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Transit plan backlash sparks its own backlash, ahead of Thursday vote

A map outlining the proposed transit master plan for Metro Detroit.
Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan
A map outlining the proposed transit master plan for Metro Detroit.

Last week, Southeast Michigan's Regional Transit Authority postponed a vote deciding whether to put a millage to fund an ambitious transit master plan on the November ballot.

The delay came as the leaders of Oakland and Macomb counties--and their representatives on the RTA board--outlined a number of objectionsto the plan, and said they can't support it in its current form. 

Now, as the board once again prepares to consider sending the millage the ballot at a scheduled special meeting on Thursday, those opponents are coming under pressure to at least allow a public vote.

Pro-transit forces say that failing to put the roughly $3 billion, 20-year millage on the November ballot would torpedo any hope of starting work on Metro Detroit's notoriously bad, fragmented transit system for at least two years.

And after years of public input and planning, advocates say that's too long--especially for the hundreds of thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled people who have no other transit options.

“At least let the people vote for this," said Debra Ryan, a Southfield resident who says she drives her niece, a junior at Wayne State University, at least 50 miles several times a week because of a lack of transit options.

"I know for them [opponents], it’s dollars and cents. But they should let the people decide if we want it or we don’t.”

Oakland and Macomb leaders outlined a number of specific objections to the current plan, including the fact that it leaves portions of those counties without any service at all, and doesn't offer enough return on investment for many taxpayers.

But transit advocates argue that's too narrow a view, and that even those not directly served by the plan will see some benefits.

That includes things like more service options to Detroit Metro airport, and more transit connections to sporting events in downtown Detroit, argued Marie Donigan, a former Oakland County state representative who's now works with Detroit's Harriet Tubman Center.

“If you spend $40 for a game, and you go to five games a year, you can do that math," Donigan said. "So yes, everybody will be served by this transit system in one way or another.”

Some big regional names also jumped into the fray Wednesday, with a pro-transit vote letteraddressed directly to Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and Macomb Executive Mark Hackel.

Corporate leaders, university presidents, hospitals CEOs, and even retired US Senator Carl Levin called on Patterson and Hackel to change course, calling improved transit "one of the most important regional issues of our lifetime." 

"We have come too far, after too long, to see our best shot at regional transit in a generation fall before the people are able to decide," the letter read in part.

"The weight of this moment is great. We are asking you to come to a resolution of the issues you have raised so that the people of this region, as a region, can have the chance to decide on something fundamentally important to our collective future."

But Hackel put out a statement late Wednesday afternoon, suggesting the RTA needs to adopt governance changes before Macomb County will get on board. He thinks unanimous board approval should be required for major decisions, and that whatever plan is agreed to should be binding.

"Everyone with a seat at the table needs a voice. Putting the question on the ballot requires that everyone is in agreement. There should be full agreement for future funding decisions," Hackel said.

Hackel suggested that Macomb was "a witness," rather than a full partner, in RTA decision-making. Both Macomb and Oakland counties have two appointees on the RTA board, as do the other member counties, Wayne and Washtenaw. The city of Detroit has one vote, as does the board chair, a Governor's appointee.

Macomb and Oakland feel they're outnumbered, but they have a trump card in this case. In the case of a ballot proposal, at least one board member from each county needs to approve it. 

The RTA board plans to discuss these demands, and (for now) take a vote, at 1 pm meeting today.

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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