Image via WikipediaDetroit lawmaker to introduce bills to establish regional mass transit authority
12:45 pm, December 16, 2009
By Bill Shea
State Rep. Bert Johnson will introduce legislation Thursday that would establish a regional mass transit authority for metro Detroit despite concern from Mayor Dave Bing’s administration.
Johnson, D-Detroit, said he wants the bills introduced before the Legislature leaves for the year at the end of the week, saying that federal transportation funding will be lost to elsewhere if action isn’t taken soon.
“I don’t think we can waste any more time, with other states and cities competing for those dollars,” he said.
Bills that would set up the authority to govern a system of improved and new bus and rail service throughout Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and in the city of Detroit, have been in the works for months.
The legislation sets up a board with members appointed by the Detroit mayor, the elected executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the governor. In turn, the board would hire a CEO to run the system on a daily basis.
The bills also set up the authority’s ability to levy a tax to run the system, but only after voter approval.
The legislatively-approved legal authority is needed to qualify for federal transportation dollars to finance and operate the regional system, which is the brainchild of local transit czar John Hertel. His proposed system of more than 400 miles of buses and trains would cost $10.5 billion over 25 years, but elements would only be deployed as ridership demand dictated.
The mayor of Detroit and executives from the three counties — jointly the Regional Transit Coordinating Council but dubbed the Big 4 — hired Hertel in 2006 to run their regional mass transit effort.
In December 2008, they approved the initial plan and directed Hertel to develop ideas for governing and financing the system.
The three counties were able to reach an accord on the bulk of the proposed legislation, but the city objected because the 65-35 city-suburbs percentage split of federal transit funding set up in the 1980s would be replaced in the new legislation by tradition state and federal formulas.
“The city is right to be concerned for that. That’s a very valid point,” Johnson said, but added that it was something that needed to be worked out in the legislative process rather than delaying the bills altogether.
“These are imperfect ideas we hope to make more perfect” through negotiations during work group and committee meetings, he said.
Johnson has been negotiating with Detroit CFO Norm White, who still oversees the city’s transportation concerns. White couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hertel said he was “thrilled” the bills are finally being introduced, but much work remains ahead.
“I won’t feel satisfied, nor will be needs of the community be satisfied, until we get this signed into law,” Hertel said.
The regional transit system — which includes but is still organizationally separate from a $300 million public-private effort to build a light rail on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue — would be federally funded, with state and local dollars contributing to both capital and operational costs.
The estimated annual base operating cost of the system, if built entirely, would be $293 million. The plan, the product of a $400,000 regional transit study by Kansas City-based transportation consulting firm TranSystems Corp., is 406 miles of improved buses and routes, light rail and commuter trains.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, during an October speech to the Detroit Economic Club, said metro Detroit needed to set up a regional system if it truly wanted to compete for federal money — a fact Johnson said fuels the urgency to get the bills introduced.
“We have to get out regional act together, then get federal money,” he said.
A message was left for Oakland County’s Patterson, who has expressed concern about the proposed legislation in the past.
The RTCC acts as a pass-through for federal money for the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus systems, but it is not the type of legal entity needed to manage a regional transit system.
Hanging over the regional system effort is the memory of the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority, which died after legal challenges by local transit unions. The Michigan Supreme Court in May 2006 declined to hear an appeal of a 2005 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that found DARTA was not legally established.
Hertel has said organized labor has been part of the current system’s discussions in an effort to ensure there isn’t a repeat of the DARTA situation.
© 2009 Crain Communications Inc.