The Case For Regional Mass Transit: A Q&A with John Hertel

Well, it took 24 attempts but finally, last year, the Michigan legislature agreed to allow plans for a regional transportation authority for Southeast Michigan to go forward. Whether it was the fact that Michigan was losing out on significant federal matching dollars or the realization that our car-only culture was undermining economic progress or the recognition that of the 30 major metropolitan regions in the country, metro Detroit was the only one without a regional transit system, the argument for regional planning finally won the day.
"You can go to Little Rock, AR or OshKosh, WI and they have more modern systems than we do."
And helping to make that argument was John Hertel, the head of SMART, the suburban bus system that services communities in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Hertel is a well-known face in local political circles, having served as a state senator (1974-82) and chairman of the board of commissioners for Wayne and Macomb counties. He is also the man credited with turning around the fortunes and reputation of the Michigan State Fair as managing director (1993-2006).
Last week, Hertel was chosen to become the first CEO of the newly formed Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan (RTA). He will oversee the logistical development, planning and implementation of a public transportation system that will link Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw Counties. 
But in order to attract federal matching dollars, Hertel will need to make the case for regional transit to the voters of all four counties. That means getting locals to agree to tax themselves for a new rapid bus transit service, a system that would create dedicated lanes for cutting-edge, express bus service across the county lines and to and from the airport. No easy task. Michigan voters tend to be suspicious of regional efforts and raising taxes is rarely a popular strategem.
"I think you have to appeal to the fact that people want to live in a place that understands how important it is to answer the basic question: How can I get around?" says Hertel, optimistic that local votesr will see the light.
Caught between what must be an ever-growing flurry of meetings, Hertel took time to chat with Metromode in a phone interview. His responses have been edited for length and clarity.

It's no secret SE Michigan has long struggled to embrace regionalism. How do you make the case for regional transit to communities in, say, Washtenaw and Macomb counties, who may not see a direct advantage to supporting efforts that benefit the region as a whole?
I think you have to talk about us in relationship to the rest of the world. The best way I describe it to people is that out of the top 30 major metropolitan areas in the country we are the only one that does not have a regional transit system. We are also the only one that can and has qualified to hold the NCAA final four and Super Bowl but when you get off of an airplane at DTW you can't get on mass transit to get to either your hotel or the arena. That's a pretty horrible first impression for anyone visiting. There are many places in the world that people would not consider as significant as metro Detroit but those places have more modern transit systems than we do. You can go to Little Rock, AR or OshKosh, WI and they have more modern systems than we do.

There are regional transportation organizations all across the country, with track records for what has and hasn't worked. Are there systems and organizations you are looking at specifically for guidance or benchmarking?
When I was doing the regional transit plan at the RTCC back in 2007 and '08, I was looking for a good model for where we need to go and I hit upon Denver. Twenty-some years ago, visiting downtown Denver was a pit. There was no adequate transit in that area. But since then they've had a complete rennaisance in transit, using all modes of transportation. They have trolleys downtown, they have bus rapid transit, they have arterial, they have light rail and they even have commuter trains. They have gone from almost nothing to terrific success and they have done it using every mode available and combined and coordinated them well.

One of the reasons they were able to do that was because they got a regional tax passed, which then qualified them for federal matching funds. And the way they got the tax passed - in their region they have 31 communities, compared to Wayne-Oakland and Macomb's 120 - was because they got their political act together. All 31 mayors endorsed the regional tax.

What do you think are the chances of getting the 120-odd mayors to get on board? As someone who came from the West, I can say that people there don't have quite the allergic reaction to regional efforts that I've seen on display here.
Well, while we've had this aversion that's been in existence for a long time, back in the 1940s we created a regional park system - the Metro Parks. And that's five counties! And it's worked marvously for 73 years. It really demonstrates the benefits of regional cooperation. Our regional park system is rated as the best in the nation. People come from not only all over America but the world to see it because it's so significant. And it all came from regionalism. That's a pretty good argument for how regional efforts can work.
I also think if you look at the regional attitude that's guided the Convention and Visitor's Bureau and Cobo Hall I think it signals that both the attitude and reality is beginning to change.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study that found that more than half of the riders said they had reduced their use of public transportation specifically because of its unreliability (late buses, inaccurate or poor schedule information, crowded transport). What can the RTA proactively to address potential issues?
I'm not going to make any promises. I've learned that it's not the smart or fair thing to do for anybody. But one of the first things we're going to look at is how we can coordinate SMART and DDOT and the People Mover and whether we can make some immediate changes with those systems. We want to set an example and get started changing some people's attitudes. When I took over the State Fair it was an absolute mess. It had its lowest attendance the year before I took over. It was known as being filthy and unsafe and many other bad words I'd rather not repeat. I said, at the time, that we were going to use the milking stool model to change things, which meant a three-pronged approach. I said we would make it as clean as Disney, we would make it safe and we would make it family oriented. And we did that. In one year attendance went up 98 percent.  
With regard to the RTA it'll have to be more than just words but key concepts. The services will need to be affordable, they will have to be frequent, they will have to be on time or reliable, and they'll definitely need to be safe.
"...if you put in bus rapid transit and you did it in a significant way you'd automatically free up a lane on the freeways..."

The Michigan Department of Transportation has released a plan to widen I-94 in Detroit and its suburbs. The $1.8 billion project would add one lane in each direction over a 6.7-mile stretch of the freeway. Is this really the best use of transportation dollars, especially considering the long-standing criticism that ground transportation to DTW is grossly underserved. A billion dollars would be a significant down payment on rail or BRT service.
Well, first, I'm not anti-rail but I do believe in best bang for the buck and that means talking about bus rapid transit. A billion dollars for BRT would be spectacular.  But I'd like to reverse the conversation because I'm not going to be negative about other situations. So, let's put it this way: if you put in bus rapid transit and you did it in a significant way you'd automatically free up a lane on the freeways because one of the first things that happens with successful mass transit is it improves traffic patterns for automobiles.

So, how do you make this case to a region that has trouble imagining anything other than cars as its best transit option? Especially when you have local leaders and MDOT displaying that same lack of foresight and imagination? That's an incredible amount of resources going toward a plan that has been shown time and again to be ineffective at alleviating long-term congestion.
I don't have the kind of lobbying power that some others may have but with the time and resources I have I'm going to make the case for bus rapid transit and all of the positives that go with it. For instance, the fact that it goes as fast as light rail, carries as many people as light rail, and does it for one-eighth the cost of light rail. And I'm going to make that case that if we put in bus rapid transit we'll immediately improve traffic patterns. 

But I think the argument that will hit home hardest about transit right now is that if you want to create jobs in southeast Michigan, which is by the way our number-one need, the most significant and fastest way you do that is with mass transit. Academically it has been studied over the last twenty years and found that, and this is documented, for every dollar that's been spent either improving or building mass transit the private sector has invested somewhere between six and eight dollars. Show me something else that'll deliver that level of investment.

Jeff Meyers is the managing editor of Metromode and its sister publication Concentrate. He is also the film critic for the Metro Times.