This is why we can’t have nice things.
That was our reaction, along with a cynical shrug of the shoulders, to the news that the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority was forced to postpone voting on its master plan.
This, after literally decades of false starts and setbacks that have left the Detroit region a woefully underserved backwater of public transportation, with two competing bus systems and a service area with glaring holes where virtually no transit service exists.
The vote is important because the RTA has spent years listening to community leaders and developing an ambitious plan to significantly upgrade public transportation in metro Detroit through a 20-year, 1.2-mill tax. It must approve the plan by Aug. 16 to get it on the Nov. 8 ballot for voters in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, who would ultimately determine its fate.
At issue are 11th-hour objections by Oakland and Macomb county officials over what can be characterized as concerns over equitable returns on investment. Without the support of board members from these two suburban counties, the RTA simply didn’t have the votes needed to OK the plan for the ballot.
We’ve read Oakland County’s 19-page summary of objections and concerns, written by Chuck Moss, a Republican former state representative, and Timothy Soave, a longtime deputy of county Executive L. Brooks Patterson who currently serves as manager of fiscal services for the county.
To be fair, they do raise some legitimate points. For instance, they object to bringing the M-1 Rail system, which isn’t scheduled to start operating until 2017, under the RTA umbrella in 2024 when backers insisted that M-1 would be privately funded for its first decade. They also want more concrete assurances that the complicated mix of financing won’t impact SMART bus operations in the suburbs or drain funding for capital expenses, such as new equipment. And job centers should be connected, if there are any missed.
Elsewhere, they seem caught up in the same old SMART-versus-DDOT suburban-Detroit turf battles when most users care more about getting from point A to B without having to wait an hour in the cold.
But worst is their insistence that each county receive assurances that 85 percent of the revenue they provide via the RTA tax stay within that county in the form of enhanced transit service.
Think about that for a moment. By Moss and Soave’s calculations, that means that affluent Oakland County, which would contribute $63 million a year, would get the lion’s share of transit enhancements, while heavily impoverished Detroit, at about $7.7 million, would get a comparative pittance. Macomb, Washtenaw and Wayne counties would fall somewhere in-between.
This is a terrible idea that completely divorces transit enhancements from where demand and need are greatest. Transit is about going places and connecting people.
In other words, Detroit, where bus ridership is currently highest and the economic development aspect of transit is most needed, would get far fewer benefits than Oakland County.
Also importantly, four out of five jobs in the city of Detroit are held by suburbanites. Many of those suburbanites live in Macomb and Oakland County.
Also, thousands upon thousands of Detroiters go to the suburbs for work as entry-level jobs are there. Oakland and Macomb County businesses are benefitted by this.
The mandatory minimum mandate if drawn at each county line also seems untenable, with economic and other factors that change year to year. How would you guarantee this minimum each year without scrambling to make constant and arbitrary changes to service patterns?
Taken together, and given the late timing (the letter is dated July 5 but the 85 percent mandate was reportedly raised only in “recent days”), the demands feel less like sober financial stewardship than transparent attempts to sabotage the RTA plan. Why wasn’t this included before the plan was made public? It’s not like the RTA hasn’t been in existence as an organization for four years already.
The simple fact is that metro Detroit is badly in need of more robust, reliable public transportation as part of an economic development strategy.
We believe in self-improvement and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps – but all too often, metro Detroit’s policies leave people with no boots or bootstraps to pull themselves up by.
It’s also a matter of competitiveness.
Just think of a city like Washington D.C. There, it’s possible to get around town easily via the city’s bus system or bike share program, then walk to a Metro station, where you can take a train to the airport. Then you’ll fly back to Detroit, where you left your car parked in a pothole-ridden long-term parking lot. Or better yet: Take a car service from the airport. It’ll only cost you $60 or so, at least.
The talk in recent years at the Mackinac Policy Conference, and drawn from the regional approach that led to the long-sought upgrades to Cobo Center, is that Detroit is at long last making significant strides toward a more regional and less tribal system of policymaking. These objections to the RTA could prove that belief to be a inconsistent at best, a mirage at worst.
As the supporters at Transportation Riders United put it, “Somehow they missed the word ‘regional’ in the Regional Transit Plan.”