Clark Harder is the Executive Director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the interests of public transportation authorities throughout Michigan for the state government. Mr. Harder has been the Executive Director of the interest group since 1999 and served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1990-1998. He is also an MSU graduate.. Q: About yourself and how you became involved with the Michigan Public Transit Association (MPTA).
A: Sure, I've been working with MPTA for about twelve years. My previous life was as a legislator. I worked on the transportation committee for three of my 4 terms in the legislature, so six years. The last two years of that I chaired the budget committee in the House on transportation, so that's where I got all my background on transportation budget issues. When I left the legislature, I did some consulting work and one of my clients was MPTA to do some analysis work for them and out of that they asked me to consider coming on as executive director to work with the association in positioning us with the legislature. So I've been doing that for twelve years now.
As a legislator I worked a lot with the association and the previous executive director and with some of the people who are still active today in the association.
Q: What kinds of things do you do now on a daily basis?
A: A lot of what I do individually is connected to overseeing our lobbyists work, I don't do the lobbying directly, we do retain a multi-client lobbyist who advises us and does most of that but I will oversee their work. With all the new people in the legislature now, the 67 or whatever it is that came in new this year, I have been doing a lot of the one-on-one direct meetings with the legislators. But it's largely; my role is in figuring out what our positions should be in positioning us to hopefully influence the legislature positively in providing state funding for transit.
Q: Recent past successes of the MPTA?
A: Probably the major one over the last decade, and it's a success but also given the economic times Michigan is in-it's not the kind of success we'd like to have, we haven't been able to expand our base of state support for operating funds, but we've been able to fight off any raids over the last 5 years on our funds. Most other issues these days are fighting to just hang on to what they have in the State of Michigan and are not very successful in doing that. So we have been very successful in the last several budget cycles in keeping our funds intact. That said, what we'd really like to be seeing is the success in getting an expansion of those funds. Interestingly with all of the negative publicity that Governor Snyder is getting right now, we actually like his budget proposal and we are one of, as far as I can determine, only two interest groups that are satisfied with it, community colleges being the other ones. We like it because he's again recommending the same amount of funding for operations as Governor Granholm had for the last four years but he's also doubling the amount of money earmarked for matching bus capital on the federal level which we desperately need. The state match money helps bring in the federal dollars. We get four federal dollars for every one dollar the state puts in and that buys our new buses for all of our systems across the state, so that's pretty important. We're not matching all of the federal money that's available and even with his recommendation to double the amount from last year's 8 million to 16 million this year, given the legislature approves of it, which remains to be seen, but it still will not begin to match all of the federal money we could be drawing down. We're encouraging legislators to support the governor's recommendation. Like I said, we're probably only one of two groups in Lansing right now telling legislators that we support the governor's proposal. Everybody else, as you know if you've been following things, is rallying against the Governor's budget.
Q: Did the MPTA play a role in making that budget possible?
A: Yeah, I think we did because we and our member agencies started meeting with Governor-Elect Snyder right after the election and explaining to him how public transportation funding works, how the state match for bus capital works to get the federal, four federal dollars for every one state dollar. He and his people didn't know anything really about that when we began meeting with him and they quickly grasped the value of that. I think the other thing that's been very helpful with Governor Snyder is that the one thing he does seem to get is that public transportation can be a good economic development tool. I think that he already inherently understood that, and our message just reinforced in his mind that we're a good investment.
Q: Who are the MPTA's opponents and what tactics do they use?
A: Probably our biggest opponents right now are the folks who, some of whom are in the legislature today, who are just very anti-tax. They look at public transportation buses as tax dollars, in their mind, being wasted because lots of times the buses are not that full. They don't look at the buses at rush hour, they don't realize that to have good public transportation you have to have regular routes with high frequency to serve the public. They look at a route like mid-morning or mid-afternoon that only have two or three people on it and they figure that's a waste of money. What they don't think about is that those two or three people are likely going somewhere to either make money or spend money, because people don't just ride around on public transit cause it's fun, for many people it's their only mode of transportation and that's how they get to their jobs and that's how they get to the doctor, or get to the grocery store or pharmacy and spend money. They don't look at it that way, they look at it and say, "Bah, it's a waste of money". So they're probably our biggest opponents. From an interest group standpoint, one thing we've worked real hard at in the last few years is do is to build up our working relationship with the road builders and the road interests because historically they have been an opponent. In Michigan, money is carved out of the transportation budget which they think of is being all their money, but you know, there's a portion that's allowed to be carved out to fund public transportation. That started in the 70s when the state started to fund public transportation. But prior to that time it was the highway department that got virtually all the tax revenue that was available to build roads. So historically they have been an opponent, but we've really worked very diligently over the last decade to try to build our working relationship with them, and pretty successfully. They now realize, and their lobbyists realize that if we're going to get any kind of a gas tax increase or any new funding for transportation purposes, the only way we're going to get is if we get money for public transportation because there's a core group of people serving in the legislature who care a lot more about public transit than they do roads. They want to see funding for public transit and the only way you're going to get legislation passed is to have something that takes their vote. So they've come to realize that we've actually been partnering with them a lot more the past few years then working against each other. But historically that would probably be our biggest opponent.
