Let voters decide fate of RTA plan

Michael Ford

Today the board of the Regional Transit Authority will decide whether voters in southeast Michigan will be presented with the opportunity in November to decide the future of a comprehensive regional transit system.

The plan that would go before voters has been under development for more than a year. The RTA has worked closely with elected leaders and community leaders and engaged the public with well over 100 public meetings. A draft plan was unveiled May 31, followed by six weeks in which we have solicited public comment on the plan. Both business and community leaders and grassroots participants positively responded that this is a historic opportunity to finally bring effective regional transit to Metro Detroit.

The board vote on whether to place the plan on the November ballot, originally scheduled for last Thursday, was postponed at the 11th hour due to some last-minute concerns raised by the Oakland and Macomb County executives.

The RTA has been working urgently in the intervening days to address the stated concerns with confidence that fair-minded people, working in good faith, can find ways to resolve outstanding issues.

A major concern voiced last week involved the provision in the state law creating the RTA that requires each county to receive at least an 85 percent return of transit tax funds raised in the county by the millage. The concern related to how that guarantee would be fulfilled. The RTA is required to adopt an annual budget that complies with state law, which means the 85 percent requirement must be implemented every year in the RTA annual budget.

In point of fact, the RTA will leverage enough state and federal funds so that each county actually will receive funds totaling more than 100 percent of what is raised by the millage.

As far as the plan’s Impact on SMART, it will provide SMART with $30 million in new funding annually. Those funds will implement new cross-county connector routes and other expanded service and increase frequency on key SMART cross-county routes by at least double and in many cases four-fold. In addition, the RTA plan is built on a “hold harmless” principle that protects and preserves existing state and federal funding allocated to SMART, DDOT and AAATA.

The plan also makes unprecedented investments in the flexible transit and shuttle services designed to serve areas in the northern and western part of our region where traditional bus service does not work. The RTA plan increases funding for these specialized transit services by one-third in the first year, grows it more than any other element of the plan, and targets it to these communities.

The RTA’s goal is to build a strong regional system. That can only be done if we protect and build upon the current systems. This is established clearly in the plan, as the financial model shows that the RTA actually forgoes state funding it would otherwise be entitled to receive in order to protect and preserve funding for the existing providers in the region, SMART, DDOT and AAATA.

Ultimately, the question before the board today is whether to give the voters of Southeast Michigan the opportunity to decide this region’s transit future. To the extent any questions remain, voters will have more than three months to study the plan in depth and ultimately make their own decision prior to Nov. 8.

The plan before the board today offers a fundamentally sound and fair approach to creating a regional transit system that would, after many decades of falling behind the rest of the country, put us in a position to compete on a more even footing with other parts of the country.

The great disappointment would be if one or two votes on a 10-member board denied the voters of Southeast Michigan the opportunity to decide this issue for themselves. If we cannot work together, and move forward together as a region, it will signify not that the RTA plan is deficient, but something much deeper about our capacity to function as a region.

But after more than a year of very intensive work involving regional leaders, community leaders, and grassroots community members, it is time to let the voters decide.

Paul Hillegonds is board chairman of the Regional Transit Authority. Michael Ford is CEO of the Regional Transit Authority.