After 40 Years of Attempts, Gov. Snyder May Be Key to Mass Transit in Michigan

After local leaders and politicians have tried for more than 40 years -- and 23 times in the Legislature -- to get a coordinated mass-transit system, Gov. Rick Snyder may finally be the governor to get it done.
by , | December 3, 2012

It's well known that before Rick Snyder became the governor of Michigan, he was an accountant, business executive and venture capitalist.

But for two years in the 1980s, he also was a daily commuter, riding the rails from the sleepy village of Barrington, Ill., to downtown Chicago, where he was in charge of mergers and acquisitions for the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand.

"I got the 6:23 every morning," Snyder said. "It was an hour train ride and then I had a 10-15 block walk to work. Then I'd get home at 8 every night."

The experience made him a mass-transit convert.

"I know it can be very effective. When you look at downtown Chicago, it's all connected there. It's easy mass transit in and out, especially with all the traffic around the city," he said.

The seamless system in Chicago became one of the reasons Snyder is so focused on getting a regional transit authority approved for southeast Michigan. And after local leaders and politicians have tried for more than 40 years -- and 23 times in the Legislature -- to get a coordinated mass-transit system, Snyder may finally be the governor to get it done.

The bill creating the authority passed the state Senate last week and is expected to be considered by the House transportation committee Wednesday. It's a crucial piece of the public transportation pie for metro Detroit, which has struggled to stitch together a cohesive transit system since 1956, when the last of Detroit's streetcars were decommissioned and sold to Mexico City, where they still are in use today.

"We had a very good transit system until then," said John Hertel, general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which runs the suburban bus system. "We had a trolley system that went from Detroit to Port Huron, Flint, Ann Arbor and Toledo. And it was all gone by 1956."

The issue has become one of star-crossed lovers for more than 40 years, adored by certain segments of metro Detroit and hated by others.

When Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter proffered millions in transportation dollars to the region, the leaders of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and the City of Detroit couldn't reach a compromise. When the four leaders finally got on board for a regional system in 2002, the state House and Senate agreed and passed a bill creating the Detroit Area Regional Transit Authority (DARTA). But then-Gov. John Engler vetoed the legislation on New Year's Eve, his last full day in office.

"I was devastated," said Dick Blouse, the president of the Detroit Regional Chamber at the time and the driving force behind DARTA. "It was one of the biggest disappointments I had from my time at the chamber."

This time, the bill has the support of the Senate and the governor and the four regional leaders.

So it is with bated breath that mass-transit advocates await the vote in the House, in the final weeks of this legislative session. If the transit bill doesn't pass in the next two weeks, it would die for the year and perhaps longer. With it would go the hope of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to boost public transportation in the region with a $400-million, bus rapid-transit system and $25 million for a privately run light-rail line, known as the M-1 Rail Project, from downtown Detroit to the New Center area.

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has told state and local leaders that the money is off the table if the region can't come up with an authority to guide the spending of the federal money. Metro Detroit is the only one of 30 major metro areas that doesn't have a coordinated mass-transit system.

"We already have a really bad reputation with the feds. We've blown a lot of opportunities," Hertel said. "I really think that if it doesn't pass this time, I don't think it will come back around again for a very long time."

But the bill is getting caught up in lame-duck machinations that include the controversial issue of right to work, which would ban mandatory union membership or dues-paying for employees covered by collective bargaining agreements.

The right-to-work issue is being pushed hard by conservatives and tea party activists. "I think there's a good likelihood the bill could pass as long as right-to-work doesn't become the only thing on the agenda," said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United.

Ari Adler, spokesman for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said the regional transit authority is certainly on the agenda, but not necessarily near the top. I "If we don't get it done in the next few weeks, we can revisit it next year," Adler said.

That lack of urgency makes Hertel nervous.

"If we don't get it this time, people's frustration levels are going to boil over," he said.

(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press

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