Plan for Metro Detroit transit millage fails

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

A growing rift between counties has thwarted plans to place a 20-year transportation millage before Metro Detroit voters in November, and the clock is running out if transit leaders want to salvage the proposed ballot measure.

The Regional Transit Authority’s board on Thursday voted 4-5 against placing a 1.2-mil tax on the Nov. 8 ballot after officials from Macomb and Oakland counties balked at the property tax proposal, putting its prospects in limbo.

At issue was whether each county would get its fair share of funding if the millage was approved and if future votes would protect the interest of each county or just a few.

The proposed tax was to help fund regional rapid transit in addition to a commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, airport shuttle service, a universal fare card system and other improvements.

With Thursday’s rejection, RTA officials say improving transportation in the region is now in the hands of elected officials.

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Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA’s board, said after the vote in the packed room of the Detroit Regional Chamber office: “This board has gone as far as it can go” on the issue and now elected officials have “to figure it out.”

Hillegonds questioned whether county leaders have the political will to make necessary decisions so that a millage isn’t delayed for two to four years.

“We have objections on the substance, but there are also politics engaged, too, and I think in the end, we’ll learn whether it’s a lack of political will or just disagreement on the master plan and the ballot proposal, which can’t be resolved on substance. But I think that will become evident in the next week.”

RTA officials from Macomb and Oakland counties were unified against the millage proposal but joined the board in approving the rest of a $4.6 billion regional transit plan Thursday.

But to place a measure on the ballot from the RTA, its statute requires seven of nine votes, one from each county. Thursday’s vote only received five votes in support, with both pairs of Macomb and Oakland representatives voting against.

The 20-year millage would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually. Should the counties reconsider, the property tax proposal has to meet an Aug. 16 deadline to have the ballot language certified by county clerks to appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Thursday’s special session came a week after Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson expressed concerns about the RTA’s transit plan, specifically over getting back their fair share of revenue if the tax millage is approved by voters.

On Wednesday, Hackel told The News he had an issue if future votes fall under a simple majority that overrule his county in financial decisions.

Roy Rose, one of Macomb County’s representatives on RTA, said although he voted no Thursday, he doesn’t think the millage is dead yet if some tough decisions are made.

“We need compromise, and we need to have compromise on all parts,” Rose said following the vote. “And that’s what we’re looking for. We’ve got one issue. I think it’s not that big of an issue. It’s fair to everybody.”

When asked why concerns weren’t raised earlier, Rose said he didn’t know but that things came to a head last week.

“We’ve been working at this for three and a half years,” he said. “Yes, we are concerned, but at the same token, we have to move forward so that it’s fair to everybody. And that’s the issue.”

Hillegonds said Thursday the governance issues raised by Macomb County will be “difficult” to resolve.

RTA CEO Michael Ford said Thursday conversations are still ongoing and that gives him hope that an agreement can still be reached.

“We want to continue to move this forward,” he said. “We have a very short timeline. We’re going to do whatever we can within reason and legal boundaries to try and move this forward. It’s an important time. This has got to get done. It’s critical to the region.”

Patterson, meanwhile, said he is concerned with the lack of transit services for dozens of towns in his county. Patterson said Wednesday that 40 communities in Oakland County will have essentially “no noticeable change in their transit,” and if that continues, then those communities, including Oxford, Rochester, Springfield Township and Waterford Township, for example, should not be taxed as part of the millage.

Before Thursday’s vote, Alma Wheeler Smith, a representative from Washtenaw County, called the last-minute questions unfortunate.

“We’re at the last hour before we go to the ballot,” she said.

She said Patterson’s reticence about the plan was “hypocritical” especially because he and his representatives should have known what was in the plan all along.

RTA plan supporters have argued it promotes better coordination, reliability and extension of services into underserved areas. Advocates say the plan — which would expand routes for SMART, bring bus rapid transit to three major corridors and a host of other transportation improvements — needs to be decided by the voters of Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

Thursday’s special session drew more than 120 people, including Wayne Mayor Susan Rowe and state Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park.

Chris LeFlore, 22, of Bloomfield Township said he could have gone anywhere in the country to work but chose to stay in Detroit. He wants to see better transit approved so that more like him will return or stay in the region.

“By blocking this proposal, you are effectively putting walls around communities,” LeFlore said. “We can’t fight over just marbles on the floor.”

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