May 9, 2018
Members of the Tax Policy Committee
Michigan House of Representatives
Dear Mr. Chairperson and Members of the House Tax Policy Committee:
Thank you for the opportunity to express Wayne County's concerns regarding House Bill 5870, which would allow municipalities to opt-out of the Regional Transit Authority (RTA). As you may be aware, I and other regional leaders worked collaboratively for over a year to develop a new regional transit plan - Connect Southeast Michigan - which is now under consideration by the RTA.
While I am not naive about the regional politics at play with transit currently, it remains my hope that we can come to agreement on the type of transit system we so desperately need. However, I can say unequivocally that this bill moves us further away from our goal. While voters rejected the RTA millage in 2016, the 2012 legislation establishing the RTA served as a tremendous victory after decades of work toward transit. To change that legislation now is shortsighted and ignores the global economic trends that indicate regional transit is a necessity, not a luxury.
The RTA is not the only regional taxing authority we have in Southeast Michigan without opt-outs. Other examples include the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Zoo, the Cobo Authority, and the Great Lakes Water Authority. These regional efforts work because the entire region participates. We also need to pay for things that society relies on such as education, senior services and infrastructure. Transit is no different. House Bill 5870 sets a dangerous precedent in allowing a community that does not like a result to choose to opt-out at the detriment of the entire region based on the political winds of the moment.
Opt-outs undermine the very purpose of regional transit. A system that allows opt-outs cannot be regional by definition and therefore cannot deliver the full benefits of regional transit. How can a regional transit system be effective if you are unable to stop in cities or visit businesses and employment centers along the routes? To build ridership, people need routes that fully access jobs, entertainment, cultural amenities, and necessities to maintain or achieve a high quality of life.
One of the reasons the RTA statute was written without opt-outs is that opt-outs have negatively impacted the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART). While I am proud of the great work SMART does with the resources they have, there is only so much they can do with a service area designed like a slice of Swiss cheese. Many riders have long, difficult journeys due to lengthy wait times, transfers, or lack of accessible routes. If you live in Hamtramck and have a job in an opt-out community like Novi, you likely have to walk or pay an Uber to get to work once you hit the Novi border. Those are barriers many cannot overcome.
Under the current RTA law, voters choose whether or not to support regional transit. Under this bill, a community's governing body could choose to withdraw from the RTA without taking into account the will of the people. Let's not take away the option of voters to decide if they approve a regional transit plan.
While I may not have liked the outcome of the millage in 2016, the RTA statute worked as it was designed. Its rejection served as the ultimate opt-out. It also forced us to go back to the drawing board to create a much better plan that delivers better service and more value throughout the region, which the voters should be allowed to vote on. If they vote it down, they vote it down.
Finally, it is no secret that our region has a long history of building walls, leading to less collaboration and more division. Our region's history with transit is complicated and divisive, and we are at a critical juncture. In order for our region to continue to grow and prosper, we need to knock down these walls not construct new ones. House Bill 5870 threatens to push us back years, if not decades, in terms of regional transit. I believe we have the right plan via Connect Southeast Michigan under consideration now, I ask that you let that process run its course. My team and I are happy to work with anyone on developing a regional transit plan, but it has to be regional, not a patchwork service area that by a flawed design cannot meet the transit needs of our collective community.
Warren C. Evans