Detroit Regional Chamber > Advocacy > Evans Wants Question on November Ballot Over Wayne Co. Public Transit Support

Evans Wants Question on November Ballot Over Wayne Co. Public Transit Support

May 8, 2024

The Detroit News
May 7, 2024
Louis Aguilar

Wayne County voters may get a chance in November to decide whether to support a public transit system across the entire county, County Executive Warren Evans said Tuesday.

The Evans administration is working on ballot initiative that would ask county voters to decide if the region’s transit system should operate in all 43 municipalities, the county executive said during a Detroit Regional Chamber event in Lathrup Village. The event featured a panel discussion with the county executives from Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties.

“What I would like to do is have a countywide ballot proposal to see whether or not we as a county want to support SMART,” Evans said. He was referring to Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, the public transit operator that connects Detroit with its suburbs in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Currently, 17 Wayne County municipalities have opted-out of SMART, which means buses don’t serve the communities, according to SMART officials. The proposed ballot initiative the Evans administration is working on would eliminate that “opt-out” choice for communities, Evans said.

Wayne County’s opt-out communities include Belleville, Brownstown Township, Canton Township, Flat Rock, Gibraltar, Grosse Ile Township, Huron Township, Livonia, Northville, Northville Township, Plymouth, Plymouth Township, Rockwood, Sumpter Township, Van Buren Township and Woodhaven.

Detroit also is considered a SMART opt-out community because the city runs its own public transit system, the Detroit Department of Transportation or DDOT, though SMART buses run along main trunkline roads in the city, connecting to the suburbs.

Critics have long contended the SMART opt-out communities create wide gaps in the transit map, making it difficult for Detroiters to get to jobs in certain suburbs and hard for suburbanites to use public transit for work and pleasure in Detroit.

A public transit system that would serve all of Wayne County, and would link to the other counties, would boost the regions’ chances of connecting people to jobs and other resources, Evans said.

“I live in a community where I’d have to walk eight miles to get to the first bus,” said Evans, who lives in Canton Township. “Does that somehow jibe with getting people to workforce development and getting people who need additional resources such as medical care? It just doesn’t.”

“I do think the majority of Wayne County registered voters want to have SMART,” Evans added.

Tuesday was the first time Evans or any Wayne County official had publicly mentioned the potential ballot initiative. Even SMART officials at the Tuesday event were surprised and didn’t know of the plan, said Bernard Parker III, vice president of external affairs for the regional transit system.

“We give kudos to the county executive. He gets it — public transit is an economic driver,” Parker said.

The potential Wayne County ballot initiative would “mirror” what Oakland County voters approved in 2022, which eliminated the “opt-out” choice for municipalities.

About 57% of Oakland County voters approved a 0.95-mill, 10-year property tax proposal in 2022 that ended the ability of local communities to opt out of SMART coverage and taxes. That led to an immediate expansion of bus service to Bloomfield Hills, Novi and Wixom.

Macomb County has a countywide millage and never had an opt-out option for its communities. In 2022, 65.5% of Macomb County voters passed a 0.95-mill SMART millage for five years, which raised an estimated $31.1 million in its first year for public transit.

In Wayne County, 71% of voters in suburban communities that have SMART service approved a four-year, 0.994-mill levy in the 2022 election. The tax raised an estimated $20.2 million in its first year.

‘Taxation without discernable service’

The potential ballot issue may be a tough sell in Western Wayne and Downriver, where many municipalities have opted out, Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise said.

“It just boils down to taxation without any discernable service,” Heise said Tuesday. “Western Wayne communities like Plymouth Township are already donor communities to Wayne County. We pay out to the county far more than what we get in return. SMART is another example of where we’ve avoided taxation.”

Heise argued that communities like his in the far corners of the county don’t need public transit services.

“I know the counter argument is going to be ‘We will provide you all of these additional services for your tax dollar’ and our historical attitude has been no thanks,” Heise said. “We have the lowest local taxes in Wayne County and we are comfortable with that. We don’t see the need to pay more taxes for a transportation service that we are not going to use frankly.”

Regional support

An efficient mass transit that the connects the region is a vital tool to keep the area growing and attract more people, the three county executives said at the Tuesday event.

“Transit is critical,” said Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter. “I’ve talked about this for 20 years and not just for a NFL Draft or a Super Bowl — for the economic well being of this region.”

Oakland County is re-applying for a federal grant to “get more robust (bus) routes along Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan Avenue,” Coulter said.

Macomb County Mark Hackel said “there’s no question” the Metro Detroit region needs connected public transit.

“I’m glad that the Oakland County has joined in on this,” Hackel said. “I know Warren [Evans] is continuing to push on that effort.”

Evans, a former county sheriff who is in his third term as county executive, said that “maybe 10 years ago, we would have never been able to pass,” a countywide initiative to support SMART.

But Evans thinks the need for a better-connected system could spur voter support for eliminating opt-out communities in the SMART service area.

“A whole lot of old people that are trying to get to the doctor, and a whole lot of young people that are trying to get to workforce development,” Evans said. “They can’t get there, because we have this major impediment.”