Officials in Detroit and three surrounding counties have two weeks to salvage a $4.7 billion plan for expanded public transportation after four members of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) voted against it last week, reports the Detroit Free Press. The master plan — the city’s first ever for regional transit — was expected to go before voters in November, but representatives from Oakland and Macomb counties voted no, saying the proposal raises taxes for their suburban constituents without doing enough to serve them.
“This isn’t the plan that we’re looking for,” said Chuck Moss, an Oakland County representative, at an RTA meeting last week. “It does not provide regional transit. … What we have now is a regional taxation plan without transit.”
The crux of the plan is a new Bus Rapid Transit system with lines on Gratiot, Woodward and Michigan Avenues, radiating out from downtown to suburbs in four counties. Another line would connect Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti; new express lines would connect five cities with the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. To pay for the proposal, voters could be asked to approve a 20-year property tax that would raise $2.9 billion, to be combined with additional state and federal funding. The average homeowner would pay approximately $95 a year.
But sending the proposal to voters requires approval from seven of nine members on the RTA board, with at least one representative from Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw counties. Last week’s vote failed to garner that support. Oakland and Macomb county executives said that won’t change unless more transit service is directed to outlying parts of their counties and the RTA board is restructured to require supermajorities or unanimity rather than simple majorities for major funding changes.
Freman Hendrix, Detroit’s RTA representative, said the plan should be approved as is, and that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is willing to do whatever it takes to reach a compromise with Oakland and Macomb leaders. “We’ve waited way too long, and it would be unfair … to the riders and the citizens in this region” not to put this proposal to vote, Hendrix said. “Our eagerness is to do whatever is possible to work things out in a positive manner,” he continued, including extending the BRT and express routes, adding stops and increasing on-demand options like dial-a-ride for further flung areas.
Board Chairman Paul Hillegonds said the possibility of changing the RTA’s governance structure is also being studied. Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel has signaled his openness to compromise, but says he won’t budge on that particular demand. Time is running out: Hillegonds says there could be as little as one week left to reach an agreement between the county leaders to ensure the plan winds up on the November ballot.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.