February 17, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Detroit area transit project stuck in neutral

Regional effort lacks steam without leader, funding bid in limbo

The Regional Transit Authority plans to debate this week a funding question for the area's bus service. Its board has recommended waiting to put a plan before voters. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

It was supposed to be the year of momentum for the agency tapped to coordinate the area’s bus service, with organizers hoping to make a splash with a new CEO and an ambitious agenda that would put a funding initiative on the ballot this fall.

But today, the Regional Transit Authority — still without a leader more than a year after it was formed by the state Legislature — is at a crossroads: Ask voters for money this fall, or wait until 2016 — giving more angst to mass transit supporters who are convinced the public will support paying for transportation improvements.

The RTA’s board meets Wednesday to debate the funding question. The authority’s executive board recommended waiting until 2016 to put a plan before the voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, a move the board is expected to support. But that could mean two years before the RTA has a dedicated funding stream at a time when supporters say it needs to be able to show progress on mass transit to convince voters to support a millage or higher vehicle fees.

“It’d be foolish to go to the ballot if we’re not ready,” said Dennis Schornack, the RTA’s de facto chief of staff, who is on loan from Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration to help the authority. “There’s a lot of reasons for choosing 2016 over 2014. Just timing for one thing. There could be a lot of competing things on the ballot. It’s probably not the best time.”

If the request for funding, which would also seek to pay for one or more bus rapid transit routes, goes before voters in November it would be on a crowded ballot that includes a race for governor, U.S. Senate and House races, campaigns for every seat in the state Legislature and statewide ballot initiatives, as well as local races. If it’s put on the 2016 ballot, it will fight for attention during a presidential election year, but the turnout might be higher.

By the legislation that created the RTA in 2012, any ballot initiative to fund the authority must be held in general election years only, officials said. Board members say they have at least enough grant money, more than $900,000, to cover expenses for the next few years.

Schorneck said he and the RTA board members realize “some of the disappointment is genuine” among mass transit supporters if the vote is delayed, but the smarter path may be to build a winning campaign in two years rather than risk losing at the polls the first time out in an ill-prepared effort.

Others who have been thirsting for improved transit for decades think the time is now — win or lose — and pro-transit supporters plan to march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit to the RTA meeting next Wednesday.

“The people of this region really can’t wait three years or four years for improved transit,” said Joel Batterman, the policy coordinator of Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength or MOSES, an advocacy group in Metro Detroit that has been lobbying for better transit for two decades.

“Even if the board opts not to go for the 2014 ballot measure,” Batterman said, “we need to see real improvements in the transit systems in this region, not only better coordinating the existing bus services and getting them to run on time, but also developing express service on those corridors that are discussed in the RTA legislation.”

Competition for resources

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, said with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and SMART on the ballot this year with millage requests in May and August respectively makes a funding request on the ballot this year arduous.

“If we were to go in November, that vote and request would be coming after campaigns on transit already this year,” Hillegonds said. “And that gets into potential competition for resources, not only financial, but the kind of organizational resources that you need for a campaign. In the end, voters will be asked to take a hard look at what am I being asked to support with my taxpayer dollars.”

In Grand Rapids, it took nearly a decade for backers to negotiate federal funding and get a millage passed in 2011 on the second try.

Hillegonds said the RTA still has to refine a master regional transit plan and continue initial planning for a bus rapid transit plan up Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Pontiac. That, as well as better coordination between all the transit agencies such as SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation, need to continue before the RTA takes a measure to the voters.

The bus rapid transit plan is envisioned to run along some of the area’s most heavily traveled roads — for example Woodward, Gratiot and Hall Road — to quickly move passengers from Detroit to the suburbs. It’s also looking at a route from downtown to Metro Airport and Ann Arbor.

“A 2016 vote gives us the chance to fill in more of the detail on our service options ... and would then allow us to understand ourselves what the cost of service would be and how much we should ask for,” Hillegonds said. “Honestly, if we were to go in 2014, we wouldn’t have the kind of detail we need to even understand what we should be requesting.”

Critical time for transit

Advocates of transit point to a poll released last month and sponsored in part by Transportation Riders United and the University of Detroit Mercy that showed more than 85 percent of likely voters support improved public transit in Southeast Michigan.

“We believe that this is a critical time for the RTA board as well as transit advocates to not lose the momentum and have a plan of action going forward,” said Ruth Johnson, the assistant director of Transportation Riders United, a longtime advocate of bringing and expanding transit options in Metro Detroit.

Support dwindled, however, to 67 percent when asked if likely voters would support a regional tax or fee to fund transit and to 45.9 percent if the election were held in November to raise the vehicle registration fee to $10 to $40 annually to help fund the RTA.

“I think it’s a powerful and positive statement that without even knowing what the money’s going to be spent on, without a CEO, voters in four counties overwhelmingly support taxing themselves for improved public transit,” Johnson said.

Michael Ford, the CEO of TheRide, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, said it is wise for the RTA board to wait so that “you can be methodical in your approach” and to “clearly defining the message and helping people understand” what you are asking the public to support.

“It may take a little bit longer but there will be more foundation that you’d have to create to help people move forward,” Ford said. “I know waiting’s tough. ... (but) sometimes it takes a while for it to marinate in people’s collective thoughts.”

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