Breana Noble The Detroit News
Published 11:28 p.m. UTC Aug 8, 2018
Voters in Oakland County voted Tuesday to continue a millage funding the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, better known as SMART, through 2021 and in Macomb voters approved the measure by the slimmest of margins.
In Macomb the measure passed by 23 votes. The final unofficial results showed the millage passed 77,502 to 77,479.
In Oakland County, the levy passed easily, with 77 percent voting yes, according to final, unofficial returns. Wayne County voters appeared to be approving the levy as well, according to incomplete results.
The measure would slightly increase the millage in Macomb and Oakland counties to 1 mill, which Wayne County residents already pay.
SMART is southeast Michigan’s only regional public transportation provider. The system provides nearly 10 million rides annually. Critics of the current transit system, however, say there are cheaper and more efficient means to provide the service. Should any of the three counties SMART serves vote its renewal down, service would end in that county within a few months.
“People need to have a way to get to work, get back and forth,” said Charletta Williams, a 37-year-old mail carrier from Eastpointe who voted for the renewal. “It’s not just for folks who don’t have cars, but for those who can’t drive because of a mental illness of disability. It helps people.”
Voters last approved a SMART millage that increased the tax from 0.59 mills to 1 mill with 66 percent support in 2014. It helped to balance SMART’s budget and replace old buses.
The Michigan Constitution’s Headlee Amendment, however, limited the amount the tax in Macomb and Oakland counties could increase because their property values rose faster than in Wayne County. Macomb residents pay 0.9926 mills, and Oakland, 0.9863 mills.
A resident with a home valued at $200,000 would pay $100 per year under the 1 mill tax. In Macomb County, that is an increase of 78 cents per year, and in Oakland County, $1.37.
But for Justin Mathis, a SMART rider himself, that increase is too much.
“The elderly shouldn’t have to pay more,” said the 25-year-old who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Macomb County. “They’re already paying to use the buses. Imposing the higher taxes, it’s not cool.”
For the first year, the millage would generate around $71 million. In the last fiscal year, SMART received $69 million. SMART Deputy General Manager Robert Cramer said the money would contribute to the service’s ongoing operations.
The Michigan Taxpayers Alliance, however, sent out mailers, advertising online and encouraging voters to fill in the “No” bubble on their ballots for the proposal, claiming that SMART spends nearly $13,000 per rider in Macomb County. The anti-tax nonprofit, founded by Macomb County Commissioner Leon Drolet, advocated against a Regional Transit Authority proposal in 2016 that voters rejected.
According to the American Public Transportation Association, a public transit advocacy nonprofit, public transportation ridership nationally fell 2.9 percent in 2017. In 2016, the U.S. Census Bureau reported less than 1 percent of Macomb and Oakland County residents used public transportation, while 3 percent of Wayne County residents did.
SMART’s fare revenue decreased by about $400,000 in fiscal year 2017 to $11.6 million. Ridership fell for its fixed-route service by 4.4 percent and for its connector service — door-to-door, small bus rides — by 5.8 percent.
“The buses are never full,” said Mike Roth, 56, a lifelong Eastpointe resident who voted against the millage renewal. He said the government should find other ways to fund transit services to the elderly and the disabled. “They’ll find the money.”
Ridership in 2018, however, is up 11 percent year over year so far, after SMART introduced its new Frequent Affordable Safe Transit, or FAST, buses in January. They travel along Gratiot, Michigan and Woodward avenues, connecting downtown and the suburbs with limited stops. Buses are scheduled to come every 15 minutes during peak times.
George Stokley of Eastpointe, who supported the millage, said the county should fund SMART, but that it needs to look at different alternatives to improve service.
“We need public transportation,” the 47-year-old member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58. “We need to put more money into it so that we can have better options.”
Brad Wojno, 19, of Warren agreed: “I think we need to improve our transportation system and invest in ourselves.”
Drolet thinks a voucher system to pay for ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber should replace SMART’s buses. He envisions a system in which individuals would purchase a subsidized transit card that they could use to buy rides from Lyft, Uber, a taxi or a municipality or county-funded bus.
Ryan Heaton agreed that Detroit is unsuited for mass transportation.
“I’m against public transportation,” the 22-year-old Eastpointe painter said. “It doesn’t work in sprawling cities. In Europe, maybe, but not here. Everybody drives cars. We don’t need mass transit.”
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