New RTA chief ready to sell transit
Dearborn – — The salesman in Michael Ford was on display here, shaking hands and rubbing elbows with those transportation advocates who have fought for more than a decade to give mass transit life in southeast Michigan.
Those attending a packed forum earlier this month in honor of the newly minted Regional Transit Authority CEO acknowledge his task is enormous.
He must convince voters to pass what will be a controversial millage to fund the agency and other projects in 2016. And he must convince public transportation providers, not used to working together, to join forces to improve and better coordinate service.
Ford made his pitch to those hungry for his assurance that success can happen: "I think there's an opportunity to do something right now," Ford told those assembled. "But it's going to take all of us in this room and people that you know to make this happen."
Ford, 53, officially began last month as the first executive of the new RTA, and is moving quickly. He's held countless meetings with political leaders and transportation advocates in Macomb, Wayne and Oakland — three of the four counties in the RTA. He has also met with the heads of all the transit agencies such as SMART and DDOT. Washtenaw County, where he was head of the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority, is the fourth in the RTA.
Ford has hired a chief operating officer and one assistant and plans to fill a few positions. He will outsource the creation of a website. This week he will help host his first one-day retreat with RTA board members, staff and others to begin to develop a vision for the RTA and strategy for an overall transit master plan.
"He's well-equipped. He's an excellent choice," said Timothy Fischer, the chief administrative officer of the M-1 Rail project on Woodward Avenue, who attended the transit forum at the Arab American National Museum. "He knows transit from a CEO's perspective, which is essential for this job. He's a smart and dedicated professional who's going to bring providers together and find a way to make all the providers in the RTA region work more effectively and efficiently in a coordinated fashion."
Ford, who succeeded in getting a millage passed last spring in Washtenaw County, said he wants to replicate his success in the previous job by using his skills to bring everyone together. One way, he said, is to achieve a unified fare card. Another is to have transit providers help each other bring more services to customers.
"I don't know if I consider myself a salesman. I believe in what I do," Ford said. "I've seen change. I've been a part of change. I've helped adapt change. I've been part of system that has done very well with transit. Ann Arbor is an example of that. It's not like I'm trying to sell it. I believe it because I've seen it transform a city."
"It's going to be, how do you bring a region as diverse as these four counties together around what sort of transit future we need and how transit can substantially improve our region," said Megan Owens, the executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit transit advocacy group that hosted the Ford meet-and-greet forum earlier this month. "His biggest challenge but also his biggest opportunity is to help bring the region together around what this system really needs to be. This is a very diverse region with a lot of very different needs and desires."
John Hertel, the general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, said he encouraged Ford to take the post after he turned it down. He believes Ford is a wise choice and has the experience needed to give the authority the direction and focus it needs.
"I know he's organized enough. I know he is the kind of person who is going to put the energy in," Hertel said. "I don't have any doubts about those kinds of things that are necessary. Everything I see was enough for me to tell him months ago that he should take the job. He's smart, he's a good listener and he's asking the right questions."
But Hertel said Ford's task is not going to be easy because valuable time has passed since the agency was created two years ago ago. It leaves Ford with less than two years to sell to the public the millage to fund the RTA and a bus rapid transit project from Detroit to Pontiac up Woodward Avenue.
Ford said success will happen "when everybody has weighed in" and made clear what they want to see in a new and improved transit system in which rail and bus service thrives and helps people get to jobs and recreation.
"You've got to try and deliver. It can't be just about talking," Ford said. "We can do that all day. A mechanic told me one time, don't tell us, show us. The point is getting appetizers out there, showing some improvement, getting people to believe."