“We can’t wait,” was the prevailing sentiment echoed throughout the afternoon from regional transit advocates at Monday’s Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) Executive & Policy Committee (EPC) meeting in downtown Detroit. Discussion at the meeting revolved around two important agenda items: selecting a date for a revenue referendum and the re-opening of the CEO search process. Transportation advocates at the meeting urged the RTA committee to make these important decisions, and then focus on actions that need to take place around them. Southeast Michigan can’t wait until a revenue referendum is passed or for the next CEO to be hired for tangible actions to be made toward an improved, coordinated regional transportation system— these actions need to start now.
The RTA was enabled by the Governor in late 2012 without a long-term funding mechanism in place. Since the Board began meeting last April, it has spent the last year working largely on internal administration tasks, such as setting its bylaws and budget. This summer, the RTA completed a search for a CEO and extended an offer to John Hertel, General Manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). Hertel continued his role as GM of SMART and did not sign the contract for the CEO position with the RTA for five months. In mid-January he announced that he would not sign the contract and instead would remain permanently with SMART. The RTA exists today in nearly the same position it was in one year ago – lacking a sustainable mechanism for funding and without a definitive leader of operations. The time to celebrate the victory of the RTA’s creation has long passed, and today the lack of tangible progress has heightened the urgency among advocates and the public.
The EPC meeting was well-attended by transit advocates from across the RTA region, many of whom shared common frustrations with the slow movement of the RTA and lack of a plan for action thus far. Richard Murphy, former RTA board member, and Programs Director of the Trans4M member organization, Michigan Suburbs Alliance (MSA) kicked off the public comment portion of the meeting, urging the RTA to “set a date [for a revenue referendum], and work toward it.” Reverend Ott of the Metro Coalition of Congregations (MCC), also a Trans4M member, insisted that despite the recent CEO set back, the RTA needs to “stay in motion” and “build a plan while it hires a CEO.”
Other advocates used hard data to convey the importance of swift action. Joel Batterman of the Trans4M member organization Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (MOSES) urged the RTA to place a funding measure on the ballot in 2014, and highlighted the cost of waiting for an improved regional transit system. According to Batterman, Southeast Michigan spends about $0.30 for every $1.00 that the average U.S. major metropolitan region spends per capita on public transit, “there is no way [transit agencies] can provide adequate service at those levels,” he added. Megan Owens of the Trans4M member organization Transportation Riders United (TRU) shared the results of a recent study which revealed that 86% of likely voters in the region think that better transit is needed, 67% support funding transit through increased taxes, and a slight majority would vote for a transit funding ballot measure today, without any additional education or information upfront.
After some debate, the RTA Executive & Policy Committee voted unanimously to pursue a ballot measure in 2016 – which gives the board plenty of time to get a public education campaign going, in order to inform voters what the RTA plans to do to coordinate the region as one system and improve service overall.
The second focus of discussion was the re-opening of the CEO position for applications, which the committee voted to be from February 20 – March 28. This timeline will be recommended to the full Board at its February 19 meeting. Finalists from the initial job search, Al Martin and Larry Salci, have both stated that they will not be re-applying for the position.
Monday’s EPC meeting initiated key benchmarks for the RTA, but region-wide progress leading up to those benchmarks will impact their outcomes. Between now and early April, when a CEO will be hired, small but impactful action can be taken to improve Southeast Michigan’s transit systems.
An attainable suggestion from Freshwater Transit, a region-wide service map, is something that could likely be created within a short window of time and using fewing resources. On behalf of Trans4M’s Regional Transit team, Batterman put forth the idea of an RTA listening tour as a way to provide public education about the RTA, and more importantly, create a forum for the public to share their feedback about what they need from their regional transportation system. The recent polling conducted by TRU, Foster McCollum White Baydoun, and the University of Detroit Mercy, and sponsored by the US Department of Transportation could have been an initiative of the RTA itself.
In the interim, RTA board member, Paul Hillegonds said at the meeting that he will be submitting a letter to the Appropriations committees chairs asking for supplemental funding to support the current budget, leading up to a 2016 ballot measure when a sustainable funding mechanism would be created.
Whatever the RTA’s next steps may be, it needs to start making some visible progress toward a better, more connected regional transit system. RTA board member, Elizabeth Gerber highlighted the importance of creating a vision and setting a campaign plan in Monday’s meeting. In addition to this vision and campaign planning though, the public needs to see action over the next two years if it is to trust the RTA enough to vote for funding of it. In a letter submitted to the committee on Monday, MOSES articulated why Southeast Michigan truly cannot wait another year for action:
“Every year that we wait, our region misses out on jobs from employers that increasingly refuse to even consider investing in areas without transit. Every year we wait, our region loses young professionals to other metropolitan regions that provide convenient public transit… Every year we wait, our region’s neediest people remain, in effect, imprisoned, without hope of access to education or employment. Every year we wait, we send a message that our fragmented region remains too foolish to make the investments in transit that are being made by our peers around the nation and globe.”
The Authority must begin to return the results that Metro Detroiters have been denied for decades to have a chance at securing a sustainable funding mechanism by 2016; but more importantly, to build the foundation to move the region, and the state forward.
Written by Liz Treutel, Trans4M Fellow