State House passes bill relaxing RTA voting thresholds for M-1 Rail, Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter line

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If you read our cover story in March on metro Detroit's bleak history with public transportation, you my have read a section on the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority's bylaws. Sounds boring, but it's relevant.

Some background: When the state Legislature passed the law establishing the RTA in 2012, lawmakers made it more difficult for the board to approve operating a rail line in the future -- such as the proposed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter line.

Basically, state law dictated the set of bylaws the RTA would be required to operate under. As we reported, the nine-member board would need a super-majority -- seven of nine votes -- to approve a tax that would fund operations and capital costs for a proposed bus rapid transit system.

But, to construct or operate a rail line, such as the aforementioned commuter line or the M-1 streetcar in downtown Detroit, which officials intend to eventually turnover to the RTA, a unanimous vote is required. It was quite a glaring discrepancy, one decried by numerous Washtenaw County lawmakers lobbying for more support at the time for rail projects.

As many officials told us, though, the reason for the distinction was to ensure the RTA wasn't bogged down by upfront capital costs typically associated with heavy rail projects.

For the proposed Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter line, that bias may soon be changed.

Under a bill passed Friday by the state House, the authority will have an easier -- and more equitable -- opportunity to approve the commuter rail project. House Bill 5168, which passed in a 82-26 vote, amends the RTA law to allow the authority to operate the proposed M-1 streetcar line, as well as the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit commuter rail if a super-majority of the board members approve -- rather than a unanimous vote. The amendment was offered by Rep. Adam Zemke (D-Ann Arbor).

"This rail project would bring a surge of new economic activity to Ann Arbor, Detroit and all the communities in between," Zemke said in a statement. "I will continue to do everything I can to make this proposal a reality."

The bill now heads to the state Senate for consideration.

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