Lawmakers, county leaders set to push new regional transit plan

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

State lawmakers and Metro Detroit officials are expected Monday to push for legislation aimed at restarting plans for expanding regional transit in southeast Michigan. 

The legislation by Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, would essentially function as a mechanism to boost regional transit funding. 

New legislation is aimed at restarting plans for expanding mass transit through Metro Detroit's Regional Transit Authority.

The bill would allow for a regional transit agreement between Detroit and Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland counties ahead of a ballot proposal where the counties would ask voters to approve a property tax increase to fund the agreement. 

“If passed, the three counties would already have a predetermined agreement as to how that money would be spent,” said Sheppard, who added the plan would be outlined at a Monday morning press conference.

The bill also would change how the counties approve a tax plan to put it on the ballot, potentially making it easier to do so.

Past plans encountered opposition from Republican former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Democratic Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel because a majority of RTA board members — such as Wayne and Washtenaw counties and Detroit — could set spending plans over the objections of the minority. 

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have promoted RTA expansion tax increase plans.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel speaks on the issue of regional transit during the annual 'Big Four' event at the Detroit Economic Club luncheon at Cobo Center in Detroit. Photos taken on Friday, April 20, 2018. (John T. Greilick, The Detroit News)

Interim Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, a Democrat who was selected after Patterson's death this year, also wants a mass transit plan.

“That’s very important to me and also to many business leaders I have talked with,” Coulter told The Detroit News in August. “The ability of attracting a workforce and providing a way to get to and from work is needed.

"A plan was defeated by a narrow margin in 2016. It’s been four years. I don’t want to wait another four years.”

Any potential tax revenue would go to the Regional Transit Authority — which already is the designated recipient of federal transit funds — and then distributed to existing local transit systems, such as the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority, the Detroit Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, better known as SMART.

Metro Detroit officials have wrestled for seven years with how to fund and advance expanded mass transit under the Regional Transit Authority, which was created with legislative approval in late 2012. The vision was for a transportation system that would link Detroit and Oakland, Macomb, Wayne and Washtenaw counties through a regional transit system that included a commuter rail line and rapid bus transit. 

Patterson backed the formation of the authority, but along with Hackel had problems with proposals to run and finance such a system. Among other things, Patterson argued there should be protections for taxpayers in communities that opt out of the system and that Oakland County was funding too much of the system while getting too few benefits.

In 2016, a regional 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax increase ballot measure for the system was defeated — losing overwhelmingly in Macomb and by 1,100 votes in Oakland, while Wayne and Washtenaw county voters approved it. Patterson and Hackel put it on the ballot but didn't campaign for it. 

An effort to put a new $5.4 billion, 1.5-mill regional tax hike proposal on the 2018 ballot flopped after opposition from Patterson and Hackel.

Hackel said he was kept abreast of Sheppard’s legislation to ensure Macomb County would not be forced into any regional plans. 

All of Macomb County along with sections of Oakland and Wayne counties already use the SMART bus system.  But tension and confusion linked to the possibility of a tax hike under the RTA almost cost Macomb its SMART system when it narrowly won a millage renewal last year, Hackel said. 

“Macomb’s position has been and always will be we have a transit system, and we’re fully connected,” he said. 

Sheppard’s bill would amend the 2011 Municipal Partnership Act, which allows local governments participating in a “joint endeavor” to levy a property tax of not more than five mills for a given collaboration. It has served as a way to encourage more efficient, joint public services.

It is unlikely any tax increase floated to voters would use the full five mills allowed for under the law, supporters said. 

The legislation, introduced earlier this month, would allow voters to approve a municipal partnership tax by a majority vote within each county; would exempt any transit tax from the county’s overall millage cap; and earmark all tax revenue to the transit plan, instead of diverting some to tax capture programs.

Michigan State Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance

The legislation would clarify existing law to ensure counties could bring a proposal to the ballot through a vote of the board of commissioners, rather than through resolutions of support from each community within the county.

Other counties would be able to join the partnership later on if they desired to do so and were able to muster majority support from residents, Sheppard said. 

While Metro Detroit communities would use the amended law for a transit specific plan, the changes could benefit other multi-jurisdictional collaborations across the state even if they don't involve mass transit, Sheppard said. 

The legislation could be “another tool in the tool box” as counties explore ways to collaborate on ways to raise revenue for economic development, Sheppard said.

The legislation is expected to be announced Monday alongside officials for Detroit and Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties. 

“Large companies, one of the things they look at is how to get people to work and what does our transit look like,” Sheppard said. “We as a state need to find ways to get people moved around.”

The plan has the potential to aid in economic development and collaboration in the region, said Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Royal Oak Democrat who plans to be at Monday's announcement. 

“The writing is on the wall that we need some sort of regional transit plan,” McMorrow said. “…Hopefully, this will be the start of a much more nuanced and productive plan.” 

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