RTA officials exploring causes of transit tax defeat

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Regional Transit Authority officials promised Thursday to examine why a $4.6 billion millage proposal to expand regional transit was narrowly defeated this month and create a new strategy to win over voters.

At the authority’s monthly board meeting, RTA officials said they are “grieving” the loss of the millage. But they said a board retreat, lengthy conversations with stakeholders, public officials and voters in the coming months would help to bring focus to the next effort.

“I just want to be real clear that I’m very committed to moving forward and trying to get something better,” said CEO Michael Ford of the election loss. “People still need services. People are still suffering. And we need to get this done. I just wanted to really emphasize that this is not over. ... We need to get this right.”

The 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax for mass transit in Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw and Oakland counties would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually, RTA officials estimate.

Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage with 56 percent and 53 percent in favor, respectively. Oakland County voters were split 50-50 on whether to approve the tax. But Macomb County’s say ended the conversation, ensuring there were 18,185 more votes against it than supporting. A simple majority of voters in the four counties was needed for the measure to pass.

The RTA could bring back another millage proposal to fund regional transit expansion in Oakland, Washtenaw, Wayne and Macomb counties in 2018 or 2020. But it would depend on whether the suburban SMART or the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority decides to renew their tax millages.

The millage sought 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., with support from the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, opposed the millage as a waste of money.

RTA board member Tim Soave said the authority must learn from those who rejected the millage.

“No disrespect to the people who helped us, we know they are with us,” Soave said. “Why didn’t the people who voted against us. ... What turned them off?”

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, said “as frustrating and as disappointing as it as been to fall short,” he praised “how far we’ve come” in advancing transit needs in the region.

“The plan that was put together by staff with the help of consultants and secured by the board was a good plan,” he said. “And we did have remarkable support. This is a time for reflection and a lot of listening.”

Ford said talking to the critics of the RTA master plan that made up the millage is important and finding some common ground.

“Are there things that we can agree upon,” Ford said. “Maybe there are other things that didn’t get communicated or there might be some ideas they have that we didn’t think about. So I’m open to that process.”

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