Finley: Transit plan a long shot for ’18

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Political deals tend to get made when they have to, even when negotiations leading up to the deadline seem hostile and hopelessly entrenched.

That’s why I’m not totally pessimistic about the possibility of Metro Detroit’s top leaders reaching a deal on a regional transit plan.

But, still, it doesn’t look good. I was at the Detroit Economic Club Big 4 luncheon last week in Cobo Center, where the four kahunas — Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans — were supposed to announce an agreement on a tax levy for the November ballot that would fund the Regional Transit Authority.

Instead, the four sat side-by-side, awkwardly attempting to engage in the good-natured banter that always marks this event, but clearly not feeling it.

In particular, Duggan’s hostility toward Patterson was barely veiled, and their exchanges on the transit plan and other issues were terse, bordering on tense.

I haven’t seen such an open city/suburb break since it was Coleman Young on stage with Patterson.

There’s one big reason to believe the parties can get over it and strike a bargain: The region’s economic future rests heavily on a comprehensive and workable transportation plan. And the RTA buses are the only option on the table. And there are several significant reasons a deal may never come together, including:

■From their DEC remarks, Hackel and Patterson remain unconvinced a broader bus system is the best way to meet the transportation needs of their residents. Patterson scoffed at previous transit efforts, noting the failure in the 1980s of the Silver Streak commuter train from Pontiac to Detroit. He also joked that on a recent QLine ride, he looked out the window of the street car and it was being passed by an old lady with a walker. Hackel argued the more urgent infrastructure need in Macomb is fixing roads and bridges. Both questioned whether suburban commuters would ride the new buses.

■There is already a SMART bus millage renewal on the November ballot. How likely are voters to support two, separate bus taxes?

■The business community, which will have to fund any campaign to pass the initiative, has issued a strict condition: They won’t spend their money unless the regional leaders not only endorse the plan, but actively campaign for it. They hope to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Patterson and Hackel OK’d the proposal that was narrowly defeated, but didn’t work on its behalf.

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, told me last week he thinks it is possible to reach an agreement all parties can support, but acknowledged there’s not much time left to get the ballot language written and mount an effective campaign for its passage.

A consultant funded by a private foundation has crafted a plan the RTA hopes meets many of the concerns held by Hackel and Patterson, some of them legitimate, by the way. The changes include shrinking the footprint so that communities not fully served by the RTA don’t have to pay the tax.

But whether the two suburban leaders can be convinced to fervently stump for a bus plan they believe in their hearts is the wrong solution for the region remains a long shot.

Catch The Nolan Finley Show weekdays 7-9 a.m. on 910 AM Superstation.