SMART millage foes target Macomb County costs

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
A SMART FAST bus picks up riders along northbound Woodward Avenue at Grand Circus on Thursday, July 26, 2018. A renewal will be on the August ballot. 

(Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

Opening their mailboxes, many Macomb County residents recently have found a flier proclaiming taxpayers pay nearly $12,000 a year for each rider of public transportation — but SMART says that does not tell the full story.

That campaign sponsored by the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, an anti-tax nonprofit, is attacking a millage renewal to fund the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, better known as SMART, that Macomb County residents as well as those in participating communities in Wayne and Oakland counties will see on their ballots in Tuesday's election.

The measure would slightly increase the millage in Macomb and Oakland counties to 1 mill, which Wayne County residents already pay.

SMART is southeast Michigan's only regional public transportation provider. For $106.9 million annually, the system provides nearly 10 million rides. That is about $8-$10 per ride for SMART's fixed-route busing service. Bus fares cost $2 each trip, though there are discounts for children, the elderly and the disabled.

Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, the founder of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, has attempted to calculate the cost per rider of SMART's fixed-route busing service. Using data from the Macomb County Treasurer's Office, the U.S. Census Bureau and SMART's budget, Drolet, a Republican, calculated taxpayers provide $11,716 per SMART rider in Macomb County.

But Drolet acknowledges his calculations only account for riders who use SMART'S fixed-route service to get to and from work. According to SMART, that's 70 percent of its ridership.

Adding the 30 percent of riders who use SMART to attend school, get to medical appointments and travel other places, according to a Detroit News analysis, lowers the annual taxpayer cost to $7,650.34 per rider.

"Whether it is $8 or $12, it is an obscene amount of money to move a person around," Drolet said. "Certainly in Macomb, we can do a lot better than that."

But that does not tell the full story, said Robert Cramer, SMART deputy general manager. Across the industry, said Beth Gibbons, SMART's director of marketing, communications and education, expenses are calculated based on each ride, not rider.

"It's really hard to calculate per rider," Cramer said. "I don't think a person who uses it once to go to a Tigers game would have the same expense as someone who uses SMART every day."

Additionally, the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey reports 0.8 percent of Macomb County residents use public transportation to get to work: 3,078 people. The survey, however, reports the primary means of transportation people use to get to work, excluding those who may occasionally use public transit to commute to a job.

Plus, SMART runs a regional transportation system, bringing residents of Oakland and Wayne counties to Macomb County just as it takes them from it.

SMART funds 3.3 million annual fixed-route bus trips in Macomb County. In addition, it provided 112,000 curb-to-curb small bus trips to 2,700 Macomb County residents last year. Municipalities in the county, which receive money from SMART to run senior transit services, provided 194,000 trips last year.

Additionally, SMART reports ridership is up in Macomb County. From April to June, it had 5 percent more year-over-year rides. In January, the authority introduced its Fast Affordable Safe Transit, or FAST, buses. With limited stops, FAST buses arrive every 15 minutes during peak travel time along Gratiot, Michigan and Woodward avenues.

"It's an efficient system," said Cramer. "It's been successful."

Applying the same logic to calculate per ridership in Oakland and Wayne counties is more complicated, since they have opt-out communities. Additionally, Wayne County's public transportation commuters represent 3.1 percent of its workers  — 21,822 residents -- which includes those who use the Detroit Transportation Department bus system. SMART provides 1.8 million annual trips in Wayne County,

Oakland's 3,022 public transportation commuters represent 0.5 percent of its workers, and SMART provides 3 million trips a year there. Using the same logic as above, residents in all three counties would contribute an average $2,335.33 per rider.

Cramer said SMART builds its budget so that a proportional amount of money is spent in each of the counties. Macomb County's millage contributes more than a third — about 37 percent — of what SMART receives from all three counties.

"We make sure the service assigned is proportional," Cramer said. "That 37 percent goes to routes that serve Macomb."