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Still needed: mass transit

The nation was transfixed last winter by the story of James Robertson, who walked 21 miles to and from work every day, from his home in Detroit to his factory job in an upscale suburb, where he made only about $22,000 a year.

His car had broken down, and at that salary he couldn’t afford another. Well, donations almost instantly began pouring in. A kind-hearted college student set up a GoFundMe account for Robertson, who is in his late fifties. Soon, the hard-walking man had a new car and nearly $400,000 besides.

What happened next sounds like a movie. His neighbors began hounding and threatening him. His former landlady, also his former girlfriend, demanded a vast sum of money to fix up his apartment. Eventually, Robertson dumped his former acquaintances, got a personal protection order against the landlady, and moved to an upscale Detroit suburb.

He said of his old neighborhood, “I may have been born there, but God knows I don’t belong there anymore.” Well, I certainly don’t begrudge Mr. Robertson his sudden good fortune. But what everybody seems to have lost sight of is the real problem, which was that metropolitan Detroit is the nation’s biggest mass transportation desert.

This is the only major metropolis in the United States where you can’t get some form of mass transit from the airport to the downtown. The reason Robertson had to walk to work is because the city and suburban bus systems have no reliable connections. Buying him a new car was like fighting hunger in Haiti by giving one child a T-bone steak.

There are people trying to solve the real problem, though they haven’t gotten nearly as much publicity as the walking man. Back when the legislature passed Right to Work two and a half years ago, it also authorized something called the RTA, or Regional Transit Authority.

The idea was to have a network of special lanes with special buses that in fact look more like railroad cars. You’d be able to get one in any of metro Detroit’s counties and zip out to the airport, or to a convenient connection with another bus system.

John Hertel, who runs SMART, the suburban bus system, became the RTA’s first head, but resigned after a few months when he learned there was no funding for him to hire staff. Michael Ford, who had run the Ann Arbor transportation agency, is now running the RTA, and he’s been trying to build awareness before elections next year in which the various counties will be asked to authorize funds to build the system.

The RTA is holding a series of public meetings to get input about what people want and need. One is going on now, until 7 p.m., at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts. Tomorrow, there will be another from 1 to 7:30 p.m. at the Elks Club Lodge in Royal Oak.

Last night, the RTA held its first meeting in Detroit. The Detroit News reported that one man rode two buses for two hours to get there. This is a problem holding all of Southeastern Michigan back, and which now we have a chance to fix.

That is, if we have the will to do it.

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

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