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Eugene, Oregon Bus Rapid Transit. Creative Commons photo.

It’s a common saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As we told you earlier today, the RTA board — after four years of work, and thanks to some last-minute objections from Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson — defeated a proposal to let voters decide whether they want to fund an improved regional mass transit system.

To most modern cities, this is the kind of basic thing you just do. Here, it’s a decades-long political battle.

Sitting at the RTA Board meeting, an interesting anecdote came from State Senator Burt Johnson (D-Detroit). He talked about how there was the chance for more money for transit, but Brooks Patterson and Governor Rick Snyder then got into an argument around who has more political clout, started by Patterson.

This isn’t surprising. Patterson, with the support of many of his voters, has played a consistent line. He is 100% for Oakland County and Oakland County alone.

When Patterson became county executive in 1992, Chrysler had just left Highland Park for Auburn Hills. Patterson made his political name, after all, fighting the regional busing of students to integrate schools between districts up in Pontiac and across Oakland County. He has been quoted as recently as two years ago as saying:

I made a prediction a long time ago, and it’s come to pass. I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is turn Detroit into an Indian reservation, where we herd all the Indians into the city, build a fence around it, and then throw in the blankets and corn.’

Hackel, though he has never been vile with words, is just as disingenuous, bringing his concerns to the table so late in the game.

This process has been going on for four plus years.

Regardless of the reason, it’s as if both counties’ representatives, along with those from other counties and many staffers, knowingly or unknowingly, spent years on this process only to have it fall apart at the end. That’s a shame.

So here’s the thing. We’ve read the comments — someone who lives by near Lake Orion saying they’ll never ride it and they love their woods and why should they have to pay for it, another out in Macomb Township who sees it as pointless. Many more.

Majority of Macomb and Oakland Counties, you don’t want to get the benefit? Fine.

Maybe Wayne and Washtenaw should go it alone.

Before you say, wait that doesn’t connect everyone — no, it doesn’t. But the track record shows we’re not going to get a regional deal on transit, and people need some action now. And it’d be an improvement on what we have.

We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, as we’ve asked for a date with real regional transit nearly 30 times and we’ve been told just as many times, no.

It’s time to stop sulking and find a different date to the prom.

The future is in mass transit, and almost every other major region has realized this. Business leaders, with a letter cosigned by a bunch of executives, realize this. Workers need this. Seniors, too.

Locally, you can see the ridiculous amount of development happening up Woodward around the QLine, and that’s basically a simple streetcar. You know about the talent attraction element, where young people want to be by transit and prefer to live by places that have it. There could be much, much more.

Let’s lead by example.

Wayne and Washtenaw teaming up might be the “Way-te-go” (putting the county names together), and the businesses, residents, and investment will start to flock toward good infrastructure.

Open Arms To Neighbors

If a city outside of the transit zone wants to play — like Ferndale, whose Mayor Pro Tem Melania Piano showed strong support for regional transit at the board meeting today, they should be able to. Create an opt-in provision for areas outside of Wayne and Washtenaw, who should all be put into the new Way-te-go.

Some benefits that could be realized:

  1. Airport connector between Ann Arbor, Ypsi, Dearborn and Detroit. Who wants their corporate headquarters not connected to the transit hub? Wayne and Washtenaw businesses would be put at an immediate advantage over their Oakland and Macomb County neighbors that don’t opt-in.
  2. Commuter service between Ann Arbor, by some accounts the smartest city in the nation, and Detroit.
  3. Improved service inside Wayne and Washtenaw for residents.
  4. Business attraction: Talking to multiple corporate site planners over the last few years, transit is a huge bonus. Businesses will locate near transportation, and there’s plenty of space for them to do so in Wayne and Washtenaw counties, from Ypsi to Downriver to the city itself.
  5. Resident attraction: The areas with good transit will do better than those without and will be more attractive to young talent.
  6. Assuming Ferndale plays in the sandbox, we could get transit from one booming downtown to another. Maybe Super QLine to 9 Mile (but hopefully faster traveling).
  7. Attraction of federal and state funds.
  8. A clear direction forward with clear governance that does not have too many cooks in the kitchen.

Yes, Oakland County and Macomb’s tax bases provide a lot of money. But a rightsized plan can be done without them paying in or getting serviced, and it’s clear the headache isn’t worth it. At least two million people having good transit is better than five million having basically nothing, and maybe in the future, new and more receptive leadership will come along.

Yes, it would require a rethink. But that’s already what’s being called for — a scrapping of the governance structure, which might require a scrapping of the state law. Patterson in a priceless three page statement today said he wants to go all the way back to the legislature as well.

So instead of playing kabuki theatre, let’s just work with people who actually want to get it done instead of kicking the can farther and farther down the road.

We can of course, cooperate in some areas. The Zoo, Cobo, DIA. Those are deals where everyone feels there’s a benefit. That’s fine and dandy. They are important and valuable. However, the numbers for those projects are also small compared to the regional transit plan.

When it comes to transit, let’s build a coalition of the willing that shares the same vision instead of a dream coalition of the impossible. Because dreams of transit don’t get you to work on time, real transit does.