It’s official: No vote this year for transit fixes in southeast Michigan

Regional leaders let deadline pass to put a $5.4 billion transit plan on this year’s ballot. They say they hope to try again next year or 2020. 

As expected, voters in southeast Michigan won’t face a tax proposal this year to fund regional transit improvements.

The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan didn’t even put the measure to a vote at its full board meeting Thursday because representatives from Oakland and Macomb counties voted against doing so at a committee meeting earlier that day.

Thursday was the last scheduled RTA meeting before an August deadline to put a tax request on the November ballot.

Paul Hillegonds, chair of the RTA board, said it was obvious the board didn’t have the votes to put the tax on the ballot, but he hopes another plan can go to voters next year.

“I believe we will have regional transit. I don’t know when that will be,” he said.

The tax proposal was the latest of several transit improvement plans to go down in flames over the past few decades. Voters narrowly rejected the last transit plan in 2016.

The RTA board, which has representatives from Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw counties, for months discussed a plan called “Connect Southeast Michigan,” a $5.4 billion transit plan for new buses and a train between Detroit and Ann Arbor.  The 1.5-mill tax to pay for improvements would have lasted 20 years.

Several disagreements killed the proposal:

  • Suburban leaders didn’t want a regional transit tax request to be confused with another tax request on the August ballot to fund the suburban SMART bus system.
  • Leaders of far-flung communities that opt out of the suburban bus system also wanted out of a regional transit system.

  • Other officials wanted more money for roads and advocated changes to the RTA’s governance structure.

Phil Bertolini, Oakland County deputy executive, said Oakland is not giving up on regional transit, but wants a better plan.

“What we’re saying is the Connect Southeast Michigan plan is not a plan we can support, but we are supportive of transit,” Bertolini said.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, who championed the plan, said he is "disappointed but not deterred."

This "was an achievable, reasonable solution to a problem this region has struggled with for 50 years," Evans said in a statement. "It took into account the input of all four counties after a year of negotiations that we assumed were conducted in good faith. Yet, this effort was torpedoed by short-sighted politics. The residents of Southeast Michigan are smart enough to see through the politics."

Southeast Michigan is the nation’s only large metro area without rapid regional transit, according to Gov. Rick Snyder.

And some cite that as one reason the Seattle-based Amazon nixed Detroit from its list of potential places to build a new headquarters.

At Thursday's meeting, several transit advocates expressed disappointment.

Tom Zerafa, a founding member the Motor City Freedom Riders, a transit advocacy group, implored the board to consider the needs of senior citizens who can no longer drive.

“I don’t want to live an isolated life beyond not being able to drive, I’d like to be able to get around,” said Zerafa of Oak Park. “Consider the aging population that is relying on a bus service that’s going to connect them to life. It’s a life issue for me.”

Zerafa and other members of the group said they hope Wayne and Washtenaw counties would work together on their own transit plan without  Oakland and Macomb counties.

Idrees Mutahr, a member of the same advocacy group, said, “We need this plan and we need it to happen now.”

Rip Rapson, president and CEO of the Kresge Foundation, a major supporter of regional transit, called the transit failure a “tragic setback.” He said Oakland and Macomb leaders have not been “forthright” for months.

“Lack of support by Oakland and Macomb representatives on the RTA board will be long remembered as reinforcing a divisive status quo over regional cooperation, and for near-term over long-term,” he said in an written statement.

“Our recent failed bid for Amazon’s HQ2 should have reminded us that we – as a region – are in a nationwide competition for talent and investment. That lesson has clearly been lost on the leaders of two counties whose actions are ensuring a less competitive Southeast Michigan.”

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Kevin Grand
Thu, 07/19/2018 - 6:51pm

Macomb Taxpayers can breath a sigh of reliec that this scam isn't going anywbere in the foreseeable future.

Not only is it a redundant layer of government, but it was created to fund Downtown Detroit delelopers (aka Q-Line).

Betcha won't hear RTA proponentz promoting that fact.

John Q. Public
Thu, 07/19/2018 - 11:40pm

How many TIF plans are in those four counties (hint: more than 200 and growing), and how much of a new millage would they skim off?

The last decade has shown me that the governor loves any new tax the voters agree to. It's another pot of gold to loot to grow crony capitalism. If the residents are foolish enough to pass this, just watch how much of it gets directed to funnel people to Gilbert- and Ilitch-owned properties at the expense of everyone else.

The RTA will tell any lies needed to get voters to pass the tax. It won't be spent in the manner they promise pre-election, you can count on that.

John Chastain
Sun, 07/22/2018 - 11:23am

That the Macomb County chief executive rejected this regional transportation plan is both expected and shortsighted. I'm reminded of a time when St. Clair Shores rejected an opportunity to turn an underused section of Lake St. Clair into a DNR boat launch and park site. As the only available area between mid SCS and the Metro Beach public launch site it would have expanded lake access in a community with limited options. The proposal was rejected because it would have also allowed nonresidents access to the lake. Read that anyway you chose but if you think that regional animosity didn't play a role then your willfully ignoring history. The need for regional solutions will be plagued by the attitudes of the generation that fled Detroit to Macomb and Oakland Counties in response to the civil rights era. Those solutions will have to wait for a less hostile and more enlightened generation who can see beyond the divisive racism that has defined this region and the self-destructive fragmentation that continues to confound attempts at overcoming that legacy.