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Metro Detroit will get to vote on transit funding after all

Map of Detroit Metro Transit plan
Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan

It took some doing, but metro Detroit voters will get a chance to vote on funding an ambitious mass transit plan in November.

The Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority board approved a 20-year, $3 billion millage proposal on Thursday.

It would help fund a $4.6 billion master plan “for the purpose of construction and operation of a public transportation system connecting Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, including rapid transit bus routes across county lines, specialized service for senior citizens and people with disabilities, commuter rail, airport express service, and other public transportation purposes permitted by law,” according to the final ballot language.

The vote was unanimous, but getting there was not easy. The proposal didn’t make it through an initial vote last week because of opposition from Oakland and Macomb counties. It needed a vote from each RTA jurisdiction, which also includes the city of Detroit, to go forward.

But following some hasty, closed-door negotiations between regional leaders, the board made some last-minute changes to satisfy the concerns of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

Those changes revolved mostly around how the RTA will make decisions going forward. A newly formed Funding Allocation Committee will need to unanimously approve all major funding decisions, as well as any changes to the master plan.

“This has been a compromise … of regional leadership,” said RTA board chair Pau Hillegonds. “This is a monumental day for us.

“I think we can move forward as a board with this governance model, and successfully implement a plan that will change this region forever, for the better.”

But the new “consensus model of governance” is troubling to some, including Washtenaw RTA board member Alma Wheeler-Smith.

“It has the potential to be paralyzing going forward. We’re taking a leap of faith that it will work,” Wheeler-Smith said. ““I think it’s an artifice to skirt a requirement for a simple majority vote by the board, so that the county units of government have control.”

Nonetheless, Wheeler-Smith and some other board members swallowed their reservations and voted to put the question on the ballot.

“I have complete confidence in the [master] plan,” she said. “This lets us have a chance to get to the voters, so that they can say it’s a valid enterprise for them, and so they support it with their dollars and their confidence.”

Metro Detroit transit advocates — and many long-suffering bus riders — have waited decades for this kind of breakthrough on transit, in a region where those systems have long been fractured by underfunding and inter-agency squabbling.

The years-long struggle to form the RTA and develop a comprehensive plan has “made it clear that there’s a huge army of people who are excited to see transit happen,” said Megan Owens, head of the group Transportation Riders United.

Owens said those advocates will quickly switch gears to rallying public support for the proposal.

“I think when people understand what’s in the plan, the benefits this will provide, we will have a big win in November,” she said.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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