Business leaders: Detroit regional transit plan not dead yet

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Metro Detroit business leaders on Wednesday attempted to breathe life into a push for a regional transit property tax increase despite a virtual death-knell from Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and staunch opposition from Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans speaks on the issue of regional transit during the annual 'Big Four' event at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon at Cobo Center on Friday, April 20, 2018.


Using the high-profile backdrop of the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, the Detroit Regional Chamber and company officials announced a new coalition of 220 businesses who are urging a vote on a regional transit and millage plan. The employers boast a combined 267,217 workers.

“When you go from two businesses to more than 200, I think it becomes clear that their constituents are asking them to take this issue seriously,” DTE Energy CEO Gerry Anderson said of Hackel and Patterson. “It’s not a concern for a few. It’s a concern of literally hundreds and hundreds and thousands of their constituents represented by this coalition.”

The coalition is not formally endorsing the 20-year, $5.4 billion millage proposal championed by Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. But Anderson called it a “good starting position” for regional leaders to work on a solution they can all agree on.

Hackel this week told The Detroit News the idea of regional transit tax is dead to him — not just for 2018, but forever. Local leaders in northern Macomb and Oakland communities oppose the plan because it does not include new buses in those areas and would not allow them to opt out.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a powerful local voice and former congresswoman, on Wednesday echoed Hackel’s concerns about the potential millage tax and said she does not think voters would support it.

Macomb voters might be more supportive of a millage to fix crumbling roads rather than fund transit, Miller said.

“I’m just telling you, in my opinion, Macomb County is not going to support the Warren Evans plan. They’re not," she said. "I appreciate that it’s an issue, but that’s not happening in our county.”

Evans is calling on Hackel and Patterson to let voters decide the matter this fall rather directing their RTA board representatives to keep the measure off the ballot.

“To me, the refusal to put it on the ballot is a backdoor play,” Evans told reporters Wednesday after a regional transit speech at the conference. "It’s like putting a lock on the ballot box. Why do you do that?”

Gov. Rick Snyder, who has encouraged regional collaboration and signed 2012 legislation to create the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, called the recent debate over the millage proposal “frustrating.” But he said he has not yet decided to step in to help salvage the effort.

“I have spent some time already in the past trying to facilitate things,” Snyder said. “It’s been challenging.”

Evans presented his Connect Southeast Michigan plan to the Regional Transit Authority board in March. The board has not yet decided whether to present it to voters this fall.

The plan calls for new rapid transit bus service along 15 high-frequency corridors, express routes and the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line. It would also provide “hometown service” funding for communities that won’t see new bus routes.

The regional service would help supplement and coordinate fragmented services from the Detroit Department of Transportation and the SMART bus system, which includes Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties. Patterson and Hackel last week endorsed renewal of a SMART millage.

Business leaders pushing for a regional transit millage said a coordinated and expanded system would benefit employees who need to get to work, customers who need to get to stores and could help encourage more talented workers to consider living in Michigan.

“We have 30,000 employees and compete across the county for talent,” said Bob Riney, president of Healthcare Operations and chief operating officer for Henry Ford Health System. “Talent wants to come to regions that have adequate transit. Whether they even use it everyday or not, it is a ticket to admission as they determine what market is attractive to them.”

Evans said his plan could be reformulated to exclude northern portions of Macomb or Oakland. But allowing communities to opt out in a patchwork fashion would allow for a “doughnut hole” in the region, he said during his speech.

“Transit doesn’t subsidize Detroit,” he said. “What transit does is subsidize routes. And routes are where people go, and where people go is where the routes are, and that’s where the dollars should be spent.”

Mayor Mike Duggan, in a morning interview on WWJ-AM, praised the transit partnership between the city’s Department of Transportation, SMART and RTA and took a dig at the resistant suburban leaders.

“Obviously, the elected officials north of Eight Mile don’t want the extra buses, but we’ve added almost 1,800 trips a week in the city,” Duggan said, adding Detroit is buying another 40 to 50 buses, hiring drivers and expanding its service.

“We’re going to keep landing businesses in the city, providing transit in the city and at some point you’ll have suburban leaders who realize that the next generation of leaders want to stay connected to their smart phones and their tablets,” Duggan said.

“They don’t want to be a half-hour to 45 minutes on a traditional commute that I would have grown up with. They are going to find that they are at a competitive disadvantage, but they haven’t reached that conclusion yet.”

Duggan, during the radio interview, noted that the RTA is already running four reflex bus routes along Jefferson, Michigan, Grand River and Woodward. DDOT and SMART each run two of the routes as well, he said.

“SMART and DDOT work well together every day,” said Duggan, noting he’s talking with SMART general manager John Hertel about extending a single fare and schedule that would apply to both. “I think DDOT and SMART working together is on its way. But we’re running a quarter of the service that any other metropolitan area in America would run. And that means resources.”

Staff reporter Christine Ferretti contributed.