Asking voters for sales tax hike could be a detriment to regional public transit vote in 2016



Reports this morning indicate the state Legislature, after two years of intense debate that went nowhere, have decided to finally address how to fix our god-awful roads.

They will do this by ... punting to voters.

Michigan voters will be asked in May to approve increasing the sales tax from 6% to 7% to raise more than $1 billion more a year to fix Michigan's crumbling roads and bridges, provided the Legislature approves a deal being finalized by lawmakers and Gov. Rick Snyder, sources close to the talks told the Free Press today.

To get the measure on the ballot, lawmakers would have to give two-thirds approval to asking voters the question. That could still be a challenge in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

To be clear, and to stress that last point, the Republican-controlled legislature must pass this proposal to get it before voters in May. Considering our elected leaders repel at the notion of approving a tax hike themselves, it seems plausible that this will pass — and everyone can head home for the holidays declaring victory. 

According to the preliminary proposal detailed in numerous reports, voters would be asked to increase the sales and use tax to 7 percent; about $1.2 billion would be appropriated for road repairs, roughly $110 million would be spent on transit and rail operations. About $95 million of that would come in the form of increased vehicle fees and registration fees for heavy trucks. 

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

The problem? The issue appears dicey when you take into consideration voters who are leery on tax hikes, especially those who don't support public transit. Everyone wants to ensure our roads don't resemble Swiss cheese; not everyone in metro Detroit is onboard for efficient public transit. 

The RTA has plans to support the construction of an estimate $500 million 27-mile bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Woodward Avenue between Pontiac and Detroit. 

Such a plan certainly raises legitimate concerns, 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 transit system in the region.

With a budget that only has money set aside for the next two years, the RTA's effort in 2016 at the ballot box — whether it's in the form of a sales tax increase, registration fees, whatever — is, more or less, integral to the RTA's 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 whole 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 totally unclear what voters will be asked to approve.

Megan Owens, executive director of the Detroit-based nonprofit Transportation Riders United, said 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 said. "So if it's clearly understood what the dollars are going for, and here's a strong plan for how to use them, then I think it's doable." 

Requests for comment from the RTA were not immediately returned. 

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