Hackel: Regional transit tax is dead — for good

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — It will be Mark Hackel vs. Everybody when he steps off the ferry Tuesday for the start of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference.

"If you want to talk about transit, let's talk about SMART," says Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

The Macomb County executive stands between the business and civic leaders gathering on Mackinac Island and what they want most: A Regional Transit Authority tax measure on the November ballot.

But Hackel has a message for those waiting to twist his arm on the Grand Hotel porch: Don't bother. The RTA is dead to him. Not just dead for 2018. But dead forever.

“It’s time to put it to rest,” Hackel says of the push to raise property taxes 1.5 mills regionwide to support a comprehensive transit system. “It’s that simple.”

Regional transit remains on the conference agenda — Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is expected to advocate for it in a speech Wednesday and there's an RTA panel on Thursday afternoon. RTA advocates still hope to use Mackinac as the final push to get it on the ballot. 

But the $5.4 billion measure isn't going anywhere without sign-off from Hackel and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, who have stood firm in the face of withering pressure to bless the plan. (Patterson is not attending the Mackinac conference, leaving Hackel to take the heat alone.)

Hackel knows this week he’ll be cornered, pulled into closed-door meetings, summoned to the woodshed by some of the state's most powerful executives. But he says he's done talking about the RTA.

“Are there going to be some people there who want to continue to have the conversation? Yes," he says. “It's not going to happen. If you want to talk about transit, let's talk about SMART.”

The RTA, which came out of the 2012 Mackinac conference, was intended as an umbrella transportation authority to cover Detroit as well as Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties. The existing bus systems — including Detroit's Department of Transportation and the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation — would remain independent, but the RTA would have coordinating responsibility and add buses of its own.

With RTA off the table in his view, the SMART bus system, which serves Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, is now Hackel's top transit priority. SMART is seeking a renewal of its operating millage in the August primary, and Hackel fears backlash against the RTA will affect the vote.

“I’m concerned they’re putting SMART in harm’s way,” he says. “In Macomb County, there’s such a pushback on this RTA plan because voters aren’t sure where their money is going to go. I'm worried they’re going to vote no on the SMART proposal because they think it’s this terrible RTA.

“I can’t continue to allow this discussion, because someone is trying to force the issue upon us, to have an impact that could be detrimental to the SMART vote.”

Hackel says Metro Detroit already has the answer to rapid transit, and it's the SMART system.

SMART was designed to be the regional transit provider. But Detroit opted out first, deciding to continue operating its DDOT system, and several large suburban communities, including Livonia, followed suit.

That has left huge gaps in SMART’s routes and limited the ability of commuters to get everywhere in the region by bus. It’s also cost the system tax revenue. Macomb is the only county with no opt-out communities. 

Hackel says SMART is meeting Macomb’s needs. He advocates using the suburban bus operation as a platform for a truly regional transit system. That would require all communities, including Detroit, to opt back in, and would likely mean an end to DDOT, which would be a political mine field to navigate.

“We stand ready to help them solve those problems,” he says. “But through SMART, not the RTA.

“How about SMART-plus? How do we take SMART and make it bigger, growing that opportunity? SMART is the path to a regional system. It always has been.”

Still, Hackel was non-committal when asked if he’d back a higher millage to expand SMART.

“It depends what you're talking about,” he says. “I would be willing to have the conversation.”

While Hackel supported the formation of the RTA, he says he soured on it when the plan actually formed.

“I thought it would put all the bus systems together,” he says. “That was not what it was. I started realizing that we're putting all these things in here — a train to Ann Arbor, money for the QLine — that had nothing to do with getting people to work and seniors to their doctors visits. There is something else going on here, and there's a whole lot of money that's not accounted for.”

The pressure on Hackel to just go along with the RTA and let voters decide has been relentless. He says he was threatened with a primary challenge. And he's been accused of being racially motivated. 

He expects to encounter more lobbying and even resentment on Mackinac.

“I've never been worried about being pressured,” Hackel says. “I'm not afraid to go into a situation where you know it's not going to be the most pleasant. If they don't what to invite me to some event or function, I'm OK with that.”

The Big Four regional leaders — Hackel, Patterson, Evans and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan — had enjoyed a degree of congeniality until the RTA blow-up. Now things have turned ugly. Patterson was quoted as calling Duggan a “creep” in a recent interview. And it was Evans who suggested racism is behind the suburban opposition.

Can the relationship be put back together?

“I don't know,” Hackel says. “I never look at something so divisive that you can't find a way to repair it. That's our responsibility. We don't have the luxury of having continued ill will. The job that we have is to continue to work with those folks, no matter who it is. We may not like them, but we have to work with them.

“There's definitely been some personal conversations that have taken place, very publicly, that have caused some hurt feelings. I think all of us have been in these positions for so long that we know how to deal with it.”

And despite being widely viewed as the guy who fouled the punch bowl, Hackel says he's looking forward to a productive week on the island.

“My focus will be on talent and infrastructure,” he says. “I don't allow myself to worry about what others are saying about me.”

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