Regional transit soiree: TRU holds downtown awards dinner

An advocacy group whose mission since 1999 has been to improve and promote transit in greater Detroit held its first meeting with less than 10 people in attendance. Nearly 13 later, more than 150 people attended Transportation Riders United's fundraising and awards dinner. The room at the Atheneum Suite Hotel was filled with Southeast Michigan public transit advocates. 

After an early reception and a silent auction for Detroit-oriented gift packages, attendees settled into their seats under the grand ballroom’s vaulted ceilings for the awards and dinner. 

The soiree’s award lineup honored winners and nominees for Transit Employee of the Year, Corporate Transit Champion, Exemplary Regionalism & Innovation, Transit Activist of the Year, and Most Effective Public Servant. Award winners were selected by an independent panel of expert judges from across Michigan’s public transit spectrum.

The tenor of the evening--reiterated by each award winner and speaker--was about moving Detroit’s public transit system forward, rather than just talking about it.

"It’s going to take more than campaign promises and stirring speeches to move transit forward," said TRU’s Executive Director, Megan Owens, to the packed crowd.

Southeastern Michigan doesn’t have a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and, as a result, has had its collaborative public transit efforts fragmented. Many of the people and groups that were in attendance were there because of their efforts to make an RTA a reality.

"Gov. Snyder recognizes that transit is an essential piece to make our communities vibrant," Owens continued. "He’s tasked his top policy advisors to learn everything there is to know about an RTA, push limits, and to make the calls needed to move forward."

Snyder, in addition to being a recurring topic at the awards, was also a nominee for Most Effective Public Servant.  Michigan State Senator Tom Casperson, though, claimed the honor. Casperson’s 38th Senate District is located in the Upper Peninsula, but as the Senate’s Transportation Committee Chair, he has led the legislative effort to create an RTA. While accepting his award, the Senator underscored the need to improve Detroit’s reputation.

"It’s been too easy for too long to criticize," said Casperson, "We've got to start praising and raising up Detroit."

Like Southeast Michigan’s proposed RTA, light rail was a topic echoed in several acceptance speeches. It was hard to find a category that didn’t have a nominee who was working towards getting rail in Detroit.

The award for Corporate Transit Champion went to Quicken Loans and M-1 Rail for their work towards putting privately-funded rail back on Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Transform Woodward, a task force dedicated to advancing transit-oriented development and rapid transit for Woodward Avenue and beyond, won the award for Exemplary Regionalism and Innovation. Heather Carmona, from Woodward Avenue Action Association, accepted the award.

Karen Hendrick-Hands, President Emeritus of TRU accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Kendrick-Hands family. In her acceptance speech, Hendrick-hands expressed frustration at the loss of the proposed light rail that would have extended from the Detroit River to Eight Mile Road, and at the planned I-94 widening project.

Hands, who helped found TRU more than 12 years ago, also mentioned the recent passing of one of TRU’s greatest assets and founders, Dietrich Bergmann.

Michael Pattan, SMART’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator, accepted the award for Transit Employee of the Year. Patten, who is legally blind, is an active advocate for the disabled and a resource for SMART initiatives that serve the disabled community.

"Every dollar we spend on transit," Pattan reminded the crowd, "we get $7 back on that investment."

Patty Fedewa, who has been working as a volunteer with TRU since 2002, received the award for Transit Activist of the Year. The Detroit Department of Transportation’s (DDOT) former director once labeled Fedewa the biggest thorn in the agency’s side because of her tireless campaigning on behalf of bus riders.

"I really want to thank the bus riders," Fedewa said, "I'm here fighting with you, and for you."

K. G. Wassus reports on regional and statewide transportation issues for Model D and its sister publications.

Photos by K.G. Wassus
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