Every once and a while a headline is buried beneath the local talk of the international auto show, truck sales and... well, whatever else the wise guys in Detroit's newspapers seem to think is more important.
This time, the big news wasn't even put in print, but if you watched a video on the Detroit Free Press website you might have caught it. As Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced the arrival of ten new buses for the Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) he said something that got me spitting out my morning coffee:
"There is no doubt that the single biggest factor in getting these buses [here] is Joe Biden," Duggan said. "The Vice President has taken a personal interest in solving the [transit] problem in the city of Detroit."
If our transit systems could have a Casanova, Joe Biden ain't such a bad guy. I mean, his hair is gray, people make fun of him washing cars on the white house driveway (kidding), but he's got money. A couple hundred million taxpayer's money. And you know what? He gives pretty good compliments.
Yet even with the vice president wooing DDOT, there's still one big ogre in the closet: the regional transit authority. Formed in 2012 by Governor Rick Snyder (R-Mich.) the RTA is supposed to be an overarching authority for metropolitan transit in metro Detroit, which includes DDOT, SMART (the suburban transit line) and AATA (the Ann Arbor system.)
With Michael Ford at the helm, the RTA seems to be steering toward a millage vote in 2016, but details are still fuzzy. Every time I've spoken with RTA officials, though, they don't seem optimistic about merging the three different systems into a single transit experience. So I asked some other folks about the chance of getting a single system in metro Detroit, considering our Veep's doting administrative gaze.
Tom Choske, president of Freshwater Transit Solutions, seemed enthusiastic. His business helps with transit branding and operations planning. Choske was practically gushing about the future of RTA.
"I think it's fantastic the conversation has turned to transit in the region," Choske said. "We're at a nexus point. If we get a few more things together, we're going to see much more development."
What might those things be? In a previous interview in May with Paul Hillegonds, Gov. Snyder's representative on the RTA, I asked him whether there was any chance of a merging of the lines in the next 5-10 years. Hillegonds said, "No."
When I asked why, he had a pretty simple answer, "Well, we'd have to re-negotiate with the unions. Pay. Pensions. And they all have different contract end-dates. It's not possible."
Not possible? Really? I called Fred Westbrook, j.r., the President Business Agent of ATU local 26, to ask about some of these impossible union demands.
According to Westbrook, a recent informal agreement with the city of Detroit made it so the bus drivers could, of all things, stop to take a leak, so long as they kept the bus on time. Previously, the drivers had to wait until their route was finished and they were back in the home station to take a restroom break. But, as Westbrook knowingly said, "When you gotta go, you gotta go."
With such basic, commonsense requests, it seems strange people are worried about how the transit unions are going to handle a merger. So I asked Westbrook how he'd feel, as a union leader, about DDOT becoming a part of a single transit system.
"We would love to be a part of a merger, but we want to ensure we receive equal pay across the system. That would be my primary concern," Westbrook said. "I just don't want us to be merging and have pay inequality between the suburban and Detroit drivers. It just doesn't make sense to have two drivers on a route with one making three dollars an hour more for no reason. I wouldn't be for that."
And those, ladies and gentlemen, are the impossible demands: equal pay for equal work.
So let's review what we've learned today: Joe Biden is passionate about Detroit transit and the DDOT union is interested in merging the systems if it's done in a fair way. What's left before we get that world class transit system we've all been waiting for? I guess the politicians need to just get it done.