Crain’s Detroit Business
Oct. 18, 2022
As the November election looms, one issue is on the ballot in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties: public transportation.
Since 1995, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb have passed transit millages in four-year terms to sustain the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, or SMART.
One county commission is now seeking to extend its public transit system to address what advocates call a “patchwork” of transit service.
The contentious opt-out clause in some counties’ transit millages allows communities not interested in funding SMART to stay out of the tax.
For the first time since instating transit millages, Oakland County eliminated its opt-out option this year, meaning public transit will extend throughout the county if voters pass the millage next month.
Megan Owens, executive director of Detroit-based nonprofit transit advocacy organization, Transportation Riders United, told Crain’s that the opt-out option means some communities are out of bounds for people relying on public transit to get there, including essential workers.
“Even if someone doesn’t personally depend on transit, our economy and our communities do depend on having this service,” Owens said.
Oakland County’s Historic Initiative
The Oakland County Board of Commissioners approved a .95-mill levy to be placed on the November ballot by a 13-7 vote in August after heated public debate and attempts from some commissioners to bring back the opt-out clause.
That millage rate would cost the owner of a home with a market value of $300,000 about $140 a year.
Melanie Piana, Ferndale mayor in Oakland County, told Crain’s she was in favor of the millage.
“I support the longer duration of the millage that is more consistent over time of how we pay for transit,” Piana said.
The ballot issue would approve the transit millage for 10 years rather than the previous four-year terms.
It is expected to generate $66.1 million in its first year if adopted. SMART would receive $33.3 million to maintain service and expand routes in high-demand areas. Three other public transportation agencies in the county would also receive funding: Older Persons’ Commission, which provides shared ride services to people 60 and older, would get $1 million, and the North and West Oakland Transportation Authorities, which provide transportation for senior residents and people with disabilities, would receive $2 million each, according to commission documents.
It would also allocate $20.4 million for new services, including $3.2 million for paratransit, $3.5 million for microtransit, $12 million for more routes and $1.7 million for improvements on existing routes.
Owens advocated for a variety of public transit options that fit the community’s needs rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.
“We really need to have a whole menu of mobility options available throughout our region for people to really be able to succeed.”
Jared Denton, a 22-year-old Milford resident, uses the public transportation service People’s Express to get to Colasanti’s Market in Highland Township, where he’s been working for the past year. Because he has an intellectual disability, public transit has been essential in having access to equal opportunities, his mother, Mindy Denton, said.
“It’s another opportunity for him to be more independent and more involved in the community,” Mindy Denton said.
Jared Denton also attends a vocational program twice a week and a Saturday social program at the Living and Learning Enrichment Center, a disability services and support organization in Northville, which is currently out of Milford’s public transit bounds, Mindy said. Driving Jared around is difficult for two working parents and stunts his independence, Mindy said.
However, some of the more rural communities have been resistant to funding countywide public transit. Milford residents have voiced strong opposition to the upcoming millage proposal, stating that its current system, People’s Express, does the job and further expansion is not cost-efficient, worrying that most of the funds will go to more populous areas. Others argue that a system that only routes through the community blocks access to other parts of the county and region.
“The lack of transportation opportunities is a real barrier in the disability community,” Mindy told Crain’s.
Macomb County is the only one of the three metro counties that has never included an opt-out option since it began its transit millage in 1995.
This year, the county’s Board of Commissioners narrowly passed the ballot initiative onto the November ballot in July for the .95 mill rate to support public transportation, including SMART, in a 7-6 vote. In 2018, voters passed the county’s transit millage by only 39 votes, the Detroit Free Press reported.
The major change to Macomb’s millage this November is a term extension of the millage from four years to five years. There was also a slight reduction from a .9615- to .95-mill rate.
The millage is expected to raise $31.1 million in its first year, according to commission documents.
Wayne County and Detroit
Wayne County is looking at another four-year approval of a .99-mill levy for SMART service in opt-in communities.
Owens said her organization isn’t spending a lot of time on advocacy in Wayne County, since communities that opt in have historically been very supportive of the SMART service. Whether she thinks a four-year millage is the best way to get the funds is a different story.
“It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it’s the system we’ve had,” Owens said.
Since public transit is a long-term service that requires a wide geographical reach to be truly useful, other major metro areas have applied a sales tax to pay for the service, Owens said. In that system, out-of-town visitors also pitch in.
Some metro areas have varying rates, so the communities using public transit the most are putting in more money. However, current Michigan laws don’t allow counties to add to the 6 percent sales tax. Unless that changes, Owens said the millages are the region’s only option to fund public transit.
“Right now, if any of these don’t pass, a year from now, SMART service could very possibly cease to exist in those counties,” Owens said.
The city of Detroit also operates on an unusual funding basis compared to other large metro areas in the nation. The Detroit Department of Transportation, the public bus operator in the city, relies on the general fund. Detroit City Council decides every year when drawing up the budget how much funding it will receive.
Earlier this year, DDOT also received $6.9 million in federal grants to get electric buses and upgrade infrastructure.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has struggled with scarce labor and rolled out a bonus program earlier this summer for drivers to incentivize staff to show up to shifts on time.
Owens said the funding requests this election are to sustain the most basic level of transit on a local level, which she said is especially necessary during a labor shortage.
“We need to have every possible worker connected to the jobs in our region, and transit really is that basic lifeline for employers to have that connection to a greater workforce.”