Regional Transit Agency reaches agreement to hire head of Ann Arbor authority

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Michael Ford has reached an agreement to become the Regional Transit Authority’s first CEO, taking a job at an agency that will seek a tax increase in two years to fund improved transit options and help shape transportation goals in an area wed to cars.

Ford, the CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, will make $200,000 annually as part of a three-year deal, according to two sources familiar with the talks. It’s a bump from his current salary of $185,000.

If the RTA board approves the agreement Wednesday, the earliest he could start would be mid-October because Ford has to give his Ann Arbor employer 60 days notice under his contract.

RTA Chairman Paul Hillegonds said he’s pleased he has an agreement with Ford, with whom he has been negotiating along with lawyers.

“I believe Michael Ford is going to provide terrific leadership for the Regional Transit Authority and that’s based on his experience at all levels of public transit,” Hillegonds said. “He’ll work well with the other providers in the region and ultimately will allow us to enhance transit throughout southeast Michigan.”

Hillegonds said he couldn’t discuss the details of the contract because the board hasn’t seen it. But Ford’s $200,000 annual salary will be more than what Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan makes at $166,487, or Gov. Rick Snyder at $159,300. But it will be below Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr’s $275,000.

RTA officials contend his salary, which was increased because Ford’s Ann Arbor board tried to keep him, is commensurate with other transit CEOs running agencies with a population base over 100,000.

Ford’s decision to accept the RTA board’s offer comes three months after it was offered. The board’s first choice last year — SMART General Manager John Hertel — turned down the post after a debate ensued over what money was available to hire staff.

Ford faces many challenges in an area that has resisted regional transportation for decades. They include assembling a staff with a shoestring budget, helping to better coordinate services among the region’s transit providers and convincing voters in Macomb, Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties that a property tax hike is needed to fund RTA operations and the Bus Rapid Transit project up Woodward from Detroit to Pontiac.

“It will be challenging, no question. But Michael has shown through his service in Washtenaw County the importance of having a vision and implementing that vision,” Hillegonds said.

Ford, 52, said Tuesday he was reluctant to talk about the contract because the RTA board hasn’t voted.

“I’d like to not be presumptuous,” he said. “I want to be respectful of the process” as well as his current job.

“I would like to see it be done and that it’s out of the way and it’s no longer out there,” he said of the deal. “Obviously it’s a very exciting opportunity.”

When asked what took so long to work out the deal, Ford replied, “It’s a new situation. I think both parties wanted to make sure they have their ducks in a row and good things sometimes take a little longer.”

Board members are expected to approve the contract Wednesday; they unanimously voted in May to choose Ford for the post.

Megan Owens, the director of the transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said Ford’s high salary shouldn’t be the issue, but rather the task he has ahead of him to sell transit options to a region used to cars.

“He is in many ways taking a career risk to try to bring the Motor City together around regional transit when we all know how many times it’s failed,” Owens said. “It’s important that he be fairly compensated but even more so I think it’s important to move on and look at what are the tasks ahead in terms of understanding what the needs and interests are of this broad region.”

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