RTA Pushes Back Ballot Drive, Reopens CEO Search

DETROIT—A palpable sense of frustration hung over the monthly meeting of southeast Michigan's RTA board in Detroit late last month. During a lengthy public comment session, some stakeholders expressed dismay over an anticipated vote to push back by two years a funding-related ballot campaign many had hoped would take place this November. Others voiced concern about a lack of visible progress by the regional transit authority as it approaches the end of its first year.

Larry Dilworth, a member of the board's Community's Advisory Committee and the disabilities advocacy group Warriors on Wheels, told board members he had considered stepping down from the CAC due to doubts about its immediate effectiveness.

"What good is it going to do me if they do [the ballot measure] in 2016," he asked, "and my position is only through the end of this year?"

The recent outbreak of existential angst over the RTA's future is no doubt linked to the dramatic departure of its prospective chief executive, John Hertel, in January. Concerned about a lack of stable operating funding to run daily operations and pulled at by outside obligations, Hertel chose to walk away from the authority to remain at his current job managing the SMART bus system.

"I feel like we're in Alice in Wonderland, to be honest with you, because if we don't have the money, the CEO's going to run into the same problem that John Hertel ran into: that you can't hire staff because you can't ask people to make a three-year committment to staff the RTA when you can't tell them you're going to have the money to pay them." ~Steve Potter, RTA board member

His decision is a major setback for the board, forcing them to once again grapple with basic questions about who should oversee the authority's daily operations and how to proceed with the planned ballot drive that could provide the organization with the steady revenue source it is currently lacking. At a meeting earlier in February, the RTA's Executive and Policy Commitee voted to recommend pushing back the ballot campaign to 2016 and to reopen the organization's CEO search.

During the meeting, transit advocates disappointed with the expected postponement of the ballot campaign held a "We Can't Wait" march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the meeting site at 1001 Woodward to encourage board members to take immediate action to improve transit in the region.

"We still believe that a 2014 vote would be possible, but it's pretty unlikely the full board will go against recommendations," Joel Batterman, policy coordinator for the social justice group MOSES, told Mode Shift. "So in the absence of the 2014 vote, we've just sent the RTA an agenda for 2014, because even if there is no vote this year we need to see real improvements on the ground on three different points: hiring an interim CEO, getting started with a [regional transit] planning process, and the committment for a clear timeline for a ballot vote."

When it came time to vote, board members ended up following the Executive and Policy Comittee's suggestions, voting to move the ballot drive back to 2016 and to again start a new search for a RTA chief.

RTA Board Chair Paul Hillegonds, explaining the Executive and Policy Comittee's reasoning, said that a 2014 RTA funding vote would conflict with similar revenue-related ballot measures by two of their transit service providers, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and SMART, later this year. In addition, the delay would give the RTA more time to flesh out regional transit plans for voters and having a CEO in place would help develop the relations needed for a successful campaign drive.

The board's vote over the CEO search was more contentious than the ballot issue.

Board Member Steven Potter (Oakland County) encouraged his fellow board members to vote no on a search until the state of Michigan came up with additional funding to help cover the authority's operational costs.

"I feel like we're in Alice in Wonderland, to be honest with you," he said. "Because if we don't have the money, the CEO's going to run into the same problem that John Hertel ran into: that you can't hire staff because you can't ask people to make a three-year committment to staff the RTA when you can't tell them you're going to have the money to pay them."

Responding to this concern, Hillegonds noted that efforts were underway to get supplemental funding from the state legislators and that there had also been discussion with the Snyder adminstration about a "Plan B" for getting additional state funding. RTA Staff coordinator Dennis Schornack, told the body that a hearing on supplemental funding is expected to take place in the state legislature next week.

Board Member Roy Rose (Macomb County) said he was optimistic the funding issue would be resolved before a new RTA chief was selected.

"With the idea it's posted for 45 days and there's a interview review process, we're talking right now that the earliest probility of hiring a new CEO probably is in about May," he said. "If we were to post this tommorow, everything should be in place by that point in time, theoretically."

The board deadlocked 4-4 on proposal to table the CEO search until better funding could be secured from the state, before voting 6-2 to reopen the search.

Sharing her thoughts on these two weighty decisions, Megan Owens, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Riders United told Mode Shift she was keeping a positive outlook on the RTA's prospects.

"2016 isn't that far away," she said. "So getting a CEO on, updating the regional transit plan, giving the public a chance to weigh in on what is the future for transit in this region--theres a lot of work that needs to be done--and I'm glad theyre moving forward with it."

At Wednesday's meeting, the board also welcomed a new member, Alma Wheeler Smith, a former state legislator, who will be replacing Richard Murphy for Washtenaw County.

Cornelius Henry of the Provider's Advisory Committee also outlined a proposal for a performance indicator dashboard website. It would include data about on-time performance, pull-out time, ridership, reportable accidents and fare box revenue/operating costs for the RTA's different service providers. The proposed website got provisional approval from board members. It's expected to be functional by this October.

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