Officials: Revising Michigan partnership act key to regional transit plan

Royal Oak — Regional leaders met Monday to announce their support of legislation that could help put a southeastern Michigan regional transit plan before voters as soon as November 2020.

Some public officials want to revise the Michigan Municipal Partnership Act to make it a tool that governments can use to negotiate a regional plan.

Public officials want to revise the Michigan Municipal Partnership Act to make it a tool that governments can use to negotiate a regional plan.

“We are asking the Michigan Legislature to give us this tool so that we can begin the hard work or developing a transit plan that provides value to our communities,” said Oakland County Executive David Coulter, who unlike his predecessor, L. Brooks Patterson, supports a county-wide plan.

“Done right, improved transit and mobility has the potential to enhance economic development, resolve workplace constraints, and to improve the quality of life for our residents.”

Among those assembled at Monday's press conference at William Beaumont Hospital were Coulter, Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans, Washtenaw County Board of Commissioner Chairman Jason Morgan and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

“This is not a transit plan,” Evans stressed to reporters. “But it’s a new tool. … It can get us to a transit plan.”

Noticeably absent was Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, whose county’s voters rejected an enhanced transit plan three years ago. Under the plan, Macomb could join later if voters there felt a need to expand their current transportation system.

Macomb County’s participation is not required, Hackel pointed out.

“We did what was right and that was to fully fund SMART,” Hackel told The Detroit News of the regional bus system. “The voters aren’t asking for anything more, except to fix the roads and bridges. And put up streetlights. And stop signs.

“But I haven’t had one voter asking me if I’m getting on board for any rapid transit plan. I would never get in the way of anyone trying to improve transit but don't feel there is anything needed in Macomb at this time."

Those at Monday's press conference agreed amendments in state law, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance, are needed to move the issue forward for a public vote.

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 joint public services.

While the reform is not a transit plan, it would:

  • Allow Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties to create a three-county regional transit plan by a majority vote within each jurisdiction
  • Exempt municipal partnerships from millage caps.
  • Protect municipal partnership tax revenues so funds are guaranteed to the purpose approved by voters.

If amendments are made in Lansing, leaders from Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw counties and the city of Detroit could begin efforts with the Regional Transit Authority for an expanded regional transportation plan.

Perhaps most importantly, the amendments would simplify the process of regional transit planning, Oakland County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Woodward said.

“We would be able to get a better idea on what everyone wants or needs in their communities and how to provide it,” Woodward said. “Much work has to be done, but potentially, you could see a transit plan on the November 2020 ballot.”

Two of Woodward’s fellow Oakland County commissioners agree with the views of Coulter and Woodward, that amendments are needed and appear eager to make the jump to development of a transit plan — something no one is certain of beyond today’s bus systems.

“I’m very excited by this (plan) and a new emerging look at public transit,” said Commissioner Gwen Markham, D-Novi. “From what I hear, people will support it if they see value for their tax dollars.

“This is good for people. For business. For the city.”

Commissioner William Miller, D-Farmington, said he supports improving transit in southeastern Michigan to “get people to and from their jobs, for getting them to shop, and to keep new people coming to the community.”

“You have to look at the return on your investment, in the long run, it’s the future,” he said.

But Commissioner Bob Hoffman, R-Highland Township, believes the county will be divided on mass transit because of different needs.

“I do see a need for expanded mass transit in Oakland County, but one size doesn’t fit all. I think most of the demand is in the south end of the county, areas with denser population," Hoffman said. “Where I see very little demand for it is in the northern county. It will be a pretty tough sell there. There’s no benefit for them. Everyone drives their own cars.”

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.

Patterson never supported a rapid transit plan because several Oakland County communities had opted out for any regional bus service plans. Hackel was opposed because communities in his county had already fully funded SMART bus programs, and he still does not view it as a priority.

This 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, according to Sheppard. 

Asked about the new push for regional transit, Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, said expanding a “stone age” form of transportation would be a “big mistake.”

Maddock said currently, poor people have to wait outside in the cold, rain and snow for buses to pick them up while rich people are picked up at their doors by personal drivers.

“The busing system is antiquated,” Maddock said. He added, “Why not give poor people to the same access as the rich people?”

Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, who represents a portion of Oakland County, on Monday also criticized the idea of investing in a transit authority. Such systems are drains on budgets, and participation in them will decrease as self-driving cars become more common, Runestad said.

Runestad predicted that voters in his district would be opposed to the idea.

“These huge, multi-billion dollar mass transit systems are dinosaurs,” he said.

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Staff Writer Beth LeBlanc contributed.