INTRO: Transit advocates and the governor’s office are gleeful after the Michigan senate passed bills Tuesday to create a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan. The vote was 24 to 14. It could be the most significant step to solving metro Detroit’s public transportation problem in 40 years. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
The Regional transit authority would get funded by a license plate tax. It would create an agency to plan a bus and rail system. Washington says it won’t provide the $25 million it promised if the legislature doesn’t approve an RTA. And since the legislative session ends before Christmas a new legislature in January would have to get to know the issue all over again.
Republican Tom Casperson is head of the senate transportation committee. He grew up hauling logs for his family business in Escanaba. A year ago, he and Highland Park senator Bert Johnson, spent a day riding buses, shoulder to shoulder with black people.
“Maybe it was me. I stuck out a little bit. I didn’t quite fit. I didn’t know what it was. And maybe they knew senator Johnson so they tried to figure out what was going on. They were very open to talking with us. I never heard politics. They never brought up republican and democrat. They talked about and really were, I wouldn’t say begging, but they were sincere in asking for help. They felt the way it’s working right now is not working. Please help us were the comments we heard all the time.”
Casperson watched a woman with two children wait in the cold for 45 minutes. An hour before the vote Tuesday, the 26 republican senators had their say. Casperson said critics of the RTA were “vicious.” Troy senator John Pappageorge, who did two combat tours of duty in Vietnam, stood up and returned fire.
“Troy has 81,000 people living there. 120,000 people work in Troy. Of the 120,000 who work in Troy only 8,000 live in Troy. That means 112,000 people come to Troy alone for work not counting Birmingham and so forth.”
Troy has had a vicious internal fight over a transit center. Its current Amtrak station will expand and become easy to get to by bike, car and on foot. Troy’s mayor was recalled partly because she said the $6 million project was a waste, even though that federal money would go to another state anyway. Senator Pappageorge said he has been pro-transit for years.
“The reason for that transit center is to take people the last few miles to work when they jump off the light rail coming up Woodward. It would make no sense not to be able to take people all the way to their job. So that’s the transit center.”
“Now the RTA, I put an amendment in there that’s in the substitute that says the purpose of the RTA is to create a regional transportation ‘system.’ Otherwise RTA will look just like DARTA. It didn’t have a purpose. So we have to have a system in Southeast Michigan. And the idea that it’s too tough to do and so forth. No it isn’t. We put responsible people on the board to oversee this thing. We have to start looking at how we move people to and from work, play, entertainment whatever. The idea of do nothing I can’t understand that. Do we have to watch it closely? Do we have to make sure it’s working right? Absolutely. But do nothing is not an option here.”
The state house is expected to hold a vote by Christmas… before the end of lame duck session. House majority leader Jase Bolger is not twisting arms.
“There’s disagreement today on the RTA. So we need to see agreement in SE Michigan on the RTA. This is not something that Lansing wishes to do to SE Michigan. It’s something we would be interested in helping SE Michigan.
“So if the guys in the suburbs in the RTA say let’s do it then you’ll agree to it?” McCarus asked.
“I want to see an agreement within SE Michigan and within Detroit on what needs to be done within regional transit.” Bolger said.
Transit advocates have worked closely with the governor’s office. They’ve always been more worried about getting the house on board. Bolger is from Marshall, much closer to Detroit than the U.P. But hasn’t ever rode on a bus in Michigan’s largest city.