Transit millage goes down by will of Macomb voters

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
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Regional Transit Authority officials will examine why a $4.6 billion millage to bolster the region’s mass transportation failed Tuesday at the hands of voters who narrowly rejected the tax increase.

Some transit advocates said Wednesday it wasn’t popular among supporters favoring Republican Donald Trump, who had a strong showing in Macomb County, where the millage found its strongest opposition with six in every 10 voters against it. Others say it had more to do with a long ballot before voters and not enough exposure.

Because the millage faltered 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent, according to unofficial results, the transit authority has to figure out how to fund its operations and other projects, including reflex lines, a joint coordination venture between SMART and the Detroit Department of Transportation bus services to improve wait times for commuters.

“We had a lot to try to do in a short amount of time. But we did a lot of work and heard what people’s needs were and be responsive to the needs of the region,” RTA CEO Michael Ford said. “We understand that all areas aren’t created equal in terms of how they view transportation.”

Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage with 56 percent and 53 percent in favor, respectively. Oakland County voters were split 50-50 on whether to approve the tax. But Macomb County’s say ended the conversation, ensuring there were 18,185 more votes against it than supporting.

Everything is on the table now, Ford said Wednesday, including seeking more federal and state grants as well as going back to the state Legislature to keep operations continuing until RTA officials can decide when to return with another millage. The earliest the RTA could bring one back to voters would be in two years during the next general election.

Ford also wants to revisit areas where the millage didn’t do well.

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA, said he felt “it would have passed if it hadn’t been caught in the presidential headwinds.” Still, the fight to bring transit to the region isn’t dead, he said.

“I think turnout, particularly in Macomb County, really did hurt us,” Hillegonds said. “That said, we did a lot of listening in putting together the master plan and certainly consulted with the regional leadership on an appropriate funding level. But we need to keep listening.”

The 20-year, 1.2-mill property tax would have raised $4.6 billion for mass transit in Macomb, Wayne, Washtenaw and Oakland counties. The millage would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually, RTA officials estimate.

The millage sought 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.

Hillegonds said the RTA may have to revise its master plan and look at the proposed millage level.

“We simply will have to go back to all of our stakeholders, our partners, our local providers and evaluate how we can be stronger going forward,” he said. “I think we did make credible progress.”

Strong opposition came from, with support from the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, to oppose the millage as a waste of taxpayer money.

“This is a victory for taxpayers and for economic reason,” said Leon Drolet, who headed up the campaign to defeat the proposal. “Central planners spent $4 million dollars trying to convince citizens that their central plans for everyone’s lives justified this tax grab. Instead, voters chose to retain their economic freedom, keeping billions of dollars in the private economy and out of the budgets of bureaucrats.”

On Wednesday, Mark Hackel, Macomb County’s executive who supported the millage but questioned early on if the millage would pass muster with voters, said he wasn’t so sure the millage’s failure rooted in Trump’s victory as much as it was the concern voters had with the proposal itself.

“I want to go back to the history. SMART millages have always done well in this county. Why? Because people will vote based upon the value added to the proposal,” Hackel said. “What does it mean to them? What does it mean to their community?”

Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber’s president and CEO, added in a statement that “to say we’re disappointed is an understatement. However, we respect the will of the voters and will continue to seek solutions to connect our region and provide mobility to those without access to personal vehicles.”

Others hoping the millage would pass also weighed in such as Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation.

“The goal of regional transportation has drawn together a wide cast of supporters from the business community to grassroots activists,” Rapson said. “We can’t lose sight of how long we’ve fought, how far we’ve come or how close we came. We know transportation is fundamental to regions that are competitive in a 21st-century world.”

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Twitter: @leonardnfleming

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