Q: What role to political parties play in the issue debate as opposed to interest groups?
A: Well, the parties obviously can set a tone for their members as to whether they will tend to be pro-transit or not. Democrats historically come out pretty pro-transit. We occasionally have a Democrat who will be a little difficult to work with, but historically most of the Democrats in Michigan come from the more urban areas and recognize public transportation as a vital necessity. The Republican Party on the other hand, a lot of their people come from more rural areas and they don't look at public transportation the way we do. They look at public transportation as being all those big urban system buses that never have enough people on them and they don't realize, and we're always working to make them understand this, that public transportation includes their little dial-a-ride type city or county systems. By and large they will tell us that, "oh yeah, I support that. That's important to my community." But they don't make the connection and we are constantly fighting that perception, and I'm not certain if it's the Republican Party so much that perpetuates the misinterpretation of transit, but I do think the rise of the Tea Party faction, which obviously has been very much linked to the Republican Party certainly here in Michigan; those people are just anti-tax, period. They don't recognize the value of public transportation or a lot of other things, they just, you know, want their taxes lowered. I think the party, the Republican Party at the state level, is kind of accountable to that faction, because obviously they want their support. So now you have a lot of people who are serving as Republican Party backed candidates who now may not be quite as far to the right as the Tea Party, but that's who put them there so, you know, they're much more difficult to talk with and reason with and help them to understand the roles that publically funded entities play in their communities.
Q: What influences policymakers' receptiveness to the public transportation cause the most? Do you conduct research or fundraising for the politicians?
A: We don't maintain a PAC and we don't give political contributions from the MPTA as an entity. Some of our members privately, you know, personally will give contributions. We do a lot of research based, fact-based, information. We put a lot of reports together that we give to legislators. I guess you can say we're more information based as opposed to political contribution based which is the approach that a lot of groups take. We're looking at it constantly though, we are now once again, we've always decided against doing a PAC. I think once many many years ago the MPTA had a PAC that wasn't very successful, they did away with it, but certainly PACs are important to, you know, have funds. We are constantly being solicited by the politicians to attend fundraisers, and like I said, some of membership will, individually, I occasionally will individually, but as an entity we don't.
Q: How does the MPTA work with other interest groups or allies, maybe in other states or on a national level?
A: Well several things actually, we as an association belong to the APTA, the American Public Transportation Association, and CTAA which is the Community Transportation Association of America. Through those memberships we interact on national issues. We also here in Michigan started the advocacy-coalition group called "Let's Get Moving" about 8 or 9 years ago. We worked very closely with disability advocates, the Disability Network of Michigan, we worked closely with the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents the most unionized transit workers in Michigan, we more or less representing the management and the ATU representing the workers, it was really the first thing we really got together working on. Their lobbyist is here in town and I co-chair the coalition. We work with, although our relationship over the years has been rocky, with road building interest groups, we've actually worked pretty closely with the County Road Association of Michigan, folks that have oversight of the county roads, They've always been champions of us and worked well with us, so we've worked with them a lot. We work with the Michigan Municipal League, obviously a lot of our systems are municipal based systems. You know, they may be city-based where the city belongs to the MML as well as the MPTA, so we work a lot with them. We work to some extent with the county association, the MAC, Michigan Association of Counties, for the same reasons, some of our systems are county based. Interestingly, for the past couple of years we've been working pretty closely with the state Chamber of Commerce. They came out very much in support of the revenue for public transportation. They, in conjunction with the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Rapids Chamber came out about three or four years ago with public statements saying "We support more funding for public transportation." And that's an important element, so we've worked pretty closely with them in recent years. The director of the state chamber is quite a transit advocate so that's kind of a unique new partnership. Traditionally business interest groups weren't really that interested in transit. Now they, and it's really a good thing because what we really need right now is the attention of Republican legislators. They listen to those chamber of commerce type groups much more than they listen to us.
Q: So you've been trying to influence the Chamber of Commerce in addition to legislators?
Q: Within the clients you represent, the Michigan transit authorities, are there any internal disagreements?
A: Yes. Yep.
Q: What are these internal disagreements and how are they managed?
