The yearlong debate over a multi-billion-dollar mass transit plan for metropolitan Detroit is effectively dead for this year.
Bridge has learned that Oakland County ‒ and possibly Macomb County ‒ is refusing to support allowing voters to decide on the $5 billion plan when they go to the polls in November.
Macomb County has not responded to Bridge requests for comments.
But the resistance from representatives from Oakland County, Detroit’s more affluent neighbor to the north, is enough to kill the deal, for now.
The tentative plan, presented in March by Wayne County Commissioner Warren Evans and strongly supported by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, proposed among other changes, funding express buses that connect the city to the suburbs and the airport along with a train connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor.
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The plan would have added a 1.5-mill regional transit tax plan to raise $5.4 billion over 20 years.
Bill Mullan, spokesman for Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, told Bridge on Wednesday that Oakland County will not support placing the issue on the ballot until the governance of the RTA is changed and individual communities are allowed to opt out of the plan ‒ and the tax. Under the existing law establishing the Regional Transit Authority, individual communities are not allowed to opt out of an RTA tax.
“Our position has been the same since May 2017,” Mullan said. “We will not put anything on the ballot until Lansing amends the RTA legislation.”
That effectively kills the tax for this year, since at least one of two representatives on the RTA board from each county must vote to place the measure on the ballot. The tax vote dies if both representatives from any county reject the plan.
The RTA faces an August deadline for approving ballot language for the November election. There's one more meeting before then, but Oakland officials say they won't approve the measure.
Officials from the Regional Transit Authority held a meeting with representatives from Macomb, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties and Detroit Wednesday morning but it did not result in a consensus on how to move forward.
The RTA says it is now scrambling to determine if the plan can be saved, amended and put before voters in 2019 or 2020.
“We’re still looking at a variety of paths forward so the region has a successful regional transit system in place,” said Mario Morrow, a spokesman for RTA.
Wayne County and Detroit officials issued careful statements Wednesday holding out hope for a resolution.
“I think most of the region wants to see something put to voters in 2018," said Assistant Wayne County Executive Khalil Rahal. "While we realize with each day that goal is tougher to achieve, we’re committed to working with our regional partners to a resolution that leads to the transit system this region needs.”
Dave Massaron, chief operating officer for the City of Detroit and Mayor Duggan’s point person on regional transit, wrote that the city is "always willing to engage in discussions with regional leaders as to the best path forward. The city continues to believe that this region needs major investment in transit now and the best way to achieve that is submitting this plan to voters in 2018.”
Andy LaBarre, chairman of the Washtenaw County Commission, said a four-county transit plan is optimal, but that at the same time he will continue to operate on “dual tracks.” He wants to support a four-county plan and at the same time push to develop a transit Plan B for Wayne and Washtenaw counties in 2019 or 2020.
Earlier this year, Wayne and Washtenaw, the counties that have had unwavering support for regional transit, started exploring a plan that leaves out Oakland and Macomb.
“I would bet RTA is not going to be on the 2018 ballot,” LaBarre said.
But, he added, that doesn’t mean the idea is dead forever. “It’s not a question of if, but when. It’s a timing question.”
The RTA had been working to develop a new plan since the last one failed in 2016, when metro voters rejected a $3 billion mass transit plan by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote, or about 18,000 votes.