DETROIT—Southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Authority took two momentous steps forward Wednesday, selecting its first chief executive officer and approving a master agreement to help coordinate the region's transportation network.
In a 7-1 vote, the body chose John Hertel, general manager of the suburban SMART bus system and an experienced metro Detroit political figure, to helm the new agency's daily operations.
The decision came during the board's monthly meeting, which took place at the Southeast Michigan Council of Government's headquarters in downtown Detroit. The time for the normally two-hour meeting was extended from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to allow for interviews of prospective CEO candidates.
Al Martin, another former SMART general manager and a former Detroit Department of Transportation director, and Larry Salci, who had served as the president and CEO of a transit agency in St. Louis, Mo., were considered along with Hertel for the position.
Board Member Mary Lisa Franklin of Detroit was the one dissenting vote, strongly objecting to Hertel's hiring. "I feel sort of bamboozled that we hand this over to SMART -- John Hertel," she said, "but I'm a team player and, if that's how the chips fall, so be it."
During the interview process, Franklin had asked Hertel if he would be able to treat all of the region's transportation service providers impartially. SMART has historically had an antagonistic relationship with DDOT, though this has softened in recent years.
Hertel pledged to do whatever he could to fight any bias in his decisionmaking, at one point noting that 40 percent of SMART's riders are Detroiters.
"This legislation creates an umbrella operation ... that gives us the opportunity to get rid of these differences," he said of the law that created the RTA last year.
In addition his work with SMART, Hertel comes to the new position with an accomplished professional background encompassing many disciplines. Perhaps most applicably, he headed up an effort called Detroit Regional Mass Transit from 2006 to 2010. Appointed as that project's CEO by the county executives of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb, he developed a regional transit plan for those areas that was unanimously adopted by the three counties.
He has also been involved with the M-1 Rail effort and served as a general manager of the Michigan State Fair, chairman of both the Macomb and Wayne County Boards of Commissioners, chairman of the Huron Clinton Metro-Parks Board of Trustees, professor of government, environment and technology at Lawrence Technological University, producer and editorial director at WXYZ-TV and Michigan state senator.
During his interview with the RTA board, Hertel highlighted the central role of bus rapid transit to the region's future and raised the possibility of rebranding the RTA with snappier name. He also suggested establishing a central phone number and unified map for the region's different service providers, which include SMART, DDOT, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and the Detroit Transportation Corporation, operator of the People Mover.
Several of the board members cited Hertel's political and media experience as a major motivator for supporting his hiring. Many of them are pushing for a millage ballot initiative to fund the RTA in November of 2014. Hertel seemed full of enthusiasm for the challenge, but noted victory would not be inevitable.
"You need to create a plan that involves media, involves businesses, involves as many people as you can, because everyone is going to benefit," he said. "The DIA has done a millage successfully -- the zoo too -- and this is much more important than they are."
After the appointment, the board appointed chair Paul Hillegonds to draw up an employment agreement for Hertel. Once that's in place, the new CEO will be responsible for hiring his own staff. At Wednesday's meeting, the body also approved a document known as the master agreement, which in part details how state and federal funds will be distributed to service providers.
The agreement had been a sticking point at the board's July meeting due to a provision that would have used money from local bus operators to pay for the RTA's administrative costs.
Although the board kept that provision, they amended the language of the agreement to make it more palatable to the local agencies. As a gesture of goodwill, they also issued a resolution requesting the governor continue to provide staff to support the administration of the RTA through 2014. If that request were to be granted, it would cut the agency's costs, reducing the need to lean on local providers for funding.