What’s wrong with the RTA?


By Melissa Ciaravino

Why has Detroit’s public transit failed? In recent years, Detroiters have seen DDOT and SMART grow increasingly unable to fulfill our needs, often leaving necessities and employment out of reach. Forty percent of us do not own or cannot drive a car, yet 77% of the region’s jobs have now crept 10-35 miles outside the city’s urban core.

SMART has reduced even its biggest routes like Woodward to run only the limited hours needed by workers with day jobs commuting from the suburbs into the city. DDOT doesn’t even run any busses past midnight anymore.  Bare bones service and hours result in cut off access to jobs, especially higher paying jobs further out in the suburbs, and evening jobs needed to supplement low wage jobs..

Governor Snyder spent last fall telling us the Regional Transit Authority-RTA would be the key to “reinvent” transit in Michigan. After trying since the 1970s, last winter lawmakers finally passed the bill,  motivated by $25 million in federal funding. Snyder signed the bill in December and this October, the already-appointed RTA board will control of  region’s federal, state and regional transit funding. But does a board of appointed power and a few more federal dollars really mean we are going to see transit “reinvented”?

Transitioning Transit Power

In the past, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) has had control of the region’s transit, as well as environmental and economic development funding. Until RTA’s official takeover, Snyder appointed SEMCOG’s Executive Board to manage transit funding.

On April 26–with just 6 months until RTA takes over–SEMCOG’s Executive Director met with the board to move $7 million in federal funding away from DDOT and into SMART’s budget.

SEMCOG claimed the swift change was necessary because the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) had asked for a “documented funding formula” for the current budget proportion.  The FTA never demanded an immediately change to the formula, and never required a certain formula, yet the FTA’s request was used by SEMCOG to justify the swift redistribute of funds at own discretion.

June 1 for the first time ever, SMART will receive more federal funding than DDOT. Every dollar of that funding is marked for “urbanized area” transit. This shift of money is especially disturbing because SEMCOG’s own 2011 survey found DDOT’s average weekday ridership is 3 times larger than SMART. This isn’t SEMCOG’s first time shoving urban development funds into suburbs coiffeurs. Nor is it the first time they have underrepresented Detroit riders,  prioritizing less-demanded suburban routes over heavily used urban routes.

Regressive Representation within the Region

With SEMCOG, Detroit has never had the representation it deserves as the largest city in the region.  Votes are assigned based on geographic blocks instead of population–“one place-one vote,” which means cities and counties with the largest populations get the least representation.

“One vote-one place” is the same form of representation used by many other metropolitan planning agencies in other regions of the nation. “One vote-one place” fails to acknowledge enormous population differences when assigning power.  “One vote-one place” gives planning agencies the ability to silence the needs of urban populations while increasingly funneling funding into smaller suburban areas.

Appointing the roles which will decide millions of dollars of public money for development already compromises our rights as citizens. Considering planning agencies have control over state and federal funding for development across the country, “one place-one vote” comes at a high cost to the urban populations who need development the most.

Whose Regional Transit Authority?

In voting key development decisions, SEMCOG has awarded counties less than half the size of Detroit more votes than Detroit. SEMCOG’s underrepresentation of Detroit and Wayne County residents has resulted in law suits from Ferndale, the ACLU, and community organizations MOSES and TRU. Lawsuits were dismissed because “one person-one vote” standard does not apply for appointed officials, and SEMCOG’s executive board is appointed.

Unfortunately for Detroit, RTA’s voting structure will continue SEMCOG’s longstanding tradition of “one vote one place”. Regardless of their populations, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Wayne counties all get two representatives on RTA’s board, and the Governor and Detroit get one.

Detroit has over twice the population of Washtenaw County and, yet Washtenaw County gets twice the transit voting power of Detroit.  The balance of power in the RTA skewed even further in favor of its smallest county when Snyder appointed the outgoing chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners as the head of the RTA.

Washtenaw County Divided

Washtenaw’s influence in the RTA hasn’t made the authority popular in the county. The county was in arms even before the RTA bill passed.  Ann Arbor city council unanimously passed a resolution against the inclusion of Washtenaw County due to worries it would take money from their own Ann Arbor Transit Authority (AATA).

All but one of Washtenaw’s 28 municipalities withdrew from the county’s public transit plan, attempting to evade the RTA and dreaded taxation for regional transit. As a result, this April Washtenaw County commissioners voted to dissolve the ‘Washtenaw Ride,’ a county-wide transit authority the AATA had established not even a year before.

Due to the dispute from so many cities obligated to the RTA, in May a bill the House of Representatives introduced a bill which would allow municipalities to opt out of the RTA. Some from Washtenaw County say such an opt-out policy would create holes in the transit system even as they are bent on their own exclusion from the RTA.

The Illusion of Change

SEMCOG Executive Director Paul Tait said he doesn’t believe DDOT’s 7 million loss will do harm because DDOT is “already eroded by insufficient operating dollars”. Paul Tait, a resident of Ypsilanti, has been a member of SEMCOG for over 40 years and spent the past 15 years as executive director, with the power to decide the funding of region’s transit.

Now another Paul from Washtenaw County, Paul Hillegonds, is taking over that power, thanks to an appointment by Washtenaw resident Snyder.  While Hillegonds serves as head of the RTA, he will remain as Senior Vice President of DTE where he oversees DTE’s governmental relations at local, state and federal levels.

At a recent celebration of the newly-established RTA which he will lead in October, Hillegonds said “the devil is in the details” of the RTA. It was a gloomy statement for a newly appointed leader at an event which included custom balloons, and it is unclear who is Hillegond’s devil.

Detroit needs to know that the devil of underrepresentation is in the details of the RTA. Detroiters have suffered enough, stripped of their mobility. We cannot be fooled by three letters–the only thing truly new is an acronym.

Amidst the creation of a “new” system, Snyder has chosen to keep transit leadership in the hands of the county which has already enjoyed that privilege for years. Amidst talks of reinvention, the new RTA board will use the same broken system of representation that has led to past transit decision. All this to keep power unevenly distributed and continue to minimize Detroit priorities. For a truly new era in transit, the people of Detroit must be given the votes our population deserves, but what if that bus never comes?