A: In Michigan there's a long standing internal disagreement over the funding formula and how it's distributed between agencies. In the mid 90s, there was a spin-off organization formed from MPTA members who got disgruntled with MPTA leadership at the time and started their own association which is still around to this day. It has about a dozen members and it's called the Michigan Association of Transit Systems, I think, they call themselves "MassTrans." The fundamental issue to this day with that group is that they don't like they way the funding formula is distributed. In Michigan we base our funding on eligible state expenses and MDOT determines what any agency's eligible state expenses are. In its simplest form, the way it works is that the more money you spend in a given year, the more money you're eligible to get reimbursed by the state. We have law on the books which says, in Michigan, that if you're an urban agency you can be funded up to 50% of your eligible expenses by the State, but if you're a rural agency you can be funded up to 60% of your eligible expenses. Right now in Michigan that percentage has been dropping steadily since the late 90s and the urban systems are at about 27% of their eligible expenses being reimbursed by the State and the rural systems are at about 37%. The average right now is about 30% is funded by the State. It continues to drop every year, so the folks that would like to see the formula changed are largely some of the small urban systems. In Michigan we have six large urban systems, Detroit, Suburban Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Flint, and Ann Arbor. And then you have about a dozen to 15 small urbans like Saginaw, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, Muskegon, Holland, that size of a system. About half of the small urbans are active in this "MassTrans" organization and about half are active in the MPTA. All of the large urbans have been active in the MPTA and, of the rural systems, about two-thirds are active with us and maybe about half a dozen with "MassTrans" organization. So basically what you have is those folks who went off with the "MassTrans" organization have been advocating for a change in the funding formula away from basing it on your eligible state expenses to some other type of a funding formula, and it varies, they've proposed several different variations, but the bottom line is we, and MDOT, have both determined that no other funding formula works any better than what we have unless we have more money to put into it. And if we had more money to put into the current formula, no one would complain about the current formula. It all comes back to how much money is available for it. So we've opposed making a change in the funding formula. We have equated that to just moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic. You're gonna make winners and losers no matter what, the ship is still sinking, regardless of what you do. MDOT has pretty much taken the same position so we're united with the Department on that argument, but that is the fundamental disagreement we've had within the industry in Michigan and it goes back to, like I said, the early to mid 90s.
Q: Does this at all come out of Detroit, being the largest transit system by far, overshadowing the smaller ones?
A: Obviously, they get the most money, but arguably, they should get the most money: they have the most passengers per system, per year. So, naturally their eligible expenses run the highest, and they end up getting the most. In terms of their influence in Lansing, I would not say that they overshadow. Because of the makeup of the Legislature, where people come from, because you have the core group of Detroit legislators and then you have a ring of suburban Detroit legislators which is quite large, and then you have everybody else, because of that and because you have two systems in Metro Detroit, and 77 systems everywhere else in the state, you really don't see them overshadowing anyone else in terms of policy or advocacy. But in terms of what they get, absolutely. They get the most money. There are some systems that resent that. Some of the little guys resent that. But again, you can look at a lot of different ways to fund, determine how much each system gets. If you do it on passengers per year: Detroit. If you do it on miles per year, which has been suggested, Detroit's still going to be way up there because they run so many more vehicles. I mean, you can look at it a lot of different ways, but I wouldn't say that they overpower or overshadow in a lobbying sense. MPTA works very hard to make sure everybody is represented. Like I've said, we've got 30 plus members who are small rural systems, and yeah we've got the six large urbans, and half or so of the 12 to 15 small urbans, but our board makeup, for as long as I've been with the organization, our board makeup is split very evenly between the large urbans, the rural systems, and all these small urbans, so it's very balanced. And our decisions try to be very balanced. There will be those detractors out there who'll say Detroit has an unfair advantage, but most of our people who are active in our association look at it and say, "We realize Detroit's going to get more money, they move the most passengers."
Q: In the internal structure of the MPTA, how do each of the transit authorities have influence on leadership and the organization?
A: Well we have an annual election, we have a 15 member board, we have three officers: that being our president, being me, our secretary and treasurer, plus our immediate past president is still considered part of our executive committee, so four. And then we have a business associate member representative because we also have associate businesses who are members of the association. As well as the small specialized services that we are representing, like there are some counties in Michigan that don't have an organized transit agency, but a group like HOPE Network, for instance, will be getting funding to carry passengers. Or the county human services office or the office for services to the aging will maintain [positions], so we have a handful, maybe eight small groups like that, they're treated like an associate member. Associate members that don't pay nearly as much in dues as a transit system, but they do get our member benefits and then they have this one ex officio member on our board. So you got those five, and then the other ten are divided pretty evenly between the rurals and the other systems, so you might have two large urbans and a rural member of the executive leadership team, and then you look at the rest of the board and it balances out. We've maintained that kind of a balance as long as I've been involved in the association just out of respect for the makeup of our organization.
Q: Michigan has received a grade of D+ in public transportation by the American Society of Civil Engineers. They looked at the gas tax and noted that funding decreases as ridership increases. This because when less people drive cars and ride public transit instead, the less gas tax income there is...
A: Exactly, fundamentally that's the problem, and that's true nationwide. You know, nationally there's a gas tax, but for Michigan it's really a problem. Our ridership has been increasing dramatically in recent years, in fact last year we were at record ridership in Michigan. And yet, we were at historically our lowest amount of funding because of the drop-off of people driving their own vehicles, because of the fuel efficiency of vehicles today compared to what it was... When I served in the Legislature in the mid 90s, the rule of thumb was that a penny of gasoline tax brought in $50 million. Now it's like 41 or 42 million. So the value of the gas tax is dropping steadily, yet the demand [for transit] is going up. So yeah, it's a real problem for us. The other reason that obviously we do not rate well on public transportation in Michigan is that for years we have done virtually nothing with rail. The states that pull down the really large federal funding are states that have good rail, public transit rail infrastructure. Like the East Coast, the East Coast has for years has pulled down the bulk of the rail funding because those are the best developed public transit rail corridors. Now we're starting to talk about some of those kinds of things. In the news, I read just a couple days ago, that Governor Snyder has had a meeting with [U.S. Department of Transportation] Secretary LaHood in D.C. to talk about how we start accessing more high-speed rail funds for Michigan. So clearly [Gov. Snyder] has got that on his radar that we are losing out, we need to start going after some of those dollars. And of course other states, their governors, Wisconsin, Ohio, the new governors came in and said, "We don't want this high speed rail money." Well they don't want it, then maybe there's an opportunity for Michigan to get more of those funds. But then the issue becomes where are you going to put it. The only rail corridor we have been developing over time, and this goes back 20 years we've been working on this, to prepare it to handle high speed rail, is the Detroit to Chicago Corridor.
