The Detroit region already squandered the latest, best opportunity to invest in our region and sharpen our economic competitiveness, thanks to the intransigence of Oakland and Macomb Counties in stonewalling the latest Regional Transit Authority plan.
The refusal of Oakland and Macomb representatives to simply approve putting the proposal before voters this year means we’ll likely have to wait at least two more years to try and resurrect the issue yet again after voters narrowly rejected a similar plan in 2016.
Meanwhile, we can preserve the modest transit system we do have next week, when voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne Counties will consider renewing the millage supporting the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, the bus system that provides nearly 10 million rides annually, through 2021.
Voters last approved a SMART millage in 2014 with 66 percent of the vote. The bus agency is using the resulting funding increase to replace 35 aging buses, most of which had racked up at least 500,000 miles (show of hands how many of you are driving cars with that many miles on them — we’ll wait).
The approval has also allowed the agency to put money it had been pouring into maintenance toward expanding service and launching the FAST bus service, which offers seven-day-a-week limited-stop express service on Woodward and Gratiot Avenues and from downtown to Metro Airport aboard WiFi-enabled buses. Ridership on those corridors is reportedly up more than 30 percent, while overall SMART ridership has risen 11 percent.
Yet proponents of SMART are clearly nervous. Blame anti-transit sentiment dredged up by the latest failed Regional Transit Authority plan and concern that voters will confuse the proposals, but also blame anti-tax zealots who are trying to defeat the proposal. A group called the MI Taxpayers Alliance out of Macomb County is making robocalls and sending out mailers, setting up a false choice between the SMART renewal and fixing the region’s crumbling roads.
It’s not an either-or scenario. The reality is, the increases that would result from the proposal passing are miniscule. Residents who own a home valued at $200,000 in Macomb County are looking at a whopping 78 cents extra per year over current levels, and $1.37 more each year in Oakland County. For voters in Wayne County who already pay the full 1-mill levy, there would likely be no change in their SMART tax levy.
Voting no also does nothing to fix our Third-World roads. The two are separate issues, and neither cancels out the other.
Claims that public transportation is somehow rendered obsolete by ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, or by the dawn of self-driving vehicles, are absurd. Let’s be honest: Uber is great, but it’s a privilege available to people of means who are comfortable using technology. It has nothing to offer seniors who don’t use smartphones, the poor or disabled people who need wheelchair access. As for the latter? Well, consider the fact that Congress still hasn’t been able to pass legislation governing autonomous vehicles. And think about the problems leading companies like Uber and Tesla have had with their own autonomous or semi-autonomous programs. Bottom line: the technology isn’t ready.
Detroit is seeing levels of investment and economic wins the likes of which your Daily Detroit team has never seen in their lifetimes. But the need for economic development remains massive, and it hardly stops at 8 Mile Road. We see plenty of examples of older suburbs falling into blight and disinvestment.
SMART has demonstrated sound fiscal stewardship and impressive operational improvements. It’s far from perfect, or comprehensive, but it’s the region’s best option for getting people to and from jobs. Cutting off funding now would be the worst kind of self-inflicted economic wound.
Vote yes on renewing the SMART millage Aug. 7.