RTA pitch gets cool reception in Oakland County

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News
A revised regional transit proposal would seek a tax increase of 1.5 mills for 20 years to create and operate a public transportation system in Metro Detroit.

Pontiac – Proponents of regional transit for Metro Detroit pitched their revised plan Tuesday to Oakland County officials but got a chilly reception, with one official calling the proposal a step backward.

Matt Webb, chief operations officer for the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, told a committee of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners that the agency canvassed more than 3,000 people to come up with a new blueprint after the region's voters rejected a $4.6 billion plan in 2016. 

The $5.4 billion proposal calls for new rapid transit bus service along 15 high-frequency corridors, express routes and an Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line, to be funded by a 1.5-mill, 20-year tax.

“The plan is not perfect but it’s a substantial improvement over the 2016 plan,” said Webb, who laid out efforts that would improve the frequency of bus service to every 15 minutes along the busiest corridors, such as Woodward Avenue between Pontiac and Detroit.

One point of contention is that 38 communities in northern and western Oakland County that would not be serviced by proposed rapid transit bus lines have opted out of the existing Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.

The RTA wants a millage proposal to include Home Service Areas, with arranged rides for seniors for shopping or medical appointments. Opted-out communities also would be provided funds to repair damaged roads or other purposes as defined by local officials.

But Oakland County deputy executives Gerald Poisson and Robert Daddow both took turns cautioning commissioners there is much to be done before that happens.

“This will never go to a vote until there (are) legislative amendments to provide flexibility and for those who have opted out of SMART,” Poisson said, adding the new plan is “actually worse than the prior plan.”

Plan II projects that over 20 years, property tax revenues would be split this way: Oakland County, 41 percent; Macomb County, 19.8 percent; Washtenaw County, 11.9 percent; Wayne County (outside Detroit), 24.1 percent; and Detroit 3.2 percent.

Daddow detailed what he described as a series of “deficiencies, errors and omissions” in the RTA plan – including “incorrect metrics,” that he said were pointed out to RTA officials two years ago but never fixed. Daddow said the projections for property tax revenues began with Dec. 31, 2016, taxable valuable amounts instead of readily available values as of Dec. 31, 2017 values – which would be be used for a levy if an RTA tax were to pass in a November 2018 vote.

“The plan demonstrates a lack of understanding of Michigan property tax laws,” said Daddow. “…The understatement of RTA property tax revenues from Oakland County alone would be roughly $848 million.”

Daddow also said the plan frelies on the number of housing units built, rather than the taxable value of the house built.

“In this instance, an 800-foot bungalow exhibits the same taxable value increase as part of a growth factor as a $5 million mansion,” Daddow wrote in an report to the commissioners. 

Daddow said that oversight, along with failing to factor in construction in industrial, commercial, and manufacturing sectors, means the plan would greatly understate the county’s contribution to regional transit over 20 years.

“Given the above, it is conceivable that the setting of the millage rate of 1.5 mills will raise funds well beyond the expectations of the use of those funds as expressed in the RTA Plan II and should have been lowered …”

Tim Soave, one of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson’s two appointees on the RTA board, told county commissioners he would report back to them this month after the transit board meets June 15 and 21. Both Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel have publicly opposed the revised regional transit package.

Officials said proposal language would have to be approved by all participating counties by mid-August to be placed on the fall ballot.

Commissioner Dave Woodward, D-Royal Oak, said the region needs mass transit and he favors Oakland County being part of the solution. But he also wants answers to questions being raised by Daddow and others.

“We need to move forward with this; the longer we wait, the more difficult it is going to get,” said Woodward. “… But we also have to have all of these points addressed.”

Commissioner Shelly Taub, R-Bloomfield Township, said: “I’m old enough to remember how both the People Mover and Qline came in over budget. That bothers me.

“If we need (rapid transit) to get people down to the ballpark, maybe we should encourage (the) Ilitch (family) to put some buses out here to take people downtown.”


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