Former Southeast Michigan Council of Governments executive director Paul Tait and Kathleen Lomako, who succeeded him last month. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Paul Tait and Kathleeen Lomako may not be newsworthy names but their ideas and leadership have shaped transportation, water standards and air quality in southeast Michigan for decades.
Since 1998, Tait has been at the helm the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, the regional planning body that brings together representatives from counties, towns, cities and school districts to study and recommend improvements as well as dole out state and federal dollars — with Lomako as his chief deputy.
Recently, Tait turned over the reins to Lomako, who became the first woman to lead SEMCOG, which has been helping to make the Regional Transit Authority and the bus rapid transit up Woodward Avenue a reality, but still has work to do on convincing the state Legislature to invest and improve the condition of the region’s roads and bridges.
“Their leadership has absolutely positioned SEMCOG to be where it needs to be already,” said Michael Sedlak, the past chairman of the SEMCOG General Assembly and the clerk in Green Oak Charter Township in Livingston County. “They are very active in everything that we’re doing. And Kathleen has been under his guidance, if you will, and mentoring, for a long time.”
Sedlak praised Tait, 66, for setting high standards and bringing elected officials together to make decisions that benefit the region, building SEMCOG “into probably the most respected (council of government) in the nation now. People come to us for advice for how to run their individual (council of governments).”
Although it has a higher profile for its role in fostering regional transportation, SEMCOG has other duties that include being the designated planning agency for water and air quality, studying traffic congestion, developing land-use strategies, as well as lesser-known roles providing housing help to local agencies and studying border issues with Canada.
The agency is funded through federal and state grants and membership fees from seven counties, 233 cities, villages and townships, and some intermediate school districts and community colleges.
“Our goal is to make those individual pieces come together so that the transportation system doesn’t adversely impact the environment or air quality standards don’t adversely impact the economy,” Tait said in a recent interview. “And how do we do that in a smart way for 4.7 million people in southeast Michigan.”
Lomako, 58, said one of her main goals will be to continue using sound data to push issues to get funded such as fixing roads and bridges. Most of the revenue to fix roads comes from gas, diesel and vehicle registration fees, but gas revenues have been falling while the cost of maintaining and rebuilding roads increases.
“It’s critical that we figure out how we’re going to pay for the things that are in our plans and our plans call for additional investment in transportation and in water and sewer systems,” she said. Getting the Legislature “to act is one of our highest legislative priorities.”
Lomako joined SEMCOG in 1979 and has held a variety of planning and administrative posts such as director of administration, grants manager and as housing and economic development planner.
An agency largely invisible to the public, SEMCOG has played a huge role in getting the RTA first through the Legislature after decades of failure and then providing staffing for the authority, that is searching for a CEO and eyeing a ballot initiative to secure funding.
Tait said he’s most proud of helping to foster the environment “where elected officials from all ends of the political spectrum, D’s and R’s, liberals and conservatives, can come together and debate the issues based on sound data and come up with decisions” that are best for the region.
But, Tait said in addition to not finding more funding to help build better roads, he had hoped to see the commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit finished under his tenure. That project continues after years of planning and $7.5 million spent but no start date in sight. Twenty-three refurbished rail cars for the 38-mile MITRAIN line have been built.
U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, who has been a big proponent of SEMCOG and praises its accomplishments, plans to honor Tait and the agency on the House floor soon.
“The philosophy behind the formation of SEMCOG over four decades ago was that there are decisions that each community must make for itself, but, at the same time, there are challenges we can meet only by communities working together,” Levin said. “This mission was greatly advanced under Paul Tait.”