MI: Regional Transit Bills Linked to Creation of a Third Bus System

The latest attempt to create a regional transit authority to oversee bus and train service in metro Detroit could see bills introduced as soon as this week, transportation industry watchers say.

The legislation is expected to be linked to the creation of a third bus system for the region, a network of high-speed buses in dedicated lanes that would operate separately from the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

It's believed that the bills, developed in conjunction with a regional transit task force of local, state and federal officials, will be sponsored by Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

Gov. Rick Snyder proposed the new bus system last month. Details are few, such as the Gratiot, Woodward, Michigan Avenue and the M-59 corridor with connections to Detroit Metropolitan Airport as the basic system, and there's been no talk of cost or how it would be paid for.

A board made up of representatives from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties would oversee the system.

Noting that attempts to merge DDOT and the suburban system (which has operated under several names over the years) have failed 23 times, Snyder press secretary Sara Wurfel said a separate system that doesn't have massive pension obligations (like those of DDOT) is the best way to get transit done.

"The governor felt strongly that continued failure is not an option and that we needed ... to start anew and somewhere," she said via email.

A similar plan proposed in 2009 by former Macomb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Paul Gieleghem had a $927 million price tag for commuter bus service on Gratiot and Woodward avenues and the M-59 corridor.

Washington, meanwhile, is withholding judgment of the new plan.

The Federal Transit Administration, which funds mass transit, is aware of Snyder's proposal but isn't commenting on it because details of the plan are still being worked out.

"The residents of the greater-Detroit area need and deserve a modern transit system that serves the entire region in a safe, reliable, seamless, and cost efficient manner," FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said in an emailed statement. "The FTA is committed to working with Gov. Snyder, Mayor Bing, and all the regional stakeholders to help make that happen."

The intention of Snyder's proposal is to eventually have DDOT and SMART operate under the regional authority, but not necessarily merge them. Potentially, commuter rail lines and other transit options could fall under the RTA.

Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, thinks the three bus services will exist separately only for a limited time. SEMCOG is the regional planning agency whose long-term plans must include transportation projects before they can receive federal funding.

It also remains to be seen if Detroit's $528 million Woodward light rail line, which could be operating by 2015, is operated by an RTA or on its own, Palombo said.

"You wouldn't hope that there's another separate operating entity," he said.

A single, regionwide bus service is unlikely to happen because of Detroit's legacy costs, Megan Owens, executive director of Detroit-based Transportation Riders United, which advocates for public transportation locally.

"No one is going to be willing to merge with DDOT and all its pension obligations and complex labor rules and hiring practices," she said. "I don't see that there's any way a true merger can occur."

Instead, an RTA would oversee service coordination and federal funding disbursement while the agencies maintained their own obligations.

Owens said having three systems may be unwieldy for a time, but getting people to work is more important.

"The number of agencies certainly is a factor, but getting people to where they need to go is a more important than the hassle of a third agency. It may be the best option we have," she said.

Twitter: @bill_shea19

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