Auburn Hills votes to opt out of SMART bus service

Feb 22, 2022 at 2:22 pm
click to enlarge Pontiac resident Christina Cowart catches the bus to return home after work at Great Lakes Crossing on Monday. Hours later, the Auburn Hills City Council voted to opt out of SMART. - Nina Ignaczak
Nina Ignaczak
Pontiac resident Christina Cowart catches the bus to return home after work at Great Lakes Crossing on Monday. Hours later, the Auburn Hills City Council voted to opt out of SMART.

For the past two years, Christina Cowart has relied on the bus to get to and from her retail job selling baby clothes at the Great Lakes Crossing mall in Auburn Hills. The Pontiac resident takes the bus from the Phoenix Center to a bus stop on Baldwin on the west side of the massive mall, a 20-minute, 5-mile ride.

"I come out here and catch this bus to make money for my family," she said. "And I'm not the only one."

Cowart and other carless commuters like her may have no way to get to work next year after Auburn Hills City Council voted to defund its existing public transit service. Council voted 5-2 Monday to opt-out of the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority (OPTA), which coordinates public transit for Oakland County communities.

In doing so, the city opted out of service provided by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), with which OPTA contracts to provide service to the 24 of Oakland County's 61 communities that "opt-in" to the service. SMART is the only regional transit provider in the metro area, connecting to Detroit’s bus system and other cities’ services, with more than 4 million trips recorded in 2021, according to the American Public Transportation Association’s reporting of Federal Transit Authority ridership data.

The decision means Auburn Hills will no longer fund SMART service starting in early 2023, likely eliminating bus routes and stops in the city. OPTA contracts with SMART on a four-year basis, meaning every community that has opted in must make its decision to stay or go every four years.

Auburn Hills City Council also approved a resolution Monday to place a new property tax millage on its Aug. 2 ballot to replace the 0.986 mils it now assesses residents to pay for SMART. A new 0.5 mils would generate about $900,000 to fund a new daytime, weekday-only transportation service for seniors and disabled adults to be run by the city, replacing about $1.6 million in expenditures on SMART services.

A city committee tasked with studying the transportation options recommended opting out of SMART, and directed the city's attorney to draft the language for the resolution last week. More than 25 people, including residents of Auburn Hills and other cities who use the bus to get to work and school, attended Monday’s council meeting and spent more than an hour during a public comment session imploring the council to vote to stay with SMART. A letter signed by Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, and executives from Beaumont, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and four corporations with footprints in Auburn Hills was sent to Council members on Monday urging them to reconsider opting out of SMART.

Auburn Hills Mayor Pro Tem Robert Kittle, who voted to support the resolution opting out of SMART, said ridership numbers don't justify the cost of staying with service. According to data provided to the city by SMART, 9,353 rides total were recorded Monday through Friday in October of 2019. Systemwide, SMART ridership has declined significantly compared to pre-pandemic levels.

"From the sound of it, you would think you would see people swinging from the bars on SMART buses with everybody that's riding," Kittle said during the meeting, noting he was “torn” on the decision. "The numbers don't justify what we're hearing. There are people that use it, there are people that need it. We want to not put people in a bad situation. But what's the right path?"

Auburn Hills officials cited poor service, poor communication, and cost-benefit analysis as grounds for ending its relationship with OPTA and SMART. They were particularly concerned with broken paratransit buses that serve seniors, delayed repairs, and an overall lack of responsiveness on the part of SMART maintenance staff.

"This isn't about money. This is about the quality of service and what our expectations are," Kittle said. "I want public transportation as much as anybody, but I want a sound, viable solution."

Among those speaking at Monday's meeting was Pontiac Councilperson Mikel Goodman, who said SMART was a crucial service for him during high school and college. He used the bus to get from the city to jobs at Great Lakes Crossing and to travel to Oakland Community College, where he completed an associate's degree.

"By getting rid of SMART you will affect people who will lose their jobs, people will not be able to afford housing," Goodman said. "You are essentially crippling entire groups of people who will no longer have an option to go to work in your own city."

Pontiac's city council adopted a resolution on Feb. 8 urging Auburn Hills to stay with SMART. Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said a large number of his city’s residents rely on the service to get to school and work and called on Auburn Hills officials to work together to address SMART’s “challenges.”

Auburn Hills residents have voted to support the SMART millage by a margin of more than 73% three times since 2010. But the council has the discretion to opt out of SMART without a vote of the people.

Oakland University and Oakland Community College’s Auburn Hills campus are located within the city, as are major employment centers at Great Lakes Crossing, Stellantis, and multiple auto industry suppliers. Daytime population more than doubles in the city, with more than 52,000 commuting in on a daily basis. The bus stop at Great Lakes Crossing serves as a transfer for Flint's Metropolitan Transit Authority, connecting Flint residents to the Detroit region.

Auburn Hills Councilpersons Brian Marzolf and Eugene Hawkins voted against the opt-out and the replacement millage. "Our mission is to be stewards of a connected community. And how are we going to be a connected community if we don't have bus transportation that connects us to neighboring communities?" Marzolf said.

Kittle indicated an interest in pursuing a solution before the decision takes effect next year. "To me, the opt-out resolution for this is to try to get a conversation started," he said. "This doesn't mean that the bus service stops tomorrow — it's going to run into early 2023. I think if we get the right people to the table, and we start a conversation, maybe we can improve on something that isn't working very well today."

For decades, Oakland County's leadership had little interest in supporting regional public transportation. With the death of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and new Democratic leadership, that equation may be changing. “For the first time in Oakland County history, we have a pro-public transit majority on the Board of Commissioners, a pro-transit executive, and a pro-transit public transit authority,” Oakland County Commissioner David Woodward said.

The county administration has begun working in recent months on a transit solution that will incorporate multiple small transit authorities across the county, according to Woodward. That includes the North Oakland Transit Authority, Rochester’s Older Persons Commission, and the nascent West Oakland Transit Authority. SMART will likely be an important part of a countywide solution, he said. He said he expects a preliminary plan to be available for public review in the coming months. The county must decide whether to renew its SMART millage this year, which is levied on county residents in addition to city millages.

“I think we have created an opportunity to pull all stakeholders, providers, and communities together to advance a question about how to make certain that we get patients to health care, workers to jobs, students to school, and seniors where they want to go when they want to go and not be limited to reduced substandard transportation services,” Woodward said, noting that the county is looking towards Macomb for ideas on how to conduct transit on a countywide basis.

In the short term, Greimel said the next step for Pontiac will be to try to arrange for some kind of transit option for its residents who need to get to Auburn Hills for school and work.

"Perhaps there's something we could do in partnership with Auburn Hills, to try to facilitate some public transit options between Pontiac and Auburn Hills as just a standalone partnership between the two cities," he said.

Cowart said she's not sure what she will do to keep her job once SMART service ends in Auburn Hills. She said she cannot afford ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber. She would have liked to share her story with the Auburn Hills council, but had no way to get to the meeting.

"At this point, I haven't got a plan B," she said. "I have to work. I'm catching the bus. I can't go in person and speak my piece."

The story was co-published with Planet Detroit.

Correction: A previous version of this story reported that SMART recorded 353 rides in October 2019. That number was incorrect. In October 2019, SMART recorded 9,353 rides in Auburn Hills. We regret the error.

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