There really is no other place that our existing rail lines are capable, without a huge infusion of money, of being brought up to the standards of high speed. Including the line through East Lansing, which comes up out of Chicago and goes to Port Huron: after you get past Kalamazoo that line is notoriously slow as a passenger rail line. It's all owned by Canadian National, and they're not worried about moving passengers. They're worried about moving their freight.
Q: In terms of the Gas Tax, what would be a better structure for Michigan?
A: I wish I knew. Everybody wishes they had the answer to that one whether they're on the road side or the transit side. Right now no one really does know. We just know that it's going to get worse. It's going to get a lot worse, before it gets better, if we don't do something to start particularly addressing the advent of more hybrid vehicles. Cause we're not getting any gas tax revenue out of electric cars, I mean, the [Chevy] Volt is hitting now, this year, and if it really catches on, if everyone decides, especially with gas prices starting to climb again, they decide, "Hey I'm trading in my gas guzzler and I'm buying an electric car." And everybody starts driving electric cars, we'll really be screwed. Because we do not have any means of capturing any revenue. Now, I would imagine, although I have not heard anybody propose it yet, that somebody is going to come along and say, "Look, we're going to have to put a tax on electricity for transportation purposes." Because if that's what people are doing, taking their car home and plugging it in every night charging it up, then that's going to be, essentially, the source of fuel for the vehicle and we'll have to figure out a way to devise some kind of a tax for that. But, the problem logistically right now doing that is, you know, you have a legislature that isn't predisposed to increase taxes in any way, shape, or form. And if no one wants to propose something like that, then, you know, we really are screwed. We're gonna be stuck.
Q: So are you working on a policy position currently to address that?
A: Well like everybody else, we're worrying and we're talking amongst ourselves, but I don't think anybody yet has seriously sat down and talked about it. There's something called the Michigan Transportation Team, which was put together many years ago by the road building interests to primarily go to Washington in the late 90s and the early part of [last] decade, to advocated for more federal funding for roads. We ended up joining in with that and we're part of it now and have been for several years, and so it has more of a global message that we need funding for all modes of transportation. I just got a notice yesterday, that the next meeting of that group, and we haven't met since prior to last fall's election when an effort was on to try and get a gas tax bill taken up in the lame duck session, which did not happen, and so we are all going to get back together and sit down, and the State Chamber just offered to convene a meeting of the group and it's going to be in late April downtown in their offices. And I expect [the gas tax] is probably going to be a key issue we now start talking about because it does not look good for getting a gas tax increase in the foreseeable future. And rather than waste a lot of effort and time to advocate for that, I think it's a lost cause, I would say let's start talking about, not yesterday's method of funding, but tomorrow's method of funding. Let's spend our time and energy and effort on figuring out how we devise some kind of a tax structure to get at the true source of vehicle funding. It won't happen overnight. A gas tax increase of a few cents would be nice in the interim, but we know long term it is not going to be the answer, so we've got to start getting something else in the pipelines. It will take, you know, in the 1997, four cent gas tax increase, it took approximately ten years of advocacy to get. So I would say anything new we devise and push for we'll be looking at eight to ten years to get it passed into law, to get enough sentiment, enough backbone of legislators to pass it. Obviously though, if the market shifts dramatically over to hybrids and electrics, and if there's a way we can scale back some of the gas tax, and shift it over to an energy tax, than I think that makes it much more palatable for people. More people will say, you know, we want to change the taxing structure if, you know, and I'm just throwing a figure out there, if we can say we're going to take 10 cents off the gas tax that you pay at the pump, but we're still going to pay it over here because this is how people are going to get fuel. We'll see how that all works out, but it's going to be a long time coming. And federally too, the Feds are going to have to do the same thing, they're going to have to devise a shift, because they're going to have the same issue. The Federal gas tax is not going to be enough to break even. It's not now. We're already seeing reports from the Federal Highway Administration that there is not enough money in the trust fund to pay for the needs.
Q: Getting back to the rail transportation, the Light Rail System on Woodward Avenue in Detroit, one writer for the Detroit News writes that "High capital and operating costs of a fixed rail system might be justified in high-density cities like New York or Chicago. Detroit, however, is hardly choking on traffic congestion. The dominant commuting pattern in the region is along crowded arties from low-density suburbs to low-density suburbs. Only a small fraction of the available jobs in the region are in downtown Detroit." So he makes the argument that the Woodward Light Rail is not needed and a waste of money...
