Evans seeks $5.4B tax for regional transit plan

Shawn D. Lewis, and Nicquel Terry
The Detroit News

Detroit — Less than two years after Metro Detroit rejected expanding the region’s transit offerings, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans wants to pitch voters a bigger plan.

A Fast bus heads eastbound on Larned Street in downtown.

Against the objections from other county executives, Evans on Thursday launched a massive, retooled 20-year regional transit proposal that needs voters to approve a $5.4 billion tax later this year.

It calls for a 1.5-mill tax to provide $170 million a year in operational funding while investing $696 million to support infrastructure. The tax would cost owners of the average house worth $157,504 in the region $118 a year.

“Even if I don’t use public transportation, I see the value to property, employment and education,” Evans said. “This is good for all of us — whether I get on a light rail to the airport or not, there is a moral imperative. We’re not all equal unless we have equal access to opportunity. People need the ability to get to work, to school and other destinations.”

Evans, who spearheaded the plan after meeting with regional transit and public officials, calls the initiative “Connect Southeast Michigan.” It’s designed to replace a smaller regional mass transit master plan voters narrowly rejected on the 2016 ballot, and it requires no legislative action.

That $4.6 billion millage failed 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, Oakland County voters were split and Macomb County strongly rejected it. The 2016 plan included a smaller 1.2-mill property tax that would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

Evans presented the new, 20-page vision for regional mass transit to the board of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan on Thursday before a standing room-only crowd. Some people standing along the walls held signs that read: “RTA do your job so we can get to our jobs.”

“The more they see the plan, those people who were against it before, I’m convinced will be in favor of it,” Evans said.

The report was divided into four main sections: the vision, state of transit in the region, delivering value and the plan.

One of the standout features is commuter rail service connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit, with an operational investment of $9 million a year and a capital investment of $135 million. It would include eight round-trips a day connecting Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Wayne, Dearborn and Detroit. This rail service was also a key feature of the 2016 plan.

The new plan includes 15 bus routes at 15-minute frequencies with an operational investment of $70 million per year and a capital investment of $210 million.

There also would be 15 new express regional bus routes connecting major destinations across the four counties with an operational investment of $17 million and capital investment of $13 million. Four of the routes would provide express service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

This plan added 11 freeway-based express services with park and ride lots compared to what the 2016 plan offered, improving access to jobs, officials say.

The lack of regional transit was a “deal breaker” for Amazon, which recently passed up Detroit for the location of the company’s second regional headquarters, Evans has said.

The 2018 plan also reaches beyond the fixed transit routes with a hometown service program, which would give 60 communities a variety of potential services, including on-demand service, ride-sharing partnerships and meal delivery.

One of the main points of contention within the four counties has been a provision in the Regional Transit Authority Act requiring that a minimum of 85 percent of money collected in a county be spent on routes located within that county.

This plan expands that requirement by noting: “All counties are provided at least 85 percent return of their millage revenue and all counties receive greater than 105 percent return on their investment through leverage of farebox, state and federal funding.”

The plan anticipates generating $1.3 billion in farebox, state and federal revenues.

Evans and Mayor Mike Duggan appear to be the only regional leaders behind any expanded regional mass transit plan. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel have made it clear they will not support a plan similar to what has been proposed in the past.

Patterson has noted that nine Oakland communities already had opted out of joining public transit in the failed 2016 millage and he would “respect the wishes of the voters” of those communities. The Oakland County executive has said that since 1996 and through 2017, the opt-in communities paid almost $352 million in taxes to support regional transit. He noted that was nearly $37 million more than Macomb and $107 million more than Wayne.

Evans’ new plan on Thursday did not change the position of Patterson, who has publicly opposed plans for a transit millage. He said the proposal still forces opt-out communities in Oakland County to participate.

“That is not the democratic way to proceed,” Patterson told The Detroit News. “That alone was a disqualifier for us.”

Patterson is pushing for a proposal that would raise $1.2 billion over 20 years from the 24 Oakland County communities that have opted in to the taxing authority supporting SMART bus.

Evans’ expanded plan, he said, now requires more money from Oakland County, which is already the largest contributor to existing regional transit.

“If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it,” Patterson said. “Reduce the size of your plan.”

Evans responded to Brooks’ comments, saying: “What Brooks is not telling you is that he will get 105 percent back into Oakland County. If he has parts of Oakland County that don’t want in, then draw a straight line, and those above are in and those below are out. But putting doughnut holes in a plan won’t work. If this is going to be a regional plan, then we have to have regional input.”

Hackel said Thursday that Evans’ plan also didn’t change his position that regional transit is not a priority. Hackel said he wouldn’t support the 1.5-mill tax because residents would rather see their tax dollars invested in fixing roads.

“I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “There is nothing of more prioritization than funding for fixing our roads. We have a crisis with our roads.”

Evans said there’s still time to revise the plan to accommodate the concerns of others.

“There’s still room to tweak the plan,” he said. “I didn’t come in here with a message from God. If you want to tweak something, please come find me. I’ll come running to you, and we’ll work on it.”

Before voters would get weigh in on a regional tax, RTA spokesman Mario Morrow said the board must first vote to have a public hearing on the matter, then vote to put it on the ballot before seeking approval from the secretary of state.

Duggan argued Thursday via a statement that the regional transit plan “connects the entire region, and I enthusiastically support the RTA considering it.”

“Residents of all four counties deserve an opportunity to vote on it this fall,” he said. “I applaud County Executive Evans for his efforts to develop a plan that will allow our citizens to connect with jobs and our region to compete for more.”

Washtenaw County officials say they expect their voters will again support the transit plan. The county sees value in the improved access to jobs and shuttles that bus residents from neighborhoods to commercial areas, said Andy LaBarre, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners who attended meetings with Evans and other regional leaders to discuss transit.

LaBarre said he doesn’t think the increased costs of the expanded plan will impact support in Washtenaw.

“The cost is well matched with the usefulness of the services,” LaBarre said. “It’s adaptable, it’s practical, it’s just more useful.”

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA’s board, said the plan “addresses the concerns with the previous plan received from all four counties and is a great compromise.”

“Southeast Michigan has been trying to solve this problem since the ’60s. It’s long past time for action,” he said. “We look forward to receiving public comments on this plan. Our goal should be to get a proposal on the ballot and give voice to the voting public.”

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, called Evans’ proposal an “amicable, more robust solution to move our region forward and attract the jobs and talent needed to compete globally.”

“The chamber supports approving the plan to let the voters decide on the November ballot,” he said in a statement.