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Oakland, Macomb execs fear transit plan might hurt SMART

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson promotes the SMART millage and service expansion on Tuesday outside an Amazon distribution center in Shelby Township.

Oakland and Macomb county executives strongly urged voters to support a 1-mill ballot measure for Metro Detroit’s bus system on Tuesday, fearing residents might confuse that Aug. 7 vote with a revised regional transit plan under consideration.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel have been ardent critics of a plan floated by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans that’s designed to replace a regional mass transit master plan that voters narrowly rejected in 2016.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan hasn’t decided yet to present Evans’ $5.4 billion proposal to voters this fall, but the controversy surrounding it has generated headlines that Patterson and Hackel fear might confuse voters with the Suburban Mobility Authority of Regional Transportation ballot measure.

"SMART is regional transportation,” said Patterson during an outside press conference on Mound Road near 23 Mile Road in Shelby Township on Tuesday. “People are saying they want a regional transit system, well we already have one.”

Patterson added that “people have overwhelmingly supported regional transit through the SMART millage in the past. They tax themselves to support SMART because it is reliable and people know it’s there for them.”

In March, against the objections from other county executives, Evans 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.

The SMART millage up before voters in August raises the current millage of .9863 mills to 1.0 mills through 2021. A resident who owns a $200,000 home with a state equalized value of $100,000 would pay $100 annually if the SMART millage passes, SMART spokeswoman Beth Gibbons said

Evans, who spearheaded the “Connect Southeast Michigan” plan after meeting with Metro Detroit transit and public officials, responded to Patterson and Hackel in a statement Tuesday.

"Clearly, many residents in Oakland and Macomb are expressing their feelings in favor of more transit options, and that’s a good thing," he said. "I’m pleased to hear the conversation around transit continue to grow, but we need to have a candid conversation."

Evans emphasized his own support for the SMART millage but noted the RTA effort is still vital to the region.

"I support the SMART millage because less transit would devastate the region," he said. "I support RTA because it is the best path to a true regional system with all the benefits transit can provide.”

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel speaks about promoting the SMART millage and service expansion Tuesday.

But Hackel said people are getting "distracted" by Evans’ plan for the RTA.

"Our specific concerns in Macomb County are R for roads, T for talent and attraction — to attract talent to this area," he said. "People in Macomb County adore SMART because they know it is reliable and affordable."

Macomb voters overwhelmingly voted against the regional transit proposal on the 2016 ballot while Oakland’s voters were split. Wayne and Washtenaw counties favored the plan. 

Patterson and Hackel favor allowing communities to opt out of the RTA’s control, saying they don’t want their residents to have to pay for services they would rarely use. The Legislature is considering a measure that would allow communities to do just that.

But Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has been supportive of Evans’ revised effort. 

Dave Massaron, a top Duggan aide, said city officials “continue to believe a robust investment is needed in transit to improve the competitiveness of the region and to provide access to opportunities for all of our residents.”

“Brooks Patterson correctly identified the problem with opt-outs when he pushed for the original regional transit bill,” he said. “And as he has admitted, all four counties will receive more than 100 percent return in transit service for their residents. Voters deserve the opportunity to vote on this plan.”

Dan Lijana of Connect Southeast Michigan, a coalition supporting transit in 2018, said SMART is only a "partial solution."

"It does not have a long-term funding source and allows communities to be left out of the service area," he said. "RTA is a 20-year solution that builds on the service SMART, DDOT (Detroit Department of Transportation) and AAATA (Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority) provide today while ensuring all communities are served by a connected regional transit system."

Meanwhile, Patterson was pressed on Tuesday about whether he has re-election plans. His spokesman, Bill Mullan responded: "He says he has not made a decision about his future. He always says, ‘Never say never.’”

It was indicated in a story by Detroit veteran journalist Charlie LeDuff that the 79-year-old Oakland County executive was planning to call it a career.

"Brooks said Charlie misunderstood what he said,” Mullan said. “Brooks was talking about enjoying the job and being able to accomplish things, but he has grandchildren who would like to see more of him. He has made no decision."

In the story by LeDuff, Patterson also was quoted as calling Duggan a “creep.”

"He told reporters that he did not say 'creep,'" Mullan said. "But he did say he wanted to emphasize that certainly, recently regional transit issues have caused some strains in the relationship and that they used to not take differences personally, but now, he says, the mayor takes them personally."