Traverse City Record-Eagle


January 26, 2014

Jack Lessenberry: Detroit transit slow-moving

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.

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