Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rep. Johnson on Detroit regional transit authority: "We're gonna get this legislation passed"

Bert: bullish on bill boosting transit
The Sunday before last, at the annual public meeting of regional faith-based advocacy group MOSES, State Representative Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) spoke with surprising confidence of the prospects for legislation that would create a regional public transit authority in metro Detroit.

"We're gonna get this legislation passed," Johnson said. He stressed that most bills "this transformational" take time to make their way through Lansing. However, "a lot has happened over the past couple weeks."

Johnson assured the audience the bill, H.B. 5731, would be passed not next decade, not next year, but this year, "without question."

For those who've awaited a regional transit authority for half a century, and who've watched the halting progress towards a bill this year, that unequivocal statement may seem hard to believe. But Johnson, the chair of the House Detroit Caucus and a member of the Public Transit Caucus, is in a position to know.

Of course, Johnson also spoke in front of a crowd anxious to see such action.

MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength) held the meeting in Detroit's Bethel A.M.E. Church on St. Antoine, a stone's throw from where the Chrysler Freeway tore through the heart of Detroit's African American community half a century before. The several hundred people gathered in the pews clearly wanted the authority, and soon.

"Are you all ready to help get this legislation passed?" Patricia Hammer of Birmingham Unitarian Church asked the audience. The response came through not once but twice, from voices of multiple religions, races, ages, and municipalities: "YES!"

Johnson may have reasons for optimism, but as Hammer's question suggests, there is unquestionably much work to be done before December.

The transit portion of the day's program opened with a skit dramatizing a young Detroiter's fruitless quest for a job using the city's unpredictable bus system. Rejected by his potential employer after he's forced to arrive late, he quits town for another, more accessible metropolis, concluding that "the city and state government have failed me" by their failure to enact a regional transit system.

MOSES venue puts the Spirit in transportation organizing.
And now, added Lucinda Reese of Greater Southern Missionary Baptist Church, "they're about to do it again!"

A regional transit authority in Detroit, practically the nation's only major metropolis without one, last neared the light of day in 2002. After passage through the Legislature, the bill died awaiting a signature on Governor John Engler's desk. The new bill, Michigan HB 5731, has been endorsed by two of the region's so-called Big Four, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Macomb County Commissioner Paul Gieleghem. However, it still awaits the endorsements of Oakland County's Brooks Patterson and, curiously, Mayor Bing of Detroit, which might have the most to gain from the authority.

Citizens of the region are encouraged to contact Patterson and Bing to urge support for the regional transit authority. Patterson can be reached at 248-858-0480, Bing at 313-224-3400. MOSES is leading a delegation to the Mayor's Office to request a meeting on the subject, gathering in front of the Spirit of Detroit statue at 9:30 the morning of Thursday, October 28. State legislators need to hear from constituents too; you can find your representative here and your state senator here.

As some analysts have suggested, a regional transit authority will not be a panacea for Detroit's crippling dearth of public transportation. Major hurdles will remain in securing funding from across the region, among other things. Yet the authority will be an essential first step.

In his printed welcome, MOSES president Rev. Darryl S. Moore (Greater Southern Missionary Baptist Church, Detroit) noted that Detroit remained the most segregated metropolis in America, and urged the region's people to recognize at last that "we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," in the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

The division of the region's transit systems into separate units, DDOT serving the city and SMART serving the suburbs, is among the clearest institutional manifestations of Detroit's continued segregation, and among the most debilitating. With a regional transit authority, we can stitch these transit networks together, begin repairing the great tears in their tattered fabric, work to strengthen the existing threads. We can help to make this vast metropolis a place that once more is truly whole.

At the close of the meeting, Rev. David Bullock of Highland Park's Greater St Matthew MBC gathered participants to the altar to sing "We Shall Overcome." As the hymn soared to the church's rafters, it seemed as though with the help of MOSES's staff, the people of metropolitan Detroit might just manage to part the waters, bring a unified transit system across the Eight Mile moat, and win a brighter future for all.


  1. Metro Detroit transit is not as segregated as noted. SMART serves both the suburbs and the city of Detroit. DDOT provides limited service within the suburbs neighboring Detroit as well.

  2. There's certainly some overlap to the two systems. SMART provides commuter service from the suburbs to New Center and the downtown. But in general, outbound SMART buses have a policy of not dropping off passengers within Detroit, and inbound SMART buses don't pick up passengers once they enter the city. DDOT buses, meanwhile, don't venture much beyond the major malls perched at the edge of the city: Northland, Eastland, and Fairlane. Overall, the service they provide reflects the city-suburb bifurcation which their names suggest.

  3. This is a step in the right direction, but it means nothing without Patterson and Bing's support. Nothing against Wayne & Macomb county, but those are by far the two biggest of the big four.

    Anyone know the history on why the 2002 bill died on Engler's desk?

  4. Apparently it was political payback for a non-transit issue. All he had to do was sign it, and by not doing so set back years of work.

    I appreciate Bert's enthusiasm, but until Bing and Brooks agree and give their approval, the other city and OC reps will not let it through.

  5. Chris and Hannah's caution is confirmed by conversations I had & heard today. Look for another post to come.

    All the more reason to call up Brooks and Bing. Although the MOSES handout asked for calls from constituents, a regional transit authority is so important for the whole, er, region that I'd encourage everyone to phone them both.


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