Commentary: Whatever happened to the fast buses?

Mar 22, 2013

Back in December, when the legislature stunned Michigan by making this a right to work state, the drama over that drowned out another hugely significant development. The lawmakers approved a Regional Transit Authority for the Detroit Metropolitan area, finally paving the way for a system of fast buses with their own special lanes and a long-overdue coordination of city and suburban bus systems.

But there’s been little publicity about the project since. Earlier this week, I talked to the two men who know most about it. Paul Hillegonds, who the governor appointed to head the new RTA, and John Hertel, now the general manager of SMART, the suburban bus system. Both told me things were on track.

Hertel has been fighting for regional solutions and for some sensible mass transit for decades, over a long career that has included three terms in the state senate and time spent running the Michigan State Fair and various environmental agencies. He wrote the original plan for the RTA, which the legislature passed after 23 failed attempts over many years.

Hertel may not be able to say exactly when the first fast buses will be up and running, but he can tell you when he first became interested in mass transit. It was back in April, 1956, when he was nine years old, and his parents took the family for a ride on a Detroit streetcar. That was the streetcars’ last day.

That night, his grandmother told about how as a girl seamstress in Detroit, she used to take an electric railway called the interurban to see her family in Port Huron on the weekend.

“The 50’s were an era when we thought everyone was rich enough to own a car,” Hertel said. Today, however, more than a third of Detroit adults don’t have access to a car. The Detroit bus system is old, not always reliable, and not well coordinated with SMART.

Getting to jobs across county lines is sometimes virtually impossible. The RTA should change all that. Buses that look more like train cars will zip along special lanes as quickly as light rail could. But this isn’t a done deal. Paul Hillegonds told me a complete board has finally been appointed, and will have its first meeting April 10.

The last big hurdle is funding. Voters in all three counties will have to approve money for it, either through millages or some other fee. The cost shouldn’t be astronomical, however, and the federal government will match what we spend. John Hertel thinks if something gets on the ballot next year, the fast buses could be up and running by late 2016.

Ironically, this might not have happened if not for right to work. The governor told lawmakers he wanted support for rapid transit in return. Ironically, it was passed almost entirely with GOP votes. Democrats, traditionally the biggest supporters of and beneficiaries from mass transit, weren’t for anything the governor wanted.

This should make a major difference, especially since the RTA will also be coordinated with existing bus systems for maximum efficiency. Making this work is absolutely essential for the area’s economic rebirth. Let’s hope we don’t blow this chance to get it done.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.