As we approach the November general election it will be interesting to see whether leaders of the move to introduce mass transit, or as some would have it, improved mass transit, to southeast Michigan have correctly assessed the level of public support for what is expected to be a 20-year tax to begin underwriting what is projected to be a $4.6 billion plan that essentially relies on high-speed buses moving on dedicated lanes.
This will be what some historians are saying is the 24th attempt since the 1960's to bring some type of mass transit to metro Detroit, defined in the latest proposal as an area encompassing the counties of Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw and Wayne, including the city of Detroit.
The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan, or RTA for short, was authorized by state lawmakers in 2012, to be the agency of record for oversight and service coordination of mass transit. Its ten-member board, comprising two members from each county and one from Detroit, along with a non-voting chairperson appointed by the governor, is authorized to hire a system CEO (which they have) and place a vehicle registration fee and/or property tax on the ballot, the latter of which is expected to be announced at some point in July.
Initial plan details provide for a dedicated-lane bus system, one that can also run in mixed traffic if needed. The new system will run along a few select major north/south corridors from downtown Detroit out into parts of the region, like Pontiac. Although the exact stops have yet to be determined, there are suggestions that there will be 26 mass transit stations in 11 communities in the four counties, which seems light to say the least. Backers of this plan are also touting that there will be improvement of route coordination between existing bus service now provided by SMART and DDOT as it applies to transfers, a sticking point under the current system. And, in what strikes me as a move to help sell the tax this November, there will be Metro Airport express routes to select communities, including Troy and Novi in Oakland County.
Under the proposal voters will face in November, if the majority of the electorate in the four counties support the mass transit tax, all counties must participate and pay up, unlike under the current SMART tax system that allows communities to opt out of the levy, which in most instances occurs because of lack of legitimate local service. Oakland communities currently opting out of the SMART system include Novi, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills and a majority of west Oakland lakes area communities, which alone count for about one-third of the geography of the county.
In an attempt to stem complaints on the lack of an opt out provision, RTA plan supporters are quick to point out that places like Rochester Hills are slated for improved local bus service in the year 2020, and in 2021 local service will likely be provided in White Lake along the Highland Road/M-59 corridor. And in 2018, there will be an attempt at east/west cross county service.
Further, to address concerns that the majority of funding will somehow benefit Detroit disproportionately (where three out of five residents work outside the city, which is ranked number eight nationally in carless households), 85 percent of the funds collected from any given county must be spent there.
The cost for this? The RTA is expected to ask in November for a 1.2-mill property tax, which means if you own property with an assessed value of $79,000 (the RTA's example), your annual bill will be $95. Not bad until you figure that if your home's market value is $400,000, the cost will be $120 and upwards from there. Oakland County is expected to cough up $60 million annually. The RTA tax will be on top of the millage already approved for the SMART system in the region.
RTA supporters paint a promising picture for the proposed tax, no doubt counting on a number of factors. For one, initial polling shows support of 53 percent to as high as 65 percent based on 800 respondents. Backers also point to the current rebound in select areas of Detroit which could be a sign of potential support for mass transit, plus 75 percent of people working in Detroit live in the suburbs. Supporters are banking on the trend in recent years among voters to support regional institutions like the Detroit Zoo and the Detroit Institute of Arts, although considerable educational work will need to be done to equate the RTA plan with what are considered regional, cultural assets like these two.
Then there is the national sentiment that says government should be investing in bus systems and rail. And of course, there's the time-honored argument that mass transit routes draw development, which only improves the economic standing of those particular areas.
All of this planning really hinges on who shows up to vote come this November. While it's nice to think that the Bernie Sanders movement has energized a new phalanx of young voters who would back mass transit, the stats simply don't support the theory. The Millennials, or Generation Y, consisting of ages 19-35, can't be counted on to turn out in any higher percentage that in the past. In fact, according to an analysis by Atlantic magazine in the past year, Generation Y is equal in proportion to the Baby Boomer generation as a voting block. However, between the years 1964 and 2012, the youth vote has fallen below 50 percent while the Baby Boomer vote has approached 80 percent. There's also the question of how the areas of Oakland and the other counties that have opted out of mass transit votes in the past will weigh in on the November tax question.
The hope might rest with both the Baby Boomers and affluent/better educated seniors, who remain involved politically today and who may be convinced to treat mass transit much like their local school system – you may not have a use for it now but for the overall good of society in the future, it's an investment that should have been made decades ago so it must be made now.
Only time will tell whether the 24th time is the charm when we get to this November's ballot.
Election footnote: Downtown newsmagazine's recommendations to voters for the August 2 primary election appear in the Endnote page at the back of this issue, and candidate responses to the publishing group's questionnaires can be found on the home page of our website at DowntownPublications.com. As in past elections, we offer this early due to the large percentage of voters who cast absentee ballots which are expected to be in the mail around the time this issue arrives in your mailbox.