Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Detroit area fast-bus system stuck in the slow lane


Jack Lessenberry

The Blade
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DETROIT — For a moment, it looked as if the Detroit area had a good chance of getting a realistic and cost-effective system of mass transit for the first time in the region’s history.

John Hertel, the longtime general manager of SMART, the efficient suburban bus system, was named in August to head the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan.

That happened after Gov. Rick Snyder got the state Legislature to approve the RTA, which would have the authority to set up a system of fast buses with their own lanes.

Those buses — which look more like train cars — would whip passengers across Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, including runs to Detroit Metro Airport, Ann Arbor, and downtown Detroit.

The network also would be coordinated with the two existing bus systems: DDOT, which serves the city of Detroit, and SMART.

When completed, the system would enable people who don’t have cars — primarily Detroiters — to get where the jobs are, mainly in the suburbs. That’s virtually impossible now, because the bus systems are poorly coordinated and DDOT is unreliable.

The RTA also would be a convenient way for business travelers to get to their destinations without fighting for a cab. Last spring, Mr. Hertel told me that Detroit is the nation’s only major metropolitan area without public transportation from the airport to downtown.

“Out of 30 metro areas, we are the only one where you land at the airport and find: ‘You’re on your own, buddy,’” he said.

That’s not good for a community that desperately needs more business investment. But last summer, Mr. Hertel, who combines devotion to public transportation with expertise in practical politics, told me he was as optimistic as he’s ever been.

Practical mass transit is something he has wanted to see since the day in April, 1956, when he was 9, and his parents took him to ride the Detroit streetcars on their last day of service.

When he took the RTA job, he saw his primary task as persuading voters in the four counties to approve taxing themselves to build the system. That might not be an easy sell, but Mr. Hertel, a Democrat who served three terms in the state Senate, has track record for getting things done.

But then, things fell apart. Last week, the stunning news came that Mr. Hertel had resigned as head of the RTA. He released a statement that said he felt he needed to remain at SMART.

The suburban system is facing a millage renewal this summer, and he said he needs to concentrate on getting it passed. Leaving the RTA was not legally hard to do, because he never signed a contract, wasn’t taking any pay, and never formally resigned from SMART.

He knew about the millage renewal long before he agreed to take the new job with the regional agency. So what really happened?

Mr. Hertel was not talking. But it isn’t hard to piece the story together. In November, he told a suburban newspaper reporter that while he was satisfied with his contract, there was no money available to hire a proper staff. We aren’t talking about secretaries. He needed transportation experts.

You don’t design a 110-mile system with special lanes and 23 stations on the back of a legal pad. He needed to hire professionals, and to be able to assure them they would have a job for a while.

Mr. Hertel estimated it would cost $2 million to $3 million to do that. In state budget terms, that is chicken feed — less than the cost of, say, an addition to an office building. But the Legislature didn’t appropriate the money.

It eventually was put into a supplemental appropriations bill, which never passed. My guess is that, mired in frustration, Mr. Hertel decided to return to the job where he knew he could make a positive impact.

Technically, that doesn’t mean the RTA is dead. Paul Hillegonds, the RTA board chairman, expressed disappointment at Mr. Hertel’s departure, but said a search would begin for a new chief executive officer.

It is hard to imagine finding someone else with both the transportation expertise and political savvy that Mr. Hertel offered. If this opportunity falls through, it will continue a pattern of failure.

Michigan repeatedly has left hundreds of millions of federal transportation dollars on the table. That money eventually will go to other states.

Washington would foot half the cost of building the RTA. Last March, Mr. Hertel estimated that expense might be about $600 million. That sounds pricey, but not when you consider that the cost of any subway system would be at least $1 billion a mile.

The beauty of the fast-bus system is that if voters approve, it could be up and running in a handful of years. From a business and consumer standpoint, a rapid bus system makes sense.

But in recent years, Michigan government seldom has missed an opportunity to, well, miss an opportunity. Unless something changes, it looks like déjà vu, one more time.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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