A: And in a sense he's right. If you look at the traffic patterns, Detroit is unique among major cities where people commute from the suburbs into downtown, and they're not doing that in Detroit. They're moving from Detroit out to the suburbs and they're commuting from suburbs across the region to another suburb. But the idea behind the M1 Rail is to try to revitalize the Woodward Corridor and revitalize Detroit and start bringing some of that investment back into the core of the city which would lead to jobs being in the core area which would lead to greater commuter use going into the city core. The other part of it is that a regional rail system has got to start somewhere. You gotta have something as the core to get it off the ground, and the M1 Rail is the thing that right now is the most viable. It's being supported by a number of private entities, a lot of the money is going to be put up by private investment, I think there's no doubt in the mind of anyone that the preliminary project they're talking about, it alone will not do anything, I mean, but you have to look at it as the start. And then you expand it out beyond 8 Mile, and then you've got your core and you can start building your spokes, like a tree branching out into the suburbs. I think that the people who are speaking out, as they are in that Detroit News, who are against it right now, are not looking at the big picture. They're only looking at that one little piece of it and saying, "That thing makes no sense." And I wouldn't argue with them if that was all that was intended to be built, then it makes no sense. Just like the People Mover. People look at that to this day and say, "That makes no sense." They've lost sight of the big picture. The People Mover was originally conceived and constructed not to be this little thing that went around and around, it was supposed to be the core and then there were going to be feeders into it from the suburbs and if you look at it in that regard it makes sense. But people have lost the ability in Detroit to see the big picture and see beyond their noses, particularly the people at the Detroit News who've long opposed any investment in public transportation. The same kind of thing happens in Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids voters were asked a couple of years ago and going to be asked again later this year, to support something called "The Silver Line." The Silver Line is Bus Rapid Transit, essentially the concept of trains, but they're on rubber: trains down the middle of the road on wheels. They're buses that run a fixed route and they run it on a faster rate and a higher frequency of service. People oppose that and say, "Well we don't need it on Division Street." They're not seeing the big picture and the big picture is that that is the first piece and then other lines would be built and collectively they would all feed into a core city, and Grand Rapids still has a good core magnet downtown bringing people in from all the suburbs. But people have an inability to see the big picture and see, well, 10 or 20 years in the future. They just look at that immediate thing and say, "We don't see how this thing makes any sense, we already have buses that go down Division Street, so why do you need more money?" They just don't understand the concept to begin with. And then there are those people who say, "Well we don't want that, we want streetcars, or we want subways." Well, you know, it's nice they want that stuff but they're really dreaming because the cost of subways in particular is completely prohibitive and out of place for Grand Rapids, a city of that size. They've studied this thing for years at The Rapid before they came up with this plan and proposed it. Where they've failed in all of that, I don't think they did a good job of taking all of those studies that they had and explaining to people what the big picture was and that this was just one installment of several. So the same things happen as in Detroit, people aren't seeing the big picture except in Detroit you have the added difficulty of overcoming the belief that the People Mover was a complete boondoggle. If you go down and use the People Mover, and I argue to that these pieces by people against it have never even used it, if you go down and you use it, you realize it works pretty well for what it does and it gets pretty high usage especially at times when they have a convention in town, where it very quickly moves people around to key venues. What they don't realize is that if they had gone and built everything that was supposed to be there, with the People Mover going around and the feeder lines going into it, they'd have a lot more conventions in Detroit through the years and Detroit wouldn't be in the shape it's in today. But, you know, that's kind of a famous mistake that was made in the 70s when Gerald Ford was president and funds were set aside and appropriated for a major investment in public transportation in Detroit and they couldn't get their act together, which has been their perpetual problem between the mayor and the primary county executives, the Big Four as they're called, politically they're never from the same party and never been able to get on the same page. They squandered that opportunity in the 70s and the Four, with the stroke of a pen, could have made it happen and we wouldn't be sitting here now, 40 years later, having these discussions that they were having 40 years ago. People look at it now and say, "We can't do it. We've never been able to do it." And... it can be done. Detroit could have good public transportation. Detroit had great public transportation up until the 50s when they decided to dismantle their streetcar system and they sold the streetcars to Mexico City where they are still running today.
Q: So the Woodward Line will be a problem if it isn't immediately profitable and they'll never be able to construct the feeder lines? How is that being addressed?
