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Wrong message on a mass transit plan

Nearly 16 months after Oakland County voters rejected a $4.6 billion regional transit plan that would leave much of the county without access to the system, the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) has yet to release an update to its failed plan.

The transit issue was raised recently by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson during his State of the County address on Wednesday, February 7. Patterson, who has come under fire as a racial separatist for opposing the plan, said in his address that he wouldn't allow nine communities in the county to be included in a regional transit plan vote, as voters have already opted out of SMART millages – a total non-sequitur when using the word 'regional.' The real issue is for the RTA to revise and release a plan that provides accessible transit service to all communities in Oakland County.

The RTA released its regional master transit plan in August of 2016 in anticipation of a 1.2-mill property tax being approved by voters that November. While we are very supportive of the concept of mass transit in southeast Michigan, we urged voters in November 2016 to reject the plan until details could be ironed out and clearly presented to voters, ideally in 2018.

Here we are more than a year later, and the authority has yet to release any update to its 2016 plan, which voters in Oakland and Macomb counties rejected. Whether the authority will come up with a plan voters would more willingly support by this November is questionable. In February, the RTA cancelled all it meetings, including those to be held by the board of directors, finance and budget committee, executive policy committee, providers advisory council and its planning and service coordination committee.

Patterson has a history of incendiary comments, and it's categorically wrong for him to say, “I'm not letting my voters vote on this.” The complaint should have been focused on the authority, including Oakland's representatives, for not acting as if time was of the essence in redesigning a system that would draw greater ridership from suburban Oakland and Macomb counties. Believe it or not, Patterson has a history of regional cooperation, with examples such as the regional management of Cobo Hall, Detroit Zoological Society and the Detroit Institute of Arts tri-county millages.

As the failed proposal for Amazon recently showed southeastern Michigan, the RTA is an essential component for moving people for jobs and events. Instead of pushing voters away from a plan, Patterson should continue to push for a bigger and better plan and allow all voters in Oakland County to vote on it.

At the heart of the issue is how exactly a regional system would gain riders in Oakland County in addition to SMART's current 43 routes, where it attracts only some 44,000 daily riders. In January, SMART introduced a FAST (express) service along Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue, which makes limited stops along its route. However, the RTA's main pitch to Oakland County voters is a rapid bus line down Woodward, and it's doubtful many voters see much difference in the current RTA plan, which just costs a whole lot more.

The county’s most important and basic goal is a regional system that should move the masses from their homes to work and other destinations. Much fanfare was given by proponents of the system of dedicated lines from downtown Detroit to Metro Airport and from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Nice, perhaps down the road, but not as a top priority. We feel the service provides little benefit to potential riders in Oakland County, which would foot the majority of the millage. Further, frills like adding WiFi connections to those busses is like to putting a ring in a sow's ear – not a priority when the main part of the plan is lacking.

There is no debate that a regional mass transit system is needed in southeast Michigan, but a better plan must be put forth. And it can be. If such a plan comes to fruition, we urge Patterson to encourage all voters in the county to weigh in and be included in a true regional transit system that would serve the entire county. It is that plan that Patterson should be urging the RTA to present. A true regional transit system should serve and include the entire region, not patches of communities.

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