J Singleton

Faith-based action in southeast Michigan

CLAWSON, Mich.—At the United Methodist Church Oct. 23, clergy, congregations from numerous churches and citizens gathered at a meeting presented by the Harriet Tubman Center for Organization and the Metro Coalition of Congregations, where members explained the various problems and steps associated with tackling the region's dynamic problems.

The coalition, representing Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, is seeking partnership with civic leaders from metro Detroit communities, and is committed to building the power to influence policy and become a strong, unified voice speaking out and taking action on issues that affect all of southeast Michigan.

Four task forces assembled to discuss problems concerning gun control, home foreclosure, health care, and mass transit (or the lack thereof).

Citizens Concerned with Mass Transit

8138712701_f67ae98be7The MCC’s Young Adult Caucus organized the Mass Transit Task Force and with help of the HTCO assembled the panel of speakers, representing the aforementioned counties.

Citing her time spent in Washington D.C., YAC Chairperson, Crystal Balough, said D.C. has one of the best transit systems in the country. "I could get wherever I wanted without a car — to and from work everyday. If [mass transit] is done right, it could change the metro Detroit area and take us into the future."

Dennis Schornack, senior adviser for strategy to Governor Rick Snyder, agreed.

"Public transit is about justice and equality," Schornack said to the 60 attendees packed into church. "Tech savvy types don't enjoy driving that much, and this metro region has suffered for decades for the lack of an effective public transit system."

He added metro Detroit is the largest area in the United States that does not have any form of rapid transit or regional bus system, let alone a metropolitan transit authority.

A Regional Transit Authority

Michigan is currently trying to implement transit systems, including M1 Rail and a Bus Rapid Transit system, but neither will be possible until the state establishes a Regional Transportation Authority.

If passed, the legislation would coordinate transportation efforts in Wayne, Macomb, Washtenaw and Oakland Counties, and would provide the Authority the power to levy taxes to fund a regional system. It would also give the RTA power to borrow money and issue bonds to finance projects.

The legislation is stalled in the state senate right now, but if passed would also provide $250,000 from the state's transportation fund for establishments costs.

"Public transit is about justice and equality," Schornack said to the 60 attendees packed into church pews. "Tech savvy types don't enjoy driving that much, and this metro region has suffered for decades for the lack of an effective public transit system."

"This region ranks fourth in demand in public transit," Schornack said. "When it comes to delivering, this region ranks 107th."

Schornack and panelists confirmed the state is in the unique position to pass this legislation. It has the support of Governor Snyder, many members of the Michigan Legislature and many business executives. Some leaders have coalesced into a singular group, R-Path, and have been advocating for the acceptance of a RTA. Lawmakers and leaders have made 24 attempts  to pass similar legislation in Michigan.

Schornack, who was the former executive director of the Michigan Recreation and Parks Association, said Senate Bills 909, 911, 912, and 967, which establish the Authority, haven't seen a vote in the state’s capitol because Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-17th District) hasn't scheduled one.

Thomas Casperson of Escanaba (R – 38th District) was the primary sponsor of the legislation.

Richardville, who represents Monroe County, and portions of Jackson and Washtenaw Counties, said he will schedule a vote when he has support from 13 state GOP senators, or half the GOP Caucus. Schornack said Richardville usually only requires the support of 11 senators, which he said the legislation has obtained.

Schornack also said Senator Tory Rocca (R – 10th District) won't support it because he thinks the RTA will only benefit Detroit, raise taxes, and that the legislation is “designed to take your house,” which Schornack said were simply not true.

Oakland County Treasurer and Panelist Andy Meisner, who’s also working with the MCC to help families avoid foreclosure, asked, "What do you think happens around the pathways around mass transit lines? It supports dignity and equality of opportunity, but bottom line, it's about economic development ... It stimulates commerce and boosts property values."

Oakland County Commissioner Janet Jackson piggybacked Mesiner's comments and said it's neither a poor person issue, nor an African American issue, but an economic issue.

"How many young people want to stay here but don't have transportation?" she asked. She cited her son's experience and said he rides buses for two hours to and from work and school daily.

Schornack also said Senator Tory Rocca (R – 10th District) won't support it because he thinks the RTA will only benefit Detroit, raise taxes, and that the legislation is “designed to take your house,” which Schornack said were simply not true.

As chair of the Mass Transportation Taskforce, Balough said transportation options are key to attracting and retaining an educated and talented (and young) workforce, which are also key to attracting and creating more development.

Troy Chamber of Commerce President Michele Hodges, another panelist, said mass regional transportation is an important investment to our community and helps ensure Michigan is a viable state in the 21st century.

While many of the panelist members expressed the need for mass transit and RTA for economic reasons, other panelists emphasized it's also an equality and justice issue.

Policy advocate for the Michigan Catholic Conference, Paul Stankewitz, said, "From a Catholic perspective, this a common-good issue. It's what’s good for everyone and it's still a value to society to have it. Our solidarity to the poor ... that's what this is about."

One congregation member asked if the Big 3 automakers were behind the proposal as well, a question likely on everyone’s mind.

Panelist and Michigan House Representative Jim Townsend (D - 26th District) said the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has on its board the Big 3, have been champions of transit and that they also want to provide funding.

Many believe it was the actions of one of the auto companies who are at fault for the demise of Detroit's once successful streetcar system, which ended operation in 1956.

Other panelists included Kathryn Gray from Trans4M, Macomb County Commissioner and R-Path representative David Flynn, and Roberta Habowski from the Agency on Aging. Other organizations present during the meeting were Transportation Riders United, MOSES and the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Looking Forward and Taking Action

"Your mission," Schornack said to the attendees, "is to find the 13th [vote] in the state senate that would pass this legislation." He said Sens. Mark C. Jansen (R - 28th District) and Mike Green (R - 31st District) were a good place to start and encourages Michigan voters to call and e-mail them requesting their support for the RTA.

"Your mission," Schornack said to the attendees, "is to find the 13th [vote] in the state senate that would pass this legislation."

Over the next four months, MCC will also meet with US congressional representatives to discuss an assault weapons ban and improving gun background checks. They will also put pressure on state legislators across Southeast Michigan to expand Medicaid to cover the uninsured and to approve a regional transit authority.

Townsend, Jackson and Flynn all agreed to partner with the MCC to work toward effective regional mass transit.

The MCC will reconvene at a Feb. 24 meeting at 3 p.m. (location to be announced) to discuss their progress. Coalition Chair and Reverand, Ben Sandin, said the founding convention will be well-attended and many public officials will be present to reflect on the issues these task forces are tackling.

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