Oakland, Macomb take issue with RTA’s master plan

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The expected vote on Thursday to approve the Regional Transit Authority’s master plan was scuttled after officials from two counties worried they may not get back their fair share of revenue if a tax increase millage passes in November.

The delay, which authority officials hope to have resolved by next Thursday when a tentative special session has been called, was prompted by board representatives and the executive leaders of Oakland and Macomb counties who said they could not support the plan until more discussion and revenue guarantees were offered.

At issue is the foundational language behind the authority that dictates that each county in the RTA —Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb — must get back 85 percent of the revenue raised in a millage. But officials noted Thursday nothing in the RTA’s proposed master plan guarantees that.

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, admitted Thursday he didn’t have the votes to pass the measure.

“And the question has come up in regards to the master plan: What happens if the projected millage revenue in our master plan from each county over time differs from those projections? What happens if some jurisdictions grow faster than others and we fall out of compliance with the 85 percent standard?” Hillegonds said during the RTA’s monthly meeting.

“I believe that this is a solvable issue. It’s a question of process. How do we build into our process periodic, regular review of the projections ... and what will be the rules in how the board addresses that situation?”

Hillegonds said he believes this can be fixed, perhaps as amendments to the master plan, in time to meet the Aug. 16 deadline to have the ballot language certified by county clerks.

The revenue issues, he said, have come up in the last week and there wasn’t enough time to address them before Thursday’s meeting.

Chuck Moss, Oakland County’s representative on the RTA board who along with Macomb County board member Roy Rose declined to support the measure Thursday, said the master plan must do more “for the region as opposed to the core.” And it cannot affect the operations of SMART, the suburban bus system.

“We’ve got large amounts of the county that don’t see any benefit and taxpayers have to see a benefit,” Moss said. “The 85 percent rule is statutory. That was put there for a reason. There are a lot of concerns. And 85 percent is definitely one of them.

“Hopefully, we’ll get it fixed. We have to have some guarantees that we don’t pass something and then find that it isn’t what we thought it was. And if we can’t demonstrate that there’s going to be value, no matter what we pass, the people won’t vote for it.”

The RTA in May unveiled a $4.6 million, 20-year master plan that would ask voters in the fall to support a 1.2-mill tax to help fund three bus rapid transits, a commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, an airport shuttle service, and a universal fare card among other upgrades.

The millage would cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel expressed concerns over the funding issue. Both have talked publicly about the millage being possibly rejected by taxpayers overburdened with yet another tax they may not see benefit in.

“I cannot in good conscience support the current plan, which spends over $1.3 billion of Oakland County taxpayers’ dollars over 20 years but only gives our businesses, workforce and residents a fraction of that back in transit services,” Patterson said in a statement.

Hackel, in a statement, said he also had some concerns, especially when it comes to possibly impacting SMART’s operations.

“The current RTA plan falls short of achieving our county’s expectations for transit,” Hackel said. “It is difficult for us to support a more than $4 billion commitment over the next two decades, which could negatively impact our county’s longstanding commitment to transit, especially the SMART system.”

Michael Ford, CEO of the RTA, said the issues raised by officials in Macomb and Oakland are “not something that we were avoiding, it’s just something that we want to be sensitive to.”

“We’re working towards bringing back the information that will be satisfactory for the plan and for everybody involved,” Ford said after the RTA’s monthly meeting.

“We’ve been communicating the 85 percent and the return on investment so that’s nothing new. I think the issue is just that there’s history involved, and there are issues, and I think people just want more reassurances and we’re happy to make that happen.”

Ford said he expects the board to “work through the issues that we have” and meet the upcoming timeline to get a millage on the ballot that would fund the master plan.

Ruth Johnson, assistant director of the Transportation Riders United group that advocates for transit in the region, said she was “disappointed that a vote was not taken” but feels confident all sides can reach an agreement to bolster transit in the region.

“Too many people are depending upon them to get this job done,” Johnson said. “I think there’s going to need to be some additional considerations, but frankly, I don’t understand the 85 percent rule because if you look at other regions, not everybody gets the same level of service. That’s just a reality.

“This is a start. And if we never get started, we’ll never see the promise of what the RTA legislation and all the hard work of the RTA board and the citizens have put in and brought us to this point.”

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