SMART Millage Plan Sparks Debate

Friday, April 11, 2014

By Chris McCarus

Hannah Kelly, Joel Batterman and the Rev. Joan Ross. They presented and led a workshop on Detroit's transit problems. The event was put on by the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion March 29, 2014.

SMART Millage Plan Sparks Debate by WDET

Public transit in and around Detroit is bad.

62% of Detroiters commuted out to the suburbs or even farther…according to the Federal Reserve Bank.

Here’s another statistic: According to This is the most expensive state for car insurance. The Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion wants all this to change. They talked about transit and racism March 29 at Cobo Hall. Teenager Kenneth Davis said this:

“There’s a big chance that you’re not going to get hired if you put on your job application that you rely on public transportation. There are two things technically in Detroit that are messed up. That’s transit and Michigan has the highest insurance in the country. So when you have those two things that are horrible it hinders people being able to get jobs. If you don’t have transportation to get to a job you don’t have a job. If you don’t have a job you don’t have money.”

SMART is paid for by Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County taxpayers. Most of SMART’S 200 buses have been driven a half million miles or more. The Federal Transit Administration says that’s over the limit. Those buses should never drive again.

SMART wants to buy new buses. Voters could approve them in a millage this summer. Say you have a $200,000 house. You’re paying $60 a year now for SMART. The millage will increase that to $100 a year. “So I feel somewhat….” said Republican Commission Kathy Crawford of Novi.

“Guilty,” joked Republican Commissioner Bob Gosselin of Troy.

“Not guilty,” said Crawford embarrassed by Gosselin’s wisecrack. “No.” They were in a county committee meeting. They debated whether voters have the right to pay an extra $40 a year for SMART bus service.

“I just feel somewhat in a quandary about this because Novi is not really a bus friendly community. But I see tremendous growing need for transportation services.”

Novi voters decided to opt out of SMART a few years ago. Buses don’t stop in their town. Same with Northville, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester and Rochester Hills, Plymouth, Canton, Livonia and more. Macomb County however, got every community there to be part of SMART. No opting out.. Kathy Crawford helped improve dial-a-ride in Novi and seemed concerned for other towns too.

“The thing that’s disappointing to me about this whole issue is that this is a crisis. The buses have to be replaced or you can no longer operate. Correct?”

Crawford was asking John Hertel, General Manager of SMART who had presented his case to Oakland County. “You have to understand that for Southeast Michigan we have been gradually slipping into crisis mode for decades. I see those people standing at those stops I know that 70% of them are going to work. The other 30% are people that have special needs. They are going to school. They simply can’t afford an automobile. If we don’t provide this and you’re right then you are into a real crisis.”

In the last five years, SMART’s budget has shrunk because property values have shrunk. Oakland County dropped 30%. So there’s less tax money sent to SMART.

“I would really resent anyone not allowing this to happen, not allowing the people to speak.” Mattie Hatchett is a former school principal, Pontiac deputy mayor and current democratic commissioner. “So as an opt-in I am asking that we allow an opportunity to vote on the bill or not.” “Mr. Gosselin, quick,” said the chair of the meeting.

“Yeah but it’s an increase. Ok.” said Gosselin. He wants no chance for a tax increase. “It doesn’t matter,” Hatchett said. “Whether it’s an increase or not. Your voters will decide. They’re only asking that you to allow us to vote.”

Gosselin insisted.

“But Mattie the playing field is not level. They’re going to spend $10 to $20 million advertising one side of the issue and the other side won’t even be heard.” Gosselin was talking to Hatchett. But Hertel was still in the room at his microphone.

“We will never have that kind of money,” said Hertel.

Transit advocates wish Hertel had that much money for an ad campaign but don’t believe he has any. He didn’t return my phone call. Gosselin speaks for the other side, the most successful side. His bio page says he’s raised more than a $1 billion to expand expressways. While he’s defeated transit money for the suburbs to share with Detroit.

His page says: “transit legislation (DARTA) that would have levied up to $2 billion in new regional taxes to bolster Detroit’s corrupt, union-dominated transit system.” Meanwhile, back at the conference on transit and racism at Cobo Hall in Detroit, advocate Joel Batterman said:

“You know even the title of this session is transit we’re dealing with something more fundamental than that. It’s the freedom to move and participate as a citizen in this society.”

But just as the Oakland County republicans disagreed with one another, so did people at the conference. An African-American man protested and walked out of a session led by the Reverend Joan Ross.

“If you don’t want to look back at the past there’s no sense looking forward at the future.” Ross is the director of the NorthEnd Woodward Community Coalition.

We’re talking about the policies that have started from the very beginning, from slavery.” “I’m talking about right now, though,” said the man.

“And we are too,” said Ross. “If you’d sit down and listen you might learn that particular piece.”