Detroit area transit authority gears up for tax pitch

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Regional transit advocates are hoping Metro Detroiters are willing to open their wallets this year for a new tax to fund transportation improvements — and they’re planning to spend big to sell it.

The Regional Transit Authority — a state-created board with representatives from Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties — is working to finalize a master plan by spring. Consultants are strategizing with businessman Roger Penske and other community and philanthropic leaders to fund a detailed public education effort that will evolve into a separate, all-out political campaign heading into the November election.

RTA officials haven’t yet made public how much the four-county millage will cost, but it would fund the authority as well as rapid transit on three major routes, a fare card system and an airport shuttle service. The tax would raise an estimated $130 million a year for the life of what could be a 20-year millage.

Supporters of the millage say public education will be key to convincing the public, given the defeat of a statewide ballot proposal for road improvements in 2015.

Advocates of the campaign say they hope to raise nearly $1 million for public education.

The Kresge Foundation has given $600,000 to the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation, which is operated by the Detroit Regional Chamber, to educate the public for the four-county transit millage.

“Our interest is in raising public awareness about the challenges that our region has and identifying what the lack of transit means to our community,” said Laura Trudeau, managing director of Kresge’s Detroit program. “Those of us who have children who are choosing where they are going to live are picking places with really strong transit. I think that’s a huge driver in people’s understanding of the value of transit and the need for a better system here.”

Calling transit “one of the most pressing issues facing Detroit and the region,” Trudeau said that although Kresge is not allowed to advocate for the ballot initiative itself, her foundation will help “people become more aware of the problem and doing what we can to help define it so that people can make their own decision ... and it’s an informed decision.”

Public transit has been a hot topic in Metro Detroit with the projected opening in 2017 of the M-1 Rail line up Woodward from downtown to Midtown, a project funded mostly by Penske, businessman Dan Gilbert and other investors. And the RTA has been trying to improve coordination between traditional rival bus agencies such as DDOT in the city and SMART in the suburbs.

Paul Hillegonds, the RTA board chairman, said the conversation is not yet focused on the millage election. Rather, he said, it’s gearing toward informing the public “about what our transit problems are, how we compare with other regions and our need for improved transit and how the master plan would address those needs.”

The business community, transit advocates and others, said Hillegonds, will be involved in the selling of the case for better transit.

“It’s really a campaign, an information effort that would inform the potential voters, and make the case for the ballot proposal that would come later,” he said. “And those are really two separate efforts.”

Hillegonds said the release of the master plan and public input is critical before anything else “because the region wants to know what we’re talking about before we even think about going to the region for funding support.”

Helping with the education aspect of the campaign is Kelly Rossman-McKinney, whose Lansing-based public relations consulting firm has been hired by RTA officials to help sell transit to the region. She promises myriad strategies along with “allies and ambassadors” to help those who either use transit or not “recognize the need for and the value of a more comprehensive, coordinated, reliable and accessible system.”

The public awareness campaign, she said, must show the public “how poorly southeast Michigan compares to other metropolitan areas around the country,” and that improved transit can spur job growth and the economy.

“There are things like that, that the vast majority of folks who live in southeast Michigan really don’t know and they are just not aware of. And they have no appreciation for the weaknesses in the system,” Rossman-McKinney said.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said the chamber will be “playing a very public role in talking up the benefits of the RTA and advocating for the millage.”

“Regional transit has been a long-standing priority for the chamber for a multitude of reasons, some of them are business-related and some of them are just frankly moral citizenship reasons,” Baruah said. “You will see the chamber mobilizing its membership and getting our board engaged and making sure the business community understands the importance of this issue.”

Baruah said that there will be challenges though. Among them is asking people for tax dollars in a tight economy. He acknowledged that “people who aren’t used to taking public transit often times view public transit as something for somebody else and not for them.” He has lived in Washington, D.C., and Portland, where public transit is a way of life, he said.

“We don’t do that here because we don’t have that option here,” he said.

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