Funding for regional transit plan to be on fall ballot

Millage to fund regional transit plan in Metro Detroit slated for November vote

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Regional Transit Authority on Thursday voted unanimously to place a tax-increase millage before voters this fall to fund transit in Metro Detroit. The approval came after two elected officials, who initially opposed the ballot, gave their blessing.

The $4.6-billion-dollar proposal, if approved by voters, would bring bus rapid transit, a rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, an airport shuttle service, a regional fare card system and other service changes, and paves the way for the 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase to appear on the November ballot.

RTA officials lauded the vote, which came just days after elected leaders such as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and county executives met to iron out concerns expressed by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. Approval of the RTA’s master plan was derailed because of concerns about governance, power to allocate future funding and more transit services for outlying areas that weren’t previously covered but would have been taxed.

“It’s a very important day, a great milestone,” said Michael Ford, the RTA’s CEO, after the vote. “We’re glad that everybody can come together and make this happen. This is critically important for this region and we’re just delighted. We’ve got a lot of work to do still and we haven’t lost sight of that as well.”

At its special meeting on Thursday, board members voted to amend their bylaws to create a funding allocation committee with a member from each of the counties represented in the RTA that include Oakland, Washtenaw, Macomb and Wayne.

In the compromise, Oakland County secured about $40 million more over two decades — from $79 million to $118 million — for its 40 communities, many in the north, that have opted out of the suburban SMART bus system. The county received assurances that transit service would be granted to more communities in the master plan, including to the disabled and elderly.

In addition, the transit authority would need one vote of approval from each county and Detroit to approve financial decisions instead of the earlier plan for a simple majority.

Both Hackel and Patterson told The Detroit News on Wednesday that while they are pleased with the changes, they are not enthusiastically supporting the millage or its campaign — a move that supporters say they can overcome.

Alma Wheeler-Smith, who expressed great reservations about the change in governance, said while she’s disappointed that Hackel and Patterson pulled what she called a power play, she believes this millage, if approved by voters, will transform the region.

“It really doesn’t matter what Brooks Patterson and Mark Hackel say in their counties,” Wheeler-Smith said. “The citizens understand that this frees a community to go to work, to leave their homes, to get to their doctor’s appointments with some convenience and ease and people will vote for that. They aren’t going to be that worried about the political shenanigans of their elected officials who at the last minute hurled a bomb to get control of a regional authority.”

Other leaders around the region praised the decision.

Warren Evans, Wayne County executive, called the vote “an important decision for the citizens of this region.”

“Our citizens will get to decide whether our communities, which make up this region, deserve a significantly improved public transportation system,” Evans said in a statement. “This is an important decision for the citizens of this region. They will have to ask themselves a question; should we join virtually every other urban area in the country in recognizing the importance of an efficient and effective public transportation system.”

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said he “applauds our elected regional leaders and RTA board for achieving consensus on regional transit. This is another example of how Southeast Michigan is able to collaborate for regional progress. The Chamber is committed to working towards a ‘yes’ vote in November.”

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, said the decision for regional transit now rests with voters, “with implications that could be felt generations to come.”

“Whatever the electoral outcome, the policy debate around this issue has been a net positive — this conversation over transit illustrates the strong desire to rewrite our past, forge a new dynamic future and unify ourselves into a true economic and cultural region,” he said in a statement.

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