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Final battle shaping up over putting new Southeast Michigan transit plan on the ballot

Mar 16, 2018

Wayne and Washtenaw County leaders are making a last-ditch effort to get a millage for improved mass transit across southeast Michigan on the November ballot.

But they keep running into stubborn resistance from the leaders of Oakland and Macomb counties, who aren’t keen on the idea of taxing their citizens for transit—and say they want to respect the wishes of voters who narrowly turned down another transit millage in 2016.

Together, the four counties and the city of Detroit make up the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority, whose nine board members will ultimately decide whether to put another transit proposal on the November 2018 ballot. The RTA bylaws require seven of nine members and at least one representative from each county to vote to do that.

On Thursday, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans made a renewed plea for the board to support a revised 20-year, $5.4 billion transit proposal that Evans says addresses some perceived “flaws” in the previous plan.

That includes spending less money on new transit infrastructure, and instead expanding more frequent bus service to more parts of Metro Detroit. There will also be more express bus routes, more hyper-local “hometown service” transit in out-county areas not served by current bus routes, four airport express routes along major highways, and a commuter rail line connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit.

The proposal would also consolidate administrative functions among the region’s various fragmented transit agencies, and allow riders to use one fare card across the different systems. There’s also a nod toward emerging transportation technologies with a $20 million per year investment in an “Advanced Mobility” program.

The 1.5 mil annual levy would raise Metro Detroit’s annual transit investment to around $110 per capita—significantly more than the $67 the region invests now, but still significantly less than cities like Denver, Pittsburgh and Chicago.

Evans said the revenues generated from the millage would also be spread equally in transit investments across the four counties and the city of Detroit. “You’ll put in 100% of whatever the mills bring, and you’ll get 105% return,” he said, noting federal grants and additional outside funds supporters say the millage will bring in. “There’s no subsidizing anybody.”

But the idea of some southeast Michigan communities subsidizing other communities’ transit is one that Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson can’t make peace with. In a statement issued while the RTA board was still meeting, Oakland County said that “taxing communities which rejected the (2016) Regional Transit Authority is not leadership, it is betrayal.”

The statement goes on to call the new plan “a pie-in-the-sky proposal that allows the RTA to reach deep into the pockets of Oakland County taxpayers who will pay 40% of the regional transit tab but receive far less than 40% of the regional transit services in return.”

It then says Patterson has developed his own transit plan that would use special assessment districts to raise funds, while allowing communities that currently opt out of transit service to avoid any new taxes. It ends with a statement of solidarity with a concern repeatedly raised by Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, that “we first must find a solution to fix our roads before considering more regional transit taxes.”

Wayne County quickly countered with its own statement saying that Patterson should follow Evans’ lead and present his own plan to the RTA board. “There’s no pride of ownership here, if Oakland County has a viable transit plan ready, let’s put it out there. We need more transit in the worst way,” it read.

Despite Patterson and Hackel’s recent hard anti-transit stances, Wayne and Washtenaw leaders are pushing forward and gambling on a play that forces Oakland and Macomb”s RTA board appointees to reject putting a plan before voters, likely making the Authority itself yet another failed effort to coordinate regional transit in southeast Michigan.

That “would be a sin and a shame,” Evans said, “for 13 months’ worth of work to go into constructing a plan, and you all as citizens not be able to even see it.”

RTA board chair Paul Hillegonds emphasized that the current proposal is just a “framework,” and that any final ballot proposal will be shaped and ultimately approved by the board.

The current plan is for the board to take the issue up again next month, and vote then on whether to forward a final proposal for public comment. RTA leaders say the board will need to take a final vote on whether to put a transit plan on the ballot by early July at the latest.