Metro area transit tax faces challenge

Chad Livengood, and Leonard N. Fleming

Regional Transit Authority leaders are trying to build support for a 2016 millage campaign for rapid transit bus routes in Metro Detroit, but the region's top politicians are wary of voter support for a property tax increase.

The RTA's board chairman and chief executive used last week's Mackinac Policy Conference to appeal to the state's most influential business, education, civic and philanthropic leaders to get behind a ballot campaign that remains in its infancy.

Transit officials recently completed a listening tour to gauge the public appetite for increased public transportation service in a car-centric region that spends $74 per person on transit. The national average is $184 per capita, said Michael Ford, chief executive of the transit authority.

"This is not a dress rehearsal; we've really got to get something done here," said Ford, the former leader of the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority who helped convince voters there to support a tax increase. "If we don't do anything, we're going to be further behind."

But he said, "Obviously, we've got a herculean job to get out there and communicate."

RTA Chairman Paul Hillegonds said developing an integrated public transit system could help reverse decades of city-suburban divide that was accelerated by the creation of the interstate highway system.

"Regional transit to me is the opportunity to bring us back together in a very real way to think regionally more ...," said Hillegonds, who is also chief executive of the nonprofit Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

But with the overwhelming May 5 defeat of the Proposal 1 sales and fuel tax increases to fund road and bridge improvements, and the public's hesitancy to approve other tax hikes, even proponents eager to bolster mass transit in Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties acknowledge the challenges ahead for the 2016 fall election.

"I think the mountain before them is very high, and it's going to take some skillful climbers to get to the top," said L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive who appoints two members to the RTA board.

Patterson has yet to commit to supporting or opposing the tax increase because he hasn't seen specifics of the plan.

"When you're not very skillful, you lose 80 to 20 (percent)," Patterson added, referring to Proposal 1's defeat.

The RTA has yet to present details of what the tax increase might look like and what it would pay for as it tries to gauge what Metro Detroit residents want in a regional transit system.

Patterson has personally supported every millage proposed by SMART, the suburban bus system, including last year's millage renewal.

But Patterson warned when "you come in with a small bite for the (Detroit) zoo, a small bite" for the Detroit Institute of Arts, voters will eventually have a "breaking point" on dedicated regional property taxes.

'Financial sinkhole'

A dedicated millage for regional transit is a political non-starter for Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel after Proposal 1's loss. "Good luck," he said. "With what (voters) did with Proposal 1, it's going to be an incredible challenge."

Macomb County residents, Hackel said, "are very dissatisfied with what's happening right now with their tax dollars and very concerned about adding another layer to transportation."

One of them is Mike Moreau, 72, of Sterling Heights, who attended the RTA's recent Macomb meeting and who views public transit and its costs as a "financial sinkhole."

"What is success going to look at after five years? They can't tell us. I've asked them," Moreau said. "How many buses are we going to have? How many routes are we going to have? How many communities are we going to serve? If you don't know how big it's going to be, how can you come up with a plan? They want an open checkbook."

The Legislature created the Regional Transit Authority to coordinate public transportation in southeast Michigan between the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART, which operates bus service in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

The RTA wants to create a system of rapid transit buses initially running along the Gratiot, Michigan and Woodward avenue corridors from the suburbs to downtown Detroit, and interlinked with the existing DDOT and SMART bus routes.

"The people in Macomb County are not going to be supportive of that if they put it on the ballot," Hackel said in an interview on Mackinac Island.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan ran the SMART system in 1995 when voters approved a tri-county millage that saved the suburban bus service from closure.

Looking for value

"We passed it because we showed every community exactly what they were going to get in new service in exchange for the dollars," Duggan said in an interview. "And we passed it in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb with 70 percent of the vote."

Duggan said a regional transit millage "hasn't gotten momentum yet," and its success will depend on what services are proposed and how it's sold to Metro Detroit residents.

The Democratic mayor cautioned against comparing a regional transit ballot proposal with the failed Proposal 1 to hike the sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent in a complex road funding scheme.

"I don't know anybody in Michigan who knew what they were going to get out of the sales tax," Duggan said. "People will open their wallets if they think they're getting value for the money, and it remains to be seen if this authority will offer a service that people think is worth the money."

One who sees the benefit is Elizabeth Dahl-MacGregor, a 40-year-old Ypsilanti attorney who sees an increase in taxes for a better bus system helping her one-car family to have the flexibility to make downtown Detroit trips with her young children.

'A tough sell'

"Public transportation tends to be safer, statistically, than driving in a car," she said. "... Do they want to compete with my vehicle on the road, or would they rather have me out of their way on a train or a bus?

" ... And even if you're not going to get out of your car and use public transportation, it will still benefit you because there will be less traffic."

But Dahl-MacGregor knows other critics don't see it that way and next year's ballot proposal for more regional transportation will be a tall order.

"It's going to be a tough sell," Dahl-MacGregor said. "I think we could all get out of our own particular situations a little bit more and think about community good ... that would be nice, but I think that people have to see the immediate benefits for themselves to really be motivated."