INTRO: Bus riders in and around Detroit have reason to be hopeful despite cuts to service by more than 50% over the last few years. The state legislature created the Detroit Regional Transit authority in 2012. Wednesday the RTA got a director. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports.
The regional transit authority board is made up of professionals in areas other than mass transit. And the board is all volunteer. They feared that if they didn’t snag a CEO to run the RTA then the legislature would kill funding for good. And mass transit would never improve. It took a year and a half to hire the first director… 52 year old Michael Ford.
“Started off as a janitor at Greyhound many years ago.”
Ford has run the Ann Arbor Transit Authority for the last 5 years. Before that he managed transit systems in California, Oregon and his native Washington State. Does he focus on policy or operations?
“I get out and kick the tires. I ride the buses and talk to the folks. You have to do a little bit of both. It’s a balancing act. I don’t want to just sit in an office and pontificate. I want to be out there and see what’s happening and feel it for myself. That’s the best view: talk to people who are actually doing the work.”
In May, Michael Ford helped get voters to approve more bus service in Washtenaw County. He’s African-American but not daunted by the white power structure symbolized by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.
“I think that everybody can agree that transportation is important. It’s just how it gets used. It has great benefit. I call it the common denominator in the community. It brings economic development. It helps bring people into businesses. It brings people into jobs. I think everybody can see the value in that. Business communities and others. If you look at the millage passages, Washtenaw County and recently Oakland, Wayne and Macomb. I think Oakland was the highest. So there is opportunity there. I don’t think it’s not dead. Things are changing with millenials. It’s not the same as when you and I were growing up.”
“Detroit’s argument is still heavily based on economics, race and location. It just never got beyond that and it’s tragic.”
Larry Salci was a finalist a year ago for the RTA CEO job Michael Ford just got. From 1976 to 1981, Salci ran SEMTA, the bus system in Detroit. He came from Chrysler and the Budd Trucking Company. After SEMTA he oversaw manufacturing of 3,000 rail cars. He saved the St. Louis mass transit system. Salci has worked with every U.S. Transportation secretary from the time President Gerald Ford offered Detroit $600 million for a new system. He grew up in Warren He lays out the management problems.
“They’ve got to get the mechanics maintaining those buses, getting them back in operable order. Then they got to deal with service policy standards to get a reasonable level of service back on the street. They have major security issues that have to be done simultaneously. We had security problems here in St. Louis, mainly with the high school gangs. I had to hire 20-25 under cover police officers.”
Salci says that broken buses are bad for passengers and too good for bus drivers.
“The way it works if a bus driver shows up and they don’t have a bus to drive they sit there. They get paid.”
Last year, the RTA board chose veteran politician John Hertel for the job. Hertel held onto his existing job for 4 months before saying he wouldn’t take the RTA job.
University of Michigan political science professor Liz Gerber represents Washtenaw County on the RTA board.
“In the straw vote I expressed my preference for Salci and in the final vote I voted for Hertel.”
Professor Gerber thinks Michael Ford will make up for the mistake of choosing Hertel instead of Salci. She thinks Ford’s being African-American will help not hurt.
“He is incredibly collaborative. He understands what collaboration means and how it works. He is thoughtful. He listens well. He has a passion for what he does. He’s incredibly smart. He has the technical expertise. He’s fabulous. He’s my ideal candidate.”
Ford will make $200,000 a year. His organization’s budget will be $1 million. After that, transit money is supposed to come from voters agreeing to raise their taxes.