Big 4 leaders split on transit tax for Nov. ballot

Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — Four of Metro Detroit’s top leaders are split on whether another regional transportation millage has any chance of passing with voters this November.

Regional transit was a key topic of discussion during a panel of the “Big Four” hosted by the Detroit Economic Club at the Cobo Center on Tuesday.

The Big Four includes Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

With the leadership of Evans, the four have been meeting to discuss the potential for a millage just two years after voters narrowly rejected a tax hike to expand mass transit in southeastern Michigan.

During Tuesday’s event, Patterson and Hackel expressed uncertainty that their residents would approve a tax increase on the second attempt.

Duggan and Evans said the region is in dire need of stronger transit system if it wants to be competitive and give suburbanites an easy way to get to downtown Detroit.

Regional leaders learned last week that the lack of mass transit cost Detroit its bid to host Amazon’s second North American Headquarters.

“As a region, we are taking a much too casual attitude to something that’s central to our competitiveness,” Duggan said. “It’s been used against us by the other cities in the Midwest every day.”

In November 2016, a $4.6 billion Regional Transit Authority millage failed 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. While Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, Oakland County voters were split and Macomb County rejected it.

The proposal included plans to create bus rapid transit, a rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, an airport shuttle service, a regional fare card system and other service changes. The millage would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually, RTA officials estimated.

Hackel said Macomb County residents are more interested in getting road improvements and would rather see a millage for that on the ballot.

He also said his residents are satisfied with the current Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) system.

“If I put out the RTA (millage), I am telling you that’s problematic because they are going to say to me... ‘fix our roads first,’” Hackel said. “So I don’t know what it is that people don’t get when it comes to the voters. But the voters are sitting here saying ‘how do I trust you putting something else together that we’re not asking you for.’”

Evans said they have 45 days to finalize their proposal if it’s going to make the November ballot.

“I don’t think we do the whole region justice by not getting a more comprehensive plan,” Evans said.

Patterson said in the coming weeks he would be surveying voters on how they feel about mass transit.

“I’ll do whatever they want,” Patterson said. “I represent them.”

In addition to transit, the four leaders also discussed their top priorities, which included infrastructure improvements and lowering car insurance in Detroit.

They were also all optimistic when asked about the region’s ability to keep the momentum going after losing the Amazon bid.

“There will be a next best thing,” Evans said. “This region is growing in many different ways, and there will be other opportunities for companies to want to come here because of what we have to offer.”

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Twitter: @NicquelTerry