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M1’s success may lie with a comprehensive regional transit solution

Today’s light-rail press conference was an example of how working together is going to have to be the only way forward for Detroit, the State of Michigan and the federal government.

Many had hoped for some major announcements, but the most major development was that in 60 days the players will meet again to answer what Governor Snyder outlined as “4-5 areas of concern” for the proposed 3.1 mile, $187 million dollar project.

M1Rail Press Conference at the CAYMC

Mayor Bing, Roger Penske, Matt Cullen and Governor Snyder - Photo Credit: Ashley Hennen

However, what was the predominant theme, at least garnering from the comments by business magnate and M1 backer Roger Penske, is that a regional transit authority is key to the future as well as a sustainable revenue source going forward. Business leaders have already pledged an endowment of $10 million dollars to defray the operating cost difference until 2025.

“There’s concern about whose going to run this. There’s no doubt we want an RTA (Regional Transit Authority),” said Penske.

In comments we heard that were released by DetroitCityTV (the city’s television channel) in a video of the pre-meeting, Mayor Bing said “I’m supportive of where he (the governor) is on a regional transportation authority.”

“It’s about the citizens of Detroit and the entire region having better access to jobs, healthcare, and all of the different benefits transit provides,” said Snyder.

So, what would this oft-talked about Regional Transit Authority (RTA) look like? Well, let’s take a look at what is sitting in the legislature now.

The authority would be governed by a board that has a representative appointed by the governor, two from Oakland County, two from Macomb County, two from Washtenaw County, one from Detroit (appointed by the mayor) and two from Wayne County. One of the Wayne County board members would also have to be a resident of the City of Detroit.

They’d hold the purse strings and require the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) hit various targets, including those for route coordination, fares and timelines as well as eliminate or reduce service overlap and duplication.

The RTA would be specifically charged with creating a rolling rapid transit system with at least four corridors:

  • Woodward with a location in Downtown Detroit and in downtown Pontiac
  • Gratiot between Downtown Detroit and downtown Mt. Clemens
  • A cross-county line between Pontiac and Mt. Clemens with portions of the route on Big Beaver road and M-59
  • A western line that would go between Downtown Detroit and Blake Transit Center in Ann Arbor, requiring stations in Dearborn, Ypsilanti, and, crucially for everyone in the region, Detroit Metro Airport. We’re still the only major city in America that doesn’t have a solid mass transit connection to the airport. Yes, there’s a SMART bus line that serves it, but compared to other cities it’s woefully inadequate and posing that current bus as our airport connection is not a viable suggestion.

How would this RTA be funded?

In the bills, the idea is vehicle registrations would go up … to the tune of $1.20 per $1,000 of vehicle value for those located within the RTA boundaries. That’ll raise $75 million for ongoing operations, according to government estimates. And, of course, there’ll be farebox and advertising revenues.

That said, there’s no direct mention of M1 Rail in the current RTA bills, but it stands to reason that M1 would be answerable to the RTA the same as DDOT and SMART.

Other cities

Although some may shudder at the thought that there will still be multiple organizations around transit, there are cities that do a model like this and it works.

New York City has an MTA made up of the Long Island Rail Road, Metro-North Railroad, MTA Bus, the bridges and tunnels, as well as New York City Transit. In fact, the MTA oversees operations in 12 New York counties.

Illinois has an RTA over its CTA (The Chicago Transit Authority), which operates across six counties including rail and bus rapid transit. Its RTA oversees the CTA, as well as Metra, which is the suburban rail system and Pace (the suburban bus system).

Many people point to those two cities as having “one system” but, in fact, it’s an amalgamation of systems much like what is proposed here in Metro Detroit. Those appear to work as one with seamless coordination and fare policies.

Whatever the outcome many want mass transit to get rolling in the region including the business community that is providing financial support. According to Mayor Bing, Secretary LaHood told him it’s “the first time he’s seen the business community step up like this.”

It seems we’re going to have to wait another 60 days, deal with the real obstacles in the way, do some homework, and then see where we stand with the M1 Rail.

Cross your fingers.

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