I’m very cognizant that people need to see things to make it real for them. We can talk a lot, but I think showing service on the street, showing improvements to people is what’s really going to get their attention. So I’m hoping in the next couple of quarters we will be able to assemble some meaningful opportunities that will be noticed by the public.  

Natalie Burg is a freelance writer, development news editor for Concentrate and IMG project editor.
All Photos by David Lewinski Photography

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