Coulter 'optimistic' a regional transit solution could come in 2020

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Oakland County Executive David Coulter on Wednesday made the case for greater regional cooperation, stressing with legislative action, a mass transit solution could be achieved this year.

"I believe that the factors that have held us back for decades, frankly, the rhetoric and sometimes even that complacency, no longer exists," Coulter said during a keynote address at the 2020 Detroit Policy Conference at MotorCity Casino Hotel.

Oakland County Executive David Coulter gives his keynote address at the 2020 Detroit Policy Conference held at MotorCity Casino on Wednesday.

A proposal aimed at restarting talks for expanding transit in southeast Michigan is under debate in the Legislature, gaining bipartisan support in the Senate, Coulter noted.

"I'm optimistic if we can get this legislation done in the next couple of weeks in Lansing, and again, working with our regional partners, I believe that we can have a transit solution that will benefit everyone in this region this year," Coulter said. 

Coulter, a Democrat, shared his view on regional cooperation, including mass transit, which he noted, in some respects, goes against that of his predecessor, the late Republican former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who died in August while serving his seventh term.

Coulter, during the event hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber, said Metro Detroit communities have to get on the same page and work together to attract and retain businesses and residents. 

"We have a brain drain going on here, and I'm not saying the transit issue is the silver bullet, but it is a piece of what our young people, seniors and workers are looking for to make sure that we are as attractive as those other regions because I believe that we are," he said. 

Coulter has been among the Metro Detroit leaders supportive of legislation introduced last year aimed at restarting plans for expanding regional transit in southeast Michigan.

The former Ferndale mayor announced in October that he was making a bid to hang on to the county's top post in the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, legislation by Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, would allow for a regional transit agreement between Detroit and Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties ahead of a ballot proposal in which the counties would ask voters to approve a property tax increase to fund the agreement. 

The bill also would change how the counties approve a tax plan to put it on the ballot, potentially making it easier to do so.

Past plans encountered opposition from Patterson and Democratic Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel because a majority of Regional Transit Authority board members — from areas such as Wayne and Washtenaw counties and Detroit — could set spending plans over the objections of the minority. 

Hackel on Wednesday said he's apprehensive of the unintended consequences of changing legislation and doesn't believe it's necessary. 

"I tend to look at what we've got now," said Hackel, noting his county is the only one that's been all-in on a regional SMART millage for decades, first asking countywide voters to support it via a ballot initiative in 1995.

"All (of the counties) could decide to opt-in for full connectivity," he said. "Why aren’t you first fixing that problem of connectivity and then going to various communities and see if you want to partner on something more extraordinary — whatever that might be — for transit."

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have promoted RTA expansion tax increase plans.

A regional 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase was narrowly defeated by voters in 2016. A 2018 plan to put a new, $5.4 billion, 1.5-mill tax on the 2018 ballot also fell short. 

Coulter on Wednesday called the 2016 ballot measure a "good foundational plan" but noted it failed in Oakland County. 

In the county, he noted, 40% of the workforce commutes from elsewhere for work and 18% commutes to Wayne County. Additionally, about 9% of the county's households do not have vehicles.

"We've been spending a lot of time figuring out why did it fail," he said. "What other value could we bring to this plan that helps more voters see that. We've been working diligently on that, meeting with people all over the county ... trying to find out what can we do to enhance that plan so that it is a greater value to Oakland County." 

Any potential tax revenue would go to the RTA — which already is the designated recipient of federal transit funds — and then be distributed to existing local transit systems, such as the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority, the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART.

Metro Detroit officials have argued for years over how to fund and advance expanded mass transit under the RTA, which was created with legislative approval in late 2012.

The vision was for a transportation system that would link Detroit and Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties through a regional transit system that included a commuter rail line and rapid bus transit. 

Patterson backed the formation of the authority, but along with Hackel, had issues with proposals to run and finance such a system.

Among other things, Patterson argued there should be protections for taxpayers in communities that opt-out of the system and that Oakland County was funding too much of the system while getting too few benefits.

Hackel has said the county would not be forced into any regional plans. 

Macomb County and sections of Oakland and Wayne counties already use the SMART bus system.  

Sheppard’s bill would amend the 2011 Municipal Partnership Act, which allows local governments participating in a “joint endeavor” to levy a property tax of not more than five mills for a given collaboration.

The legislation would clarify existing law to ensure counties could bring a proposal to the ballot through a vote of the board of commissioners, rather than through resolutions of support from each community within the county.

Coulter on Wednesday also touted his county's reputation as an "economic powerhouse" in Michigan, with half a billion in economic investment last year in Oakland County. 

The regional communities need to focus less on competing against one another, and more on other parts of the world, he said. 

"I'm really enthusiastic about what we can do together as a region," Coulter said. "I'm done with these artificial boundaries."

Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.