Ceos push for vote on regional transit crain’s detroit business

A coalition of 23 metro Detroit CEOs representing most of the region’s largest companies are making a public push to get political leaders to coalesce around a regional mass transit plan to put before voters in the November general election.

Led by DTE Energy Chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson, the group of business titans that employ nearly 200,000 people in Michigan are calling for action on regional transit in the wake of passing on Detroit for a potential site for its planned 50,000-employee second headquarters.

"The poor quality of our public transit is not lost on potential investors in our region. When Amazon passed on naming Detroit as a finalist for its second headquarters site, the lack of a workable regional transit system was one of a few key factors cited," the group of CEOs wrote in a letter that was expected to be published in the Sunday Detroit Free Press. "How important a factor it was can be debated; what cannot be debated is that Amazon didn’t like what it saw."

The group includes Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, Ford Motor Co. CEO Jim Hackett, Blue Cross Blue Shield CEO Dan Loepp, Ilitch Holdings Chairman Christopher Ilitch and the heads of Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Medical Center and Beaumont Health. Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation CEO Dave Egner also signed on to the letter.

Last month, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans proposed a $5.4 billion, 20-year regional transit plan that would saturate the region’s main roads with more frequent, limited-stop bus service, create direct routes to Detroit Metropolitan Airport and start a long-sought commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

The CEOs signed the letter ahead of a Regional Transit Authority board meeting on Thursday, where representatives from Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties will be asked to allow a public comment period on the Evans plan to commence over the next month.

In their letter, the corporate and philanthropic leaders cited metro Detroit‘s "dead last" or near-bottom ranking among the country’s top 25 largest metropolitan regions in use and access to public transportation options — a reflection of limited service among the two major bus transportation entities, SMART and DDOT.

"This letter is not intended to endorse a specific plan," Anderson said in an interview with Crain’s. "What we’re really saying is that we think the evidence is clear that we lag most of our peer regions across the country badly and the job of our political leaders and the RTA is to develop that both benefits the region overall and meets the needs of their part of the region."

Hackel has said his constituents want the county’s crumbling roads fixed before more buses are put into service. They both also cite the failed 2016 regional transit vote as evidence that voters have no appetite for higher taxes to fund improved mass transportation services. That measure narrowly failed by 20,000 votes out of 1.7 million votes cast across all four counties.

Patterson’s two appointees on the RTA board have called for a legal change in the boundaries of the transit authority to be shrunk to "a coalition of the willing" and exclude cities such as Novi and Bloomfield Hills that have long shunned the SMART bus system.

"I don’t think we doubt that there’s a need for transit that could benefit the region," said Tim Soave, an Oakland County representative on the RTA board. "I’m not convinced that the plan as to how to pay for it is really the best way to do it."

"There is so much going right in the region right now, but we know it’s important to keep asking where do we not have things going right, where do we lag other vibrant regions," Anderson told Crain’s. "And transit is clearly one of those areas. When you benchmark us against other peer regions, we just do not look good."