INTRO: The state legislature formed and partially funded a regional transit authority in 2012. Metro Detroiters need better mass transit. Republicans and democrats agree on this. But riders are still suffering while even republicans argue amongst themselves about how to fund it. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
Dan Dirks is the new director of the Detroit Department of Transportation: DDOT. In 2007, he retired from the suburban bus system SMART. Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation. He testified in front of the transportation subcommittee of the house appropriations committee. Representative Rob VerHeulen (R-Walker) is the chairman.
Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville) asked, “If you had a clean slate would you just have one bus system?”
Dan Dirks said:
“Employees, and folks on the outside, have approached me with the idea of merging. When two transit systems combine it usually takes on the characteristics of the worst of the two. What I think is most important whether a merger is part of it or not, DDOT needs to upgrade, buses on time, drivers going to work, all the good things a transit system should be. Then you can talk about possibly merging.”
A few minutes after the house meeting, the same committee in the state senate held a meeting. It was a joint meeting with the Senate Transportation Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation. The senators took testimony from Paul Hillegonds, the chairman of the regional transit authority or RTA. What does Hillegonds think of merging the city, suburban and Ann Arbor Area buses?
“This is a challenge that a single agency SMART, DDOT, the Ride, can not be expected to address on their own,” said Hillegonds. “It takes effective local financing and governance combined with regional funding and governance.”
The legislature created the RTA more than a year ago. The RTA hasn’t yet found permanent staff, nor enough money for them. And it delayed its campaign to convince voters to pay for better transit. A referendum will now be held in 2016 instead of this year.
Detroit Senator Morris Hood III said:
“Folks are beginning to realize that transportation is going to be the key in bringing back southeast Michigan.”
It took 24 tries before metro Detroit got an RTA. And activist Cindy Reese said her children and grandchildren are still asking: when will we see better transit?
“There are children standing on corners waiting on buses that never come. Children that are trying to get an education and can’t get it because they can’t get where they need to go. I’m asking you please today to think about this. Approve that supplemental so that we can move forward. And maybe that I have to use a cane to get on the bus I can still get on the bus.”
On Wednesday the legislature approved its supplemental funding bill. They failed to give $2 million for the RTA. But senators have promised to find it from other pots of money.
Bus service remains patchy for riders in the city. And for riders going from suburb to suburb. Woodward is metro Detroit’s main street. Bloomfield Hills is the wealthiest zip code along it. But that suburb opted out 3 years ago. Republican Senator John PappaGeorge is from Troy and represents Bloomfield Hills too. He’s upset that riders can’t get off the Woodward bus wherever they need to.
He chided RTA chairman Paul Hillegonds about not integrating bus service. And he chides the opt-out suburbs too. I asked PappaGeorge about that when the meeting ended.
“You can’t have people jumping off a moving bus because the locals decided they didn’t want to be part of the system. It’s time we just owned up to all this stuff.”
“So what are you telling Bloomfield Hills?” I asked.
“I’m telling everybody we’re going to go to a unified system. It’s going to take a while but if you don’t know where you’re heading every road is the right road.”
In 2012, Senator PappaGeorge gave a fierce speech to fellow republicans in a closed room. He convinced them to create the RTA. He said do it for morality. Do it for the economy. They did it. Now they’re being pressured to fund it.