Macomb transit uncertain if SMART millage loses recount

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
The future of mass transit in Macomb County could hinge on the results of a pending recount of the 1-mill SMART millage that was on the Aug. 7 ballot.

Ruth Johnson says she located to her Warren neighborhood five years ago because its well served by public transit.

The self-employed Macomb County resident doesn't have a car and said she uses the SMART bus service daily to go shopping, get to medical appointments, attend church and go to client meetings.

But she anticipates hardships for herself and others who rely on the bus service, provided through the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, if a narrowly-approved millage renewal for the service in Macomb County is overturned in a pending recount.

"I have been a regular transit user because it works for me," said Johnson, who has the means to buy a vehicle if she needs to but noted many others do not.

"Do people know what this means and the possibility of not having countywide SMART service and are they prepared for the impact? I would say generally, my guess would be no. It will further worsen our transit mobility issues in untold ways," she said. "Asking people who already have limited opportunities to be further burdened is unfair and inequitable."

Voters in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties voted in the Aug. 7 primary to continue millage funding for SMART through 2021. The measure also slightly increases the millage in Macomb and Oakland counties to 1 mill, which Wayne County residents already pay.

In Macomb, the measure passed by just 39 votes, prompting the Michigan Taxpayer Alliance to file a request for a recount on Tuesday, citing its narrow win.

Leon Drolet, a Macomb County commissioner and chair of the taxpayer group opposed to the millage, contends an outcome that reverses the election victory for the bus service would have a "very minimal" impact because "almost nobody in the county uses it."

"For a few folks, it would be significant but there are better ways of helping those folks get around," said Drolet, who is advocating for a voucher-based system that would include a county-issued subsidized transit card for those with financial hardships to use toward a ride-sharing service. Gasoline tax dollars and vehicle registration fees could be used toward the program, he said.

"It would be a lot cheaper than sending giant buses with two people on them all around the county," he said.

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.

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

The county Board of Canvassers certified the Aug. 7 election results, with all 338 precincts reporting showing the SMART millage passed by 77,500 to 77,461. 

The recount petition filed Tuesday was for 398 precincts — some Election Day and some absentee precincts — throughout the county, but not a petition for a full recount. The fee the alliance paid for the recount was $9,950, or $25 per precinct.

A date, time and location for the recount is expected to be settled by the end of the week, Michael Grix, a representative for the election division of the Macomb County Clerk's Office, said in a Wednesday email to The Detroit News. It's expected to take place within the next few weeks.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said Wednesday that if a recount ultimately shows the millage was defeated, it'll be up to each community to decide whether to make an arrangement with SMART as a provider and how service would be funded. Of the county's 27 communities, voters in 16 of them said no to the millage, he added.

"It's going to have an immediate impact on a lot of riders. The question becomes 'who fixes it?,'" he said. "It's going to be a community-by-community basis."

On Wednesday, a representative for SMART declined to comment on the potential impact of the millage renewal being reversed.

SMART's General Manager John C. Hertel said in a Tuesday statement that SMART wasn't surprised by the recount effort, "given the negative attitude of the opposition towards the needs of the public."

"Yet, we still have faith in the integrity of the electoral system in Macomb County," he said.

A resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 per year under the tax. In Macomb County, where residents had paid 0.9926 mills, that means an annual increase of 78 cents.

SMART is southeast Michigan's only regional public transportation provider. For $106.9 million annually, it provides nearly 10 million rides.

Macomb County's millage contributes more than a third, about 37 percent, of what SMART receives from all three counties, according to SMART and the Macomb County Treasurer's Office.

Drolet said coordinating a new transit program would require some quick work and the cooperation of county and transit officials.

Hackel said right now Drolet's voucher-based approach to replacing SMART has too many unknowns.

"Who decides who is going to get the cards, how much they get ... who is going to collect the money," he said. "Who is maintaining it?"

Johnson, meanwhile, said ride-sharing providers such as Uber and Lyft aren't as cost-efficient and may not always offer full-sized vehicles to accommodate special needs, including motorized wheelchairs.

"It's a fallacy and a very dangerous fallacy to say Uber and Lyft can replace the hundreds of thousands of rides SMART provides to people throughout our region," she said.

Staff writer Mark Hicks contributed.