Without L. Brooks Patterson, new hope for mass transit in metro Detroit

A rider boards a SMART bus in Southfield this week. Southeast Michigan is widely recognized as having some of the nation’s worst regional transportation. (Bridge photo by David Zeman)

The transition of leadership in Oakland County is giving new hope to efforts to improve a southeast Michigan mass transit system widely recognized as among the nation’s worst.

Last month’s controversial appointment of former Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter as county executive is boosting optimism of transit activists that a multibillion-dollar transit proposal not only will go before voters next year, but be approved.

Coulter, a Democrat who supports mass transit, ascended to the office following the Aug. 3 death of L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican who ran the county for 26 years and resisted efforts to improve regional transportation.

“That factor definitely improves chances,” said Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based transit advocacy nonprofit.

“It’s far from a guarantee but a successful ballot measure went from 30 percent to 60 percent with the changes in leadership in Oakland County. Now we have someone who deeply believes in regional transit and will work to get a strong plan on the ballot and will vocally share why it’s a good deal.”

Similar good feelings about transit improvements, however, were voiced in 2018, 2016 and many other years since the demise of Detroit’s streetcar system in the 1950s. But more than 25 plans since then went nowhere.

Plenty of barriers remain, from opposition in Macomb County and northern suburbs to laws that require consensus before the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan can bring a tax measure to ballot. The government agency was created in 2012 to coordinate transit in Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw counties.

But Owens and others said the ascension of Coulter –  and backing by business groups of transit expansions –  could break a logjam that was at least solidified by Patterson.


Dave Coulter, new Oakland County Executive,  says “it’s past time that we get a plan together that can get a comprehensive transit [system] together in southeast Michigan.” (Courtesy photo)

Saying that transit was unpopular with his constituents because they received little or no return on their taxes, Patterson wouldn’t allow a $5 billion tax plan onto the ballot for rapid-transit buses and light rail onto the ballot in 2018. 

Nor would he support one that voters in the four counties narrowly defeated in 2016.

Coulter, who has repeatedly praised Patterson, has a different view.

“Like a lot of people, I think it’s past time that we get a plan together that can get a comprehensive transit (system) together in southeast Michigan,” Coulter, 59, told Bridge Magazine.

The Regional Transit Authority should unveil a master plan by year’s end about potential improvement and funding, with an eye toward getting a tax request on the November 2020 ballot, said Matt Webb, CEO of the group.

The plan is likely to include expanded bus routes, higher-speed buses, a commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor and numerous other improvements to the separate city and suburban bus services.

L. Brooks Patterson

L. Brooks Patterson, the deceased, longtime Oakland County executive, was resistant to taxes for regional transportation, saying they were a bad deal for his constituents. (Courtesy photo)

Coulter also supports seeing a proposal on the 2020 ballot but adds the timeframe isn’t a deal-breaker.

“It is more important to me that we get the right plan than when we do it. There’s nothing magical about 2020 but it went down in 2016 and here we are [nearly] four years later still talking about it,” Coulter said. 

“I do worry if we don’t get at this soon we will run out of time. It feels to me like this is a good opportunity.

“This has been challenging for the region. I hope to be somebody that’s at the table who can maybe advance this conversation and forge some compromises with the leaders in the rest of the region and move something forward.”

Opposition from Macomb

Any millage proposal would first have to meet the approval of the 10-member RTA board, which includes two representatives apiece from the four Metro Detroit counties as well as members from Detroit and the state. 

And in order to get on the ballot, any proposal needs at least one favorable vote per county representative. 

Despite early hopes, a lack of support from Macomb and Oakland counties killed 2018’s $5.4 billion, 20-year Connect Southeast Michigan plan. The plan called for adding bus and train routes through the four counties but  the 1.5-mill proposal never made it through the board to be voted on by the county residents. 

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel doesn’t support a similar transportation plan for many of the same reasons as Patterson. 

Hackel told Bridge that Macomb County residents would be overtaxed and underserved and already pay for a regional bus transit system: the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART.)

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said his county’s residents are already taxed for regional transit because of the SMART bus system. (Courtesy photo)

All Macomb County communities pay 1 mill for the SMART system. But in Wayne and Oakland counties, 51 communities have “opted out,” meaning they don’t receive main routes and don’t pay the taxes to support it, Hackel said. 

