John Hertel steps down as CEO of RTA, will stay on as SMART manager

From Crain’s Detroit Business:

John Hertel
John Hertel

Longtime metro Detroit transit insider John Hertel said in a statement Tuesday morning that he’s stepping down as CEO of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan — a job for which a signed contract was never reached.

Instead, he said he’s staying on as general manager of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus system that he’s led since March 2010. He was working voluntarily on behalf of the RTA while still running SMART.

The RTA said in August it had named Hertel to the job, but didn’t have a signed contract.

Hertel didn’t want a contract until the RTA had secured additional administrative funding for staff and operations, Carmine Palombo, director of transportation planning for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, told Crain’s in December. SEMCOG is the regional planning agency through which federal transportation dollars must flow; it is aiding the RTA.

The RTA was given $500,000 by the state, and has no other funding mechanism.

Messages seeking comment were left for Hertel and the RTA.

In his statement, Hertel said the upcoming SMART tax renewal in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties is prompting him to stay.

“Because the millage is less than seven months away in all three counties and all the other duties I have at SMART, I will remain as the general manager,” he said.

Hertel previously had been CEO of the Regional Transportation Coordinating Council’s Detroit Regional Mass Transit effort. Reporting to the elected political leaders of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the mayor of Detroit, he was in charge of creating a regional transit system that could survive the political pitfalls that have consumed numerous previous attempts.

The legislation creating the RTA eventually was approved by the state in 2012, after 40-some years of failed efforts and plans to create such a collaborative organization.

The authority is intended to oversee a proposed $500 million, 110-mile, 23-stop rapid-transit regional bus system that would operate much like a rail line — with specialized trainlike wheeled vehicles operating on dedicated lanes. They would run along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan avenues and M-59, and would connect to Ann Arbor and Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus.

Whoever leads the RTA will have to orchestrate the campaign for a regional tax to pay for the proposed bus system’s operation. The CEO also may one day oversee the RTA absorbing SMART and Detroit’s city bus system, although such moves would require a regional referendum.

Organizers of the M-1 Rail streetcar system under construction on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue have said they intend to eventually turn the line over to the RTA. Hertel led the original private-sector behind-the-scenes effort in 2007 and 2008 that later became M-1 Rail.

The RTA’s CEO reports to the board and has overall responsibility for all aspects of RTA administration and operations, the authority said.

John Hertel’s statement:

“I have taken a look at our efforts at SMART over the past 3½ years, and I am very proud of what’s been accomplished. I am proud of how SMART managed to get through a very difficult financial period when we experienced a significant loss of income from various sources. I am proud of how SMART operated service last week during the winter storm, running all of our buses so that people who needed to get to work could still get there. And, most notably, I am very aware of the millage renewal this summer and its importance in continuing SMART’s mission of getting people to work, school, medical appointments and other destinations throughout the region.

“Because the millage is less than seven months away in all three counties and all the other duties I have at SMART, I will remain as the general manager.

“I am pleased to have been involved for the last seven years moving the Regional Transit Authority process along to this point. I also appreciate everything the RTA Board members have done and are doing to make major transit improvements in southeast Michigan. I look forward to continuing my work at SMART and cooperatively supporting the efforts for improved regional transit in southeast Michigan.”