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Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw counties propose forging ahead on transit without Macomb

Mysid / Wikimedia Commons

Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties hope that some proposed changes to state law will pave the way for an expanded regional transit system in southeast Michigan—minus Macomb County, for now.

The proposal involves changes to the state’s Municipal Partnership Act, which allows local government units to form partnerships for the purpose of funding and offering services such as transit. They would allow the three counties to create a regional entity that could levy and collect taxes to fund expanded regional transit.

The partners already have a bill sponsor onboard, Monroe County State Rep. Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance). The initiative also has the support of Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield, and Democratic Minority Leader Christine Greig. The city of Detroit and Mayor Mike Duggan also voiced support, as have members of the business and philanthropic communities.

Sheppard says the bill would make a few key amendments to the MPA, allowing, for example, exemptions to millage rollbacks under Michigan’s Headlee Amendment, and ensuring that all tax revenues raised would flow to transit, exempting them from capture by special tax districts like Downtown Development Authorities. It would also allow county commission boards to approve putting millage proposals before voters by a simple majority vote.

“That’s a big difference,” Sheppard said. “Because at that point, you’re going to each individual city, and each individual little municipality, to try to get some resolution. This streamlines that process, for the county board of commissioners to make that determination if it’s going to go on the ballot or not.”

Sheppard and county officials say they hope to get the changes through Lansing by early next year. The idea is to get it in front of voters on the November 2020 ballot.

County officials say they don’t yet have a formal “plan” for what transit expansion would look like, nor would they offer a cost estimate while unveiling the proposal at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital on Monday.

But one thing is for sure—the timeline they propose for getting it in front of voters is fast. But interim Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter thinks it’s doable.

“I think it’s feasible. It’s aggressive,” Coulter said. “And it’s always been more important to me that we have the right plan than the right timeline, so if we can’t get to the right plan, we’ll keep working on it. But I’m optimistic that we can.”

A 1.2 mill ballot initiative to expand regional transit through the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority failed in 2016. It was voted down by a narrow margin in Oakland County, and by a large margin in Macomb County.

Under this proposal, the RTA will continue to exist as an entity to provide transit coordination and disburse federal transit dollars. Any millage money, if approved by voters, would flow to the region’s existing transit providers.

Coulter says reaching out and engaging historically transit-averse voters in northern Oakland County onboard will be a key priority.

“I think there’s no question that in the north end of Oakland County, they did not perceive enough value for what they were being asked to pay [in 2016]. And that’s why they turned it down,” Coulter said.

Macomb County is not involved in this proposed partnership. But officials say one benefit of this option is that Macomb can opt in later if it likes.

At this point, the county has no interest in joining up, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel told Michigan Radio’s Stateside on Monday.

Hackel says mass transit is not a priority for his constituents. “What I do hear, everyday, is at least one complaint about our roads, bridges and or infrastructure,” Hackel said.

But a leadership change has shifted the political calculus in Oakland County. Longtime Republican County Executive and transit skeptic L. Brooks Patterson died in August. Coulter, a Democrat, has changed course and made regional transit a priority.

Dave Woodward, chair of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, says that county now has a pro-transit commission majority and this time around, Oakland County is all-in.

“We are going to get transit done in southeast Michigan once and for all, and Oakland County’s proud to be part of that partnership,” Woodward said.

Jason Morgan, chair of Washtenaw County's board of commissioners, agreed.

“We don’t have time to wait," Morgan said. "We have people who need transportation. We have students who want to get to school, and get to the university. We have families who just want to get throughout our communities. And we know that transportation doesn’t end at a county line.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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