Oakland County leaders give voters bad directions on RTA

Oakland County leaders give voters bad directions on RTA
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Opinion by Nat Zorach

“Transit myths,” Deputy Oakland County Executive Gerald Poisson’s recent guest column in the Daily Tribune, excoriating Warren Evans’ regional transit millage proposal, raises some interesting questions – and should raise some eyebrows when we consider Southeast Michigan’s future.

Poisson mocks the idea of spending money on transit, as his boss L. Brooks Patterson has in the past, pointing out that Orion and Independence Townships will “lose” what works out to $24 and $38 per capita per year, respectively, from Regional Transit Authority (RTA) millage funds. Poisson essentially suggests that some big gubmint bandit – who looks suspiciously like the City of Detroit – would be robbing honest Oakland County residents of their hard-earned dough, under Evans’ plan.

What is missing from this argument?

Beyond Poisson’s tone, which isn’t exactly a great starter for multi-lateral problem-solving, and an obsession with the, frankly, absurd notion that Detroit gets a free ride on everyone else’s hard work, Poisson embraces an outdated mentality. He seems to think of public transit as some sort of mythical beast that can’t live in the regional habitat that is Southeast Michigan.

It’s well-documented that transit accessibility results in lower costs of living for everyone, not just people like me, who gave up their cars. AAA Michigan estimates that car ownership costs drivers an average of about $8,500 per year. Compare that to $834 per year for a SMART regional bus pass, plus that $38 in taxes Poisson is so upset about.

It’s also well-documented that increased mobility options improve health outcomes and encourage more active living, something we could use in a state where obesity rates have nearly tripled over the last generation. Further, reduced traffic congestion decreases air pollution and the strain of using overtaxed infrastructure, but Poisson and Patterson have unilaterally dismissed this evidence.

It’s a fact that metro Detroit’s per capita transit spending is far less than that of municipalities that routinely beat us in economic progress. We’ve all heard that Amazon cited Detroit’s limited transit options as a reason we didn’t make the short list of candidate cities for its new headquarters. GM and Ford (and most leading employers, frankly) are in favor of an expanded regional transit system because they realize the future of mobility is complex – and critical for talent attraction and retention.

Beyond that, we need to look at transit spending in the context of overall transportation spending. Is the RTA, quite literally, highway robbery? Take the billion-dollar boondoggle that is the I-75 widening, which officials from numerous adjacent municipalities have openly opposed, as an example. Combined with the $3 billion I-94 modernization it will cost Michiganders about $25 per capita per year until the projects are both finished, decades from now (not including congestion delays, of course).

For every Michigander, MDOT currently has nearly $150 in outstanding bonded debt (and the roads are still a disaster). Again, compare that to the $24 to $38 per capita in increased tax load for Orion and Independence Townships that Poisson is up in arms about!

In the office of the executive, an abundance of hard facts are met with an unwillingness to use them toward constructive ends. Poisson and Patterson should consider their electorate, which, Poisson says, has “measurable value.” The original RTA vote lost not by a landslide but by a razor-thin margin.

Of course, the Evans plan is not a panacea. We need concerted efforts to address rural mobility in areas that suffer from limited options but also pay higher per capita rates for infrastructure because of their low density (para-transit and dial-a-ride services that are extraordinarily costly on a per-passenger-mile basis). We could also modernize the way the state’s Comprehensive Transportation Fund has operated with few revisions since its inception in the 1950’s, or the way the Michigan Constitution of 1963, written at the zenith of the automotive paradigm, restricts transportation funding.

It’s time to have these conversations. By refusing to, and by cultivating this sort of sneering “My way or the extraordinarily potholed highway” tone, the Oakland Executive’s team is doing a disservice to their electorate and to the future of the region.

Editor’s Note: We encourage opinion submissions, which represent the unique and independent positions of our guest writers. If you would like to submit an opinion piece, please contact publisher Jackie Berg at: jackie@thehubdetroit.com

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