The fallout from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s comments on regional transit during his annual address Wednesday was swift and to the point a day later.
Patterson left no doubt that he does not intend to push another regional transit millage before all of Oakland County’s residents because it would be too costly for the county without enough benefits. He said nine Oakland communities already had opted out of joining public transit in a failed 2016 millage and he would “respect the wishes of the voters of the select nine Oakland County opt-out communities.”
That did not sit well with some regional leaders in favor of a November millage who have been meeting to discuss the potential of a renewed transit plan.
“Last night, Brooks Patterson publicly rejected the idea of an RTA transit plan that covers all of Oakland County,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement. “What is so hard to understand is that it was Patterson himself who lobbied for and helped pass Public Act 387 in 2012 — the law that requires the RTA to have countywide transit plans.”
Duggan pointed out that the Regional Transit Authority Act includes a provision requiring that a minimum of 85 percent of money collected in a county be spent on routes located within that county.
“So when he told the public last night that Oakland County communities would be assessed by the RTA for a ‘tax machine’ for which they would receive little to no benefit, he knew full well that what he was saying was false,” the mayor said.
Patterson said Wednesday that since 1996 and through 2017, the opt-in communities paid almost $352 million in taxes to support regional transit. He noted that was nearly $37 million more than Macomb and $107 million more than Wayne.
In November 2016, a $4.6 billion Regional Transit Authority millage failed 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent as Macomb County overwhelmingly rejected it. Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage while Oakland County voters were evenly split.
For the last year, the staffs of the four counties and the city spent hundreds of hours working collaboratively on a plan with the support of about a $500,000 contribution from the Kresge Foundation. Wayne County Executive Warren Evans has been leading the initiative.
“Just three weeks ago, Warren Evans and I sat in Patterson’s office when he gave us his word he would work in good faith to try to develop a PA 387 countywide plan in time for the 2018 ballot. That’s why it was so surprising to hear him last night declare he would ‘never betray’ his Oakland County communities by pursuing such a plan.
“While I would have preferred the courtesy of Patterson just telling us honestly he couldn’t support regional transit, at least now we no longer have any illusions about his position on the issue. Someday, Southeastern Michigan will join the rest of America in recognizing the critical importance of regional transit. But it will take regional leaders to build a regional transportation system.”
Evans noted the lack of mass transit cost Detroit its bid to host Amazon’s second North American Headquarters, saying a transportation system attracts talent.
“And Amazon isn’t the only one,” he said in a statement. “Talent is the gold standard in the currency of economic development. It’s what’s going to decide who prospers and wins the race for mobility, and (as Brooks pointed out last night) artificial intelligence and augmented reality, and whatever comes next.”
Evans further told The Detroit News on Thursday that officials have not collectively made a backup plan should county leaders fail to agree on a November transit tax proposal. However, Evans wasn’t opposed to the idea of Wayne and Washtenaw counties branching off and proposing a transit millage together.
“If you define regional transit as no gaps, no holes, moving people from one place to another, we don’t do that around doughnut holes,” he said. “So if there’s not a willingness to have real regional transit, then I think we have to rethink it.”
Paul Hillegonds, board chairman of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeastern Michigan, said he was “deeply disappointed” by Patterson’s statement on regional transit.
“The RTA will not be able to move forward on a comprehensive four-county plan and ballot proposal without a consensus of our regional leaders,” he said in a statement.
“We have been working with each of the counties, including Oakland, to try to address this situation, trying to target additional services potentially using innovative approaches. We will continue to work to develop a transit system that can provide the kind of service to better connect people to jobs, health care and other essential services. It is the right thing to do.”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel vigorously backed up Patterson on Thursday.
“Brooks was very adamant in our conversations that this can’t be something you’re forcing on the counties,” Hackel said. “It’s very disappointing to hear what’s being said about his comments because he’s supposed to be representing the interests of his constituents.”
Hackel said he and Patterson are being accused of not being “regional.”
“I didn’t get elected to follow the direction given to me by Wayne County or the city of Detroit,” he continued. ”That is exactly what Brooks is doing. He’s not following.”
Staff writers Nicquel Terry and Mike Martindale contributed.