“No Macomb County municipal leader has ever said ‘I want to opt in to this regional transit plan and pay an additional 1.5 [mill] to the 1 [mill] we are paying,’” Hackel said.

If Wayne and Oakland would have all of its communities involved, revenue would increase and the system would be more efficient, Hackel said. 

“It would help solve the problem,” he said. “But for some reason, they can’t do that. So instead they try to make Macomb County out to be the villain here by saying we don’t want to participate in regional transit. That couldn’t be further from the truth based upon history and based upon facts.”

Macomb County residents nearly voted out, en masse, of the SMART system in the August 2018 election. The measure passed by less than 40 votes. 

If Macomb County residents are forced to vote on an additional transportation tax, they would surely look for a way to get out of SMART, Hackel said. 

Change the law?

Macomb’s ability to block a deal has led some transportation advocates to conclude it may make sense to move forward without the county’s support said Owens, the transit activist. 

In 2018, officials discussed Washtenaw and Wayne counties collaborating on a smaller tax plan.

Another solution would be to petition the Legislature to change the Regional Transit Authority’s bylaws, allowing it to move forward without consensus from all four counties. Transit activists are shopping draft legislation to do so in Lansing, Owens said.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans said he supports a mass transit plan but a change in governance may be necessary because of suburban opposition. (Courtesy photo)

“Without movement of the legislators then we could have some of the same issues this time that we had last time,” Wayne County Executive Warren Evans told Bridge, referring to the suburbs’ ability to block the 2018 deal.

Evans said he believes voters from Washtenaw, Wayne and Oakland would be enough to pass a measure, even with opposition to Macomb. 

But first, Macomb representatives would need to allow it on the ballot. 

Or, he said, there has to be another vehicle that involves those who want to be involved and then get the plan out to the voters. 

But that would most likely also take action from legislators. 

“In this climate and the way things are in Lansing I don’t think anyone could guarantee an outcome,” Evans said. “It will remain to be seen.” 

Andrew Guinn, assistant professor in urban studies and planning at Wayne State University, said it is critical to expand mass transit in the region. 

“It’s been lacking and a problem here for decades,” he said. “With growing communities and the return of downtown, an expansion of the system will help fuel economic growth not only in the suburbs but here in the city as well.” 

About the author

Steve Pardo is a metro Detroit freelance writer

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Thu, 09/19/2019 - 8:59am

Mass transit systems are money pits providing limited value. Another article lacking any benefit facts.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 9:12am

I've traveled all over the US, Canada and Europe. Michigan is not 'among' the worse for mass transit, it is the WORST! Our economy will never grow until folks get their heads out of whatever fog they are in and understand we need good mass transit and not just a bus system that does not even serve all of the residents of the three counties participating.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 9:38am

I have no objection to mass transit as long as the funding is not based on a millage. It seems everything is based on a millage which is a double whammy for homeowners, both an increase in millage AND an inevitable yearly increase in the assessment. For a retired person with no pension, all these little “it’s only one Starbuc’s a day” millages are killing me. If business is demanding mass transit, fine, let a business tax pay. One recent article said 95% of the new jobs in Detroit were created by Gilbert’s companies. If riders are demanding mass transit, fine, let the riders pay for it. Just get off the trend of making those who don’t want it and would never use it pay for it.

Justin Bowen
Fri, 09/20/2019 - 3:14pm

The current law that provides for the RTA's ability to levy taxes ONLY allows for property taxes to be levied. The state legislature would need to change the law to allow for other taxes to be levied.

With that said, a tiered sales tax, with supplemental funding from the state, is the way to go. Consumers in Detroit should pay the highest sales tax rate, followed by those in Wayne County, and then followed by those in Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw counties. This is about the way that the funding mechanism for Chicagoland's CTA is partially setup (only a portion of the funding for the CTA comes from local sales taxes). Cook County - home to Chicago - levies a 1.25% sales tax on most goods while the surrounding counties levy only a 0.5% sales tax. These taxes pay for about 40% of the cost of the CTA.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 10:34am

Three cities I really enjoy, Portland Oregon, Washington D.C., and Toronto Ontario, have great mass transit. It's so nice to just sit back and ride rather than fighting stop and go vehicle traffic. When I visit these cities, I park the car and forget about it until it's time to go home. These cities are filled with young people. They're vibrant places and fun.

