INTRO: Thursday evening, the Michigan House of Representatives approved a regional transit authority for Detroit, or RTA. A new agency will receive money and plan for light rail and bus rapid transit in Southeast Michigan. Most funding will come from vehicle registration. The US Secretary of Transportation has said he would withhold $25 million if no RTA was established. Now that appears set to happen. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
People in their ‘20’s and ‘30’s who hear about bus rapid transit and the Woodward street car think they are new ideas. It does seem like they never existed. Because the last street cars were taken of the road in 1956. In Ferndale, along Woodward Avenue at 9 Mile, two bartenders at a place called the Emory are supportive.
“I think if it was mass transit running up and down the street 50 feet in front of our bar it would change things. More people means more things sold and better business for our business. I’d love to see mass transit in Detroit. Real mass transit.”
Second bartender says:
“Yes I would love to be able to take a bus downtown and not have to be able to worry about driving and parking and all that fun stuff.”
Governor Snyder’s staff has been trying to get a regional transit authority since early 2011. He’s expected to sign the bills into law Tuesday. Republican Paul Opsommer chairs the house transportation committee. They approved the bills so the whole house could vote on them.
“I shocked everybody. I think they all thought that we couldn’t get it out and that the dems would carry it and there would only be two votes maybe on our side. You know we’re very proud of it. We think Detroit’s very important. I think all of Southeast Michigan is very important to the state of Michigan.”
Opsommer grew up on Detroit’s east side and never went back. He’s lived in the Lansing suburb of Dewitt Township for thirty years. He supports the Tea Party. So why would he support such urban infrastructure?
“Ok well I don’t know how to respond. Yes I do work very well with the Tea Party. We get along very, very well. I guess I see public transit as something that can be viable and operational.”
For 40 years, suburban politicians have refused to allow a mass transit system into their communities. In the last 5 years, Detroit transit advocates have pressured them to change. Paul Opsommer has now used state power to satisfy their demands.
“What we’ve done here today is simply put together the structural framework that their mass transit system can be constructed within at their request. They now have to build that system. We’re outside of it now. We’ve said OK Southeast Michigan this is what you wanted the statutory authority to do. Go do it. So if you don’t see that train in ten years that’s the local units of governments’ fault. They couldn’t get together to make this work. So we’ve kicked the football down the field. It’s now theirs.”
Not everyone is satisfied with the RTA bills. Democrats supported them until this week. But they refused to vote for them Wednesday and Thursday in protest over right to work legislation. The house leadership marshaled enough republican votes to pass the bills anyway. Ann Arbor democrat Jeff Irwin got elected on his pro-transit position.
“When we’re crafting legislation to support public transit agencies that legislation shouldn’t be specific as to what technology is used to meet our transit needs. Unfortunately, because the governor has decided that buses are the best and cheapest way to meet our transit needs in Southeast Michigan they wrote legislation that is designed to deploy quote a rapid bus network.
“But for those of us in Washtenaw County who’ve been working on this issue for many, many years, we know that the most cost effective solution is to use the existing railroad tracks that the state is in the process of purchasing from Norfolk-Southern. So to see an exclusion for rail put into the bill was very disappointing to me.”
The Woodward Street Car will run on three miles of rail downtown. But rail reaching into the suburbs will need unanimous approval from all RTA board members. As few as two of the ten members could come from the City of Detroit. But regardless, this was an historic vote.