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Regional Transit Authority offers real shot at mass transit

With the surprising outcome in the Detroit mayor’s race last week and other news, you may have missed a significant development on the transportation front.

John Hertel, the current head of SMART, the suburban bus system, was chosen as the first CEO of the new Regional Transit Authority for Southeastern Michigan, known as the RTA.

Hertel is a longtime successful political player with a reputation for getting it done. He’s been a state senator, chair of the Macomb County Commissioners, and for years successfully ran the State Fair. He is a Democrat who Republican governors have often found an acceptable partner.

If he succeeds, within a few years the entire metro area will be serviced by rapid buses which look more like railroad cars, and have their own special lanes. They’ll whiz passengers throughout Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, to and from Detroit Metro Airport, and connect with existing bus services.

This is not one more mass transportation fantasy, but a real program approved by the legislature. There is matching money available from the federal government to build this system.

What Hertel has to do now is twofold, once he has worked out a contract and formally starts his job. He needs to find the experts and develop a logistical plan for making this happen.

But more importantly, he has to persuade the voters in all the counties I mentioned, plus those in the City of Detroit, to agree to tax themselves to run the new bus system’s operations.

That may be the hard part.  But he believes few things are as necessary for our future. When I talked to him about this last night, he told me “Of the top 30 major metropolitan areas in this country, we are the only one in which you can’t get off a plane at the major airport and take some form of mass transit to your destination.”  

Hertel has been interested in practical mass transit ever since he was nine years old, and rode a Detroit streetcar on their very last day of service in 1956.

He has worked on plan after plan that either failed to get through the legislature or was vetoed. But this time, there is a real shot at making it happen. “The success of the RTA is critical to our future growth,” he said.

There are unemployed people in Detroit and elsewhere who could work at jobs if they had a fast and reliable way of getting there. This would accomplish that.

The RTA would also recover some of Michigan’s tax dollars that have long been sent elsewhere to develop mass transit. In the past, Hertel said, “We have missed opportunities for hundreds of millions in federal funding. Some of our tax dollars went to build systems in places like Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “Now, it should be our turn.

He estimates the cost of building RTA at perhaps $600 million, money matched dollar for dollar by Washington. The key question is, when do you ask voters for approval?

That could happen as early as next year. Hertel said he thinks the most important part of his new job is selling this to the public. 

That just might be as important for Michigan’s future.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee the University of Michigan.