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August 6, 2014

SMART millage increase passes in Macomb County

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

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Voters in Macomb County approved the SMART bus millage increase.

MACOMB COUNTY — Public bus transportation in metro Detroit will continue as Macomb County voters joined their peers in Oakland and Wayne counties in approving a millage increase for the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART).

In Macomb County, the numbers were strongly in favor of the SMART proposal, which called for increasing the authority’s millage rate from 0.59 mills to 1 mill over the next four years. More than 100,000 voters weighed in on the Aug. 5 proposal, with 60,138, or about 59.6 percent, voting “yes” and 40,747, or about 40.4 percent, voting “no.” The proposal passed by an even larger margin in neighboring Wayne and Oakland counties.

According to SMART spokesperson Beth Gibbons, “We’re thrilled that people across all three counties came out to support us by an average majority of 66 percent. The voters obviously understand the importance of the service that SMART provides for people throughout the region.”

She added that if the proposal had failed in any of the three counties, SMART’s service in that county would have ended starting next year.

From now through 2017, homeowners with a taxable value of $63,000 — the average taxable value for a Macomb County home — will pay an additional $26 per year in property taxes, according to calculations provided by the Macomb County Equalization Department. During the first year of the millage, this increase will generate an estimated $24 million in additional revenue for SMART, which has served residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties since 1995. The millage increase is expected to bring in $112 million of extra revenue over the course of its run.

Macomb County officials were excited, though not surprised, to see the SMART proposal garner such strong support across the county.

“I was pretty certain that it would pass here in Macomb County because our voters have a long history of supporting public transportation,” said County Executive Mark Hackel. “It’s really the only reliable public transportation system that we have have for our seniors, working people, college students and people with disabilities. So I think (voters) made the right choice here in doing what’s best for the future of Macomb County.”

Dave Flynn, chair of the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, pointed out that about 70 percent of SMART riders use the service to get to and from work, and another 20 percent use it to get to and from school. He also noted that SMART’s Gratiot Avenue line receives the highest ridership in its entire system, particularly along its lengthy stretch in Macomb County.

“SMART is extremely functional in the lives of Macomb County residents, so I’m happy to see that they came out to support this in such huge numbers,” Flynn said. “People in Macomb County have continually voted in favor of SMART not only because it provides transportation for so many people who depend on it, but because of how important SMART is to our social and economic base.”

SMART General Manager Hertel originally appeared before the Board of Commissioners in March to announce that SMART was seeking the millage increase, which the 13-member board later voted to place on the Macomb County ballot. He said that a 1-mill levy was needed to maintain SMART’s current services, as he was projecting a $21 million budget shortfall by 2018 without it. Hertel estimated that the authority lost about $48 million in tax revenue between 2008 and 2013 due to the region’s steep decline in property values. Therefore, he said, failure to increase SMART’s revenues could cause it to shut down entirely.

During the 2013 fiscal year, SMART provided more than 9.2 million rides for people in Macomb County along its fixed bus routes. It also served many more residents via its small bus “SMART Connector” service for seniors and people with disabilities, as well as its transit partnerships with local communities. Altogether,  the authority provides about 40,000 rides per day in metro Detroit, including roughly 14,500 in Macomb County.

However, Hertel indicated that SMART’s aging fleet of 40-foot buses badly needs to be upgraded. About 80 percent of its buses are over the mileage guidelines that the Federal Transit Administration allows. Hertel told the Board of Commissioners that SMART currently has 196 buses with more than 500,000 miles, 78 buses with more than 600,000 miles and six buses with more than 700,000 miles.

Now that the millage increase has been approved, Gibbons said, this is where the majority of SMART’s additional funding will be directed.

“We’re going to do what we said and start replacing our bus fleet, which is our biggest goal right now,” she explained. “We plan to replace about 135 fixed-route buses over the next three years. We hope to place these bus orders as soon as possible because they sometimes take a year or a year and a half before they’re ready.”

SMART serves all of Macomb County and portions of Oakland and Wayne counties. Oakland and Wayne are considered to be “opt-in” counties, as individual municipalities there can opt in — or out — of SMART transportation services. For instance, Oakland County currently has 23 opt-in communities and 35 opt-out communities.

The millage increase initially appeared to receive greater support in Oakland and Wayne counties, with the proposal gaining approval from about 63 percent of Wayne County voters and about 74 percent of Oakland County voters. Hackel pointed out, though, that this is because only the opt-in communities included the proposal on their ballots.

“Those percentages are a little misleading because Wayne and Oakland have so many opt-out communities,” he said. “We are the only county of the three that doesn’t have any communities that choose to opt out of SMART. If you look at the numbers, you’ll see that Macomb County actually had the most total votes (cast), even though our population is smaller than Wayne and Oakland.”

Flynn believes that SMART will play a key role in the future, especially in Macomb County, as officials continue to move forward with their plans for the new Regional Transit Authority (RTA). While the RTA’s plan is to install a rapid bus system along some of the busiest thoroughfares in metro Detroit, it would not include the many other roads that connect them.

“In the short term, our goal is for the Regional Transit Authority to establish rolling rapid transit along some of our major corridors,” Flynn said. “And that’s fantastic, but people also need to realize that we will still need a strong arterial transit network to bring people to and from those major corridors. That’s the role that SMART will continue to play as we move forward.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.