No sale, or how the RTA is struggling to make its case to taxpayers


Do any of those names ring a bell?

They should, but more on them in a few moments.

Late in July, the Regional Transportation Authority board put the brakes on an ill-conceived $4.7-billion plan to expand/revamp/improve (this definition depends upon whom you speak to) mass transit around southeastern Michigan. While an 11th-hour compromise was struck this week to send the issue to voters in November, the RTA appears out of touch with the people it was set up to serve.

Despite a “listening tour” to gather public input prior to its final plan, an apparently tone-deaf RTA leadership submitted a proposal that was loaded down with deal killing problems.

Individual cities like Eastpointe had issues with public utilities that would either need to be moved or be made very difficult to access if required. Ironically, parking issues for RTA users also were not adequately addressed.

Macomb County had problems with, among other things, regional representation on the RTA board and tax fatigue, a problem reinforced with the questionably implemented Great Lakes Water Authority, along with a SMART tax recently on the ballot. Oakland County had comparable problems, including the amount of revenue that would be returned to it from the proposed millage. Specifically, according to Public Act 51, 85 percent of revenue generated from a tax needed to be spent in the county from which it was collected.

The RTA’s fuzzy grasp of local history doesn’t exactly help their plan.

Those four examples that I’ve mentioned at the beginning? Those were the four predecessors of the regional transit authorities that have been operating in Southeastern Michigan for nearly a century. They have had all that time to come up with a viable, self-reliant system.

They have all failed in that goal.

The RTA claims they will be able to solve this problem, but are suspiciously short on specifics with exactly how they would achieve this.

They have also been notoriously vague when it came to the final price tag. Initially a $2.9 billion figure has ballooned to currently around $4.6 billion in just a matter of weeks.

The RTA also has been silent on the question of past liabilities with the individual systems.

For example, in 2015 SMART has in the neighborhood of $229 million in pension and retiree health care costs.

Will the RTA millage just be used as a bureaucratic shell to pay those past debts?

Those issues aside, here are four questions that should be addressed by the RTA leadership as the discussion continues:

Why aren’t riders being asked to shoulder the program’s cost? The majority of property owners (the ones being asked to pay the millage) also own their own transportation. Much like vehicle licensing and fuel taxes pay for the roads, it just stands to reason that those using the system should also be responsible for its funding.

What will happen after the proposed 20-year window? Southeast Michigan taxpayers are already being hit up for a Detroit Zoo tax. There is a very strong possibility that we’ll also be asked for another Detroit Institute of Arts tax in the not-so distant future. And we all know how well the GLWA is doing on controlling costs. Will the RTA come back to the voters seeking more and more funding?

What safeguards will be in place to protect against mismanagement and corruption (i.e. Detroit Public Schools, Flint water system, MDOT’s leasing of railroad cars that went nowhere, etc.)?

And finally, exactly what can the RTA provide to riders, that the public sector already cannot?

We already have ride-sharing services such as Uber, Via, Lyft, Bridj and are not only self-sustaining, but growing in various parts of America. We also have private entities like the Detroit Bus Company and numerous local cab companies.

Why should southeast Michigan taxpayers pay for something that is already available?

