Officials: Vote on regional transit will likely fail

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

An expected vote to approve a regional transit plan that would put a transportation millage on November’s ballot will likely fail Thursday as mounting concerns from Oakland and Macomb officials have not been resolved to the satisfaction of county leaders, officials have concluded.

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority’s board, acknowledged late Wednesday he is “not optimistic that we will have an agreement” after speaking with Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

Hillegonds said if a vote of the RTA’s master plan fails, and he believes it will, “we need to move ahead and see where the votes are, and then if the political leadership cares enough, I hope that will be the alarm bell that we only have a few days to resolve differences.”

“I wish these concerns had surfaced when the RTA authorizing act got passed before the 24 hours before we were to vote last week,” Hillegonds said. “It’s very frustrating for us as a board that has worked very hard on a consensus basis to have this come up now and complicate the ability to solve the problem.”

Paul Hillegonds

Hackel and Patterson expressed concerns last week about the RTA’s $4.6 billion, 20-year master plan, specifically over getting back their fair share of revenue if the tax millage is approved by voters, wondering how many upgrades each county will receive in return and how the plan could affect operations of SMART, the suburban bus system. The concerns have seemingly been addressed, officials say, but more concerns arose.

Hackel said Wednesday he has an issue if future votes fall under a simple majority that overrule his county in financial decisions.

To place a measure on the ballot from the RTA, its statute requires seven of nine votes, one from each county, but not on other decisions, including financial matters.

“The voice I have today is the voice I want tomorrow,” Hackel said. “This isn’t a Macomb County thing. This is something that all of us should be able to agree upon.”

Patterson, meanwhile, said he is concerned with the lack of transit services for dozens of towns in his county. Patterson said 40 communities in Oakland County will have essentially “no noticeable change in their transit,” and if that continues, then those communities, including Oxford, Rochester, Springfield Township and Waterford Township, for example, should not be taxed as part of the millage.

“We’re prepared to negotiate,” he said. “They are the ones who are going to kill this deal. I’m quite sure about that.”

The RTA board was expected to vote last week to approve the plan for the region that would ask voters to support a 1.2-mil tax to help fund rapid transit in addition to a commuter rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, airport shuttle service, a universal fare card system and other improvements.

But the vote was scuttled by RTA board members Chuck Moss of Oakland County and Roy Rose of Macomb County until their concerns could be met, specifically about whether enough guarantees are in the master plan that would ensure each county, as dictated by the creation of the RTA by the Legislature, would receive 85 percent of the tax dollars they raise as part of the millage.

On Wednesday, Hackel and Patterson said they were not swayed by a letter signed by a bevy of city and regional leaders, including Quicken Loans Inc. founder Dan Gilbert and business titan Roger Penske, calling for them to halt their opposition to the millage.

“We have come too far, after too long, to see our best shot at regional transit in a generation fall before the people are able to decide,” the letter signed by 34 business, health care and educational leaders that was addressed to Hackel and Patterson. “We appreciate that you have expressed past support for regional transit and that you want the time to get it right.”

The letter, also signed by former Sen. Carl Levin, Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah and Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, stated time is of the essence with a mid-August deadline approaching to get it on ballots this November.

“We are asking you to come to a resolution of the issues you have raised so that the people of this region, as a region, can have the chance to decide on something fundamentally important to our collective future,” the letter continued.

Advocates say the plan — which would expand routes for SMART, bring bus rapid transit to three major corridors and a host of other transportation improvements — needs to be decided by the voters of Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

Those supporters on Wednesday put heavy pressure on officials from Macomb and Oakland counties to place the tax increase measure on the fall ballot.

Members of pro-transit groups, including Transportation Riders United, called Patterson and Hackel to back off and allow their representatives to approve the RTA’s master plan at a special session to be held Thursday at the Detroit Regional Chamber office.

“The Regional Transit Authority has the legal authority to put that on the ballot, but they need to have the support of every county to make it happen,” said Megan Owens, leader of the Transportation Riders United.

Owens said the RTA plan would bring in rapid transit, add more regional connections throughout the four county area and “it would provide more reliability so people aren’t left waiting. We need this plan and we ask Mr. Hackel and Mr. Patterson to let the people vote.”

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