July 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

Officials say SMART buses' future rides on tax vote

Eighty percent of SMART's buses, or 196, have 500,000 miles or more of use, which is the maximum miles the industry recommends. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

Detroit— The regional bus service SMART is asking voters for a tax increase in three counties and warns that if the millage fails, so does the entire system.

Officials for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation say the longtime bus system that serves Wayne, Oakland and Macomb will falter because it is running a deficit of $5 million per year due to rising costs and declining revenue.

SMART officials say it needs the public’s approval of the millage on the Aug. 5 primary ballot so the public transportation service can buy buses. Eighty percent of the buses, or 196, have 500,000 miles or more of use, which is the maximum miles the industry recommends.

“If this doesn’t pass, we go out of business,” said John Hertel, the general manager of the bus service. “Because property values have gone down since 2008, we’ve lost $48 million in what would have been easily projected revenue. And that’s a conservative estimate. We may have lost more.”

SMART hasn’t sought a millage in more than a decade and officials say the 0.59 mills is among the smallest rates in the state. If the four-year millage is raised to 1 mill, SMART will still have one of the lowest millage rates in the state among regional transit systems, officials said. The Rapid in Grand Rapids has a tax rate of 1.47 mills and the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is 2.70 after voters approved a millage increase earlier this year.

The millage, officials say, would reap $27 million a year to pay for new buses and repairs to old ones and to help balance the system’s $110 million budget. The average owner of a home assessed at $100,000 would pay $100 more a year if the millage passes.

“There are several good reasons for us to have the first request since 2002 for an increase,” Hertel said.

Hertel said SMART brass and others have taken pay cuts of about 11 percent, reduced administrative costs by more than $11 million, initiated a fare increase from $1.50 to $2 on a one-way route in 2009 and negotiated $6 million in annual savings from its unions. SMART has about 800 employees, down from nearly 1,000 in 2008.

Jarrett Skoup, a research associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, said although he or the center isn’t necessarily opposed to the millage, “at nearly all levels of government, the response in the Detroit area has too often been to simply try and squeeze more and more out of citizens.”

“In a depressed economy and high-taxed communities, the priority for officials should be putting time and resources towards the basics of governing — not a transit system which is already costly and inefficient,” Skoup said.

Results of the millage vote are specific to each county. For example, if voters in Macomb and Wayne pass the millage and it fails in Oakland, SMART bus services would continue in the two counties but Oakland will lose service.

Megan Owens, the director of transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said the SMART millage is very important because many riders from the elderly to the disabled to commuters depend upon it.

“Very few people understand just how important this is,” Owens said. “It is absolutely essential that the SMART millage be funded and that people vote yes on Aug. 5.”

Owens said her group has raised about $25,000 to help promote the millage passing in part because state law prohibits SMART from politically advocating for itself.

“Honestly, for any part of our region to be left without options would be devastating,” Owens said.

Todd Canup, 35, of St. Clair Shores, who rides SMART downtown to the Buhl Building pickup spot at Congress and Griswold, said he will support the millage. He said he hopes others do, too, because Canup sees it as a valuable transportation service.

“It just makes sense when I don’t want to deal with traffic,” said Canup, a print production supervisor who pays about $60 a month to ride SMART downtown to work. “I’d rather just ride the bus. It just makes sense, especially in times right now economically where everybody wants to be smarter with their money. The buses are not just for the lower income, it’s for everybody.”

Emily Klaker, 24, of Grosse Pointe, said she didn’t know the millage was up for renewal. Klaker, a budget analyst for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, moved from Livonia, which opted out of SMART service.

Klaker said she has tried another van commuter service to downtown but the hours didn’t match hers, and parking costs are too high. The federal government pays for the transit costs and her commute on a SMART bus is only 40 minutes, she said.

“Now that I know, yeah, I will be supporting it,” she said of the millage.

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