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A path to connectivity for county residents

The journey towards regional transit has been a long, fraught one in metro Detroit. For decades, those in Oakland County have kept a strong line of demarcation between the city of Detroit and Wayne County at the 8 Mile Road line. While there have been efforts in the last decade to attempt to bridge them, including a Regional Transit Authority millage that attempted to connect Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties via rapid transit buses along main arteries such as Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan Avenue, it came about 18,000 votes shy of passing, primarily in Oakland and Macomb counties, where northern and more rural county voters felt they would be paying for something which would not include them.

Those who have needed some kind of public transportation have been forced to rely on SMART buses, and the more affluent have turned to the gig economy in the form of Uber and Lyft. Because the reality is, not everyone drives, wants to drive, can drive and there remains a need and desire among a portion of the population for transit. In many of our communities, about half of the population is over 50, with projections of those over 65 who want to continue to live in their homes. The need for public transportation for seniors is a vital and necessary consideration, for those aging in place need help accessing doctor's appointments, groceries, visiting friends and relatives, and personal services. On the other edge of the coin, millennials and Gen Z – younger members of the communities and workers – seek areas with walkability, which are less dependent upon car mobility. We continually hear that to retain this vital demographic we need to provide reliable transit for them to get to jobs, entertainment, shopping and friends.

Since 1967, SMART, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, has been the region's only public transportation provider. In Oakland County, residents in communities who opt in to participate pay a one-mill tax annually to SMART. The problem is, many communities opt out, including Bloomfield Hills, Rochester Hills and Novi, creating a patchwork approach to service for those seeking bus service.

In early August, Oakland County did something progressive – and potentially revolutionary for metro Detroit – when the county board of commissioners approved placing a public transportation millage question on the November 8 ballot. If approved by voters, funding from an Oakland County public transportation millage will support current public transportation services in Oakland County, create and extend new routes to connect local communities and increase transportation service for seniors, veterans and people with disabilities. The millage would be levied at a maximum rate of .95 mills (95 cents per $1,000 in taxable property value) for 10 years beginning in 2022 and ending in 2031 – a slight decline for those currently paying the SMART millage, which would no longer be assessed. There are no opt-out provisions in this millage proposal. In addition, the new millage would provides funding to replace all other local public transit millages, according to Oakland County.

Besides providing full SMART bus transportation throughout the county, linking communities and offering service, replacing current millages for the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA) for Orion Township, Oxford and Addison Township; the Older Person’s Commission (OPC) Transportation for Rochester, Rochester Hills and Oakland Township; and for WOTA, in Highland Township, Waterford Township and White Lake. If approved, the millage will offer paratransit services for seniors to assist them in getting to doctors' appointments, grocery stores, hair salons, and other needs.

The county has been piloting microtransit across the county, which is an on demand service via an app or by phone, which can take someone to their destination by a vehicle, similar to a car-ride service.

The goal is to expand it throughout the county. While officials haven't revealed what those rides might cost, in many areas, notably outlying areas of the county, it might be more reasonable than an Uber ride.

There is also funding for maintenance and technology upgrades – which in today's rapidly changing world, is necessary.

In a post-pandemic world, some may wonder if it's necessary to pay for transit, with many working from home, more offices remaining empty, and shoppers using their laptops instead of their feet. Yet the need for connectivity remains. Over time, habits change, travel plans get altered but one constant unlikely to change is the human need and desire to associate with others, to age in place with dignity or to enjoy the celebrations and entertainment options.

Approving the Oakland County public transportation millage is a strong way to start.


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