Our Editorial: Start work on transit Round 3

The Detroit News
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel told The Detroit News that in his view, the Regional Transit Authority is dead for good.

Mackinac Island — A last-ditch offensive is underway here this week to cajole, seduce or shame Oakland and Macomb counties to drop their objections to a regional transit plan and allow the measure to go on the November ballot.

The effort has been ongoing since late last year, and Macomb Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland Executive L. Brooks Patterson have not budged. In fact, Hackel told The Detroit News that in his view, the Regional Transit Authority is dead for good.

If they bow to the pressure during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, great. Then the very hard work can begin on a hurry-up campaign to sell voters on raising their taxes in November by $5.4 billion over the next 20 years to build out the RTA.

But if they don’t, and that is the likeliest outcome, the focus must turn to meeting the immediate transportation needs in Metro Detroit, while looking ahead to crafting a new proposal for 2020 that better reflects a shared regional transit vision.

The near-term urgency is to move those who don’t own vehicles and aren’t well-served by buses to jobs and other vital destinations.

Car pools, ride sharing services, employer provided vans all must be expanded.

The city of Detroit is already at work to team with businesses on a series of mobility test programs. The project will explore, among other things, on-demand shuttle service and a low-cost car sharing program for specific Detroit neighborhoods.

Even without agreement on RTA funding, the suburban SMART bus system and the Detroit Department of Transportation can explore more partnerships to get city residents to jobs in the city and back home again efficiently.

The new SMART FAST buses offer limited stop service from Detroit to the suburbs along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues. That serves workers much better than regular buses that stop more frequently.

More of these innovative solutions must be applied. Those who are in desperate need of reliable transportation can’t wait until another stab is made at passing the RTA in two years.

Hackel suggests forgetting about the RTA and building a new regional system off the SMART platform, as was intended when the agency was formed.

But there are structural limitations to the SMART charter that make that difficult or it to be the answer to comprehensive regional transit.

The first step is a return to the Legislature to fix the flaws in the RTA. Lawmakers must agree to shrinking the four-county (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw) RTA coverage area to include only the densely populated communities.

As it stands, the RTA would apply its 1.5 mill tax to communities that won’t receive fixed line bus service, and many would be paying more for transit than they do to support their township operations.

Lawmakers could start by making coordination between SMART and the DDOT easier, allowing them to share more functions, and perhaps operate under a single administration.

Before SMART can effectively serve the function of an RTA, the law must be altered to prohibit any community within the regional service area from opting out. Too many large suburbs currently aren’t participating in SMART. Eventually Detroit must also be brought under its umbrella.

Obviously, a single transit system serving the entire four-county RTA area (Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw) funded by a single tax is preferable and more marketable to voters than four separate systems, each with its own funding mechanism.

But transit advocates have been unwilling to tackle the very hard work of tearing down the obstacles. Those mostly come in the form of federal labor law that imposes the most generous contract provisions offered by any of the individual systems on the new, combined authority.

The Mackinac palaver may not produce the outcome RTA backers are hoping for. But it should be the starting point for a more effective Round Three in the battle to bring sensible mass transit to Metro Detroit.