In Metro Detroit, SMART provides local and regional bus service for anyone who wants to ride, plus supplementary transportation services for seniors and people with disabilities. But the service is optional.
In Oakland County, almost two-thirds of the municipalities do not participate in SMART. Most of the places that opt out are located on the outer reaches of the county. The ones that opt in are located in the bottom southeast corner. Auburn Hills is geographically located right in the middle.
SMART has been popular in Auburn Hills, with more than 70% voting for it in recent elections. But a committee consisting of two council members and the city’s Senior Services director recently recommended that Auburn Hills get rid of SMART and replace it with its own weekday-only transit service just for seniors and adults with disabilities. This would end bus service in Auburn Hills for able-bodied people under the age of 60 as well as outside commuters. But it would save the city $65,000 a year and residents would pay about half as much money in taxes for public transportation, going from roughly 1 mill down to .5.
In a Facebook live video recorded by an attendee during the Monday meeting, a public commenter asks the council to think about what its vote will say about the city.
“Auburn Hills wants to be seen as inclusive. We don’t want to be seen as the insular selfish people that a lot of people in Detroit or Downriver think we are,” the commenter says.
Other commenters talk about how if the city opts out it will impact people looking to travel into the city to get to Great Lakes Crossing, Oakland University and to transfer to Flint’s bus service.
A couple dozen people speak during the public comment session, which lasts more than an hour. Every single one of them say they want to keep SMART.
Of the council members, Brian Marzolf is the first to weigh in. He brings up how Auburn Hills voters have consistently supported SMART.
“So why as a council would we want to jump in front of that, and take the vote away from the people of Auburn Hills? I don’t. And I don’t think this council should either,” Marzolf says.
Mayor Pro Tem Robert Kittle was one of the council members who sat on the committee that proposed opting out of SMART. He says it isn’t about the money — it’s about issues the city has encountered with SMART.
“We’ve had poor service, we’ve had broken vehicles, we’ve had the inability to get them serviced on a timely basis, we’ve had communication issues,” Kittle says. “And it goes on and on.”
When it comes time to vote, the council votes 5-2 in favor of opting out.
The morning after the meeting, a SMART bus pulls up to Great Lakes Crossing and three people get off. One of them is Sigalith Joseph.
She says she’s not happy about the city’s decision to opt out of SMART.
“I take the bus to work every day,” Joseph says. “I don’t drive. [The bus is] the only way I can go.”
Joseph says she could start taking a cab to work but it’s not going to be affordable. She says she hopes the service continues. When told SMART will stop in January, she says, “I see. I guess I have to look for a job somewhere else.”
But Joseph might not be completely out of luck. Macomb County votes for SMART service collectively as a county, rather than place by place. If Oakland County decided to do the same, and the majority of voters supported SMART, then the service would return to Auburn Hills and it might start in some of the other communities that currently abstain. Some advocates think the will for a countywide vote is there, but nothing has been formally introduced.