News Hits: RTA faces uphill battle with tax hikes on the table

Since 2012, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has made an increase to funding to fix Michigan’s dilapidated roads a major priority. He’s said it’s paramount to the success of the state moving forward.

And after two years of intense debate that went nowhere, the recently re-elected governor finally led the Republican-led state legislature to a solution: They punted the issue to voters.

Under a deal that was approved at the eleventh hour by Lansing, in May, Michigan voters will be asked to increase the state’s sales and use tax from 6 percent to 7 percent. According to the preliminary proposal, the move would raise $1.2 billion for road repairs, $112 million for public transit and rail operations; about $95 million of that would come from increased vehicle fees and registration fees for heavy trucks.

While everyone agrees Michigan's roads resemble the Moon's cratered surface, there is a potential problem this immediately poses: In November 2016, the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (which launched a website last week — nearly two years after it was created), will ask voters to approve a tax increase to support public transit operations.

Not that News Hits wants to be the Debbie Downers in the room (though we typically do quite a good job at it), but the RTA garnering an affirmative vote for other transit options appears dicey when you take into consideration this region’s history: Metro Detroit carries plenty voters who are leery on additional tax hikes, and support for public transportation doesn’t move the needle among many residents across Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties.

What we know right now is that the RTA plans to support the construction of an estimated $500 million, 27-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Woodward Avenue between Pontiac and Detroit.

Such a plan certainly raises legitimate concerns, and we’d be remiss not to stress how effective high-speed commuter rail in the region can be; a proposed route between Ann Arbor and Detroit has stagnated for years. But the RTA could tackle a number of sensible items for transit riders in the region: For example, a universal fare card that can be used on every public transit system in the region.

And a failed vote in 2016 presents additional issues for the RTA because it has a budget that only has enough funds for the next two years.

The RTA's effort in 2016 at the ballot box — whether it's in the form of a property tax increase, registration fees, whatever — is, more or less, integral to the RTA's future success. Under state law, the RTA can only go to voter in the November general election every two years, so a "no" vote in 2016 would set the operation back until, at least, 2018.

The RTA plans to launch an education campaign over the next 18 months, once a master transit plan is in place. Still, November 2016 will be here before we know it — and right now, it's entirely unclear what voters will be asked to approve.

Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Transportation Riders United, says a sales tax increase to fix our roads isn't "ideal," but it's not "necessarily a deal killer." If the RTA puts together a solid plan, she says, and carefully explains to people what they're voting on, it shouldn't be a problem.

"I think people understand the need to have real transportation choices," Owens says. "So if it's clearly understood what the dollars are going for, and there's a strong plan for how to use them, then I think it's doable."

Tiffany Gunter, the RTA’s deputy CEO, says the authority sent a letter in support of the road funding package, as it included the first increase to public transit in over two decades.

“But we also know that it will not provide for any expansion of rapid transit service,” Gunter says. “That’s a distinction that the RTA has to make.”

She adds: “Right now, where we stand is, we must exercise our due diligence to make the case for rapid transit expansion.”

Under state law, the RTA can’t ask voters to approve a sales tax to support transit operations, Gunter says, so the ballot proposal will likely call for a property tax increase or registration fee hike.

But before that can take place, the RTA has work to do: To garner an affirmative vote in November 2016, Gunter says the RTA will launch a “very robust” community engagement effort next year. Feedback from the community meetings will be tied into a 20-year transit planning document that will explain what residents will get from the proposed tax on the ballot.

The RTA will likely select a consultant to put together that planning document by the end of January, Gunter says. “We have a lot of good background information we will be taking advantage of,” Gunter says. The plan will likely be completed over by early 2016, she says.

“We want to make sure that we hear from the citizens,” Gunter says, “so it’s a plan that they own, along with us.”