News

On the Ballot: SMART Asks Voters for a Millage Increase

July 29, 2014

By J. Carlisle Larsen



“It isn’t just the fact that we’ve lost so much money, we also are hurt by the fact that buses cost so much money and the FTA—the Federal Transit Administration—says that the appropriate life for a bus is 500,000 miles."

—John Hertel, CEO SMART


Next Tuesday, SMART is asking voters to approve a millage increase to shore up the system’s finances. The authority was established in the mid-1990s and provides bus services to Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. Right now, the millage is .59, but SMART would like it rounded up to 1-full mil. CEO John Hertel says, it’s the first time they have requested a millage increase since 2002—and the reason they’re asking now is because the recession hit the system especially hard.


“Since 2008—because property values have gone down—the millage brings in a lot less money,” he says.

Hertel says of the 10 transit systems in the state—including those in Ann Arbor and Lansing—SMART has the lowest millage rate, serves more people, and covers many more miles. But he says the declining property values have led to a $50-million loss for the transit authority. Hertel says the organization has tried everything it can to bring down operations costs, including pay cuts to all 850 employees—including himself—and trimming benefits. He says in addition to keeping an employed work-force, the organization desperately needs to replace buses.


“It isn’t just the fact that we’ve lost so much money, we also are hurt by the fact that buses cost so much money and the FTA—the Federal Transit Administration—says that the appropriate life for a bus is 500,000 miles,” he says.

Each of the buses SMART needs costs about half a million dollars. Hertel says SMART has been pushing each bus well beyond its recommended lifespan—with some exceeding 700,000 miles. That means high maintenance costs. Hertel says if the millage increase fails, SMART will begin deficit spending—which by law it cannot do. This would put the service out of business by the end of 2015. If that happens, Hertel says it will have wide-ranging consequences throughout Southeast Michigan.


“Seventy percent of the people that ride SMART are riding SMART to get to work. Now you’re talking about an absolute essential for these people, and if we’re not operating, how are they going to get to work? Now that’s not only about them, it’s about their employers. That’s about the entire economy here,” Hertel says.


But some local lawmakers don’t agree. Robert Gosselin is an Oakland County Commissioner—representing the 11th district. When SMART originally approached the commissioner this Spring, Gosselin was one of the few to vote against putting the millage proposal on the primary ballot. He disagrees with SMART’s assertion that it needs an increase and will stop running without it.


“I’ll disagree with John. It isn’t going to go away. They never go away. If they don’t get it, they’ll have to reboot the system—so to speak. Pension, pay, and perks. And how many buses are driving around there empty,” Gosselin argues the rebounding economy makes the millage increase unnecessary. “The values of the properties are going up. Does SMART really need the increase? They’re going to automatically see an increase by property values and tax corrections.”


Gosselin contends that millages for SMART, the DIA, and other entities infringe the lives of taxpayers. He says taxes of any kind lessen the buying power of families.


“And the burden of taxes on taxes from all the different authorities are gonna take the system down, because the taxpayer—it’s too much weight on them to keep on giving, giving, giving,” he says.


"It isn’t going to go away. They never go away. If they don’t get it, they’ll have to reboot the system—so to speak..."

—Robert Gosselin, Oakland County Commissioner


Gosselin and SMART leaders may disagree on the need for more funding—but among SMART riders, there is an overwhelming consensus that the system is vital to their daily lives. Ferndale resident Kelly Ramirez takes the bus into downtown Detroit a couple of times a week to help her husband with his business. She says voting for the millage is an easy decision, “I think they should have the millage. I think they should have the vote. And I’d definitely vote for it, because the SMART transportation is very important to me.”


Ramirez isn’t alone. Antonio Bufford rides SMART from his home on the west side of Detroit to his job in Midtown. He says he takes SMART because it comes more regularly and is more reliable than Detroit city buses. He echoes John Hertel’s sentiment that if SMART stopped providing service, it could hurt families in the city


“That’s a service that people really depend on, really a lot of people for…job-wise, family-wise, just for the purpose of getting around town. You know, I’m saying. A lot of people don’t have vehicles like that, like a person like me,” he says.


Bufford says he’d rather see D-DOT funding get cut over SMART, or a merger of the systems. SMART CEO John Hertel says until the new Regional Transit Authority becomes better established, his agency will continue to serve the region until it runs out of funding. Residents of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties will vote on the SMART millage question on August fifth.


—J. Carlisle Larsen, WDET News


Photos | J. Carlisle Larsen