Regional transit plan: more details needed

September 1, 2016

We want to be clear right from the beginning – we are very supportive of the concept of mass transit, and absolutely believe the southeast Michigan region needs a good mass transit system linking the city of Detroit with wide flung areas of its suburbs.

But we have a problem supporting the current Regional Transit Authority (RTA) plan and the accompanying 1.2-mill proposal which will face voters on November 8, details of which can be found in a story in this edition.

Here's the gist of our overall beef: The RTA master plan stands more as a plan for a plan – meaning too much of it is still undeveloped, with too many details missing.

Every dream comes with a cost, and unfortunately, at this point in time, we have too many concerns with the dream the RTA has currently imagined. We are not willing to buy into the hazy logic that “if we build it, they will come.” One need only look at the current SMART (Suburban Mobile Authority for Regional Transportation) system that has been supported for nearly 50 years and only has 44,000 daily riders on 43 routes to realize that this logic doesn't hold up.

Ideally, we would have recommended more time to work out important and critical details of the plan, allowing the RTA to put it before voters in 2018. Instead, it was rushed so as not to compete with the SMART millage renewal, itself a one-mill property tax, which is planned to go before voters in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

To put it in context, this is the 24th attempt in the last 40 years to create a regional transit system in metro Detroit. This one was created when the Michigan state legislature passed Public Act 387 in 2012, creating the RTA. Unfortunately, they didn't adequately fund it, and their first CEO, John Hertel, chairman of SMART, stepped down in 2014 without ever having signed a contract. The current CEO, Michael Ford, previously ran the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. During the RTA's first year, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) had been in control of funding, but that organization is now only marginally involved.

According to Oakland and Macomb county officials, they had been asking for specific details on how the RTA would seek federal and state funding for RTA services since November 2015, along with other concerns such as how the RTA would provide some semblance of services to two-thirds of Oakland County, despite those residents paying for it for 20 years, annual accountability and equal say for voting on the RTA board.

RTA officials, members of the business community and Pavlovian critics attempted to paint with a broad brush both Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, saying they had waited until the last minute to bring up their issues in an effort to sandbag regional transit – when in reality these issues had been on the table since last fall. Patterson and Hackel were doing their job demanding details and accountability from the the RTA, and their residents expect nothing less.

While some of the executives' issues have conceptually been resolved, we remain concerned that the RTA does not know how much money they may receive in federal and state grants in operating funds. They have projections, but nothing concrete, but are seeking the millage anyway. The plan will go forward for all concerned if three of the four counties approve the millage.

So here's the start of our major questions that no one has been able to address:

What if federal money disappears 10 years down the road? We have seen such policy changes from Washington D.C. in the past. Will local residents be asked to increase their tax commitment to this system once it has been started? What about bus fares, which must be part of the ongoing operational revenues for any system? When will such details be worked out? How will RTA officials go about buying or condemning land for stops along the routes and what will this cost be? And is it really a priority – other than as a showcase project – to create an airport shuttle system on day one?

While the RTA advertises that the tax will cost the owner of an average home in the metro area $95 annually in additional taxes, that is for a home worth $200,000, with a taxable value of $100,000. If your home is worth $1 million in Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills or Oakland Township, the RTA tax you pay may be closer to $600 or more annually, on top of a SMART millage tax of about the same amount. That's about $1,200 a year – real money in anyone's budget.

Lastly, we are not willing to accept the analogy that funding this mass transit effort is akin to funding local schools which contribute to the overall value of the community whether you use them or not. When schools come up for millages, we demand they tell us in detail what they will spend our money on. We think a transit plan, costing $4.7 billion over 20 years, $63 million of which will come from Oakland County in the first year, should have to do the same thing.

Bring this mass transit plan and millage request back once all the details have been worked out. That is how good government works.

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