Another year, another plan stalls to fix transit in southeast Michigan


Southeast Michigan is served by two bus systems — the Suburban Mobility for Regional Transportation system that serves the suburbs and another that serves Detroit. (Bridge file photo by David Zeman)

LANSING — A new plan to jumpstart regional transit in Metro Detroit stalled Tuesday in the Michigan House, complicating and perhaps dooming the push for a new ballot proposal this fall. 

The legislation, celebrated last week by House Speaker Lee Chatfield as a “common ground” approach, would have allowed any of the four participating counties to opt out of a new Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan service area and capped the allowable millage rate. 

It was widely expected that Macomb County would have opted out, clearing the way for Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties to seek funding approval from their voters on the November ballot. 

Without the bill or alternative legislation, it will be “extremely hard to get an RTA vote this year, because right now Macomb County can veto, and they’ve made it clear they will,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based transit advocacy nonprofit. 

Owens called the House inaction “disconcerting” but said she’s hoping lawmakers will propose amendments and try again. 

But sponsoring Rep. Dianna Farrington, R-Utica, told reporters she has no immediate plans to revise her legislation. 

“We just didn’t have the votes within our caucus, and that’s fine,” she said. 

Chatfield pulled the plug on a planned vote Tuesday afternoon, citing concerns over property tax hikes in a statement he issued during a closed-door meeting with fellow House Republicans. 

“The simple truth is the proposals in front of us do not work for everyone,” said Chatfield, R-Levering. “Because of that, we are going to set this issue aside and tackle other priorities.”

It’s the latest in a series of setbacks to enhance southeast Michigan’s regional transit system, which is widely recognized as among the nation’s worst. Since the demise of Detroit’s streetcar system in the 1950s, more than 25 transit plans have gone nowhere.

Former Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law establishing the transit authority in 2012, but attempts to actually fund the system have failed. 

A 2016 ballot proposal was supported by voters in Wayne and Washtenaw counties, but narrowly opposed in Oakland and widely opposed in Macomb.

Former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson wouldn’t allow a rapid-transit bus and light rail proposal onto the ballot in 2018. 

The new legislation was backed by new Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, along with other regional leaders like Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.

“Are we a region, or a group of isolated areas that pay lip service to regional issues? The system rewards obstructionist politics with no apparent obligation to present solutions," said Wayne County Executive Warren Evans.

"I wish I was surprised,” Evans said of the legislative inaction in a Tuesday evening statement. 

“Are we a region, or a group of isolated areas that pay lip service to regional issues? The system rewards obstructionist politics with no apparent obligation to present solutions. Transit should be decided by voters based on an actual transit plan with proposed services, but we can’t even cut through the political smoke screens to debate a substantive plan.  It’s a complete lack of vision, and our region and state suffer because of it.”

The new legislation was also embraced by the metro Detroit business community, including Ford Motor Co., Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

But the proposal faced opposition from townships in northern Oakland County, where leaders feared the regional transit system would not service their territory but would require a tax on their constituents. 

GOP lawmakers representing those townships were “very vocal” in their opposition to the bills, said Rep. Jason Sheppard, R-Temperance. 

Other colleagues were concerned the proposal could “streamline a new tax,” he said. “As a Republican caucus, we don’t want to raise fees or taxes on anybody.”

Sheppared predicted the legislation could have passed the House with Democratic votes, but he suggested Chatfield did not want to divide the GOP caucus by advancing a measure a majority of Republicans did not support.  

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the RTA would go back on the ballot with all four counties,” he said. 

An RTA spokesman declined to weigh in on that possibility. 

Owens said it would be “outrageous” if a few townships in northern Oakland County block an RTA vote despite “extremely broad support for this across the region.”

State Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, said he and other Oakland County lawmakers proposed an amendment that would have allowed the townships to opt out. But their plan did not advance.  

He celebrated the legislative inaction, chalking it up to vocal opposition from concerned taxpayers. 

“Lots of our members got calls,” Maddock said. “I think the Michigan taxpayers are going to be happy, especially the taxpayers within the metropolitan area.”

Maddock predicted an RTA millage will not end up on the ballot this fall. 

“They will not have the votes to pass this with Macomb County voters,” he said.

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Kevin Grand
Wed, 03/04/2020 - 3:49am

I wish I could say that I was the least bit surprised by the likes of Wayne Co. Exec. Evens or Ms. Owens pointless arguments on a problem THAT DOESN'T EXIST, but I'm not.

The Tri-County Area ALREADY has a mass transit system.

Several actually.

A fact reinforced by the image at the top of this piece.

The only "problem" here, is that you have a system which is incapable of supporting itself and whose acolytes constant (and tiring) answer to that, is to compel those who do not use it to pay for its operations.

Please be sure to let readers know when something newsworthy actually happens here such as the proponents of these money pits getting serious about properly and realistically funding their little endeavors. A sizable increase at the fare box for those use actually utilize the system would be a good start,

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 8:50am

Megan Owens and Warren Evans should respect the right of the voters when they said no. It is "outrageous" to put out false information saying there is broad support when there is broader support against. It is "outrageous " to create a board that allows a mayor from one city sit at the table and propose a tax on a totally different county. No unelected officials should be able to propose taxation on neighbouring community. Further, this proposal continues to follow the latest trend of asking taxpayers for money without a specific and dedicated plan for the funding.

Wed, 03/04/2020 - 9:14am

Why must every money need be filled by attaching that need to the ad valorem property tax. It is past time to institute the use of the non-ad valorem tax, a tax where every property pays the same amount. The non-ad valorem tax is not deductible for federal tax purposes, but by spreading the tax over many more households, it is smaller. The transit company determines how much money it wants, divides that amount by the number of taxable parcels, and the resultant amount is added to every property tax bill.

Florida successfully uses this method on items that treat everyone equally. It also is true that when everyone has some amount of skin in the game, people are more apt to question whether they really need the amenity being discussed.