Regional transit bill passes Senate
By Zenobia Jeffries
The Michigan Citizen
LANSING — Supporters of regional transportation are a House vote away from seeing many years of hard work and dedication toward the measure materialize.
The State Senate passed the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) bill package Nov. 27, with strong bipartisan support. The bills are now going to the House of Representatives with hopes of success.
Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, a sponsor of the bills, said he immediately went to his colleagues in the House to garner the votes starting with those who supported the regional transportation effort.
“We are finally moving forward as a region and a state by taking this step toward the creation of an RTA (for southeastern Michigan),” Johnson stated in a press release following the vote. “After decades of stalled attempts, characterized by bitter partisanship and territorial disputes, I am pleased to say we are closer than ever to achieving the goal of building a functional mass transit system, competing for federal transit dollars and bringing southeastern Michigan into the 21st century.”
Nationwide, Southeastern Michigan is the only metropolitan region without a comprehensive regional transit system.
Federal transit funds are unavailable to areas without an RTA and, as a result, Michigan has been known for years as a “donor state” in Washington, D.C, according to Johnson.
“As we’ve seen in communities across the country, building an RTA will be a catalyst for job creation, private investment and economic growth,” Johnson said. “It is the best example of government creating an atmosphere that supports job creation rather than endeavoring to create jobs itself. This system will meet the needs of our citizens and expand business opportunities.”
Johnson said he is hopeful the House will pass the legislation swiftly so it can be signed by the governor before the end of the year.
In a WDET radio interview, Johnson said he remains optimistic about the House vote. If the bill package dies in the House this session, legislators will have to start from the beginning at the next legislative session.
He was not available for comment at press time.
Transportation Riders United (TRU) has lobbied for mass transit for decades. They summarized what the RTA would do. It would coordinate transit in the four-county region; plan, fund and operate a Rolling Rapid Transit service along Woodward, Gratiot and Big Beaver / M-59, plus a link between Detroit, the airport and Ann Arbor.
The RTA would propose to voters a new regional vehicle registration fee to pay for improved transit and create a citizens’ advisory committee including riders, seniors and people with disabilities.
According to TRU, the RTA legislation provides that it be run by a professional staff and governed by a Board made up of two people appointed by each county, one appointed by Detroit and one non-voting appointee of the governor.
The North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) wants Board representation to be weighted toward areas with the most public transit riders. The transit advocacy group wants to amend the RTA to have an 11-member Board, with two representatives from Detroit.
“It’s only fair that Detroit, the city with the most at stake in terms of both riders and resources, have fair and adequate representation on the Regional Transit Authority,” said Rev. Joan Ross, NEWCC director. “Detroit bus riders need seats at the table. The RTA should be focused on providing safe, reliable transportation and not just used as a tool for developing real estate.”
One House Representative, Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, says he won’t be voting for it.
“As of right now, I’m against it,” Santana told the Michigan Citizen.
Santana says he submitted a letter Oct. 8 to Mayor Dave Bing, Gov. Rick Snyder and the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, with “no less than 65 questions” specifically related to the RTA and did not receive a response, although each acknowledged receipt of his letter.
“I know transportation,” said Santana, who’s worked on and with a number of transportation entities including DDOT, border crossing and the NITC. “I think this is a really bad time to try to push something like this on Detroit.”
Of the 60- plus questions, Santana said one of his main concerns is funding.
“They’re talking about doing some kind of millage or property tax or registration fee,” he said. “If you take a $30,000 car at $1.20 (registration fee) per thousand dollars, that’s $36 per year on a vehicle. That’s a lot when representing a family living off a little of $20,000 a year. Why put a financial burden on folks?”
Santana says, in addition, the route is not practical or ideal.
“What they’re proposing is a triangle. It only works if it’s taking people where they want to go,” he said. “Who on the west side of Detroit is going to benefit from that? If you really want to make a difference in Detroit, look at lowering car insurance rates because of massive redlining.”
Santana says it’s not realistic that the citizens he represents will benefit from what the bill package proposes.
“A city that went from 1.8 million people to 700,000. Who’s going to use it? What are the ridership numbers? If people don’t see the use, they’re not going to use it. Why should I vote for it and create more financial hardship for people that I represent?”
In the Senate, Coleman Young, II shared Santana’s opposition but for different reasons.
“I voted against it because, in the legislation, they have condemnation power,” Young said.
“They can take property in any area.”
Most transit authorities have such powers, according to one transit consultant who worked on the Los Angeles transit authority.
Young says, with the redesign efforts of projects like the Detroit Works Project, he believes the RTA can this be used as a tool to further accelerate the plan and process to move people out of their homes.
“I feel that elected officials should have condemnation power, not representatives of an authority,” Young said.
Although he admits a regional transit authority would be a great thing for Detroit and the southeastern region and state as a whole, he says that one piece “is the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“I don’t see why you would give appointees the authority to take people’s property,” he said.
“Who can (the people) hold accountable?”
Contact Zenobia Jeffries at email@example.com