Southeast Michigan Regional Transportation Authority, Light Rail Efforts Making Progress

Efforts to coordinate and modernize Detroit's regional transportation system are slowly rolling forward, despite some remaining obstacles.

State Sens. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) are drafting legislation with help from Gov. Snyder's office that would create a regional transportation authority for Southeast Michigan. They plan to introduce the legislation early next year, according to the Free Press.

In October, Gov. Snyder called for the creation an organization "with the teeth and the commitment to coordinate existing bus services and permanent, dedicated regional funding to invest in rapid transit."

Currently, Southeast Michigan hosts two bus lines, a city-managed bus fleet in Detroit and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) system, which serves the city and suburbs. Financial problems plague both bus systems.

Budget reductions took effect Monday for SMART, cutting 15 weekday routes and limiting routes into Detroit except during peak weekday hours, the Free Press reported. SMART also laid off 123 employees.

The Detroit Department of Transportation (DDOT) has suffered its own bus troubles this year, with cuts to services, large numbers of vehicles idled by mechanical problems, and a 100 driver walk-out over safety concerns following an assault on a bus driver.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has proposed outsourcing the system's mechanical work, and in November he suggested privatizing DDOT as part of his fiscal crisis plan for the city.

In the past, efforts to unify the metropolitan area's services have stumbled over regional conflicts about financing and power-sharing. According to the Free Press, suburban leaders wince at the thought of DDOT's pension and retirement legacies, and Detroit officials fear losing control of federal funds and operational decision-making.

Megan Owens, President of the transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, told Michigan Radio there is no need to eliminate either of the existing bus systems.

"Actually it's not necessary," she said. "A lot of cities have multiple transit providers. But what they have that we don't is one agency that can actively coordinate and oversee them from a regional level."

In October, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced more than $10 million in grants to update Detroit area buses and to help construct regional light-rail lines, prompting Snyder's call for a regional transportation authority.

Momentum is also growing for the Woodward Avenue Light Rail project, which would connect downtown Detroit with the city's limit at 8 Mile Road. Backers hope to have the light rail line operating by 2015, according to Crain's Detroit.

Detroit City Council held a series of job interviews Monday to fill two of seven seats on the board that will oversee the $550 million transportation effort, MLive reports.

On Tuesday, Council President Charles Pugh wrote on Twitter that the body had selected Henry Gaffney, president of the DDOT bus drivers' union local, and Robert Polk, a former director of DDOT.

Other candidates for the position included Sue Mosey, president of Midtown Detroit Inc., Patty Fedewa, a labor attorney for Transportation Riders United, and Marsden Burger, who worked on the development of the Detroit People Mover.

Mayor Bing, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and the private investors backing the project will also appoint members of the board.

This summer, Bing proposed a five-person panel that would give City Council just one appointee, but the body voted the proposal down as unfair.