Three regional millage proposals set the stage for stronger regional transit. But the region has a lot of catching up to do.
During last Tuesday’s election, Rochester Hills resident Thomas Yazbeck’s ears were perked up for all the news he could get about three regional millage proposals on the ballot in Southeast Michigan.
As it turns out, public transportation had a great night at the polls. Macomb County passed a five-year, 0.95-mill levy with 65.5% of the vote, and Wayne County passed a four-year 0.994 mill levy with 71% of the vote.
But the real jolt of excitement for the 27-year-old, who works as an organizer with the transit advocacy group Transportation Riders United, came when he heard about the Oakland County proposal’s strong support from voters.
A 10-year, 0.95-mill measure approved by Oakland County voters Tuesday will fund expanded transit service across the county and eliminate local communities’ ability to opt out of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus service. It passed cleanly, with 57% of the county’s voters in support.
“Without passing these millages, we would have lost all transit service,” Yazbeck said. “Not only did we rescue transit, but we expanded it and sent a strong message. So it feels really damn good!”
The Oakland County millage is especially close to Yazbeck’s heart. He co-founded the local transit advocacy group Rochester Riders with his friend Corey Rowe to lobby for transit service in Rochester, Rochester Hills and Oakland Township, an area of Southeast Michigan that’s currently something of a transit desert.
The three municipalities are among a number of Oakland County communities that opted out of SMART for decades by taking advantage of a law that allowed them to skip paying regional transit taxes by forgoing participation in the regional bus system.
Currently, the Rochester area has no public transportation other than a limited minibus service operated by the Older Persons’ Commission (OPC), which is only available to people with disabilities or seniors over 60.
“Rochester Riders was our attempt to right the fact that there’s no public transportation available in our area,” said Yazbeck. “I wanted to use it, and I knew people in the community were struggling to find transportation options.”
The transit situation there has received much attention in recent years due to the media coverage of James Robertson back in 2015. Robertson walked 21 miles, five days a week, through all seasons, to travel from his home in Detroit to a factory job in Rochester Hills. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in Rochester and other opt-out communities, according to Yazbeck.
“I’ve met people that walk three or four miles to work here,” he says. “Near Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi, there’s a rut in the ground [from people walking] because there’s no sidewalk on 12 Mile.”
While Yazbeck owns a car, he uses transit as much as he can to reduce his carbon footprint. And he believes public transportation would benefit a wide range of people in his community, including commuters who would rather avoid the hassle of parking, seniors and people with disabilities, and local college students who lost access to Oakland University’s bus service when it closed in 2020.
When they founded Rochester Riders, Yazbeck and Rowe were focused on rallying support to get Rochester and Rochester Hills to join the SMART bus system, a maneuver the Oakland County community of Lathrup Village followed through with in 2014.
As it turns out, they ended up setting their sights even higher this past August, when the Oakland County Commission voted 13 to 7 to place the question of eliminating the ability of local communities to opt-out of SMART on a countywide ballot as part of the 10-year millage proposal.
Along with other organizations, Rochester Riders got on board to help raise awareness and support the ballot measure’s passage. In the run-up to last week’s vote, Yazbeck was confident it would float, but the 57% yes vote exceeded his expectations.
“We knew it would pass, but it was surprising by how much,” says Yazbeck. “Rochester and Rochester Hills both approved it by 57%, which is absolutely incredible, and Novi voters backed it by almost 59%. These are communities where the leaders of these cities would tell you no one in this community would want it.”
‘Stripped out’ or ‘better for everyone’?
Not everyone, however, was pleased with the millage passing. Before the election, State Sen. Ruth Johnson, a former Michigan Secretary of State, held several town meetings to rally opinion against the ballot measure.
During an Oct. 24 town hall broadcast on Oxford Community Television, critics derided the millage as “taxation without representation.” They argued it was a “bad deal” that would raise taxes for western and northern Oakland County residents without improving their services. Johnson also criticized the Oakland County Board of Commissioners for a lack of transparency on how the funding would be used and for sidestepping local elected officials.
“I went to the county meeting, and it was just steamrolled right on through,” she said. “Our local officials that we trust, that we know, that we see all the time, this plan will take away their part in making sure that it’s good for our townships and cities. They’re completely stripped out.”
Oakland County Commission Chair David Woodward, who spearheaded the new millage, had a different take on the situation, which he shared in a Nov. 9 tweet.
“Oakland County voters believe in making transit better everywhere and for everyone! After this vote, we finally move the conversation from who needs or deserves access to transit to how we make it work better for everyone, especially to help our most vulnerable neighbors.”
