The Fate of Transit Remains in Limbo in Southeastern Michigan

The fate of public transit in Southeastern Michigan continues to remain unknown. While the Suburban Mobility Authority For Regional Transportation (SMART) millage passed in communities throughout Oakland and Wayne counties and, just barely, in Macomb County the cohesion amongst public figures and, most importantly, the public continues to disintegrate. The continued outspoken opposition against the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) by Oakland County Executive Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel tend to gain the most attention, but the near death of public transit in Macomb County should speak even louder. In Macomb County, when a SMART millage goes before voters the entire county must either approve or vote it down. Just last month the voters of Macomb County were asked to approve a SMART millage renewal. The voters did approve the millage renewal, but by a mere 23 votes, even though Hackel was urging for a “yes” vote on this proposal. Four years ago though, when Macomb County voters were asked to approve a millage increase, from 0.59 mills to 1 mill, the passage rate was 60 percent. This approval came before the 2016 RTA millage request that ultimately failed. This RTA millage proposal passed in Wayne and Washtenaw counties, where support was a given, and continues, by the elected officials and businesses, while it failed in Macomb and Oakland counties.

Two years later, officials still can’t come to a consensus on what the RTA proposal should be, which is why it will not appear on the November ballot.

The stories amongst elected officials remain the same, Patterson and Hackel don’t support transit in the form of the RTA, Wayne and Washtenaw county and Detroit officials see the need to expand on current systems and the messaging transit advocates have tried to push for years is not getting through. With the SMART millage passage transit options will continue to be provided in areas of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. Additionally, the Detroit Department of Transportation and SMART continue to strengthen their relationship to provider faster and broader connectivity for transit users. However, the negativity propagated about regional transit from Patterson and Hackel seems to be trickling down to voters. It is vital that regional community, meaning the voters, comes together to push for a robust system that allows citizens greater opportunities to travel to jobs, educational institutions and health care providers. There must be support for a system that encourages economic growth, and most importantly, breaks down barriers that currently exist in Southeastern Michigan. To do this, citizens need to educate themselves on both sides of the regional transit debate, grow their understanding on what transit means for a region and not be afraid to speak against the loudest in the room.

As to public officials, one wonders when those officials who do support transit—those in Wayne County, Washtenaw County and Detroit—will realize that they can innovate without their recalcitrant neighbors to the north. A thriving transit system propelled by these governments will support the rapidly evolving growth economy along the east-west axes of I-94 and I-96/U.S. 23, even if our northern neighbors wish to lag. Let’s proceed intelligently and incrementally, if regional and rational are not feasible at this time.

Metro-Detroit Transit Continues With Uphill Battle Despite SMART Millage Passage

The Suburban Mobility Authority For Regional Transportation (SMART) received a vote of confidence from the tri-county region for its four-year 1 mill millage renewal, which was also a slight increase for communities in Macomb and Oakland counties (the increase request was due to Headlee amendment rollbacks in previous years that brought original 1 mill rate slightly below that). However, even though election results show the SMART millage passed in Macomb County and in areas of Oakland and Wayne counties on Aug. 7, 2018, there were questions if that was really the case. In mid-August the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance requested a partial recount of the Macomb County SMART millage vote because the millage proposal only passed by 39 votes. According to the election results, 77,500 Macomb County voters were in favor of the millage renewal and increase and 77,461 Macomb County voters cast a ballot against the proposal. With a 50 percent passage rate, the group felt a recount was needed to ensure the results were accurate. On Aug. 29 the group stopped the partial recount because it became evident that there would not be enough “no” votes to overturn the originally approved millage approval, according to a Michigan Radio news article.

In Wayne County the SMART millage had a 73 percent passage rate, with 78,943 of the voters in favor of the millage renewal and slight increase. Oakland County had the highest pass rate at 77 percent, with 123,435 of the voters in favor of the proposal and 36,723 of the voters voting against it.

SMART, which is the region’s only existing transportation system outside of the Detroit Department of Transportation’ system, was created in 1967. As is evident by the maps above, the system operates throughout the tri-county region, but not necessarily in every community. Due to the way SMART initiatives can be placed on the county ballots (by individual counties), Macomb County is the only county in which the entire county (50 percent or more) must support a SMART millage in order for it to approved. This is why such a close approval rate for the Aug. 7 millage, and the potential of a recall, were vital for Macomb County, it’s either all or nothing. Unlike Macomb County, Oakland and Wayne counties communities have the option to “opt-out” of supporting the authority. In the second map above, data on approval rates for all Macomb County communities is available, and only partial information is available for Oakland County communities. For the Oakland County communities, these are the “opt-in” communities that approved the SMART proposal.

