Today, of course, is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And if you know your history, you know that the event that brought him to prominence was the boycott ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the only form of mass transit available to the working poor in many places then. What’s shocking is that nearly 60 years later, metropolitan Detroit lacks any kind of reliable transportation system. Detroit has bus service, but it is not very reliable.
Nor does it connect well to SMART, the suburban bus system. Last spring John Hertel, SMART’s general manager, told me that of the nation’s 30 top metro areas, we are the only one without easy mass transit from the major airport to downtown. There are also many people without cars. And there are jobs in the suburbs that could be filled by jobless Detroiters if they had an efficient way to get to work, but they don’t. Then last year, there was finally hope this might change. Gov. Snyder signed a bill creating a new Rapid Transportation Authority, or RTA, to build a new fast bus system to service Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. These are buses that look like train cars and would travel in their own special lanes. You could take one to the airport or to Ann Arbor. They would also connect with existing bus systems. The cost would be no more than a few hundred million, and the federal government would pay half. The only sticking point was the need for voters in the four counties to fund the bus service. Hopes went up when John Hertel himself was named as the first CEO of the new transit authority. Hertel is a political veteran of many campaigns, and a longtime supporter of mass transit. He is a rare Democrat who can work with and be trusted by Republicans, and a man who knows how to run millage campaigns. But last week came shocking news. Hertel had decided to leave the RTA and return to SMART. He said only that he wanted to make sure an important SMART millage passes later this year. This was hugely dismaying for the future of public transportation. After a little digging, I pieced together what happened. The Legislature promised to provide funds so Hertel could hire the needed transportation experts to figure out how all this would work. We are talking probably less than $3 million. But it never happened. Eventually, Hertel became frustrated. This is a tragedy in many ways. The federal government would have paid half the cost. Once again, it looks like Michigan will leave hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars on the table. Once again, we will have shot ourselves in the foot and made the state economically less competitive.It’s hard to believe that the governor can’t find $3 million or so to see this project through. If I were Rick Snyder, I would consider calling my NERD fund buddies, rounding up the money, and then calling Hertel and persuading him to reconsider. This may be the only chance we’ll ever have for affordable and realistic mass transit for this area in our lifetimes.