Regional transit opt-out plan emerges in Michigan House

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan lawmakers are debating state legislation that would allow communities to opt out of the Metro Detroit regional transit authority and avoid potential service taxes if approved by voters.

The proposal is backed by communities in northern Oakland and Macomb counties who argue they’d see little direct benefit from proposed bus routes or commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit.

But the bill is “shortsighted” and threatens to set regional transit efforts back “years, if not decades,” said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans. He is pushing to put a 20-year, $5.4 billion millage proposal before voters, who rejected a plan in 2016.

Sponsored by Rep. Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond, the state legislation would allow city, village or township officials to withdraw from the authority by approving a resolution. The authority, created by state law in 2012 to coordinate transportation services, includes Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

Addison Township Supervisor Bruce Pearson said newly proposed bus routes that could be created by the potential millage would run at least 17 miles outside his community.

“I think RTA has already opted me out,” Pearson said Wednesday in testimony before the Michigan House Tax Policy Committee. “They already told me we’re not going to give you any service. There’s not a single route. … But they want my money. I don’t think that’s a fair stance.”

Independence Township Supervisor Patrick Kittle told lawmakers his community would see “little to no benefit” from the regional transit millage. But the tax would generate $2.4 million from local residents each year, he said, more than the $1.6 million general fund millage that funds most township services.

“In my humble opinion, the RTA will be better off receiving 50 percent of something versus 100 percent of nothing if they ever hope to get this project off the ground,” Kittles said, suggesting the millage would not pass without the opt-out provision.

The potential millage has divided regional leaders. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel did not campaign for the 2016 proposal, and they both oppose Evans’ proposal in its current form.

Patterson is supporting the new opt-out legislation.

But Evans, in a letter to lawmakers, said opt-outs “undermine the very purpose of regional transit” and have hurt the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation system, creating a service area with holes like “a slice of Swiss cheese.”

“A system that allows opt-outs cannot be regional by definition and therefore cannot deliver the full benefits of regional transit,” Evans wrote. “How can a regional transit system be effective if you are unable to stop in cities or visit businesses and employment centers along the routes?”

Evans presented his Connect Southeast Michigan regional transportation plan to the Regional Transit Authority board in March. The proposal is open to public comment, and the board has not yet decided whether to present it to voters this fall.

The proposal calls for new rapid transit bus service along 15 high-frequency corridors, express routes and the Ann Arbor-Detroit commuter rail line. It would also provide “hometown service” funding for communities like Addison or Independence Township that won’t be covered by the new bus routes.

The Detroit Regional Chamber opposes the legislation, which “would only damage the region and communities within it,” said Vice President of Government Relations Brad Williams.

“Developing a highly functional regional transit system is one of the most vexing challenges facing our region,” he said, noting Amazon’s recent decision to leave Detroit off a list of finalists for its second North American headquarters.

The 2012 law that created the regional transit authority was “painstakingly negotiated” and supported by regional leaders, Williams told lawmakers. “It does not represent 100 percent of what any individual interest desires in a regional transit authority; however, it does represent our best opportunity to build a transit system worthy of our region.”

Regionalism and public transportation can be a catalyst for economic growth, said Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett, but he argued the millage proposal is not a “futurist approach” or a fair solution.

“If it’s going to be raised and spent some place else, I have a personal problem with that,” Barnett told lawmakers.

The House Tax Policy did not vote on the legislation Wednesday and is expected to continue testimony next week.