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Editorial: Transit plan more attractive with compromise

The Detroit News

Sometimes, being a little uncooperative in regional matters is the right thing to do. That certainly is the case with southeast Michigan’s Regional Transit Authority, which two weeks ago looked dead on arrival but was rescued with some old-fashioned political hardball.

The result is an agreement that is fairer and has a better chance of approval when it goes before voters in November.

Accusations of Detroit antipathy and veiled racism were thrown carelessly about when Macomb and Oakland counties teamed to deny the RTA tax a place on the ballot. The two counties had several legitimate concerns about how the authority would make decisions and how its funds would be allocated. But they were lost in the narrative that this was just another Detroit versus suburbs fight.

It turned out to be something very different. Macomb and Oakland came back to the table last week with the other RTA partners, Washtenaw and Wayne counties and the city of Detroit, and got much of what they had asked for before the last vote. And in doing so, they made the pact better and less difficult to sell to voters who may wonder why the region needs yet another transit authority and transit tax. Among the changes:

■Oakland County secured more funds for 40 communities, mostly in its north end, that have opted out of the SMART suburban bus system. Originally, they were to receive just $79 million over 20 years; the revised deal bumps it to $118 million. That’s still way short of the $700 million those cities and townships will be paying under the 1.2-mill transit tax over the next two decades, but is a marked improvement. Concessions in how the growth in property values is calculated could add to that amount.

■Rather than a simple majority to approve financial decisions, the authority will need one vote from each community. Each county gets two votes and Detroit gets one. This will force the communities to work together, and prevent them from forming alliances to skew the funding balance.

■At least 85 percent of all funds raised in each county will be spent there, including federal and state transit funds. Previously, just the RTA millage was guaranteed to be distributed that way.

■The QLine in Detroit will have to stick to its original pledge of not tapping into regional transit funds for operations until after 2027. Previously, it could have appealed for funds to cover operating deficits as early as 2020.

It is a more equitable agreement now. And as an Oakland official said, it at least has a chance of getting support from the 540,000 residents in the SMART opt-out communities who were looking at such a poor return.

The obstacles to the RTA had little to do with racism or hostility to Detroit, but rather were rooted in the basic flaws of its structure.

As formed, the authority lends itself to competition among the four independent transit systems it will serve—SMART, Detroit Department of Transportation, the QLine and the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.

The various systems, and their various millages, should have been merged into a cohesive regional transit authority. But federal labor law worked against that sensible idea by requiring unions to approve any mergers.

So now, all four agencies will be jockeying for funding advantages and defending their own interests. At least with the compromise forced by Macomb and Oakland, there’s a chance that fairness will prevail.