Could the Detroit area become as attractive? Not without great mass transportation.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 11:40am

EB, within large cities mass transit is fine. The politicians are talking about a 3 or 4 county wide system.

Fri, 09/20/2019 - 10:09am

And the cities you mention are far more densely populated with smaller foot print, making mass transit much less of a giant money pit than would be Detroit.

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 11:37am

Great! More 95% empty bus's polluting the air so politicians can feel good about themselves.

GP For Life
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 12:35pm

Why doesn't the RTA consolidate DDOT, SMART, the People Mover, and QLINE, into a singular coherent entity to leverage costs through synergies and improve efficiency before asking us for more money? It seems very odd to me that we need five separate transit agencies for a metro area of our size?

Thu, 09/19/2019 - 2:24pm

The RTA wasn't given that authority out of the box, it needs a second ballot initiative to have the funding and authority to consolidate and coordinate these agencies (as well as AATA). This weakness was built into it from the start to as a concession to L. Brooks Patterson and anti-transit advocates. With a new ballot initiative and funding though, they would have the authority and ability to increase coordination, though their current master plan doesn't outright eliminate and replace these agencies.

Side question: how'd you get suspended? Your absence is conspicuous on the comment section for this article on reddit.

GP For Life
Fri, 09/20/2019 - 10:19am

BS, they spent millions of dollars marketing the millage proposals to the public, with most of the information being outright lies. Perhaps, if they had invested that money into showing their value to the community, they would have passed.

Admins perma-banned me because a bunch of Chapo posters were brigade-reporting me to them directly. I have some screenshots up on @GP_For on Twitter.

Timothy Janssen
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 1:41pm

Hallelujah. Though it is 40 years late.
thanks to him and RayGun.

Timothy Janssen
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 1:41pm

Hallelujah. Though it is 40 years late.
thanks to him and RayGun.

James Roberts
Thu, 09/19/2019 - 3:42pm

Lets see, we suburban taxpayers, ie: the ones with a millage worth gathering, pay far more than our fair share, and if we are lucky, our community gets a daily bus that may take us somewhere we can drive to far more easily. I note in these and most of the pro-transit articles the advantages our suburban communities will receive always emphasizes the rich rewards we can get by greater access to the community as a whole, meaning the urban centers we intentionally moved away from. Sounds like a good deal. thankfully Oakland and Macomb County have not gone over yet.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 09/20/2019 - 7:24am

I like the fact that a plan that purportedly enjoys SO MUCH public support, needs to coerce people into supporting it via the government (mostly by taking it from non-users), rather than through the fare box.

That alone says everything you need to know on why it will fail again.

Justin Bowen
Fri, 09/20/2019 - 1:11pm

"Nor would he support one that voters in the four counties narrowly defeated in 2016."

The 2016 proposal wasn't "narrowly defeated" in 2016. It failed in two of the four counties that were each individually legally required by law to approve the proposal. In Oakland County the proposal failed dramatically in most municipalities and townships that were not to be served and passed overwhelmingly in most municipalities and townships that were to be served, which provided for a fairly even split in Oakland County. In Macomb County, the proposal was defeated by an absolutely ENORMOUS margin.

The reality of changes in these two counties is that more and more people are moving into the areas in Oakland County that weren't to be served under the 2016 proposal, increasing the likelihood of the same results for a future ballot; there have been no significant changes in Macomb County that would lead any reasonable person to conclude that the enormous number of voters who voted against the 2016 proposal have had a change of heart.

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 5:59am

So Democrat in Oakland's executive office is going to convince Macomb county on regional transit...and I have a really fantastic bridge in Brooklyn that's going for a song!

Ironically, the only way for Coulter to be successful in bringing better regional transit to Oakland is to cut Macomb out of the plan.

Sun, 09/22/2019 - 10:25am

How much would this cost per ride, and how much would each taxpayer have to pay?