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Sun, 08/07/2016 - 8:39am
My big gripe is the tax that is taxation without representation is being used to fund something that 1) I am not here to use 6 or 7 months of the year, and 2) in all probability will never be set up so that I could use it if I ever wanted to. Do not tie the required revenue of the RTA to the property tax. For the months that I reside in Michigan, I pay sales tax on anything I buy, I pay fuel tax on any fuel I use, and I pay for full year fire and police protection. But don't ask me to pay for the RTA. It irks me to read that it's only a cup of coffee a day, when in reality it is more like 2 and 1/2 cups a day for my house. What really irks me the most is that I don't even get to vote on the proposal. If you own a cottage or house up north as a vacation getaway you will understand what I mean. You do not get to vote on any millage that occurs in your up north district.
David Waymire
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 10:09am
Point 1 no longer correct. Massive amounts of general fund revenue are now used for road funding. So people without cars are subsidizing those who do.
Jesse Steeves
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 6:40pm
My God, I wish people would wake up and realize this too. Hello!? Gas taxes only pay for half of the Federal roads and the state gas tax is slightly better at 60% of the budget (After Snyder hiking up fees and taxes). Meanwhile, counties, cities, and townships pay out of their general fund. No, road users do not pay for roads. You have no clue what you're talking about and it would take only two seconds of research to figure that out.
Mark Whelan
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 6:48pm
If you eat or shop or travel anywhere outside your house you are using roads...The food in the grocery store does not arrive via space shuttle it arrives in a truck on a road. Your children most likely ride a bus, if you use an ambulance it rides on a road. The argument people who don't own a car don't use the roads is feeble and totally incorrect.
Kevin Grand
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 10:07am
Actually, it is the other way around. Those of us with our own transportation have been propping up mass transit for years now. Just one of those mechanisms is a little known line item in the Michigan budget called the Comprehensive Transportation Fund. Here is how the William Hamilton, Senior Fiscal Analyst from the HFA described the funding mechanism from earlier this year:"The largest source of CTF revenue is an earmark of Michigan Transportation Fund (MTF) revenue made in Section 10 of Act 51. The MTF is the main collection and distribution fund for approximately $2.0 billion in dedicated transportation revenue (FY 2015-16 estimate) – revenue generated from motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration taxes (emphasis mine)."That $2-billion could've gone a long way towards fixing Michigan Roads.
Megan Owens
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 11:20am
While I'm not surprised that the author would spew out a bunch of tired transit complaints, I am surprised that Bridge didn't do even basic fact-checking before publishing this. Many of these are purely inaccurate which a 90 second Google search could disprove. For example, Oakland and Macomb's concerns have been resolved and the cost hasn't ballooned, the $2.9 billion figure is the local dollars raised over 20 years, while the $4.7 billion adds in the state and federal funds this investment will garner. I really expected more of Bridge.
Kevin Grand
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 11:01am
Ms. Owens, If you had actually read what I had wrote, you would've known that I had addressed everything in your comment regarding the price tag argument, along with where it would be coming from (I even included the link). As for the federal portion, when have you known the federal government to allow transit funding to grow below the rate of inflation over any significant time span? From the Transportation Equity Act to the most recent federal budget, federally speaking, transit numbers have not. For those with defective web browsers, I've included the relevant section below:"Spending on transit will go from the current $8.6 billion to almost $10.6 billion in 2020" ... "The long-sought bill protects funding for transit from those who argued it should be cut loose from the highway bill, increases money for pedestrian and bicycle programs that also have come under attack, and it includes nearly $200 million to speed installation of a critical railroad safety feature known as positive train control."Does anyone honestly believe that increase in spending won't eventually filter down to the states? Regarding Macomb & Oakland County's concerns, exactly where are the written specifics of what was actually agreed to? When I last checked this morning, Macomb County Exec. Hackel didn't have them.Neither did Oakland County Exec. Patterson. As a matter of fact, if you closely read his comments, he actually left himself a backdoor."...Like President Reagan said when negotiating international agreements, we will ‘trust but verify,’” Patterson said. “Now, we are awaiting an opportunity to review the RTA’s ballot language to ensure it conforms to the agreement reached today.(emphasis mine)”I think that we both know what Mr. Patterson will do if he doesn't like what he sees. If you have any future problems accessing the links to support what I have written above, please let me know. And, thank you for your comment.
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 3:14pm
