Regional transit-related bill encounters opposition as leaders back it

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Two current and former Oakland County lawmakers opposed a proposed law change that would allow for a regional transit tax to benefit Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties and Detroit. 

But the Republican complaints about antiquated transit solutions and increased taxes were countered by officials from Metro Detroit looking for a better way to connect Southeast Michigan and make it more attractive to developers. 

David Woodward

“It’s the right tool at the right time so that we can make progress on an issue that is absolutely critical to moving our region forward,” said David Woodward, a Royal Oak Democrat who chairs the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. 

The idea of lifting tax caps to allow for an additional tax to finance an archaic system that could disproportionately benefit one county is “comical,” said Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford. 

“We all know this bill is about setting up an open line of credit for Wayne County,” Maddock said. 

Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans testified in support of the bill as did officials from Washtenaw County, Detroit, DTE Energy, the Detroit Regional Chamber and Quicken Loans. Cards of support were submitted by Ilitch Holdings, Ford Motor Co., the Michigan Realtors Association, Beaumont Health and the Henry Ford Health System. 

The bill’s sponsor argued the legislation allowed willing governments to put the question to voters, sidestepping the “Battle Royale” that ensued when past transit plans looped in unwilling leaders in Oakland and Macomb counties. 

“We’re not imposing a tax,” said Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance. “It is strictly up to the communities that wish to participate.”

Sheppard's bill would make changes to the 2011 Michigan Municipal Partnership Act, which lets governments participate in a “joint endeavor” to levy a property tax of not more than five mills in an effort to offer efficient, joint public services. 

The changes to the legislation would allow Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties to create a three-county transit plan by a majority vote within each jurisdiction, lift the millage caps in each of the counties to accommodate a transit tax and ensure that any tax revenue is used expressly for the transit plan without diversions to tax capture programs. 

An amendment discussed Tuesday added the ability for communities to take out bonds for regional transit so long as it was clear in the accompanying ballot proposal that some tax revenue would go toward paying back the bonds. 

The legislation would allow the municipalities to bypass a requirement for resolutions of support from each community within their jurisdiction before placing a proposal on the ballot in November 2020. Instead, the item could be added to the ballot by a vote of the county board of commissioners — all of which are controlled by Democrats in Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

If the legislation gets approved, leaders from Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw counties and Detroit could begin efforts with the Regional Transit Authority for an expanded regional transit plan that capitalized on existing agencies and infrastructure. 

The lack of regional transit options in southeast Michigan was one of the reasons Amazon didn’t relocate its second North American headquarters to Detroit, said Jared Fleisher, vice president of government affairs for Quicken Loans. 

“They said that the talent that they need wants mass transit,” Fleisher said. “…Detroit couldn’t meet that test. Metro Detroit couldn’t meet that test.”

Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert said in January 2018 that Detroit's negative reputation from the city's 50 years of decline helped doom the region's bid.

The Seattle-based company split the second headquarters between the East Coast communities of Arlington, Virginia, and the Long Island city neighborhood of Queens, New York. Amazon this year it would not build the New York City campus after local opposition.   

The legislation’s provision allowing an exemption from the tax cap for a regional transit tax spells trouble for Southeastern Michigan homeowners, said Rocky Raczkowski, a former Oakland County lawmaker and head of the Oakland County Republican Party. 

“You’re giving a tool of foreclosure and taxing seniors out of their homes, or even young people who have the opportunity to buy their first home,” Raczkowksi said. 

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. 

Former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson backed the formation of the authority but, along with Macomb County Executive Mark 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.