With time running out to put a regional transit tax on the November ballot, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan are heading in opposite directions.
At a discussion by the Big Four leadership on Tuesday, Hackel told the Detroit Economic Club audience that fixing roads should serve as the priority, not beefing up the bus system. Duggan countered that lack of quality public transportation is Metro Detroit’s biggest shortcoming, as evidenced by Amazon’s decision to bypass the Motor City in its search for a second headquarters site – a project that will create 50,000 jobs.
“I think as a region we’re taking a much too casual attitude on something that’s central to our competitiveness,” the mayor said. “If we don’t address it, we’re going to keep falling farther and farther behind. It’s being used against us by the other cities in the Midwest every single day.”
Hackel, who certainly knows his constituency, said advocates of a transit millage to fund the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) fail to understand voter sentiment.
“If I put out the RTA (millage), I am telling you that’s problematic because they are going to say to me… ‘fix our roads first,’” Hackel said. “So, I don’t know what it is that people don’t get when it comes to the voters. But the voters are sitting here saying ‘How do I trust you putting something else together that we’re not asking you for?’”
In November 2016, an RTA tax proposed for Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties failed by 1 percentage point, with Macomb County voters tipping the scales. That was a 1.2-mill plan that would have raised $4.6 billion over 20 years.
Among the Big Four, Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans favor another tax proposal for the upcoming November ballot; Hackel and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson remain skeptical, at best.
If a revised tax plan requires approval from the state Legislature, agreement among the Big Four may be needed in as little as 45 days.
At the packed Cobo Center luncheon, Hackel said Macomb County residents are satisfied with the modest Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) bus system and would be much more likely to support a millage for road improvements rather than for rapid transit buses. Potholes are the problem.
When the Macomb executive, relaying typical suburban fears, predicted Macomb could play the role of a “donor county” under an expanded mass transit system, Duggan jabbed back.
“Nobody is talking about taking the lion’s share of money out of Oakland and Macomb or western Wayne and putting it somewhere else,” he said.
Hackel also drew the ire of Evans when he suggested the region might profit more by waiting for the day when fleets of autonomous vehicles might serve as driverless public transportation for commuters.
“If we sit here waiting for the ultimate technology, I guess we’ll be waiting to fly like the Jetsons,” said the Wayne County executive, referring to the 1960s TV cartoon show that featured flying cars. “Nobody has that much time.”
Photo: Jeff A. Kowalsky/Detroit Economic Club