Friday, March 10, 2017

Rx for the RTA - Part 2

Rx for the RTA - Part 2

Don't ignore the periphery

Voters at the edges of the RTA district felt left out. Some liked it that way, but many would have liked to have some concrete type of service, or at least to be heard. That didn't happen for two very important reasons.

First, service to areas where people are spread way out is prohibitively expensive to serve with regular bus routes. Consequently, there were no lines on the map indicating routes to the far-flung reaches of the district. Instead, a small amount of funding was redirected in the last few weeks of the run-up to the election, with the idea that peripheral areas could get together and figure out what they wanted to do with the money. Unfortunately, his was not the solution people were looking for.

Second, RTA resources were spread too thin. There are somewhere in the ballpark of 250 political jurisdictions in the RTA district - cities, towns, villages, townships, authorities, and the four counties themselves. Each has a relatively large amount of autonomy compared with the setup in some other states I've lived in (principally Maryland and Florida) as an expression of the frontier spirit of homerule.

Trying to address these jurisdications were the five staff members of the RTA: the CEO, Deputy CEO, one planner, one outreach coordinator, and one administrative assistant. Each of these was stretched thin and responded heroically to the challenges and requests for service and conversation, all in an agonizingly short period of time. But they were too few and the time was too short.

The election results have not provided more staff, but they have given the staff time to listen, explain, and tweak the plan. Talking and listening are the key, because the plan is already close to the best that can be expected given the fiscal constraints imposed by our political leaders.

Make better use of existing resources

The RTA has certainly used existing resources in a great way, but with more time, there are more possibilities for coordination.

First, sit down with the big corporations that supported the RTA with lip-service and also with campaign funds. These include Ford and GM (which might surprise people). They also include supporters of M-1 Rail, whose finances were understandably limited for more transit projects. The big medical and educational institutions, the so-called "meds & eds", benefit tremenously from public transportation - and know it - though their pockets are not uniformly deep. Real estate brokers and owners are big beneficiaries of transit as well, though not all may appreciate the fact.

It may surprise some of you to learn that there are enlightened banks and finance corporations with a great interest in public transportation. Comerica and Morgan Stanley are two that have demonstrated this with "cash on the barrel head". If you think about it, the connection between banks and the value of real estate makes the reason for their interest clear.

In addition to financial resources and corporate know-how, there are infrastructure resources which I believe could be better utilized in the Transit Master Plan. There are some rail lines that would provide speed and ease of access in several corridors, though the low-hanging fruit has been plucked in the Ann Arbor to Detroit corridor. Despite the appearance of easy availability, the use of rusting rail corridors requires pretty intensive capital outlay, making it impractical if it's totally funded by taxpayer dollars. And some of the most desirable rail corridors are pretty heavily used by their freight-hauling owners, and can be shared only by compensating those owners with sums that make it worth their while to allow passenger trains on their property.

Other infrastructure resources include the expressways - built and maintained with a tremendous outlay of taxpayer money. Though these are famously congested during peak hours, there are many U.S. cities which use their expressways with various techniques to speed up express bus service. Michigan is seriously lagging behind other states in providing the legislative and enforcement resources needed to set up high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) and high-occupancy+toll (HOT) lanes. These appear to have been quite successful in other states; are we incapable of keeping up?

I have proposed creating a bus-beltway using I-94, I-275, and I-696, which would tie most of the RTA's crosstown routes together. Yes, this too would require more resources, but relatively little compared to some other options.

Finally, the airport is a great existing resource. Sure, there has been some pretty serious difficulty with arrangements for buses there, but it's worth pushing for. The airport authority has a new CEO, so there's hope for a more cooperative approach.

Build trust

Asking people to vote for an organization that has no record of accomplishment? Always iffy. So it's critical to build trust. Most unfortunately for everyone, Michael Ford's expense records have been examined by the press and found to be overly generous. Even more unfortunately, it's not the first time the media have uncovered his expenses which, though routine for many corporate executives, are high enough to be troubling to taxpayers. It happened in Ann Arbor shortly before he took the CEO position with the RTA. I'm afraid Mr. Ford has undermined his very impressive transit track-record by his lack of personal restraint, and at the same time made it difficult for the RTA to build trust public. I am deeply saddened, as I have not only been impressed by his ability as a transit planner and leader, but consider him to be a personal friend. Yet it's very possible that the RTA Board will consider it necessary to find a new CEO simply to regain the trust of the area's leaders and voters. Very sad indeed.

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