By PATRICK LYONS
Capital News Service
LANSING – Legislators are working to create an authority to oversee the development and operation of public transit in four Southeast Michigan counties.
The legislation by Rep. Jim Townsend, D-Royal Oak, would create the Southeast Michigan Transit Authority. The authority would oversee all mass transit service in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, including Detroit.
Townsend said that the goal is to unite Southeast Michigan and improve the economy in the process.
“It is one regional economy,” Townsend said. “The purpose of the transit system is to support and provide infrastructure for the regional economy, so it only makes sense to have one coordinated regional system.”
Townsend said Michigan fails to collect its fair share of federal transit funding because there is no organization to plan large projects worthy of the grants.
The Detroit metropolitan area, which includes the city and its suburbs, is the only major metropolitan area in the county without an overarching coordinated transit system, he said.
The authority would handle federal grant money that comes to Michigan. The bill also would allow residents to vote on paying a tax to additionally fund the authority.
Townsend said the existing transit agencies, operating in the suburbs and the city, would not be eliminated but would be placed under the new authority.
Metropolitan bus services are handled by two separate agencies. Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) is the bus service for the city and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit, or SMART operates in the suburbs. Both are cutting services to deal with budget shortages.
“They will be required under this authority to coordinate their services and find deficiencies, and deliver better service by collaborating,” Townsend said. “The authority will be the collector and distributor of new funding that we are able to raise, whether from the federal government or from any kind of regional assessment or tax.”
He said it is the 24th attempt to create a regional transit authority. Other efforts have failed because of resistance from Detroit suburbs that did not want to be connected to the city by transit because of issues with race and wealth disparity, Townsend said.
Co-sponsors include Reps. Thomas Stallworth, D-Detroit; Fred Durhal Jr., D-Detroit; Matt Lori, R-Constantine; and David Rutledge, D-Ypsilanti.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, supports the bill but would like it amended to include more community-level input.
“There is value to a regional authority,” Tlaib said. “However it will not be successful without the inclusion of locals to hold them accountable. The more you get away from looking at it from a neighborhood perspective, the less likely it will be successful.”
Megan Owens, the director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based advocacy group, supports the bill but would like to see some changes.
“I’m a little concerned that it has a bias against rail service by requiring unanimous votes for rail service instead of other things that can pass with just a majority vote,” Owens said.
She also said that the bill would not do enough to improve existing services or solve the transit crisis in Detroit. The crisis includes long wait times for buses, cutting of routes and the layoffs of DDOT employees as part of the city’s financial troubles.
Townsend said that the authority would not eliminate current services, but would oversee them and look for ways to improve efficiency.
Projects that Townsend would like to see the authority accomplish include a light rail system connecting Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Detroit and Ann Arbor and development of a rapid bus transit system. The system would include dedicated highway lanes and allow buses to control traffic signals and avoid red lights.
The bill is pending in the House Transportation Committee.
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By PATRICK LYONS