Friday, August 12, 2011

Calling All Champions

In the last post, I talked about the some of the arguments for and against dropping the WALLY line. In this post, I want to talk discuss what to do about it.

We need a Champion!

By now, I've been to quite a few conferences about transit and transit-oriented development. I've learned that one thing in common with all successful transit initiatives is that they have a "champion" - a person or group who takes an interest, talks to the right people, monitors progress, and when progress lags, kicks butt.

WALLY has no champion.

But isn't AATA the champion for WALLY? No. It can't be.

Let me explain. AATA is a tax-supported transit authority. Like all tax-supported entities, it cannot, by statute, advocate taxing the people to support itself. Conflict of interest.

I'm sure Mike Benham would love to be the champion for WALLY and any number of other the transit initiatives that are part of the "smart growth" master plan. And he would make a great champion. So would Michael Ford. But neither of them can do it without putting AATA in an illegal position...and losing their jobs.

So...where can WALLY find a champion?

I've been inspired by the Texas Eagle Monitoring and Performance Organization (TEMPO). It's a "champion" group for Amtrak's Texas Eagle, the train the runs from Chicago to San Antonio. It's composed of mayors, chambers of commerce, and citizens from the cities and towns along the Texas Eagle's route. They did an incredible job of making sure the Texas Eagle kept running when it was threatened with extinction by Congress. They've monitored its performance and let Amtrak know when they are not happy with it. They've managed to get the frequency increased from three time weekly to every day, by lobbying their congressmen and badgering Amtrak. They've produced travel guides for passengers that whoop up the attractions of each town along the way.

Why did they bother? Because they realized the economic value of well-run, reliable, frequent rail service to each and every town along the way. That's why it was the mayors and chambers that started the organization. And notice that elected officials and business leaders carry a lot of weight with Congress.

That's what we need for WALLY: elected officials and business leaders. They need to champion the economic benefits of a commuter line the runs north and south, as well as east and west. They're the ones who can talk to legislators and have their voices heard.

And not just for WALLY. The Ann Arbor to Detroit line needs similar champions. So does the Wolverine line - Amtrak's service from Pontiac to Chicago. SEMCOG can't advocate for the AA-Detroit line any more than AATA can advocate for WALLY. And by 2013 or 2014, Michigan will have to pay for the entire cost of Wolverine service, according to PRIIA, a Federal statute that modifies the way Amtrak is funded. Who will go to the State legislature and tell our congressmen and senators we really need Wolverine service? Not Amtrak - they are forbidden by statute.

It's up to us, the citizens, to alert the elected and business leaders of the economic value of each of these services to their communities, and point out what they stand to lose without them.

So let's do it. Let's kick butt.

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