Royal Oak transit proposal creates controversy

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

A local bus service and new community centers are some of the proposals on which voters in Oakland County will decide Nov. 6.

Now that the Regional Transportation Authority of Southeast Michigan has decided against going to voters with proposal to revamp mass transit in Metro Detroit, the city of Royal Oak is asking residents to approve a five-year, 1.25-mill proposal for public transit in the community.

Although the proposal does not specify what that transportation will look like, a city task force of residents has recommended that the city commission work with the SMART regional public transportation service to create bus routes that take people to downtown, Beaumont Hospital, the Detroit Zoo and other spots in the community.

The task force estimates it would cost nearly $4.8 million to operate per year, with SMART pitching in more than $300,000.

"You can’t look at it just as a cost," Mayor Michael Fournier said. "You have to look at the pros. The benefits, what the commission has to look at, what are the economic, social and moral benefits? If we can build one less $20 million parking garage, that's worth every penny."

Still, Fournier said nothing is set in stone. According to the ballot language, the millage would "defray the costs of establishing, operating and maintaining a public transit system in the City of Royal Oak." The ultimate decision on how to use the money would be up to the city commission.

"Every option is on the table," he said. "We’re not fixed into fixed routes."

If the proposal passes, the owner of a house worth $157,504 would pay $98 per year.

Under the task force's plan, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation would operate the Royal Oak Go, or ROGO, system and purchase 14 buses for the service. Additionally, an estimated 30 percent of the costs would come from state and federal funding.

The task force, led by former state Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, suggests two new fixed routes along Crooks Road and Coolidge Highway to downtown as well as along 13 Mile, Campbell and 11 Mile roads to downtown. There also would be one expanded SMART route from Big Beaver to Woodward.

A public transit task force is recommending the Royal Oak city commission create two new bus routes and elongate a SMART bus route with money from a 1.25-mill Nov.. 6 ballot initiative, should voters approve it.

The task force's plan includes 25 bus shelters and up to 168 bus stops with signs. It also calls for onboard cameras and an app that would allow riders to track bus arrivals. In total, capital costs would be an additional $1.25 million.

Donigan said the goal would be to have buses arrive between 15 and 30 minutes during peak times and also be available during the evening and weekends.

"People don't want to drive everywhere," Donigan said. "It seems to me there should be options for driving, not driving, biking and public transportation. This could be one of them."

No fare has been set for the service, through the task force recommends making it similar to SMART's costs. SMART's fixed route service charges $2 for adults, $1 for children 6-18 and 50 cents for the elderly and people with disabilities, with discounts for longer term passes.

Commissioner Randy LeVasseur, however, says that is too expensive. If fares are expected to cover 5 percent of the costs, as the task force estimates, he said, that would mean it would cost in total $20 to transport each rider a few miles.

"It's extremely expensive and inefficient," LeVasseur said. "With a fixed-route bus system, people have to walk to the stops. It would have been a much better proposal to use more of an Uber or Lyft-type system. It would be much more friendly to the rider."

Fournier said the ordinance would not prohibit those options and still could fund them.

"We want to make sure everybody has a way of getting around," he said. "We carefully worded it for any good, solid, mobility feature that would enhance transportation. It doesn't exclude any other options. From ride-hailing to ride sharing to cycling, you name it, the system is flexible and adaptable."

Fournier, however, did express concerns over bus fares. He said they could discourage use and slow down efficiency if they're too high.

The mayor said he would like the city commission to evaluate making the service free, should voters approve the proposal. Donigan also said payment through an app could be possible, as well.

The uncertainty around the proposal is one reason Commissioner Kim Gibbs said she cannot justify the millage.

"I see so many holes in the plan, and the ballot language is incredibly vague," she said. "If you’re putting a millage in front of the voter and you can't give estimated numbers, there’s a problem. Nothing presented has shown there is guaranteed ridership. Nor does the ballot language create a fixed-route system or plan for the improvement of senior services."

