Howes: Business, civic leaders making late plea for RTA

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Public transit advocates aren’t the only folks pressuring Oakland and Macomb counties to get on board.

A group of the region’s most influential business and civic leaders late Wednesday sent a letter to the respective county executives, urging them to “work through any open issues in the days ahead to ensure that the people … have the opportunity to vote on the regional transit plan.”

Emphasis here on “the people” and “opportunity to vote.” They can be quaint concepts easily sacrificed in an election year, especially if parochial political concerns threaten bureaucratic control and regional hegemony.

“Our employees live across the region,” the business and civic leaders write in their letter to Oakland’s L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb’s Mark Hackel. “Our facilities are located across the region. Our students come from across the region. Our ability to attract and retain talent is tied to what we have to offer as a region.

“It takes but a glance at successful regions across the nation to know that the issue before us is one of the most important regional issues of our lifetime. We have come too far, after too long, to see our best shot at regional transit in a generation fall before the people are able to decide.”

They’re right. Voters in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties deserve a shot to vote on a tax to support the $4.6 billion transit master plan over the next 20 years. It would include bus rapid transit, a commuter line between Detroit and Ann Ann Arbor and service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

It’s about time. RTA says 92 percent of the jobs in the region are not accessible by public transit; that regional transit spending per capita in 2014 was less than half of what Cleveland spends and a quarter of Chicago’s; that 73 percent of millennials want better access to mass transit — altogether a dismal picture.

The realization of RTA also would say that metro Detroit can learn from its past and chart a more appealing road to the future. That too many lack ready access to public transportation for rides to jobs and schools. That transit is a meaningful complement to — not competition with — the cars and trucks the Motor City designs and builds.

Macomb County’s Hackel doesn’t necessarily dispute any of that. But he says his county, and its taxpayers, risk losing a voice in the governance of the RTA if the ballot language is approved as is as early as Thursday — a move that he says would decrease the likelihood of its approval in November.

“I am not moving this forward as a spectator,” he said in an interview. “The region is supposed to be a team. You cannot have one player on the bench. What we’re asking for benefits us all, which is making sure we all have a voice moving forward.”

Hackel’s objections mirror his complaints during formation of the Great Lakes Water Authority in the wake of the Detroit bankruptcy. He detected an effort to steamroll opposition to the water authority and said so, winning himself both critics and supporters.

Times have changed, too, folks. Decades of dysfunction, mutual suspicion and too much bad faith delivered this region far more acrimony than results. For what — petty political advantage, substandard public services, continued racial division?

Credit the change to the bankruptcy of Detroit and the rationalization it delivered. Credit a mostly new generation of business, civic and political leaders that understands metropolitan areas aspiring to be vibrant need robust (and shared) infrastructure to meet public needs.

That includes regionalizing the water system with sufficient operational and fiscal safeguards for its members. That includes regional support for the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoological Society. And it should include a regional transit system in the place that helped put the world on wheels.

The irony speaks for itself. The heart of the American auto industry — you know, the people angling to bring “mobility to the masses” worldwide — claims one of the worst, most under-capitalized public transportation systems in the country. Two questions: What about the masses right here? And, second, isn’t that fact mildly embarrassing?

“The legislation that created the RTA requires any supporting millage to pass in a November general election, pushing the next opportunity to 2018 or 2020,” Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson, one of the signatories to the letter, said in an e-mail. “The RTA plan ... addresses the decades-old mobility crisis that will continue to plague our region if the issue is not permitted to go before voters.”

This is an opportunity too important to squander — or shove down the throats of elected officials like Hackel who have an obligation to safeguard the financial interests of the taxpayers they represent.

Regional leaders have demonstrated an ability in recent years to craft new solutions to old problems ... with Cobo Center, the water department, even the bankruptcy itself. The RTA is no different, and just as important in determining what metro Detroit can become.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.