A: They have to go into it recognizing that it's not going to be profitable. But no public transportation system is a profit maker, anywhere in the world. Well, there may be one somewhere in Korea. Public Transportation by its very nature is an investment in your community. It's like police, fire, ambulance. Those are things people make a conscious decision they want to have that quality of life in their communities. Some places have full time fire departments, some people have part time volunteer fire departments. Some people have full time police departments, other places have part time police departments or you purchase the service from the county sheriff's department or whatever, some places have good ambulance service, some places have volunteer ambulance service, and some places are not well served. Those are all conscious decisions any community has to make. Libraries are another one. Some communities spend money to have a library, some don't. Public transportation is the same way. And until people start thinking of it in those terms, "Do we want to have this for the quality of life for our community and as a selling point for our community or do we not want to invest in that as a sales point for the community?" That's kind of the fundamental decision. People don't think of public transportation in that regard, but they need to. That's the nature of public transportation. It's called public transportation. Because it moves the public? Well, yeah, but more so because it is funded by the public. It's not private investment that funds public transportation. Private investment funds taxi cabs, and in most places, unless you're in the largest metro areas, taxi cabs don't survive, they don't do well. They don't do well in most Michigan communities, say Detroit. You know, you look around, even Lansing doesn't have particularly good taxi cab service. Some would say, "Well that's because there's really good public transit." Yeah, but we haven't always had really good public transit either. Public transit has evolved and gotten to a level that it is in the Lansing area because people have decided they publically wanted to fund it because private taxi services weren't doing the job. It's the whole reason why we have public transportation in Michigan today. All of the privately owned and operated transportation systems were going bankrupt in the late 60s and early 70s and that's when local municipal governments all came together and said, "We need to start investing in public transportation in the State of Michigan." And they ended up going to Governor Milliken at the time who was supportive of this, who gave a directive through MDOT that it be merged into one, and instead of being the Department of Highways which was what it was called up until that point, it became the Michigan Department of Transportation, with an entire bureau now that looks at public transportation issues. That's how we got where we are now, so when people start talking about future transportation systems, in this case in Detroit's Woodward Corridor, they've got to understand, no, that alone is not going to be profitable. Even when the whole thing would be built, it's still going to be public transportation. It won't alone be profit making. It's going to have to be supported by the public. But if it leads to job creation, which has happened every place that people have invested in public transportation, it leads to economic development, job creation, and new private development along those corridors. And that's the part that people can't see in Detroit because they can't look beyond what they have and they've never had a good system since the streetcar system was dismantled. And that precedes most people today.
Q: Unions are a big issue now. Some would argue that bus drivers, specifically as a union, get paid too much. One report came out that a CATA bus driver made $140,000 one year which is more than the CEO of CATA and Mayor of Lansing made. And other CATA bus drivers made over $100,000 in overtime costs. How does this hurt the image of public transportation and how would the group address that?
A: Well it doesn't help, obviously. That is an issue particularly having occurred here in the capital city transit system it's an issue that comes up, you know, in conversations with legislators. For me, I mean, there's not much I can do or say about it simply because it was a contract issue between CATA and their union. About all I can say about it is obviously, CATA's union had a very generous contract. I know that they've since renegotiated a new contract which isn't as generous. It's unfortunate that happened though because it's a poster child for bad vibes. All I can say to people who ask about that is if you look at the average pay and the average benefits of most public transit drivers, when you look at the whole State of Michigan, that's really an aberration. I mean, if you go away from Lansing, to Flint or Grand Rapids, you won't find any salaries making that kind of money and if you collectively look at all of the drivers, many of them across the state are part-time and get no benefits. You know, if they make $30,000 a year as a full time driver, that's pretty good, that's about the average. But, that, you know, that's out there, and it hurt. All I can tell you is that it's an issue and people ask me about it and it's very hard to defend. You know, I mean first of all, it's crazy. When it came out in the paper, you know, I said, "My gosh, I got the wrong job! I should've been driving." And as director of the Association all I can ask someone to do, if that's an issue for them, is to look beyond it and look at the big picture of statewide, what are the averages? I'm [with] a state association, I can't speak to an issue within CATA or within one of my member agencies. That's something they negotiated, that's something they have to address. I can look at the big picture, I can give the numbers for statewide, what people are making in the various public transit positions and I can assure legislators that that's just completely out of whack with anything that's average.
Q: There's a new bill, well probably not so new, but, a new bill in that house that..
A: Representative Agema's bill on the Farebox?
Q: Yeah. That one. [which would require all transit agencies receiving state funding to earn at least 20% of their budget from direct farebox revenue.]
Representative Agema is an interesting legislator. He's actually proposed this bill in past sessions.
A: First of all, the difference this year is that he's chair of the subcommittee on the [transportation] budget, so he's got a lot more political pull, he's in the majority now, so it's conceivable now he can get that bill passed, which it wasn't previously, so we didn't worry about it too much previously, but what we've asked him before and we've asked him again this year, we met with him two weeks ago and we said, "Look, you have to take into account the fact that some communities appropriate money out of their local general fund budget for public transportation and they do that why? Because they want to keep the fare box [price] low so people can afford to use the system, or there are a lot of systems that have a local millage, that the local voters have approved to help fund public transit.
