SMART General Manager John Hertel talks about the performance of the bus system over the past few years. SMART is looking for a millage renewal in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties during the Aug. 7 primary election.

SMART General Manager John Hertel talks about the performance of the bus system over the past few years. SMART is looking for a millage renewal in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties during the Aug. 7 primary election.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Voters will be asked to renew SMART millage in August

Officials concerned voters will confuse tax renewal with regional transit issue

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published May 25, 2018

METRO DETROIT — Voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties will vote on whether or not to renew, and slightly increase, the millage for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation during the Aug. 7 primary election.

Officials and SMART want to make sure that residents know this is a millage that has been in effect at some rate for around two decades, and it is not affiliated with the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan millage that was voted down in November 2016.

The tax renewal that will be on the ballot this August asks voters to approve a 1 mill property tax assessment to support SMART for the next four years. The proposal is a slight increase after the 1 mill that was approved in 2014 was rolled back to 0.9926 mills over the past four years.

In 2014, voters in the three counties approved an increase, going from 0.59 mills to 1 mill, with around 66 percent of residents voting “yes” across the three counties.

In November 2016, voters in Macomb and Oakland counties voted against the RTA millage of 1.2 mills that aimed to add high-speed transportation between Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

At a press conference May 22 outside the still-in-progress Amazon fulfilment center in Shelby Township, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he is worried that voters will confuse the SMART millage with the RTA millage they denied, but he wants voters to know they have always supported SMART.

“This is not the RTA; this is SMART,” Hackel said a number of times. “I am worried this may have an impact on this vote, and it shouldn’t. People in Macomb County trust where their money is going with SMART, and this is something you have always supported, whether it was a renewal or increase. You know what you are getting from SMART.”

Hackel was joined at the press conference by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and SMART General Manager John Hertel. The event was held outside the 1 million-square-foot Amazon building, as SMART is adding a new bus stop outside the facility this fall, with an opening of the facility targeted for September.

Patterson said the ability for SMART to add a new bus stop outside the Amazon facility is further proof that SMART is the only regional transit system needed in metro Detroit. Patterson said the RTA is a “glorified SMART” and is not needed.

“We need to be flexible enough to outdo the RTA, and SMART has the flexibility we need in any transportation system,” he said. “The RTA is bringing nothing more than more routes. It is not a subway, it is not light rail, it is another bus system, and this system (SMART) is working very efficiently.”

Both Patterson and Hackel said they supported a regional transit system before any plan was put in place, but they both said they were not fans of what was put in front of voters in 2016.

Hertel said the 47 routes that SMART has operating service nearly 70,000 businesses that account for around 850,000 jobs. He said 70 percent of SMART riders are going to work, while the other 30 percent are going to school or other places they can’t get to without the public transportation system.

Communities can opt out of being part of the SMART system by law, Patterson said, and Oakland County has 24 communities that are part of the system, and 38 that have opted out in the past. All 27 communities in Macomb County are part of the system, Hackel said.

Hertel said SMART is talking with three communities in Oakland and Wayne counties, which he said he could not name, about opting into the system. But Hertel said he thinks the system works great as it is, and he hopes voters “vote with their pocketbooks” in August.

“We need to know people are aware that the SMART millage in August is not something else,” he said. “We need to continue to provide a regional service to get people to jobs, to hospitals and places they otherwise can’t get to.”

The RTA, meanwhile, continues to collect input and put together a plan that it believes would be more appealing to residents in the metro Detroit area. In March, the Connect Southeast Michigan proposal was brought in front of the RTA board; it lays out plans for new bus lines, airport express service and a commuter rail connecting Ann Arbor and Detroit.

“The RTA is the only agency that would provide a comprehensive 20-year transportation solution that connects our region, allowing transit to be provided on more routes and better service across county lines, once and for all,” said RTA spokesperson Mario Morrow.

With the question of whether or not a regional transit system is needed in metro Detroit, Hackel said he believes SMART is the only system needed, because the bus system is adaptable and flexible to help get people where they live and work.

Hackel singled out Fraser, as SMART jumped in to help provide transportation for seniors when the city struggled to pay for it.

Macomb County offered the biggest pushback toward the RTA millage in 2016, with 60 percent of voters going against the millage. Hackel said that is proof that Macomb County residents are happy with what they have now, and he hopes that is reflected at the polls in August.

“I don’t see the RTA moving forward, and if the conversation to do so continues, it puts this millage at risk,” Hackel said. “If folks vote ‘no’ in August, where does that put us with transit? I know (SMART) is the system that can provide all the solutions.”