Opt-Out Bill Threatens to Derail the RTA

Over one year ago Trans4M collaborated to campaign for legislative creation of a regional transit campaign. After 23 previous tries spanning 40 years, the Michigan Legislature ultimately passed legislation creating the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA). The RTA is a vehicle for coordinating local transit service, building rapid transit lines and allowing citizens to approve funding. The RTA celebrated its “birthday” during its first official meeting in April.


Trans4M and coalition partners celebrating the first RTA Board meeting in April.

However, the prospects for reliable public transportation under the RTA is seriously threatened by House Bill (HB) 4637, sponsored by Representative Kurt Heise (Plymouth).

The bill would allow municipalities to opt-out of the RTA. The bill met substantial opposition from organizations and representatives during the committee meeting, in large part because of efforts from Trans4M members Transportation Riders United, MOSESMichigan Suburbs Alliance (MSA) and Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), among others.

The RTA is working toward a more cohesive, convenient, accessible and effective transit system throughout Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties. An essential prerequisite for this cohesive transportation goal is to have all municipalities in the region participate in the RTA.

Rep. Heise told committee members that HB 4637 would give local governments the control to decide independently if they will be a part of the regional entity. He further argued that the opt out option would create a huge incentive for the RTA to please the “customer,” referring to taxpayers in the region.

Representatives Marilyn Lane (Fraser), David Rutledge (Ypsilanti) and Gretchen Driskell (Saline) all voiced concerns over the opt out bill. Representative Lane said she supports local control, but doesn’t like the opt out idea. “You don’t get to rewrite [democracy] every time a vote doesn’t go your way,” she said.

Representative Rutledge, from Washtenaw County (a county mentioned as one that would be interested in opting out), noted that his citizens have questioned aspects of the RTA, but are looking to the Authority to move passenger rail development forward in Ann Arbor. He further explained that his constituents “do not want to blow up the RTA,” which is what some argue HB 4637 would do.


Tim Fischer giving testimony on behalf of MEC (Photo by MEC)

Tim Fischer, Deputy Policy Director of MEC, gave testimony in opposition to the bill explained that allowing communities to opt-out will create a “checkerboard” transportation system, similar to what we currently see in the Suburban Mobility for Regional Transportation (SMART) system. In the SMART bus system, 53 of 127 communities have opted out, creating major obstacles for a successful multi-county transportation system. Buses have to travel farther to get to their destinations, creating additional costs and longer commutes.


Joel Batterman of MSA showing the gaps and inconsistencies in the current SMART system (Photo by MEC)

Joel Batterman, Transportation Programs Coordinator for MSA, also testified against the bill. He explained that it poses a major impediment to regional cooperation and in this case, the greater good of the public is more important than local control. He used the example of the interstate highway system as a comparison. Highways are successful because they are continuous, and communities cannot opt out of them.

The arguments were echoed by others who oppose the bill. Representative Driskell put it simply, “it won’t be successful; it won’t be regional”.

The bill was not voted on in the May 21 committee meeting, and it is unknown if and when a vote will occur.  A strong regional transit system is vital to support economic vitality, maintain and attract talent and for a more equitable and more vibrant Michigan. Stay tuned to Trans4M for updates on HB 4637.

By: Kajal Ravani and Elizabeth Treutel, Transportation For Michigan Fellows


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