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One more chance for mass transit

Aug 4, 2016

For years, hardworking, far-seeing people from both parties have been trying hard to come up with a mass transit plan that makes sense for metropolitan Detroit.

This is not, incidentally, something that’s been pushed primarily by environmentalists, though they are enthusiastically supportive. Intelligent, enlightened business interests know how badly the area needs a better way to get people to jobs.

Two winters ago, the nation was mesmerized by the story of James Robertson, the Detroiter who walked 21 miles every day to a $10-an-hour job in the suburbs. Admiring fans soon made it possible for him to buy a car.

But that didn’t do anything to help the tens of thousands of others in Detroit and elsewhere who have no car and no practical way to get to work. The city and suburban bus systems don’t mesh in any reliable way. There is, of course, no other mass transit.

Detroit is, as executives often remark, the nation’s only major city where there is no mass transit of any kind from the major airport to the heart of downtown. More than 20 major mass transit plans have failed over the years, once by a governor’s veto.

But then, in one of his rare legislative successes, Governor Rick Snyder got the Legislature to agree almost four years ago to create a Regional Transit Authority, or RTA. They came up with a reasonable, sensible mass transit plan for Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. Central to the plan would be a fleet of high-speed buses that resemble railroad cars, which would have their own special lanes.

They would also connect the city and suburban bus systems, and for the first time create a reliable service network. RTA officials decided to put this on the ballot this November, and ask property owners to pay a new 1.2 mill tax to build and run the system.

The transit plan wouldn’t have to win in every county to take effect, just get an overall majority of the vote. But then last week, the plan was unexpectedly torpedoed by the executives of Oakland and Macomb counties, Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel.

They gave flimsy excuses, saying the plan didn’t do enough for their counties. But it was clear this was all about power and control.

That night, I happened to see Paul Hillegonds, a former Republican speaker of the house who is chair of the RTA, and he was uncharacteristically discouraged. But earlier this week, the board and the politicians reached a compromise which provides a little more money to service Oakland County, and gives both counties a veto power over future financial decisions.

Neither executive said they planned to campaign hard for the RTA, but that may not matter. The 77-year-old Patterson alienates as many as he inspires, and it is well known that his idea of mass transit is adding more lanes to I-75. Hackel did say it makes sense for Macomb.

But what needs to happen now is for business leaders to speak up and indicate to everyone that the RTA is essential if Michigan has any hope of being competitive.

Our economic future is really at stake, and for once, residents have a chance to bypass the politicians if they will just bother to vote.

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