Driving urban vibrancy forward

It took 23 tries and 40 years, but metropolitan Detroit finally has a Regional Transit Authority. Now the real work begins: building a shared regional vision and persuading a populace born and raised on cars to support -- and fund -- regional public transit.
Metropolitan Detroit’s fledgling Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is officially up and running, and is now beginning to take its first steps toward fixing the region’s dysfunctional public transportation system.
Encompassing Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland, and Macomb counties and the City of Detroit, the RTA’s purpose is to provide coordination between local transit agencies and plan for enhanced rapid transit service, according to DTE Energy Senior Vice President for Corporate Affairs Paul Hillegonds, who chairs the RTA as Gov. Snyder’s appointee.
Before Snyder signed the RTA bill into law last December, metropolitan Detroit was the only major city in the United States without such a body. Since 1970, 23 attempts to establish an RTA perished in the legislature.
One of the RTA's first orders of business will be to create a single, comprehensive public transportation plan for the region, building on and integrating the existing Comprehensive Regional Transit Service Plan and the Washtenaw County Transit Plan.
As the RTA gets underway, it faces substantial challenges: a fragmented, often unreliable bus system faced with chronic revenue shortfalls and legacy pension debt, a long history of regional political infighting, and a skeptical public in a region built on building cars.
"We applaud the fact that we now have an RTA, it’s a great step forward for the region," says Carmine Palombo, director of Transportation Programs at the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. SEMCOG is serving as interim staff to the RTA until it hires its own staff. 
"They have a lot of work to do," he says.
Richard Murphy, RTA representative for Washtenaw County and Program Director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, echoes that sentiment.
"Right now, we’re working from very high-level concepts of what the RTA could be, and have a lot of work to do to get from there to what it will be," says Murphy. "The structure, the relationship to the existing transit providers, the roadmap for future transit development -- all of these will require a lot of work to get from legislation to reality."
According to Palombo, the number one challenge the RTA faces will be to make the case for badly needed public revenue to support regional transit. RTA Washtenaw County representative Elisabeth Gerber, a Professor of Policy at the University of Michigan, agrees. 
"The RTA will need to make the case to opinion leaders and the public that regional transit provides great benefits to the wide community and hence is worthy of public investment," she says.
Economic studies document how effectively public transit drives urban vibrancy and supports economic development.  Property values around transit stations have been shown to increase by an average of 130 percent, and an estimated $4 in economic activity is generated for every $1 in transit investment, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
But while urban revitalization and transit-oriented development opportunities related to rapid transit and M1 Rail are exciting, shoring up the existing, poorly functioning bus system is a top task for the RTA.  
"For the immediate future, buses that run and run on time and routes and interchanges that are easy and efficient (are top priority)," says Mark Gaffney, RTA Wayne County representative and Business Agent for Teamsters Local Union 214. 
"As new modes are developed, the interest of the public must be matched with safety, efficiency, convenience, and adequate funding," he says.
Building a functional regional transit system will require the kind of coordination and shared vision that has often been hard to come by in the region, according to Mary Lisa Franklin, RTA representative for the City of Detroit
"(We need) a plan that all four counties and the City of Detroit are comfortable with," says Franklin, who is also founder and president of Warriors on Wheels, an advocacy group for those with disabilities. "Overcoming history won’t be easy, but I think the board is a balanced group of individuals who are knowledgeable and experienced," she says.
Already, attempts to undermine the RTA are underway in the state legislature. A  Senate bill proposes to exempt test vehicles from paying a registration tax to fund the RTA. No such tax has yet been proposed, though is it expected the RTA will eventually ask voters to pay some type of tax or fee to fund regional transit operations.
Meanwhile, a House bill proposes a provision enabling municipalities to opt-out of the RTA, similar to the existing opt-out provision in the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus system. Currently, 53 metropolitan Detroit communities in Wayne and Oakland counties opt out of SMART, according to the Detroit Free Press.
"This bill would let the air out of the RTA's tires before it even gets moving," says Joel Batterman, Transportation Programs Coordinator for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. "'Opt-outs' have already made Swiss cheese out of the SMART system. I'm not sure why we would base a regional system on a model that doesn't make sense in practice."
Bringing diverse regional interests into alignment will first require building a shared sense of regional vision, according to Berger.
"Developing a regional identity is key to building and sustaining strong public support for an enhanced regional transit system," she says.
Dr, Curtis Ivery, Wayne County RTA representative and Chancellor of Wayne County Community College, points out that public transportation is about individual people who need to get to work and to school in a region.
"It is very important to make life simpler for commuters overall and bring the region into the 21st century as it relates to transportation," Ivery says.
The Regional Transit Authority members include:
Governor's Representative: Paul Hillegonds, Senior Vice-President of Corporate Affair at DTE Energy, Chairman
City of Detroit Representative: Lisa Franklin, president of Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit
Macomb County Representatives: Julie Gatti, Attorney, and Roy Rose, President and Principal Project Engineer at Anderson, Eckstein and Westrick
Oakland County Representatives: Steven Potter, president and partner of the Potter, DeAgostino, O'Dea & Patterson, Matthew Wirgau, president and managing member of Midwest Financial Service, LLC
Washtenaw County Representatives: Elisabeth Gerber, Professor of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and Richard Murphy, Programs Director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance
Wayne County Representatives: Mark Gaffney, Business Agent for Teamsters Local Union 214 and Dr. Curtis Ivery, Chancellor of Wayne County Community College District

Nina Ignaczak is project editor for Issue Media Group's statewide transportatioon series, underwritten by the Michigan Environmental Council.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography
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Nina Ignaczak is a metro Detroit-based writer and the editor of Metromode. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.