I have issues with this opinion piece, too. The final premise, that we already have organized, regional transit, is blatantly untrue. When I travel to Chicago's suburbs to visit family, we can easily hop on either the Metra or the L in order to get into the city. Plus, there are a myriad of buses that actually run on a continuous schedule, that fill the networks' gaps between the trains. If Detroit and the larger region has a prayer of true economic return, then it must look big picture and long term. Today's demographic is changing: they don't want highways for single use vehicles--they want actual transit systems. Also, if people don't live in an area year round, then I have no problem with them not having a voice in the taxation program--whether they are snow birds or UP cabin owners, for example. Those who must live and work throughout the year are whose needs must take priority. Finally, until we do have an encompassing economy that includes our struggling population, asking those dependent on public transit to fund the system is ludicrous. I vote for and pay taxes to support community colleges and schools even though I have no family member in attendance. Having quality education is good for communities and economies. Mass transit is too. The cooperating parties need to really become smart about demonstrating all the need and all the benefits to this if they have a prayer of overcoming those who suffer from myopia.
Kevin Grand
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 11:33am
Michelle, I never stated that we had anything even remotely resembling organized regional transit. That is part of the problem that RTA supporters will need to address. The RTA has been unable to make the argument that it will be accomplish in just a very short time, what other transit professionals have been unable to do for almost a century now. More cooperation? Nothing was ever preventing the respective heads of SMART/SEMTA & DDOT/DSR from hashing out something viable in the decades prior to today. More money? SMART had a millage renewal passed not even two years ago and it's still looking at significant pension and HC costs that will need to be paid at some point. One final point: The RTA fails the "Yellow Book" test. We already have alternatives for transit in Southeastern Michigan...right here and right now. I've included several examples in the second to last paragraph above. Would rather be taken from where you are, to where you want to go, and when you want to? Or, would you rather prefer to juggle your life around someone else's schedule? And if you're lucky, maybe get close to where you want to end up? Thank you for your comment.
John Q. Public
Sun, 08/07/2016 - 9:21pm
OK, it's a given that no transportation system is self-funding. Surface (i.e., roads), rail, water and air passenger transportation all need subsidies beyond what direct users pay in order to be effective. Why not offer us a vote to prioritize how we want available general fund transportation dollars spent to subsidize them? First place gets 60% of general fund spending, second place gets 25%, third gets 10%, fourth gets 5%. Every system would have to raise (or perhaps lower) user fees to make up whatever difference current user taxes plus the voted subsidies don't cover in order to survive. Anybody think anything other than roads would come in first? I'll bet such a vote would result in a massive increase in the price of most air travel.
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 3:57pm
Why have an election and try to communicate this concept at all? We already have the technology (Easy Pass for example) that allows us to be charged according to our usage of each mode of transportation. Even the tried and true gas taxes and registration are good examples of tying together usage and financial responsibility. And clearly toll and gas taxes are ultimately paid by consumers when they buy products whether they own a car or not. Airport fees are already tacked on to each airline ticket purchased and often reach 10 to 20% of the ticket price, look at your bill next time. Local property taxes are a legitimate means to cover local road costs since who benefits more from roads than the adjacent property owners?
John Q. Public
Mon, 08/08/2016 - 7:13pm
Everything you said is true, and none of it references what I'm talking about: general fund contributions not attached to usage of a given mode of transportation. Take away, for example, all general fund subsidies of airports and airlines and watch leisure air travel plummet when tickets to Orlando and Disney World cost $1,000 apiece. Those fees tacked on to each ticket are nothing compared to what they would be if general fund subsidies were ended.
Tue, 08/09/2016 - 7:56am
sorry my point wasn't clear. but it is that rather than always hitting general funds for specific items/expenses that have very fairly definable base of users use technology when ever and where ever possible to assign to the consumers the expenses their choices incur. A second benefit in the case of transportation is that it acts as a stealth carbon tax
Sun, 08/14/2016 - 12:33am
The RTA would get a lot more support IF they had a plan for only a GOOD regional bus system. We need fixed rail to no where, like another Detroit bankruptcy. We need even less, a train to Ann Arbor, for all of those that want to go back and forth - maybe 20 people a week? Any city with a good regional system, started with a good regional BUS system first! How many People Mover money losers do we need? Expensive, high cost projects might look impressive, but never pay for themselves.
Kevin Grand
Thu, 08/18/2016 - 7:46am
Or, you can contact a service like Uber, Via, Lyft or Bridj and arrange for door-to-door transportation, when you want to be somewhere, instead of on someone else's schedule (and maybe arrive near to where you wanted to go). Thanks for commenting, Mr. Leese.
Fri, 10/07/2016 - 10:29am
. It goes viral, then the RTA workers would have to help fill the buses up with passengers. This is an old idea of supporting mass transit instead of the new idea of charging home owners, but maybe it will work to help keep taxes from going too high?