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Evans seeks $5.4B tax for regional transit plan

The Detroit News

March 15, 2018

By: Shawn D. Lewis and Nicquel Terry

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans is launching a massive, retooled 20-year regional transit plan pitch that needs voters to approve a $5.4 billion tax.

The controversial plan that immediately drew fire Thursday seeks to ask voters to approve a 1.5-mill transit tax this year so the plan can provide $170 million a year in operational funding. The plan would also invest $696 million in supporting infrastructure. The tax would cost the average house worth $157,504 in the region $118 a year.

Evans calls the initiative “Connect Southeast Michigan,” and it would replace a smaller regional mass transit master plan voters narrowly rejected on the 2016 ballot.

That $4.6 billion millage failed 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent. Washtenaw and Wayne counties favored the millage, Oakland County voters were split, and Macomb County strongly rejected it. The 2016 plan included a smaller 1.2-mill property tax that would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually.

Evans presented the new, 20-page vision for regional mass transit to the board of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan on Thursday before a standing-room only crowd. Some people standing along the walls held signs that read: “RTA do our job so we can get to our jobs.”

“This plan is designed to serve riders where they are and where they need to go on a daily basis,” Evans said in a statement. “It will expand economic opportunities for countless local residents who struggle to get to work, school or even the doctor’s office. It will also take cars off the road, which will ease congestion, reduce emissions and increase productivity. It brings value to all four counties and is flexible enough to grow with mobility technology so we can adapt it moving forward.”

The report was divided into four main sections: the vision, state of transit in the region, delivering value and the plan.

One of the standout features is commuter rail service connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit, with an operational investment of $9 million a year and a capital investment of $135 million. It would include eight round-trips a day connecting Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Wayne, Dearborn and Detroit. This rail service was also a key feature of the 2016 plan.

The new plan includes 15 bus routes at 15-minute frequencies with an operational investment of $70 million per year and a capital investment of $210 million.

There also would be 15 new express regional bus routes connecting major destinations across the four counties with an operational investment of $17 million and capital investment of $13 million. Four of the routes would provide express service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.

This plan added 11 freeway-based express services with park and ride lots compared to what the 2016 plan offered, improving access to jobs, officials say.

The lack of regional transit was a “deal breaker” for Amazon, which recently passed up Detroit for the location of the company’s second regional headquarters, Evans has said.

The 2018 plan also reaches beyond the fixed transit routes with a hometown service program, which would give 60 communities a variety of potential services, including on-demand service, ride-sharing partnerships and meal delivery.

One of the main points of contention within the four counties has been a provision in the Regional Transit Authority Act requiring that a minimum of 85 percent of money collected in a county be spent on routes located within that county.

This plan expands that requirement by noting: “All counties are provided at least 85 percent return of their millage revenue and all counties receive greater than 105 percent return on their investment through leverage of farebox, state and federal funding.”

The plan anticipates generating $1.3 billion in farebox, state and federal revenues.

According to the “Connect Southeast Michigan” report, the plan supports 67,000 new jobs, generates $6.6 billion in additional gross regional product and generates $4.5 billion in growth of personal income.

Only Evans and Mayor Duggan appear to be the only regional leaders behind any expanded regional mass transit plan. Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel have made it clear they will not support a plan similar to what has been proposed in the past.

Patterson has noted that nine Oakland communities already had opted out of joining public transit in the failed 2016 millage and he would “respect the wishes of the voters of the select nine Oakland County opt-out communities.”

Patterson has said that since 1996 and through 2017, the opt-in communities paid almost $352 million in taxes to support regional transit. He noted that was nearly $37 million more than Macomb and $107 million more than Wayne.

Evans’ new plan on Thursday did not change the position of Patterson, who has publicly opposed plans for a transit millage.

Patterson said the proposal still forces opt-out communities in Oakland County to participate.

“That is not the democratic way to proceed,” Patterson told The Detroit News. “That alone was a disqualifier for us.”

Evans’ expanded plan, he said, now requires more money from Oakland County, which is already the largest contributor to existing regional transit.

“If you can’t afford it, don’t buy it,” Patterson said. “Reduce the size of your plan.”

Evans responded to Brooks’ comments, saying: “What Brooks is not telling you is that he will get 105 percent back into Oakland County. If he has parts of Oakland County that don’t want in, then draw a straight line, and those above are in and those below are out. But putting doughnut holes in a plan won’t work. If this is going to be a regional plan, then we have to have regional input.”

Duggan, meanwhile, argued Thursday via a statement that the regional transit plan “connects the entire region, and I enthusiastically support the RTA considering it.”

“Residents of all four counties deserve an opportunity to vote on it this fall,” he said. “I applaud County Executive Evans for his efforts to develop a plan that will allow our citizens to connect with jobs and our region to compete for more.”

And since cost is a major determining factor for the four counties that would be involved, money is discussed right up front under “vision” and throughout the report. There are break-out boxes that read: “What we heard” and “What we did” to improve upon the previous master plan. In one box, what was heard was the need for direct service to jobs.

According to the report, officials argue the transit plan is fiscally responsible — particularly with respect to federal grants.

“Each of the four counties will receive back more than 105 percent of the funds it collects through strategic deployment of these leveraged funds,” the report said. “The benefits of spending those dollars will bring still greater economic benefits. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every $1 spent on public transportation generates $4 in economic returns.”

Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority’s board, said the plan “addresses the concerns with the previous plan received from all four counties and is a great compromise.”

“Southeast Michigan has been trying to solve this problem since the ’60s. It’s long past time for action,” he said. “We look forward to receiving public comments on this plan. Our goal should be to get a proposal on the ballot and give voice to the voting public.”

RTA board member Freman Hendrix and other board members praised Evans on his presentation.

“Input is being asked for from the community, and I want to commend Executive Evans for stepping up and taking a leadership role,” he said. “We here at the RTA have been waiting for this day so we can be a complement to what we’re trying to do here.”

Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, called Evans’ proposal an “amicable, more robust solution to move our region forward and attract the jobs and talent needed to compete globally.”

“The chamber supports approving the plan to let the voters decide on the November ballot,” he said in a statement.


View the original story on Detroit News’ website here.