Why? Because they want to keep the cost of the rides cheaper. Also most transit agencies have contracts locally and they may be with either a private agency or a public agency, but they're contracts that the local agencies engage in with the transit because they want to be able to provide low cost rides or, perhaps in some cases even, free rides, well ‘free' quote/unquote, for their clients on the public transit system. So if you're going to impose a minimum threshold on the farebox, then you have to look at those other aspects of local revenue." We've asked him to redefine it not as "local farebox", but redefine it as "local revenue". And if he agrees to do that, then I doubt any system in the State of Michigan would have a problem reaching 20% local revenue because most systems, again, on average, 30% of your funding for a transit system comes from the state, and they're not getting 70% from the Feds, I can assure you that, they're lucky if they're getting another 10 to 20% funding from the federal government. So that means they're getting 50 to 60% of their funding generated locally, so they wouldn't have a problem reaching that threshold. So he hasn't given us back an answer on that, but I'm inclined to believe he's not going to buy into it because the only thing he told us when we met with him and pointed all this out to him, he said, "Well I look at it this way, between what [the transit systems] are getting from voters locally from general fund appropriations and from state and federal money, they are 90% on average funded by the taxpayers. And that's too high, and all I'm asking is that they ought to be 20% funded by the people who are using it." So that's been his position. Obviously we don't see eye-to-eye with him on that legislation. But we've talked to lot of other legislators and explained our position, we've laid it out like I just did, and they've looked at it and said, "Yeah, that makes sense to us" and in many cases they know that their locally agency has just exactly those kinds of things in place and it's done so that ‘Joe Smith', when he goes to take that ride everyday on the local system, doesn't have to pay "five" bucks for a ride. So I'm hoping that more reasonable legislators will prevail on that one, but I do think that Representative Agema will make an effort to push that through.
Q: So you're trying to influence the legislators in that [appropriations subcommittee]?
A: Yeah, we're trying to and beyond the committee on to the full Legislature to look at the bigger picture, don't just look at how much comes from farebox, look at whether it comes from local revenue, because if people didn't vote that local millage, then a system would have to go to the farebox to get more. If the local city didn't approve vote to raise general fund dollars for their transportation system then they'd have to go to the farebox. If they didn't contract with agencies locally to provide services, then the people who ride the transit would have to pay the farebox, so then the farebox [price] would go up. But what [Rep. Agema]'s forcing is a state control on what the local decision is and Michigan has historically always been a strong local control state. The local people make those decisions. He wants to take away the ability for the local community to make a decision on how they fund public transportation and forcing them to pay the farebox on the state level. So we'll see what happens with that one. It's going to be an interesting issue to watch and I think it will be decided this year. I think he's gonna push it and we're gonna have to have a very public discussion of it.
Q: And public discussion that means someone from this Association will be presenting testimony to the Legislature?
A: Oh yes. I think the press will pick up on it and local communities will have something to say, and our local agencies. I think it could become a very visible public issue before the year is out, just like the ones you're seeing right now, like pension taxation, education funding, and a lot of other things being debated very publically now in the media and the legislature and I think this is gonna probably be an issue before summer is out or at least by fall.
Q: And if the people see the issue as that less than 20% of farebox direct revenue means we have empty buses, how will you as an interest group, and other interest groups, fight against that aura?
A: One of the ways we've debated in the past with legislators that are hung up on the "empty bus syndrome"... Again, we are a publically funded entity and as an example we're no different than the roads. Roads are built with public money. If I go out on I-75 or I-94 at 3:30 in the morning, I'm probably able to stand in the middle of the highway and I'm not gonna see too many vehicles. If I go out at 6:00 or 8:00 am, I'm probably a fool to stand in the middle of the highway because I'm not going to survive. That's rush hour. We're no different. If you look at buses during rush hour, they're full. They have to be full because we're moving more people than we've ever moved in the history of public transportation in Michigan. If you look at them in mid-morning, mid-afternoon, late evening, those are not rush hour times. So they're not going to be as heavily used during those times. You'll see empty buses. The argument we make is that we're no different. You wouldn't tear up roads, you wouldn't tear up a lane of highway because it's empty half the time, it's the same way with buses. You can't take the buses off the road simply because sometimes they don't have as many riders, because those people who are riding because they need to get somewhere, or else they wouldn't be riding at those hours. So if we're going to be a truly functional organization then we have to have those times. What agencies can look at, and do look at, is can you tweak the frequency, can you get by providing fewer buses and services at different times, and generally an agency does do that. We don't usually run empty buses day in and day out for the sake of running empty buses, and if people aren't using them at certain times then you cut back on those routes or you cut back on your frequency. Agencies are constantly doing that kind of evaluation. So those are the kinds of things people need to look at. The other thing I've had a lot of legislators say in the past to me is, "Well, I don't think they need to run such a big bus." Okay, so that means, at rush hour when the buses are full, the forty passenger buses are on the road and they're full of people, you would argue that okay, then at non-rush hour, you don't need a forty passenger bus, you should only run a cutaway van that holds 15 people. We could do that, agencies could do that, and it means they would have to own twice the number of vehicles and they would have to maintain twice the number of vehicles. And that's not cost effective. Critics don't think about that. Believe me, if it made sense to do that then agencies would do that. There's a reason they don't do that. It's not cost effective.
Q: Again, when this issue comes to the public light though, how will you and this organization get a coalition together to be the opposition [to this bill]?
