The proposal to combine elements of the dysfunctional Metro Detroit public transportation system into a single entity, otherwise know as the Detroit Area Regional Transportation Authority, has been fraught with intense partisanship and debate. Former Gov. John Engler was opposed to the package, and he vetoed the original legislation toward the end of his tenure in Lansing. Recently, opposition has resurfaced in the form of a revision, introduced by a number of conservative legislators that would allow communities the ability to opt out of DARTA. This revision would not only undermine the effectiveness of the much-needed reforms, but also will prolong the amount of time the bill will ultimately spend in Lansing before it can be passed. In the meantime, federal incentives for cities with integrated programs like DARTA are going elsewhere.
Healthy debate on an issue up for legislative consideration is typically a good thing, but in the case of DARTA, continual bickering has brought efforts to pass a valuable piece of legislation to a standstill. There are two problems with the current dialogue concerning the bill. First, the proposed revisions would allow any three communities sharing common boundaries to leave the DARTA program. This seems highly unnecessary and will serve to undercut the advantages of the program. DARTA is designed to reorganize and streamline the public transportation system, and like any such program, its success is contingent upon broad-based support and implementation. If communities opt out of the program, its efficacy will surely be lessened with a fragmented and unorganized public transit system.
Second, and potentially most tragic, are the financial costs that have accompanied years of sluggish debate on the issue. Each year, the state is ineligible for millions in federal tax breaks because it lacks an integrated public transportation system like DARTA. Proponents of the legislation have pointed out that by having no combined system, Michigan residents have lost out on money that has gone instead to fund other public transportation systems in cities like Atlanta and Boston. Legislators dragging their feet on the issue are costing Michigan taxpayers millions in lost federal dollars, and doing so while sitting on legislation that in its current form will be very beneficial to the Detroit area and the state as a whole.
These are reforms that have been needed since the mid-1970s, when the state lost out on $600 million in federal transit money because of its inability to cooperate and implement a regional rail system. Even if DARTA makes it through the Senate, the disastrous opt-out procedure could render it unable to effect the type of change needed in the city. Unfortunately for the citizens of Metro Detroit, it looks as if the wait for an adequate public transportation system will be a little longer. While they wait, their federal taxes are sent elsewhere. The status quo is not only depriving taxpayers of a service, but is costing them money at the same time.