For a moment, it looked like the Detroit area had a good chance of getting a realistic and cost-effective system of mass transit for the first time in the region’s history.
John Hertel, the longtime general manager of SMART, the efficient suburban bus system, was named in August to head the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA) for Southeastern Michigan.
That came after Gov. Rick Snyder managed to get the state Legislature to approve the RTA, which would have the authority to set up a system of fast buses with their own lanes.
Those buses — which actually look more like train cars — would whip passengers across Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, including runs to the airport, Ann Arbor and downtown.
The network would also be coordinated with the two existing bus systems: DDOT, which services the city of Detroit, and SMART.
When completed, the system would enable people without cars — primarily Detroiters — to get to places where the jobs are — mainly, the suburbs, something virtually impossible now, since the bus systems are poorly coordinated and DDOT notoriously unreliable.
The RTA also would be a convenient way for business travelers to get to their destinations without fighting for a cab. Last spring, Hertel told me Detroit was the nation’s only major metropolitan area without public transportation from the airport to downtown.
“Out of 30 metro areas, we are the only one where you land at the airport and find — ‘you’re on your own, buddy.’”
Not good, for a community desperately in need of more business investment. But this summer, Hertel, who combines devotion to public transportation with expertise in practical politics, told me he was as optimistic as he’s ever been.
Practical mass transit was something he has wanted to see since the day in April, 1956, when he was 9, and his parents took him to ride the Detroit streetcars on their very last day of service.
When he took the job, he saw his primary task as persuading voters in the four counties to approve taxing themselves to build the system. That might not be an easy sell — but John Hertel has a track record of getting things done. Politically savvy, he has shepherded many a millage through to successful passage. Though a Democrat who served three terms in the state senate, Hertel has a track record of working well with and being trusted by both parties.
He is also the only politician ever to have chaired both the Wayne and Macomb county board of commissioners.
But then things fell apart.
Last week, the stunning news came that Hertel had resigned as head of the RTA, releasing a statement saying he felt he needed to remain at SMART.
The suburban system is facing a millage renewal this summer, and he said he needed to concentrate on getting it passed. Leaving the RTA was not legally hard to do, since he never signed a contract, wasn’t taking any pay and had never formally resigned from SMART.
However, he knew about the millage renewal long before he agreed to take the new job with the regional agency.
So what really happened?
Hertel was not commenting. But it isn’t hard to piece the story together. In November, he told a suburban newspaper reporter that while he was satisfied with his contract, there was no money available to hire the proper staff. We aren’t talking about secretaries. He needed transportation experts.
You don’t design a 110-mile system with special lanes and 23 stations on the back of a legal pad. He needed to hire professionals, and to be able to assure them they will have a job for a while.
Last summer, Hertel told me his guess was it would cost $2 to $3 million to do that. In state budget terms, that is chicken feed; less than the cost, say, of an addition to an office building. But the Legislature didn’t appropriate the money.
Eventually it was put into a supplemental appropriations bill, which never passed. My guess is that mired in frustration, Hertel decided to return to the job where he knew he could make a positive impact. Technically, that doesn’t mean the RTA is dead.
Paul Hillegonds, the chair of the RTA board, expressed disappointment, but said a search would begin for a new CEO.
But it is hard to imagine finding someone else with both the transportation expertise and political savvy needed to get it done.
What is frustrating is that — if this opportunity falls through — it will mean continuing a pattern of failure that has seen Michigan repeatedly leave hundreds of millions in federal transportation dollars on the table, money that will eventually go to other states.
Indeed, Washington would foot half the cost of building the RTA. Last March, Hertel estimated that might be about $600 million. That sounds pricey — but not when you consider that the cost of any subway system would be at least $1 billion per mile.
The beauty of the fast bus system is that, if voters approve, it could be up and running in a handful of years.
From a business and consumer standpoint, a rapid bus system makes sense. But in recent years, Michigan government has seldom missed an opportunity to, well, miss an opportunity.
Unless something changes, it looks like déjà vu, one more time.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.