A: Well it depends on what shape it comes out in, if it comes out in the form it is right now, obviously we would oppose it and if we oppose it flat out we go to all of our interest groups that we work with directly or through our coalition, and through the Michigan Transportation Team, and we'll go to the Chambers of Commerce, etc, and we'll ask their support in opposing the bill. We'll try to organize as broad based a coalition as we can in opposing it. If he's willing to make some changes to it, we'll you know, have to look at what changes he's willing to make. As we told him, if you include "all local revenue", we would probably support the bill. We'd come out and say, you know, "This makes sense," we're not opposed to the idea of recognizing the value of local support, local revenue, we are opposed to the idea of mandating that it only be from the farebox.
Q: Ok, one last question: in your unique viewpoint as a former member of the Legislature, how has your view of state politics changed switching from being in government to being a part of an interest group trying to influence government?
A: I've become much more cynical. I just had this conversation with some old friends I saw a couple nights ago, one of whom works in a capacity lobbying the legislature today for MSU, and first thing we both said is, "The legislative process is no fun anymore in Michigan." It used to be enjoyable, it used to be honorable, there used to be collegiality among legislators, both sides of the aisle working together, term limits has completely destroyed any of that. And because it's destroyed that, because you have such a broad based turnover of legislators every few years, it's just not a fun... game anymore. You don't have time to build up any kind of dialogue with people. I mean they're here, and they all come in wanting to change the world immediately. I my days as a legislature you came in, you paid your dues, you served, you worked your way up, seniority, and as you did all of that, you really started to understand the process much better and you understand how things worked, why things worked the way they do. And you also build up those kind of relationships with your own party members and across party lines. Levels of trust, you know, you could forge alliances and coalitions and get things done positively. And I don't see any of that anymore. It's just for me a very cynical view of the legislative process at least at the state level. And it's really just not that enjoyable anymore. I used to enjoy working with legislators and now you develop so few real long term relationships with legislators where, you know, you're lucky if you can build a friendship with two or three people now that's really something, you know, that lasts. I mean we worked very closely with [Former State Representative] Marie Donigan out of Royal Oak for six years, she's gone now. She and I still talk on a regular basis. The only person I have a relationship right now with, that's serving in the Legislature, is probably [State Representative] Wayne Schmidt, Republican out of Traverse City who I've had a very good relationship with. Well, I shouldn't say the only one, [State Representative] Rich LeBlanc, Democrat, from Westland, I'd say he's a good friend too, but there are darn few people that I can say I really consider a friend in the Legislature, say you know, who would call and tip me off to something that's going on the way either of those guys would, or the way Marie would have. And years ago you would have these kinds of cross party relationships where you'd have that kind of relationship with a lot of people. It's just the collegial atmosphere is gone.
Q: Well that would probably be why term limits were put in place in the first place because of those friendships between interest groups and legislators...
A: Well, in part, but I would also argue that the real reason Michigan passed term limits in 1992 had to do with people being very frustrated with the national scene and you have to remember that Michigan's term limit legislation originally went into effect on our Congressional Delegation and people used to ask me in 1992 when I was a legislator and I was out campaigning, did I support it? And I'd say, "No, I don't support it because it's unconstitutional the way it's written." What happened immediately after it was enacted by the voters, it was ruled unconstitutional the way it was written as it applied to the Congressional delegation. Plus it was just stupid, it was like shooting yourself in the foot! Why would we want to limit all our congressional delegations, which constitutionally we couldn't do, while other states didn't limit their delegation? We lose power, it's stupid! You don't do that. But what they did is they threw out the whole section that applied to Congress which is what people were really upset about in 1992, and they left intact everything that applied to state level candidates which took effect and now people, I have a hard time finding anybody now who says, "Yeah I voted for that", they all say, "Oh I didn't vote for that." And they don't like it. But if they all didn't vote for it in 1992, then how did it pass with something like 60% of the voters' approval. I mean, somebody voted for it! I mean, I didn't vote for it, but I probably said I wasn't going to vote for it. So yeah, I think it somewhat contributed to why we have it, but I think now what we have is even worse than having people serve for long periods. Now you have a lot of people who have an axe to grind coming to Lansing, and they may be able to grind that axe for better or worse depending on the structure of things, and they don't tend to have the understanding of the legislative process that you gain from several years of experience from basically working your way up through the system and learning the system. And learning why things are sometimes the way that they are. They got a perspective that people don't get anymore.
Q: So you say that lobbyists don't have too much influence on politicians...?
A: I think that staff has too much influence now.
A: Yes, I think staff has an undue, excessive influence and I don't think the lobbyists necessarily do, because I see a lot of the people who are coming in today, they're listening to their staff people more than they're listening to lobbyists. The other thing that's very interesting, a lot of staff now is turned over, and a lot of the [legislators] who are coming in new are bringing in new people to be staff, and there's nothing against new blood in the system, but there aren't many people who have any institutional knowledge left of why things are done the way they are in some cases or what happened back in the 1980s, you know, that caused things to be like they are in this issue today. They just don't have that kind of depth of knowledge. Sometimes a lobbyist will have it, and sometimes their able to influence the process if they have the right connections, but a lot of the staff people are doing a lot of stuff, and for better or for worse, they don't have the depth of knowledge.