Shaken RTA Tries To Right Itself As Frustration Mounts

DETROIT—A palpable feeling of frustration has been hanging over southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Authority in recent weeks, something clearly on display at the RTA's board meeting in Detroit late last month.

Transit advocates expecting the postponement of a planned ballot funding measure held a "We Can't Wait" march from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to the board's meeting place at 1001 Woodward to encourage board members to take immediate action to improve transit in the region.

During a lengthy public comment session, some stakeholders also expressed dismay over a recommendation by the RTA's Executive and Policy Committee to push back by two years the ballot campaign that 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 his position with the CAC due to doubts about the RTA's short-term 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?"

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

His decision has been a major setback for the board, forcing them to grapple again 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.

The Board Vote

When it came time to vote at the monthly meeting, board members ended up following the Executive and Policy Committee's suggestions, voting to move the ballot drive back to 2016 and to relaunch the search for a RTA chief.

The makeup of the board was a little different than usual that afternoon, with Liz Gerber (Washtenaw County) absent and Alma Wheeler Smith, a former state representative, replacing Richard Murphy as Washtenaw's other board member.

"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 commitment 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

RTA Board Chair Paul Hillegonds, explaining his committee's recommendation on the ballot issue, said that a 2014 funding campaign would conflict with similar revenue-related ballot measures later this year by two local transit service providers, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and SMART. In addition, he said delaying the vote 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 commitment 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. In late February after the meeting, the State Senate passed a bill to provide $2 million in supplemental start-up funding for the RTA, but that provision was stripped from a similar bill in the House. The issue must now be worked out in a conference committee.

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 probability of hiring a new CEO probably is in about May," he said. "If we were to post this tomorrow, everything should be in place by that point in time, theoretically."

The board deadlocked 4-4 on the 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--there's a lot of work that needs to be done--and I'm glad they're moving forward with it."

MOSES Calls For Transit Action

Anticipating the RTA's decision to postpone the funding ballot vote the social justice group, Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength, came prepared with a backup plan. After leading the "We Can't Wait" march to the RTA's meeting spot, MOSES held a rally encouraging the authority to take a more proactive approach to improving transit.

"In the absence of the 2014 vote, we've just sent the RTA an agenda for 2014 (PDF), because even if there is no vote this year we need to see real improvements on the ground," MOSES' Policy Coordinator, Joel Batterman, told Mode Shift.

Detroit spends less per capita than any other major metropolitan area in the country on transit, a meager $87 per person. ~ National Transit Database

The agenda outlines three objectives MOSES wants the RTA board to commit to by the end of the year.

First, recognizing that a CEO search is likely to take several months, it asks the board to hire an interim director as early as possible. MOSES sees the hiring of a temporary chief as a crucial step to help coordinate the activities of transit service providers and advance the authority's mission of bettering transit in the region.

The group also wants a clear timeline for a funding ballot proposal as well as an affirmation of the need for greater regional transit investment. According to 2011 data from the National Transit Database, Detroit spends less per capita than any other major metropolitan area in the country on transit, a meager $87 per person. On top of this, the RTA itself has yet to come up with a long-term revenue source to cover administration costs and help pay for costs associated with building and running a high-speed bus line for the region.

Lastly, the agenda requests the board to engage the public to develop a regional transit plan. Noting that the RTA's current plan is little more than a mash-up of the 2008 Regional Transit Coordinating Council plan for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties and the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority's 2012 plan for Washtenaw County, MOSES is calling on the board to convene a series of public meetings throught to gather public input to help put together a more comprehensive transit plan.

"The people of this region deserve reliable bus service, improved coordination between transit agencies, and new express bus connections along major regional arteries," the document reads. "These actions will put the RTA on a path to make concrete improvements in transit service in 2014."

Former CEO Candidate Highlights RTA Challenges

Frustration among transit supporters is far from the only issue facing the RTA. Right now, it's charged with overseeing several regional service providers including SMART, DDOT, AAATA and Detroit's People Mover, helping implement a new high-speed bus system and developing a regional transit plan. In the coming months, it will also be conducting a new CEO search and likely looking deeper into revenue matters like the proposed 2016 ballot measure.

Larry Salci, a veteran of the transit industry in both the public and private sectors, is one candidate who won't be returning for another interview with the board.

In a letter obtained by Mode Shift (PDF), dated Jan. 20, he explained his reasons for declining another interview while highlighting some of the major challenges facing the authority. He talked about the need to gain credibility as an agency before pursuing a vote on public funding and, echoing MOSES' agenda, addressed the need to come up with a more meaningful regional transit plan.

In particular, he pointed out the need to develop integrated fare and service policies, moving beyond a conglomeration of existing services mixed with new modes like bus rapid transit, commuter rail and the M-1 Rail streetcar system.

"My observations of your plan indicated that the Plan lacked the necessary assumptions about the key operations and financial data, performance metrics, and service criteria in my opinion required to sell the Plan to Metro Detroit citizens by seeking financial support," he said. "My rationale and analysis was based on the current situation of both existing and planned new service, with the assumption that all planned service needs to be revisited and rationalized before moving forward under RTA policy guidelines."

Salci spared no feelings with his assesment of Detroit's DDOT bus service, either, saying it was "virtually in 'Code Red' condition." Remarking that only 150 out of 400 buses were operational, he criticized how this wasted time and money by paying bus operators to sit around waiting on unavailable buses. To remedy this and other problems, he suggested detailed analysis, better management, increased development of worker's skillsets and improved maintenance of vehicles.

Of SMART, he said the system is "inadequate for the population size and geographic coverage required to sustain or provide meaningful service coverage or frequency." He also noted that the People Mover needed additional financial support.

Salci also stressed the need for detailed analysis to help establish effective policies for fares, routes, service frequency, labor, fleet maintenance in order to create a functional regional transit plan and to develop a capital plan that allows for asset replacement and an expansion of service.

Some these questions about data are being addressed by the RTA's Providers Advisory Committee. They've been given provisional approval by the authority to establish a performance indicator website, which 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. It's expected to be functional by this October.

In his letter, Salci was also critical of the structure of the RTA itself, noting a legal requirement in the RTA's founding legislation the mandated that no less than 85 percent of money raised by a tax assessment or vehicle registration tax could be spent outside of the county where it was raised. This, he called a continuation of a policy of "fragmentation by political design" concerning transit in the region.

"In summary," he concluded, "my view is your organizational success is all about implementing the right Board policies and hiring a CEO with strong technical, operational and political leadership skills in the industry who also is a developer of a strong management team and is prepared to operate under the limiting RTA structure. You have a significant challenge."

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