According to the county, the new millage will cost the average Oakland County homeowner $9 a year, and it’s projected to bring in $66.1 million in taxes the first year.
But what will the millage do exactly? Essentially it will maintain and expand existing public transit services around the county. In addition to SMART, the millage will support the Western Oakland Transportation Authority, North Oakland Transportation Authority, and the Older Persons Commission in the Rochester area.
While specifics still need to be worked out through engagement with transit providers, local officials, community groups, and members of the public, funding from the millage will be targeted to provide new service to high-priority areas like major employment centers, healthcare campuses, and colleges and universities, according to a transit millage website established by Oakland County
Funding from the millage will also be directed towards enhancing reservation-based services that offer flexible transportation to seniors, people with disabilities, and veterans, as well as app-based services that provide on-demand transportation to members of the general public.
‘An uphill battle’
Southeast Michigan is a metropolitan area that routinely ends up at the bottom of the list when it comes to ranking public transportation in the United States, and the road to a more unified transit system has been a rocky one for the region.
In 2016, an ambitious $4.6 billion regional transit proposal drafted by the Southeast Michigan Transit Authority (RTA) went on the ballot for a four-county vote. The measure would have put in place a 20-year regional millage that would have funded various public transit services in Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, and Washtenaw County, uniting the existing agencies into a more cohesive framework. Voters in the counties of Washtenaw and Wayne supported the plan, lost out narrowly in Oakland County, and even more substantially in Macomb County.
David Gifford, the publisher of Transit Guide: Detroit, a user-friendly online guide of routes and destinations in Southeast Michigan, pins the failure of the 2016 proposal squarely on the shoulders of former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and current Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, for not actively supporting the measure.
For the transit aficionado, Patterson’s decision not to run for re-election shortly before his 2019 death ended up being a real game changer for public transportation in the county.
“It’s been an uphill battle versus Brooks Patterson and transit for decades,” he says. “Now we have a different leader. We have Dave Coulter, a very pro-transit former mayor of Ferndale, bringing in the vision for all of Oakland County.”
Gifford said changes ushered in by Oakland County’s vote this month would be a boon for future regional transit improvements, partly due to an increase in state and federal matching funds resulting from the millage.
Beyond that, he’s excited about the travel possibilities that will eventually be made possible for his family and others who use public transportation.
“The last bus from Rochester to Royal Oak was probably in the ’60s or ’70s,” he says. “We’ll be able to reach that again. We’ll be able to see the Big Bright Light Show downtown or take the bus to Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi.”
Next stops for transit?
Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana has thought a lot about transit during her time as a public servant, including serving several years as a chairperson for the Oakland County Public Transit Authority.
Piana said the new millage is a positive change that will bring much-needed transit service to the region. But as the leader of one of the county’s 23 opt-in communities, she can’t help but reflect on why it took so long.
“It’s been long overdue,” says Piana.”We have been saying for years that there’s some unfairness that only some were contributing to what is a regional need. Now we are more equal with Macomb County because everybody is all in.”
Looking at what the measure might mean economically for the county, Piana believes it could be a win-win proposition on several fronts; Increasing transit access promises to help people get to jobs, support employers in attracting and retaining workers, and encourage economic development along major transit lines.
Based on RTA studies of regional transit needs, Piana expects expanded service will be targeted at major corridors like Michigan, Woodward, and Gratiot. But as outlined in the ballot measure, changes to the system must be determined with community engagement. And, even then, the question of how new infrastructure will be paid for will still loom over the process.
“The RTA and SMART want better bus stops, as do many communities, but those are on your sidewalks. Sidewalk improvements aren’t covered under transit service,” says Piana. “So these are the conversations we need to have to pair and align what communities want in improving safety and how we incorporate better transit.”
And even when those questions are answered, Megan Owens, Director of Transportation Riders United, believes it’s important to ask how Southeast Michigan’s transit network will compare to other regions across the country.
According to a 2014 Mineta National Transit Research Consortium analysis, the Metro Detroit region spends less than $80 per capita on transit – far less than the other metropolitan areas like Atlanta and St. Louis, which both spent $140 per capita.
So while Owens is pleased with Oakland County’s newly passed millage and how it addresses gaps created under the previous patchwork opt-out system, she still feels there’s a lot of work to do.
”It doesn’t create the world-class system we need,” she says. “There’s still going to be some real limits regarding how far, fast, or frequent this service can go. It’s an essential step forward, but it’s only one of the steps.”