Transit agency still studying tax issue for Nov. ballot

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit – The future of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeastern Michigan after 2019 is largely dependent on Metro Detroit voters.

Much hinges on whether the agency can convince residents to pass a millage for the RTA’s master plan. The RTA narrowly lost a vote in 2016 on a $4.6 billion millage to expand transit service across Metro Detroit.

“If we can’t get on the ballot in 2018, our next opportunity won’t be until 2020, and we don’t have identified resources committed that would allow us to make it to 2020,” RTA board chairman Paul Hillegonds said in a phone interview Monday.

He said the goal is to resurrect the millage, but it’s not a done deal.

“It’s not a certainty,” said Hillegonds. “We wanted the regional leaders to take a look at the master plan we developed because there was some discomfort with some of the details.”

The failed millage proposal included plans to create bus rapid transit, a rail line between Ann Arbor and Detroit, an airport shuttle service, a regional fare card system and other service changes.

Regional leaders have been meeting to devise a new plan. An announcement about that plan may be revealed before the month ends.

The leaders include Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. Washtenaw County also has had a representative at the meetings, according to Jim Martinez, a spokesman for Evans.

“We’re clearly looking for a consensus,” said Hillegonds. “Something the regional leaders can support in the upcoming election.”

Hillegonds said Plan B would be to approach the state or local bus services to help the RTA make it through 2020.

“In the past, the state has supported us, but local bus services already are stretched,” he said. “The law requires us to stay in business, but if they don’t support the master plan in 2018, we will be running out of resources in 2019.”

Also uncertain is who will lead the RTA this year.

Interim CEO Tiffany Gunter resigned in November 2017 and her departure was effective Jan. 2. She replaced Michael Ford, who left after questions arose about his job expenses.

Carmine Palombo, deputy director of SEMCOG, is on loan to the RTA, without pay, until a permanent CEO is hired.

No names have been recommended for the position.

“We haven’t initiated any kind of search for a permanent CEO, and we don’t intend to until we have more more definitive direction from regional leaders, who are meeting about revisions to the master plan,” Hillegonds said.

He added: “The reason is, before we open up a search for any potential candidates, we need to have a better of idea of what the future holds.”

Financially, the agency appears to be solvent for now. Palombo said the RTA’s 2018 budget of $1.8 million assumes expenditures of $1.2 million.

The RTA has three consultant contracts that remain open with varying degrees of unspent budgeted funds, according to Palombo.

“These contracts were competitively bid when first awarded,” he said. “The work identified in the contracts was postponed or continued at a much reduced rate when the previous mileage failed in November 2016.”

Planning contracts are funded from a separate budget supported by grants, Palombo said.

“There is over $1 million remaining in the grants budget to specifically fund continuing work on the master plan,” he said in an email.


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