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Commercials calling Metro Detroit’s regional transit system one of the worst in America were recently pulled after the ads drew fire from a transit provider.

Advocates of SMART, the area’s suburban bus service, wrote a critical, two-page letter in April to those involved in an advertising campaign that helped produce two TV spots produced on behalf of the Regional Transit Authority by A Coalition for Transit group, which is backed by local business leaders.

The letter called the campaign messaging “wholly inappropriate and inaccurate” regarding its service and demoralizes a service that is largely underfunded. It also comes at a time when regional transit officials are gearing up to ask voters this fall to pony up for various transportation improvements.

Both the Detroit Regional Chamber Foundation and the Kresge Foundation are helping to fund the ad campaign. The ads were pulled on April 20, the day the letter was sent, and only ran in March and April on cable channels.

“Negativity breeds negativity,” the letter reads and is signed by members of SMART’s board of directors. “These ads severely sabotage the regional cooperation expected of SMART in working with the RTA. When you paint the current transit system as the ‘worst in the country,’ it demoralizes SMART employees, drivers, mechanics and support staff who work very hard every day to provide the service for people who depend and rely upon us.”

The letter then mentions how SMART, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, which provides 10 million rides annually, puts “undo stress on riders who are served daily with no incident.”

Melissa Roy, chairwoman of SMART’s board of directors, said she signed the letter simply to “express how I felt” about the ads.

“I was disappointed in the tactics for the campaign,” said Roy, who is also the executive director of Advancing Macomb, a business leadership group focused on improving the economy of Macomb County. Roy also expressed her displeasure at a recent RTA meeting to board members.

The coalition was formed to educate the public about the dearth of transit, and then later this fall, promote a November millage for voters in Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw and Oakland counties. The millage, which is expected to be unveiled as part of the RTA’s master plan on May 31, is expected to be a 1-mill property tax increase that would raise an estimated $130 million a year for the life of what could be a 20-year millage.

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has been heavily involved in promoting transit, said he was “extremely surprised” at the reaction to the ads by SMART officials and said campaign advocates should have done a “much better job” at allowing feedback with the various transit providers.

“The ethos of the ad ... it’s certainly something that we still think is fundamentally correct, that overall our region lacks the same level of public transit options that our peer cities across the nation have,” Baruah said. “And that’s not a critique of DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation) or SMART or any other existing transportation system. It is just a critique of where our overall transportation system is in the Detroit region.”

But Roy said SMART has been successful at deploying regional bus service with limited resources.

“I think very effectively,” she said. So having a campaign, she said, “that is focused on that particular message can be very damaging.”

“My concern, from SMART’s perspective, is that we have deployed regional transit with the resources that are available in the best way that we can,” Roy said. “We put a large portion of our funding on to the streets so that we can provide as much transit throughout Southeast Michigan with a very low level of funding.”

On Friday, two new ads were released that include stories “that draw attention to the fact that a lack of connected, frequent and reliable regional transit is a significant barrier to economic growth in Southeast Michigan, preventing employers from filling jobs, employees from getting to jobs, and limiting economic development,” according to the regional chamber.

Michael Ford, CEO of the RTA, could not be reached for comment. John Hertel, the chairman of SMART, declined comment and said Roy’s comments speak for the agency.

The RTA was created by the Legislature in 2012 to help promote regional transportation coordination between providers, such as DDOT and SMART, in addition to doling out state and federal funding. The authority has been working on a regional master plan that will be unveiled later this month and that will detail specific plans for so-called Bus Rapid Transit routes up Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues as well as other transit options that voters will be asked to approve in November.

It’s a campaign that Megan Owens, president of Transportation Riders United, a transit advocacy group, said must convince the public that improved transit is needed. And that is why she doesn’t think the “worst in America” claim was all that bad.

“I don’t think that anything in that ad was inaccurate,” Owens said. “I don’t think it was framed correctly and given enough context because this is a very complex issue. There are a lot of reasons why we have one of the most limited transit systems in the country.”

Owens said studies show that for many people in the region, transit doesn’t even exist, so a strong message needs to be sold.

“So I agree that the message needs to get out there that we do have among the worst transit systems in the country,” she said. “I think that is an appropriate message. I do believe it could have been put into context.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

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