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Transit debate rolls on after tax rejection

The Detroit News

By Leonard Fleming 

December 12, 2016

Jeanie and Paul Kurily say their minds are made up.

The Northville Township couple — retired, in their late 60s, living on what they describe as a fixed income and “overwhelmed” with taxes — were among the majority who rejected the Regional Transit Authority’s millage last month.

And word that RTA officials hope to soon embark on a “listening tour” to hear opponents who voted against expanding regional transit prompted a stark warning: They aren’t interested.

“It’s the museum thing, it’s the zoo thing, it’s the millage for the school thing that they just pushed through here. It’s not that people don’t want to give to other people. It’s the fact that we just can’t afford it,” Jeanie Kurily said of why she voted against the RTA millage. “We think it’s a foolish waste of money.”

As transit leaders and advocates eye their next moves — which could include bringing back a millage to fund regional transit expansion as early as in 2018 — the RTA will seek to engage voters like the Kurilys who opposed the $4.6 billion millage. The tax would have paid for three bus rapid transit routes, a rail line from Ann Arbor to Detroit, a unified fare card system and shuttle service to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, among other changes.

RTA officials said they will spend the coming year engaging critics and speaking with officials from U.S. transit markets that have faced similar failures only to come back and be successful.

Michael Ford, CEO of the RTA, said he understands some voters won’t change their minds, but he still wants to take the time to engage them to “glean what we can learn.”

“We’ve got a challenge, I’m not denying that,” Ford said. “But I think as we continue to talk to people and understand their concerns and really do our due diligence to try to explain and show how things do evolve with good public transportation.”

But Paul Kurily isn’t buying arguments that favor more taxes.

“We’re not stupid, we’ve been getting taxed to death by politicians all of our lives,” he added.

The 20-year millage would have cost the owner of a $200,000 home about $120 annually, RTA officials estimated.

Metro Detroiters already are subject to a few regional taxes, including a 10-year 0.1 mill property tax for Detroit Zoo operations, which was renewed in August. It generates about $5 million from Oakland County, $4 million from Macomb and $2.4 million from Wayne. In 2012, voters in the three counties approved a Detroit Institute of Arts tax that provides the DIA with $23 million annually, about 70 percent of its operating costs. That 10-year tax will expire in 2022.

The Kurilys said the RTA should seek more federal or state dollars instead of going after property tax money. Ford and RTA officials say the authority cannot leverage more federal and state dollars without a master plan with a funding source.

Ford noted that although the transit millage lost by a wide margin in Macomb County and narrowly in Oakland County, it passed in Washtenaw and Wayne counties. A vote must equal a simple majority when all counties are combined to win.

Millage supporter Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Ford and the RTA board might need to alter the master plan and explore other ways to look at taxation.

“Maybe we need to rethink this, realizing that we still have to solve the problem, but is there another way of solving the problem?” he said.

Baruah insists mass transit improvements must be instituted in Metro Detroit to help grow it economically and get people to and from jobs.

“If you’ve never lived anywhere where good mass transit was a part of the environment, you don’t know what it does for you, you don’t know what it does for the economy, you don’t know what it does for your neighbors,” Baruah said. “It looks just like a tax. I certainly understand people who fall into the camp of, well, this isn’t really useful. I get that.”

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, who served as a spokeswoman for Citizens for Connecting our Communities, an advocacy group that pushed for the millage, said she’s not surprised by the Kurilys’ concerns, which echo many critics.

But she’s convinced some minds can be changed if RTA officials do the “important work to determine exactly what more needs, particularly in Macomb County, and what did voters need to hear that they didn’t hear.”

“Was the millage too high? Was there a skepticism about the ability to coordinate multiple systems? Was there a message that we did not discover out there in all of our research?” Rossman-McKinney said. “The RTA needs to do its own soul-searching to ensure did they really put together a plan that would be well-received by the majority of voters.”

Ford said he already has had conversations with other cities that had millages and failed and then came back to pass, such as those in Seattle and Atlanta. But he said Metro Detroit is much different because “we are starting here from the ground up.”

The Kurilys, for their part, say they aren’t budging and worry millage advocates will come back stronger. So they are hoping any future opposition “will be a little more well formulated and a little more vocal.”

“I think we were lucky to get it defeated,” Paul Kurily said.

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