 

No data was available for the Wayne County communities through the Wayne County Election’s Office website; the only information available was the pass/fail rate for the millage proposal for the whole county.

In Macomb County, the cities of Grosse Pointe Shores and Eastpointe had the highest passage rates at 61 percent. Ray Township had the lowest approval rate at 31 percent, according to the results. As noted, all the Oakland County communities on the second map above had approval rates above 50 percent, because they “opted in” to use the SMART service. Of those communities, Huntington Woods had the highest approval rate at 90 percent and Walled Lake had the lowest at 70 percent.

While SMART continues to be the only regional transit authority in Southeastern Michigan, this recent election confirms again that the region has a lot of room to grow in providing equal and equitable transportation services throughout the region. If Macomb County voters did not pass the millage request, public transportation in the county would likely have ceased to exist. And, in many parts throughout Oakland and Wayne counties transportation gaps are huge.

 

Southeastern Michigan Counties Hold Power in Regional Authorities

In Southeastern Michigan there are eight main regional governing bodies, most of which rely heavily on the counties to fill out the structures. These governing bodies are: the Huron Metro-Parks, the Detroit Institute of Arts Authority (one in each Macomb, Oakland, Wayne), the Detroit Zoo Authority (one in each Macomb, Oakland, Wayne), the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit, the Great Lakes Water Authority, the Regional Transit Authority and the Detroit Regional Convention Center Authority and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG).

Each of these regional governing bodies are made up of individuals who have been either appointed by a County Board of Commissioners, a County Executive, or a combination of both. County Executives have the most appointment authority. With the exception of SEMCOG and the Huron-Clinton Metroparks County Executives have some type of appointment authority with each regional body. This power, for both the counties and the County Executives, is one of the structural patterns that exists in this region’s fragmented group of regional authorities. The City of Detroit Mayor and the Governor have roles in the various authorities, but to a much lesser extent.

Another pattern that exists is that none of these regional bodies allow for their seats to be filled by elections, causing a lack of accountability and an increased ability for personal interests to be pursued. Instead of electing individuals to govern these public bodies, dozens of public officials are hand picking individual candidates to fill the seats. This process, for each regional authority, allows for stakeholders to pursue these new roles to exercise their influence over the governing body. This new layer of politics is also coupled with the fact that the elected officials, particularly county officials, can further their personal agendas with the appointing powers they have been given in this rise of fragmented regionalism.

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With eight various regional authorities now overseeing the governance of everything from our cultural institutions to water, the way in which these bodies are structured in terms of members vary greatly. For example, when looking at the Detroit Institute of Arts authorities for the counties (Macomb, Oakland and Wayne) none of the three have the same number of individuals on their board (click here for the history of the art authorities). Despite that each board has been set up for the same purpose-to oversee the DIA millage founds levied in their county-how they are structured vastly varies. In Wayne County, the Board of Commissioners have the authority to appoint six of the nine members; the Board then confirms the Wayne County Executives three appointments. In Oakland County the Board Chair appoints three members to the Art Authority and the County Executive appoints two. In Macomb County there is a seven member board, the County Board Chair appoints two members, the County Executive appoints two members and three members are appointed by the County Executive, with approval from the Board of Commissioners.

The Detroit Zoo is the only other regional entity with three different boards (one per county in which the operational millage is levied) that serve as its overall governing authority. The number of members who serve on each County board for zoo does not vary, but a look at the total number of representatives on each board, whether it be a Zoo Authority or SEMCOG greatly varies between 5 members to 47 members (SEMCOG is the only one with 46 members). The total number of representatives on each regional authority is shown in the chart above.

The legislations that created other regional authorities states each authority will only have a single governing body. However, even with those bodies we see the number of representatives vary, as do appointing authorities, which are often times defined in the body’s articles of incorporation.

These varying structures and appointment authorities again show the fragmented nature of our regional authorities. Until the financial downfall of Detroit began regionalism never strongly existed in Metro-Detroit. However, that has since changed as these bodies emerged out of economic and functional necessities.

Due to the manner in which these regional governing bodies emerged ( for more historical context click here) there is no cross functional consolidation of the kind envisioned by proponents of metropolitan governance. This functional differentiation is consistent with the polycentric nature of metropolitan Detroit, the decades-long animosity between Detroit and its neighbors, and persisting racial tensions.

 

For additional historical context on the topic of regionalism in Southeastern Michigan, below is a table highlighting which state legislations gave way to each regional authority.

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