Donigan said the task force does not have an estimated ridership. A survey of more than 1,200 residents conducted by the task force, however, found 60 percent would use the transit if it was "frequent, connected to the region and covered the entire city."

Still, Adam Bernard, a 23-year Royal Oak resident and member of Royal Oakers for Accountability and Responsibility, said the plan "does not appear to be well-thought-out."

"They haven't provided all the information like ridership forecasts," he said. "We've had issues with our parks being maintained. We are skeptical based on their ability to deal with other city infrastructure issues."

Gibbs also expressed concern over safety for students and its convenience for seniors who may have to walk a half mile or possibly more to get to a bus stop.

Donigan said the proposal seeks to provide more transportation options to seniors. The city operates scheduled senior and handicapped curb-to-curb transportation from 9:15 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekdays. The task force's ROGO plan suggests doubling the funding for senior curb-to-curb transit service, though it is not in the ballot language. Donigan said she would like to see the service become on-demand and available for longer hours.

Ilene Orlanski, 78, who has lived in Royal Oak for about 20 years, still drives but said she expects soon she won't be able. She said the senior transportation service has inconvenient hours and hopes ROGO could provide convenient, on-time service.

"I'm at the further point in the north part of the city," she said. "I'd catch the bus to go downtown and get to the theater and farmers' market. Seniors and people of all ages need transportation whether they have cars or don't have cars. It's very hard to get around Royal Oak without driving."

Royal Oak voters also will vote on a six-year tax of 0.75 mills to cover the cost of replacing public sidewalks.

Elsewhere in Oakland County, voters will decide whether to fund construction of new community centers.

The city of Berkley is having its residents decide on a 1.7-mill proposal that would create a new community center.

The city of Berkley is seeking approval of an annual 1.7 mills levied over 20 years to pay for the bond covering the cost of a new $15.3 million, 38,000-square-foot community center. It would be builton the site of the 45-year-old center on Robina Avenue. The current center and its closed ice rink would be removed to make room for parking.

The new building would include multipurpose rooms, a gym, an indoor track and spaces dedicated for seniors and teens. Steve Baker, the city's mayor pro tempore, said it would be a "jewel for our community to cherish for decades."

"It would be a fine place for residents both young and old to enjoy vibrant communities and events in structured and unstructured activities," he said. "It would serve as a beacon for our residents to come see all that Berkley has to offer."

The city also is requesting 2 mills to fund $1.14 million in improvements to roads, sewers and water mains over 10 years.

If both proposals pass, the owner of a home with a market value of $150,000 would pay around $280 a year in additional taxes.

Voters in Waterford Township will decide whether to levy a 21-year, 0.84-mill tax to build a new community center on Nov. 6.

The Township of Waterford also is looking to fund a new community center. Now that the community has paid off its new police and fire station, it is asking voters to evaluate a 0.84 mill tax for the $30 million center, which would be built behind its township hall overlooking Clam Lake with 350 parking spaces.

According to the township, its existing recreational center at 5640 Williams Lake Road sees 5,000 visitors per month, but the 1947 structure needs replacements for its plumbing, electrical systems, air conditioning and elevator. The township estimates renovations would cost $11.6 million.

"It's literally falling apart," said Sue Camilleri, Waterford's clerk.

The township plans to sell the property upon which the current recreational center sits to pay down the principal of the bond, if voters approve the proposal.

The new center would provide twice the gym space as its current recreational center and include a track above it. Additionally, outdoor bocce ball, shuffleboard and the trendy pickleball will be available. It would also have space for meetings as well as a social hall for weddings and the township's monthly spaghetti dinners all throughout the year. Right now, it only holds them during winter because the center lacks air conditioning.

"Waterford doesn’t have a downtown," Camilleri said. "We’re trying to turn our campus into a downtown. This is one more reason for people to come. There would be no membership fee. They could sit at the table, maybe play an impromptu card game. It's just a place to gather."