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Regional transit plans stall in state Legislature

By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 30, 2012

On a cold day late last fall, state Sen. Thomas Casperson (R–Escanaba), arrived at a Detroit Department of Transportation station to buy a handful of bus tokens. Joined by state Sen. Bert Johnson (D–Detroit), the pair spent 11 hours riding the buses around Detroit and its surrounding suburbs to get a better understanding of the challenges of the city’s public transportation.

Casperson and Johnson are proponents of creating a Regional Transit Authority that would integrate the public transportation systems of the counties surrounding Detroit, including Washtenaw County, under one administrative body. The bill, which has passed in the Senate, now faces challenges moving forward amid the current lame-duck state House of Representatives.

While Casperson said he is optimistic about the bill’s passage, he acknowledged that getting the required votes will be difficult.

“The only way to make this work is it has got to be regional,” Casperson said. “There’s got to be buy-in from the whole region, not just Wayne County or Detroit. That’s been kind of the struggle all the way through this thing.”

While the proposal has received its fair share of opposition, Casperson said it is not primarily based around party lines and there has been bi-partisan support.

Much of the opposition has emerged in Washtenaw County, where local political leaders have said they want to opt out of the plan. Dan Smith, a member of the Washtenaw Board of Commissioners, said he views Washtenaw County as a secondary focus.

“The concept is interesting, but I think there’s a lot bigger problems that Wayne and Oakland County need to iron out before Washtenaw County gets involved,” Smith said.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said because the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority directly receives federal funding, an additional layer of bureaucracy through an RTA could disrupt the strengths of Ann Arbor’s current transportation system.

Irwin also said the bill privileges bus transportation over rail projects, making it difficult to create new rail plans, such as a commuter route from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro Airport. In the RTA’s proposed structure, rail development would require a unanimous vote to move forward.

“If we’re going to be part of a Regional Transit Authority, we want to be part of an RTA that treats all modes equally and tries to solve the transit problem with transit solutions that are not married to one particular technology or another, but to try to give our citizens the best advantage of the buck over the long term,” Irwin said.

Additionally, the Senate’s version of the bill includes a clause that would allow the passage of regional millages without unanimous agreement. This means that even if Washtenaw County voters decline to pass a millage, it could still pass with enough votes in Wayne and Oakland counties.

Smith said county officials ultimately have no say in the final language of the bill, but suspects that, if passed, the final policy will not include Washtenaw County

“The concerns they had are valid concerns,” Casperson said.

On a trip to Detroit in October, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said the appropriation of millions of dollars in federal funding for a metro-Detroit rail project is attached to the approval of the legislation.

According to Casperson, in order to receive the money, the federal government needs a cohesive organization like the proposed RTA.

Irwin said the Transportation Committee is sensitive to the concerns, and while it’s possible to work out a compromise, legislators may decide the bill needs to be pushed forward quickly during the lame-duck session of the Legislature.

As the proposal awaits a vote on the House floor, Casperson emphasized its importance for metro Detroit and the state of Michigan.

“If Detroit is going to be successful and come back and grow, I don’t know how you do it without that component.”