Hackel, Patterson won’t campaign for transit tax plan

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Correction: Kelly Rossman-McKinney has been hired by the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation campaign seeking to educate the public about the benefits of more regional transportation. Her role was incorrect in a previous version of this story.

After days of uncertainty, the Regional Transit Authority board is expected Thursday morning to greenlight the proposed $4.6 billion transportation millage that would be on Metro Detroit ballots this fall.

But the two biggest critics who nearly kept the millage off the ballot said Wednesday they don’t plan to do high-profile pitches for the millage to potentially tax-leery voters.

Although Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel agreed to the deal this week that would put the proposed 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase before voters in November, both leaders said they are not going to actively campaign for it.

“I’m a little reluctant to get out front and carry the banner in the parade,” Patterson said. “I told them that was my intention all along. I always said it should be left to the voters, and they should be free of my attempt to influence them.”

Patterson said he believes the millage will be a tough sell in Oakland, Macomb and western Wayne counties because voters will struggle to see what’s in it for them and their tax dollars. If approved, the millage would help finance three bus rapid transit routes, a rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit and an airport shuttle service, among other transit improvements.

“Now the hard job begins,” he said of the pitch to voters in Wayne, Macomb, Washtenaw and Oakland counties.

In the compromise, Oakland County secured about $40 million more over two decades — from $79 million to $118 million — for its 40 communities, many in the north, that have opted out of the suburban SMART bus system. The county received assurances that transit service would be granted to more communities in the master plan, including to the disabled and elderly.

In addition, the transit authority would need one vote of approval from each county and Detroit to approve financial decisions instead of the earlier plan for a simple majority.

Hackel said now that some of his and Patterson’s concerns over governance and decision-making questions about allocating the tax dollars have been addressed, “it’s going to give a little bit more of an opportunity” for the public to back the measure.

“Am I going to get out there and push it? I don’t know that I’m going to get out there and do commercials and all that other stuff for it,” Hackel said. “If people ask, I’m going to say it makes sense for the region, and it’s going to bring some benefits to Macomb County but let them decide with their wallets.”

The Macomb County leader said his backing might not make much of a difference, citing the overwhelming statewide voter rejection of the Proposal 1 fuel tax and vehicle fee plan that Gov. Rick Snyder aggressively promoted before the Flint crisis erupted.

Both Patterson and Hackel were part of the rift last month that nearly derailed the millage. Their concerns included when the authority could give regional transit aid to the M-1 Rail system — now known as the QLine — and siphon transit dollars from other agencies such as SMART, the suburban bus system.

Under the old agreement, the QLine could have sought money to cover operating deficits as early as 2020 but will now have to wait until after 2027.

RTA Chairman Paul Hillegonds could not be reached for comment.

The absence of Hackel and Patterson on the millage campaign trail won’t hurt the effort to shore up the region’s lack of mass transit options, said Sandy Baruah, the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce that is helping to spearhead the election campaign.

“My guess is that Brooks and Mark may not be visible campaigners for the millage, but I think that has more to do with their local politics and their constituencies than it has to do with anything else,” Baruah said. “I think that had they wanted to not approve this millage, and if they had not wanted to move forward, they could easily have made that happen. So the fact that they greenlighted this and found a way to get to yes, I think is a positive sign.”

Baruah said he would have preferred a unified campaign for the millage, but he doesn’t think it is necessary to get the tax increase approved.

Snyder said Wednesday he views the RTA as “an important step forward. It’s been long overdue.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, whose Lansing-based public relations consulting firm has been hired by the campaign to help sell transit to the region, said she hopes pro-millage backers can convince every elected official to get on board.

“This is something that is proven to significantly and positively impact the economy,” she said. “We are confident that there are benefits to the entire region includes significant benefits to Oakland and Macomb residents and we fully expect that all their elected officials recognize that.”



Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed