DSR. SEMTA. SMART. DDOT.
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?