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Dear RTA: Please Get Transit Right

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Flickr: Matt Hampel
Flickr: Matt Hampel

Our hats are off to the legislature. Defying hyper-partisan stubbornness, the Senate, and then the House, approved bills to create a regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan. At long last, a single organization to coordinate funding, development and operation of public transit services. A major step in the right direction. One step.

What are the next steps? The RTA is a done deal. Does it mean that we will wake up tomorrow to a vast network of trains and buses eagerly awaiting us?

Not quite. Effective immediately, transit shifts from a policy challenge to an implementation challenge. After the enactment of legislation and before the deployment of new services, the RTA will face a checklist with thousands of items. This is a detailed list. A technical list. To work through this list, the RTA will need to involve people who know transit better than they know politics.

To help the RTA board launch its new entity on the right note, we'd like to highlight some essential principles from that list. So, RTA board, this is for you:

1. Hire Professionals

Just as restaurant owners hire chefs, you as the transit "owners" should hire transit managers. Transit is a complex undertaking with a lot of moving parts. Make sure your staff knows the ins and outs, inside out. Insist that each and every person on your payroll have experience in transit management, or in similar hands-on business functions that can translate to transit management.

2. Remember Your Purpose

The legislature created your organization to fix transit -- and they did so in response to real demands from real people. Politics will inevitably intervene, but please make all of your decisions with the ultimate goal of improving transit for those who use it and value it: commuters, students, seniors, visitors, businesses and neighbors.

3. Engage the People

Every now and then, duck out of the board room. Mingle with your customers and your employees. Interact directly with community members and small businesses. Engaging with these stakeholders will remind you how important your duty is. Your leadership directly affects peoples' lives. Think about it from the bottom up rather than the top down. The more you understand what transit actually does, the better your decisions will be.

4. Adopt an Alias other than 'RTA'

Consider Portland -- a favorite poster child for great transit. The official name of Portland's transit system is Tri-County Metropolitan Transit District of Oregon. Recognizing the weakness of their clunky, bureaucratic name, leaders in Portland branded the system as TriMet -- a snappy, retail-inspired identity that frames transit as a consumer product. In Metro Detroit -- where transit carries an especially negative connotation -- an entrepreneurial approach will be critical for people to take transit seriously.

5. Downplay Boundaries

Motorists driving up Grand River don't have to stop or turn around or switch cars when leaving Detroit and entering Redford. Why should the transit system behave any differently? As transit stewards, think of Gratiot as Gratiot and Woodward as Woodward. Never mind where they cross jurisdictional lines, never mind ironclad formulas that assign this much money to the suburbs, that much money to the city. Transportation corridors -- road and transit -- can only function when political boundaries take a back seat to connectivity.

6. Proceed Practically and Incrementally

Rapid transit is the goal, but it won't happen right away. Instead of waiting idly, make small, sensible and significant changes to today's bus systems. While your predecessors have left you with a so-called Comprehensive Regional Transit Services Plan, you'll need to dig a lot deeper. Should DDOT's Livernois route end abruptly at 8 Mile? Or can it extend a mile into Ferndale to serve people commuting to UD Mercy? Simple tweaks like this lay the framework for a successful rapid transit system.

7. Enable Variable Local Funding Options

One size does not fit all. While every community needs some form of transit, certain communities will want more of it than others. Give Sterling Heights an opportunity, if it chooses, to make a larger investment in transit than Lenox Township. Baseline transit funding
for the entire region will ensure a system without holes; options for additional local funding will allow transit-supportive communities to buy even more of a good thing.

8. Call Me, Maybe!

Shameless pitch with a sincere purpose: bring me in. I know transit and I know Metro Detroit. In collaboration with a diverse and tremendously capable crew of Detroiters, I have helped form a non-profit enterprise -- Freshwater Transit -- to develop, manage and
operate transit services. We are powered by equal parts experience, innovation and passion. We can work under contract to your board, or we can join your staff directly. We've built a toolkit of ideas, precedents, strategies and best-practices -- for every level of transit. You handle the policy -- we'll handle the other stuff. If transit is to move forward, implementation is your next destination. Let us help you get there.