February 19, 2014 at 11:18 pm

Transit authority delays until 2016 asking voters to OK funding

From left Cindy Reese and Pat Hammer lead a group of 19 pro transit advocates including the group MOSES, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, and the Transportation Riders United march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the RTA meeting in downtown Detroit on Wednesday. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit— The Regional Transit Authority board voted unanimously Wednesday to delay seeking a ballot measure requesting a millage or vehicle fee increase to fund the RTA until 2016, against the hopes of some who supported a public vote this year.

Several public speakers from around the four-county region that makes up the authority tasked with coordinating the area’s mass transit services urged board members to trudge ahead because the need for better transportation is immediate.

But board members said going to the ballot in November would be premature without a CEO and winning strategy that takes time to formulate, and that losing the first time out would be damaging.

“I understand the frustration,” said Alma Smith, one of the board representatives from Washtenaw County. The board also includes members from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. “I also think it’s difficult when you lose your first millage ever.”

Meanwhile, the board voted to reopen the national search for a CEO, but not before passionate debate over whether the board should wait until the Legislature provides more money for the authority.

Last October, the board chose John Hertel, the general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), but he turned it down months later because of questions over funding.

While addressing the 20 or so members of the public who attended in support of putting a millage vote on the ballot this year, Smith said: “You’ve been rebuffed in your efforts. But doing it right is just as important as doing it. I know that’s a lot of disappointment. But in the end, the public will find that this is a solid decision.”

Those who spoke in favor of the ballot proposal this year were passionate that the board take improved transit service seriously.

Leo Hanifin, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy who has led a team studying mass transit in southeast Michigan, said a recent survey shows the majority of voters support improved transit and a future campaign should be built on that.

“I think that it’s unfortunate that we’re not moving forward with the ballot (initiative), but at the same time, given a good plan will yield a good result with the ballot,” Hanifin told the board.

Linda Franklin of Livonia told the board she might not need “public transportation to get me from my suburb destination to a place in Detroit,” but that others are not so fortunate “who daily depend on a city bus that might never arrive, a job interview, a school conference for their child or a needed doctor’s appointment.”

Board Chairman Paul Hillegonds said he supports the decision to wait until 2016 and that delaying the election this year allows time for the RTA to prove its worth.

“We owe the more detailed information about what they would be paying for,” Hillegonds said.

“And we have more planning work to do. We need a staff and funding in place to lay the groundwork for a winning campaign, and we shouldn’t go into a campaign with the idea of losing.”

Before the meeting, about 20 supporters of improved transit marched from the Rosa Parks Transit Center downtown to the site of the RTA board meeting.

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