Public transportation advocates are turning up the heat on lobbying efforts after the state Senate approved a bundle of legislation that would create Southeast Michigan’s first Regional Transit Authority (RTA) in history.
But a major hurdle to creating a regional transit program in the Detroit metropolitan area still looms — the Michigan House of Representatives. And Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter and a former state legislator, believes the bills may have a tough time winning favor with Michigan’s Republican state representatives.
“This was the easy part,” he told The Huffington Post. “If it was this difficult to do in the Senate, that gives you an idea of the hurdles that still have to be overcome — because I think the the Republican majority in the House is probably less sympathetic to these bills than the Senate Republican majority.”
The Senate passed the five-bill package on Tuesday. SB 909 would establish the authority and SB 911, SB 912, SB 967, and SB 445 would resolve a number of issues related to zoning, funding and cooperation between different transportation agencies. The authority would be run by a board consisting of two representatives each from Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, as well as one member appointed by the Mayor of Detroit. It would also include an appointee of the governor who would not have a vote.
The idea of establishing a Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan is not new, but the concept has had a rough time making the transition from bill to law. The Metro Times reports that RTA legislation has been introduced 23 times since the 1970’s without any success. Ballenger said that both houses actually passed an RTA measure in 2002, but he said it collapsed due to a lack of support from then-Gov. Engler.
Although the divisive issue of merging Detroit’s DDOT bus service with the suburban SMART system is not part of the current round of RTA legislation, it still remains to be seen whether members of Michigan’s House will even support the legislation. Concerns about funding and local autonomy caused the county of Washtenaw to pull out of the proposed authority earlier this month. Ballenger believes that the legislation’s success in the House may also depend on how financial problems in Detroit and Wayne County are handled.
He’s even skeptical about how much the five-bill RTA package can really achieve.
“I guess for this to pass represents some progress, although this is regarded as low hanging fruit on the transportation legislation tree,” he said.
Ballenger said the recently-passed Senate legislative package creates a framework for establishing an RTA, but he believes more legislation needs to be passed to make the authority legally and financially sound.
Transit activists, however, are fired up about the possibility of passing the legislation.
Megan Owens, Executive Director of Transportation Riders United traveled to Lansing on Wednesday to lobby on behalf of the legislation with a coalition of about 40 people that included members of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, the Sierra Club and the faith-based social justice advocacy group MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength).
The group launched their efforts on the capitol steps that morning with a press conference that included a sing-a-long of a newly-unearthed Motown gem “There Ain’t No Mountain High Enough To Keep Us From An RTA.”
Afterwards, they lobbied the offices of all 110 state house reps and sat in on a hearing of State House Transportation Committee that included testimony on the RTA bills. They hope to see action on the package before the legislature’s current lame duck session comes to an end.
“This is moving fast and furious in the last 24 hours and hopefully that keeps moving forward,” she told The Huffington Post. “We’re definitely working from every angle we can to make sure the House of Representatives understands why this is so critical and why we need to move on it in these next two weeks.”
State Sen. Bert Johnson, who sponsored several of the bills, said if the legislation becomes law, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation is ready to award a $25 million grant to the M-1 rail effort as well as upwards of $750 million for regional rapid bus lines.
He believes high-speed bus transit, in particular, has the potential to transform the region. The buses would have special lanes and feature technology that would allow the vehicles to communicate with traffic lights to make travel more efficient.
“It means that folks can move in and around the region successfully, efficiently and very fast,” he told The Huffington Post.
He also believes putting a bus rapid transit system into place would also have a noticeable economic impact.
“There will be people who have to build these stations and the stops,” he said. “There will be commercial traffic in and out of the area where folks will want to locate a business — specifically on the actual line that the buses are going to run — and it means the region will be more united as it relates to transportation opportunities.”
And Johnson added that the bus rapid transit is just the beginning step of a larger campaign to create more extensive mass transit schemes to the region. He believes the current push, if successful, could pave the way to bringing high-speed trains to Southeast Michigan.
According to Johnson, the legislation was able to clear the Senate due to the united support of Gov. Snyder, Mayor Bing and the Obama administration, and because federal money was on the line. He said he’s optimistic about the RTA package becoming a reality.
But for that to happen, Johnson said, the House vote to approve mass transit legislation needs to move beyond state party lines.
“If we do that,” he said, “Mr. Governor’s going to get a piece of the legislation or a set of the legislation on his desk that he’s going to sign, and we’re all going to celebrate and watch this thing move forward.”