When you think about "sexy" news topics and political debates, is transportation at the top of your list? Probably not.
Yet, in the state that gave birth to the modern Automotive industry people are finding that basic transportation is getting to be a problem. Whether it's the deteriorating state of Michigan's roads under Republican Gov. Rick Snyder or the limited options available for those without cars in Metro Detroit, transportation is becoming the political issue of the time.
Unfortunately, the news media is barely paying attention, despite a regional transit authority (RTA) being established nearly two years ago. Most local media spend their time focusing on potholes, which are great for making cheap shots against politicians, but hardly the top of the list when it comes to transportation problems in Detroit.
Considering this, I took the opportunity to attend a meeting of the RTA. With barely any staff, ten board members and no CEO, its hard to imagine that the RTA could driving the future of Detroit transit, but bit by bit, they seem to be trying.
During the meeting, the RTA board selected Michael Ford, the current head of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) to be their new CEO. With a background in managing transportation for the city of Portland and in improving services in Ann Arbor, Ford seems to be the right guy for the job.
Time and time again, the RTA board members mentioned "vision" -- vision for Metro Detroit and a vision for a culture of transit. The board recognizes that this is something we're all missing -- the idea that a young college student at the University of Michigan could hop on a bus and safely make it to the city for a party, or that a union worker from Detroit could take the train to work in Dearborn. If Ford accepts the CEO position, he'll be responsible for implementing that new vision, but the challenges are daunting.
For starters, the RTA is dealing with four different counties, different payment systems and different scheduling systems for SMART (Suburban Mobile Authority for Regional Transportation), DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation) and the AATA. Even RTA's own chairperson, Paul Hillegonds, is skeptical that the systems can be merged in the next five to ten years.
"Merging the lines is a longer term goal for the region," said Hillegonds. "The immediate goals are common fares, common services and better communication between the services."
With union contracts needing to be re-negotiated, vested political interests and a huge number of redundancies in staff, there will be serious political and financial challenges for RTA to merge the different transit authorities and make a difference in how people perceive mass transit. Hillegonds and the rest of the board aren't despairing, though. They almost seem enthusiastic, even if the RTA isn't getting any of the attention or respect it deserves.
"When you think about where we were 18 months ago, what we've gotten to with a working board and a new candidate for CEO, we'll be looking forward to a lot in the future," said Hillegonds.
It does seem that, at least for now, the hopes and dreams of regional transit in Detroit seem lodged in the ether. But when I asked Hillegands about the youth and about how he planned on making regional transit a point of attraction for young professionals who may choose Chicago over Detroit based on the transit options available -- Hillegonds was unequivocal:
"Young people are the ones who really want access to regional transit. As we look at M-1 [the Woodward light rail planned for completion in 2016] ... it is a signal to young people who are interested that we're working hard to improve the options available. I even foresee that in the future, young folks who move into the city may want transport to the suburbs for employment, and I think we're going to be seeing all of that in the near future."
It's a long way to go from where we are today and where we can be in the future. Thinking back on the three years I was stationed out in Tokyo for the Navy, I remember how millions of people were moved in and out of the city by train every single day. The possibility for Detroit to have rapid transit is real. The economic benefits are undeniable, but as with much of Detroit these days, the possibilities often outweigh the reality.
After leaving the RTA board meeting, I was left feeling just a little bit more optimistic about the region's chances for bouncing back. It's going to be hard work, but I hope -- for the sake of all of us -- that RTA is able to implement the vision of a truly connected metropolitan area. For many of us, we've got no clue what that would even look like. But reflecting on places like Tokyo, Chicago and New York -- it's no doubt that there's still plenty of work to do.