Countywide transit millage moves closer to reality in Oakland County

·4 min read

Transit advocates could be about to get their wish in Oakland County.

County commissioners are scheduled to decide at their Wednesday board meeting on whether to put a 10-year countywide transit millage on the Nov. 8 ballot. If the board moves the measure forward as expected, voters would choose whether or not to end a patchwork approach to public transportation in metro Detroit’s second most populous county.

It would mark a dramatic shift in the conversation that swirled around metro Detroit transit earlier this year when the Auburn Hills city council voted to pull that community out of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation system, an effort later thwarted by a circuit court judge but which was seen as symbolic of the region's transit woes.

Megan Owens, executive director of the advocacy group Transportation Riders United, said it "would be the biggest transit expansion in decades” for metro Detroit if voters ultimately approve the measure. She acknowledged that there is still work ahead to make that happen. She said it's a matter of showing residents in areas not currently served by the SMART system the benefits of transit.

Commission Chair Dave Woodward, who has been working behind the scenes for months on the proposal, said the goal of the millage would be to make transit service accessible across the county, something that's not currently a reality.

“I think there’s a recognition that we need to provide a base level of service so that people who have no other options can get to the places they need and want to go, people who need to get to health care can get to health care, people who need to get to jobs can get to jobs,” said Woodward, D-Royal Oak. “It’s critical to our economy, it’s critical to quality of life. It’s really critical to resiliency across our county.”

The millage, which is expected to raise $66.2 million in the first year, would replace three existing transit millages, including the expiring SMART millage in areas where that's in place, and provide more than $20 million for new services, according to Woodward.

The 0.95-mill measure would fund the county's SMART service, the most visible transit system outside the city of Detroit, as well as the North Oakland and West Oakland transportation authorities and the Older Persons' Commission Transportation.

The millage would provide $37.9 million toward current transit service, with the bulk going to SMART, but Woodward said it would not be correct to say that all of the county would be within the SMART system.

However, the measure would eliminate so-called opt-outs in the county, jurisdictions that, for example, don’t participate in or provide property tax revenue to fund SMART. Having communities, including well-to-do locations such as Bloomfield Hills, that are located along major corridors but are not part of the transit system is one of its major impediments, according to transit advocates.

"The boundaries of whether we provide service to a person just because you live on the other side of the street in Oakland County goes away because all the dollars will be raised and then collected by Oakland County and then contracted for service," Woodward said.

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Instead of discussions about whether some communities should provide service, the countywide approach would move the conversation to how to improve transit everywhere in the county, Woodward said.

The measure, should commissioners pass it, isn't guaranteed approval by voters, but Woodward indicated he believes it will get enough support, describing it as an Oakland County plan to improve transit in Oakland County.

"What makes this different from past efforts is that it takes stake of what we have, what’s working, and taking what is working to scale," Woodward said.

The millage would earmark $20.4 million for new and improved service, including additional paratransit coverage and new microtransit areas, such as on-demand services, as well as new transit routes, according to information about the plan. It would also provide the local match funding that would allow Oakland County to tap into monies available through the federal bipartisan infrastructure law, according to Woodward. The plan would put $7 million toward capital improvements.

The board meets at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the commission chambers in Pontiac. Meetings are also scheduled to be aired on the commissioners' YouTube channel.

A transit town hall, hosted by Transportation Riders United and the city of Pontiac, is also scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at The Crofoot, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac.

Staff writer Christina Hall contributed to this report.

Contact Eric D. Lawrence: elawrence@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence. Become a subscriber.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Oakland County commissioners weighing countywide transit millage