SMART faces critics as it seeks millage renewal

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
A SMART FAST bus picks up riders along northbound Woodward Avenue at Grand Circus on Thursday, July 26, 2018. A renewal will be on the August ballot. 

(Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

Mark Chapman leaned on a crutch as he stepped onto the SMART bus with a broken leg, paid his fare, and sat in a handicap seat.

"My leg makes it hard to get around," said Chapman, 48, of Ecorse, who was heading to visit a friend in Wyandotte and said he did not have any other way to get there besides the bus. "SMART makes it convenient."

Two rows deeper, 49-year-old William Cox was heading to work at Southgate's Mexican Gardens Restaurant. He prefers to save the money taking a 45-minute bus ride over driving every day from River Rouge. In his 10 years taking SMART, he's arrived late twice.

"It's a good system," Cox said. "Why mess with it?"

Voters in Macomb County and participating communities in Oakland and Wayne counties will decide Aug. 7 whether to renew the millage to fund the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, better known as SMART, through 2021. The measure also would slightly increase the millage in Macomb and Oakland counties to 1 mill, which Wayne County residents already pay.

SMART is southeast Michigan's only regional public transportation provider. The system provides nearly 10 million rides annually, 70 percent of whom use it to get to work. Critics of the current transit system, however, say there are cheaper and more efficient means to provide the service. Should any of the three counties SMART serves vote its renewal down, service would end in that county within a few months.

Voters last approved a SMART millage that increased the tax from 0.59 mills to 1 mill with 66 percent support in 2014. It helped to balance SMART's budget and replace old buses.

The Michigan Constitution's Headlee Amendment, however, limited the amount the tax in Macomb and Oakland counties could increase because their property values rose faster than in Wayne County. Macomb residents pay 0.9926 mills, and Oakland, 0.9863 mills.

A resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 per year under the 1 mill tax. In Macomb County, that is an increase of 78 cents per year, and in Oakland County, $1.37.

For the first year, the millage would generate around $71 million. In the last fiscal year, SMART received $69 million. SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer said the money would contribute to the service's ongoing operations.

The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, however, is sending out mailers, advertising online and encouraging voters to fill in the "No" bubble on their ballots for the proposal. The anti-tax nonprofit, founded by Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, advocated against a Regional Transit Authority proposal in 2016 that voters rejected.

"If we renew the tax, we are anchoring ourselves to the status quo," said Drolet, a Republican. "It’s just unfair to these transit-challenged citizens. They are paying for first-class transit, but they're getting third-class service."

A SMART FAST bus travels along southbound Woodward Avenue at Grand Circus on Thursday, July 26, 2018. A renewal will be on the August ballot. 

(Max Ortiz/The Detroit News)2018

According to the  American Public Transportation Association, a public transit advocacy nonprofit, public transportation ridership nationally fell 2.9 percent in 2017. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported less than 1 percent of Macomb and Oakland County residents used public transportation, while 8 percent of Wayne County residents did.

SMART's fare revenue decreased by about $400,000 in fiscal year 2017 to $11.6 million. Ridership fell for its fixed-route service by 4.4 percent and for its connector service -- door-to-door, small bus rides -- by 5.8 percent.

Cramer said SMART is working to curb that trend. At the start of the year, the system introduced its new Frequent Affordable Safe Transit, or FAST, buses. They travel along Gratiot, Michigan and Woodward avenues, connecting downtown and the suburbs with limited stops. Buses are scheduled to come every 15 minutes during peak times.

Ridership on those three corridors is up more than 30 percent in FAST's first six months. SMART ridership has risen 11 percent overall.

"That’s a huge success," Cramer said. "It’s a nice way to start the year, and certainly we’re hoping that will increase."

SMART buses are on time 86 percent of the time, the agency says. With SMART's operating budget of $126.9 million, each SMART ride costs about $12.69. SMART estimates it spends $8-$9 per rider on its fixed-route service.

Using U.S. Census data of how Macomb County residents commute to work, however, Drolet calculated SMART spends nearly $13,000 per rider from Macomb County, 90 percent of which comes from taxpayers.

Cramer said the county's weekly ridership is about 70,000, up 6.7 percent from last year.

"His baseline numbers are inaccurate, and therefore, all of his other numbers are inaccurate," Cramer said of Drolet's calculations.

Drolet thinks a voucher system to pay for ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber should replace SMART's buses. He envisions a system in which individuals would purchase a subsidized transit card that they could use to buy rides from Lyft, Uber, a taxi or a municipality or county-funded bus.

SMART then would coordinate the system and assist with the dispatch of vehicles. Federal and state reimbursements for public transportation would fund the program.

SMART's general fare is $2 with reduced fees for people under 19 years of age and 65 or over as well as those with disabilities. A 31-day pass is $66 without any discounts. All of its services can accommodate individuals in wheelchairs.

According to, Uber's minimum fare in Detroit is $6.90 with fares of 15 cents per minute and 80 cents per mile, though Uber can increase prices at times of higher demand. A ride from Campus Martius to the Detroit Institute of Art, would cost $8.18 with Uber and $8-$10 with Lyft, according to their websites.

Uber is testing wheelchair accessible transportation in other cities. Riders can turn on the Access setting in a Lyft app to request such transportation 24 hours in advance, and the app will dispatch vehicles from Metro Taxi to accommodate their needs.

"All of those services really can supplement and enhance public transit as their way to get around," Cramer said. "The idea of Uber and Lyft replacing public transportation, it is really not a workable or sustainable model."

Cramer said such services would be more expensive, and he worries that they could not support the community's ridership volume. Assistant Wayne County Executive Khalil Rahal, a SMART board member, added that removing the buses would increase the number of cars on the road.

"The answer for improving our public transportation isn’t to go backward," he said. "We have a bright future with development. There's been a steady increase in people visiting our airport. And with what's happening along Michigan, in Dearborn, in Corktown and downtown, being able to connect those areas with transportation is necessary to improve the quality of life and the economy."

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he is open to exploring new ideas for improving public transportation, but he said he'd like to see a fleshed-out plan first.

"You better have that very concrete," he said. "You have to be honest with the reality that if you’re telling people to vote no, there will be people without transportation if this gets voted down."

Hackel said despite strong millage approvals in previous years, he is concerned people will confuse the SMART proposal with the $5.4 billion Regional Transit Authority plan to fund a commuter rail line and rapid transit bus lines. Last week, the plan failed to get approval for the November ballot.

Drolet said conversations surrounding the Regional Transit Authority since 2016 have made people think about public transit differently.

"We did polling again, and I was surprised; I didn’t even expect we’d be taking on the SMART millage," Drolet said. "People have started to become aware of the costs and the resources that are being squandered on so few used. I think the RTA is a gift. It's raised conversation on mass transit in ways that show people want to change it."

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Twitter: @BreanaCNoble