Missing The Bus: Dems Block Transit Authority To Protest 'Right To Work'

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In the hours before he left office in January 2003, Governor John Engler vetoed legislation to create a regional transit system in metro Detroit. Why did he do that? Because the state Senate didn’t support his plan to authorize 15 new charter schools in Detroit.

For that reason, and 22 equally absurd reasons, legislation to create a regional transit authority is working its way through Lansing for the 24th time.

Virtually every first, second, and third-rate metropolis has such an authority to efficiently manage public transportation. Presumably those authorities were created with far less hand-wringing and fewer legislative man hours than has been devoted to the still unapproved Detroit RTA.

However, the RTA is literally—finally—on the cusp of approval. The state Senate passed it, the state House appeared poised to follow suit, and Governor Rick Snyder has committed to sign the bills into law.

What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, just Democrats throwing their own Engler-like temper tantrum over an unrelated policy. The House Democratic caucus voted as a bloc against the RTA bills Wednesday because Lansing Republicans want to pass a Right to Work bill. The maneuver is part of a larger strategy, at least for now, to block any meaningful legislation so long as Right to Work remains on the table.

Now, it is a well-known political truth that most Democrats tend to favor pro-transit policies while most Republicans tend to be skeptical of all these buses and trains and such. Given that truth, what Democrats were really saying was: “If you do this thing we don’t like, then we won’t support this other thing you don’t really care about but we like.”

The Democrats wildcat strike against good policy perhaps amused their GOP colleagues. Certainly, Republicans sounded like they were having fun.

Freep: “I was told by someone that Republicans hate Detroit, so I guess I’m shocked today with this vote,” said state Rep. Paul Opsommer, R-Dewitt.

Well played, Rep. Opsommer. Well played, indeed.

Not laughing, however, are transit advocates who have worked so hard to build a fragile, broad-based coalition to push the RTA up the muddy hill that is Lansing.

“There is clearly plenty of blame to go around: you can blame the Republican legislature for trying to shove through so-called “Right to Work,” you can blame the Governor for doubling down on RtW last night instead of following previous commitments to avoid it, and you can blame the Democrats for holding RTA and everything else hostage over their fear and anger about “Right to Work,” said Transportation Riders United’s Megan Owens in a statement Wednesday evening.

“Detroit can't be globally competitive without better transportation, and this legislation is the necessary first step to building that system,” said the Michigan Suburbs Alliance’s Hayley Roberts. “We hope that House Democrats and Republicans alike will recognize this critical opportunity for metro Detroit and the state as a whole, and will pass these bills regardless of politics.”

“It would be a travesty if [the RTA] sinks as collateral damage in a political battle that has nothing to do with establishing reliable public transportation to millions,” said Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. of the Michigan Environmental Council.

On social networks, others were less diplomatic.

“[F]unctional mass transit in SE Michigan has been as elusive and, to the region, as important as Affordable Care Act was to the nation,” said Ferndale City Councilman Scott Galloway on Facebook. “Opposing RTA to create some "leverage" against the GOP is delusional. It truly is cutting off our nose to spite our face.”

It really is.

Fortunately, the House suspended voting on the RTA bills—they were unlikely to pass without at least some Democratic support—and perhaps Thursday will be a new day.

Perhaps Democrats will vote on the RTA on the bills' merits. Or perhaps enough Republicans to kill the RTA will be like: “Naw, we were just kidding about transit. Buses are for commies.” Perhaps 24 attempts weren’t sufficient, and everyone will hold out hope that the 25th time will be the charm! Perhaps North Korean paratroopers will invade Detroit today and this entire exercise will be for naught.

At this moment all that is for sure is Lansing had, finally, a chance to kick the RTA through the proverbial goalposts on Wednesday but the House Democrats, like Lucy Van Pelt, pulled away the football at the last second in a logically incoherent effort to gain "leverage" on a completely unrelated issue.

In the meantime, Washington continues to sit on a bundle of money to fund the M1 and bus rapid transit systems, the proposed commuter rail between Detroit and Ann Arbor languishes without a governing authority, and the DDOT/SMART bus systems remain an inefficient polyglot that effectively service only the most desperate of commuters.

When Engler made his non-sequitur stand against better transit, then-Metro Times columnist Casey Coston wrote: “Despite what any earnest city official will tell you, this is not a “world-class city” and will never be one until it gets a transit system worthy of that title. Our current fleet of buses and downtown trolleys falls well short of that title.”

Immediately following that sentence, Coston tallied up the $300 million in new downtown parking under development at the time because most commuters simply had and still have no other viable transportation option.

A few years later, Coston left Detroit. 

Buy stock in uHaul because the House Democrats Wednesday, like the former Republican governor a decade earlier, ensured many more young talented Detroiters, fed up with the dysfunction, inaction, and half-baked political brinksmanship, will likely follow Coston’s path out of town.

After all, if we can’t do the something this basic—even Franklin County, MA has an RTA!—why would any young person with a future worth a good God damn stick around? Better question, why should they?

Graphic by Lauren Ann Davies and Jeff Wattrick

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