Auburn Hills votes to withdraw from SMART bus service | Michigan News | Detroit
For the past two years, Christina Cowart has relied on the bus to get to her job retailing 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 huge mall, a 20-minute, 8-mile ride.
“I come here and take this bus to earn 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 the Auburn Hills City Council votes to fund its existing public transit service. The council voted 5-2 on Monday to withdraw from the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority (OPTA), which coordinates public transit for communities in Oakland County.
In doing so, the city opted out of service provided by the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), with which OPTA agrees to provide service to 24 of the 61 communities in Oakland County that “opt in.” for the service. SMART is the only regional transit provider in the metro area, connecting to Detroit’s bus system and services in other cities, with more than 4 million trips recorded in 2021, according to the American Public report Transportation Association on Federal Transit Authority ridership data.
The decision means Auburn Hills will no longer fund SMART service beginning in early 2023, likely eliminating bus routes and stops in the city. OPTA contracts with SMART on a four-year basis, which means that each community that has chosen to participate must make its decision to stay or leave every four years.
The Auburn Hills City Council also approved a resolution Monday to place a new property tax mile on its Aug. 2 ballot to replace the 0.986 mils it now assesses for residents to pay for SMART. A new 0.5 mil would generate about $900,000 to fund a new daytime, weekday-only transportation service for seniors and adults with disabilities that would be run by the city, replacing about $1.6 million in spending for SMART services.
A city committee tasked with studying transportation options recommended pulling out of SMART and asked the city attorney to draft the wording for the resolution last week. More than 25 people, including residents of Auburn Hills and other towns 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 board to vote to stay with SMART. A letter signed by Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter, Oakland University President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, and leaders of Beaumont, the Detroit Regional Chamber and four companies with Auburn Hills footprints has was sent Monday to board members, urging them to reconsider their withdrawal from SMART. .
Auburn Hills Mayor Pro Tem Robert Kittle, who voted in favor of SMART’s withdrawal resolution, said the ridership numbers don’t justify the cost of staying with the service. According to data provided to the city by SMART, a total of 353 rides were recorded Monday through Friday in October 2019. Systemwide, SMART ridership is down significantly from pre-pandemic levels.
“From the sound, you’d think you’d see people swinging from bars on SMART buses with everyone rolling around,” Kittle said during the reunion, noting he was “torn torn” by the decision. “Numbers don’t justify what we hear. There are people using it, there are people needing it. We don’t want to put people in a bad situation. But what is the right way? ”
Auburn Hills officials cited poor service, poor communication and cost-benefit analysis as reasons for ending its relationship with OPTA and SMART. They were particularly concerned about broken down paratransit buses serving seniors, delayed repairs and a general lack of responsiveness from SMART maintenance staff.
“It’s not about the money. It’s about the quality of service and our expectations,” Kittle said. “I want public transport as much as anyone, but I want a healthy and viable solution.”
Among those who spoke at Monday’s meeting was Pontiac Councilman 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 Oakland Community College, where he earned an associate’s degree.
“By getting rid of SMART, you’ll affect people who will lose their jobs, people won’t be able to afford housing,” Goodman said. “You’re essentially crippling entire groups of people who won’t be able to go to work in your own town anymore.”
Pontiac City Council has adopted a resolution on Feb. 8 urging Auburn Hills to stay with SMART. Pontiac Mayor Tim Greimel said many of his city’s residents depend on the service to get to school and work and called on Auburn Hills officials to work together to address the ” challenges” from SMART.
Auburn Hills residents have voted in favor of SMART mileage by more than 73% margin three times since 2010. But the council has the discretion to opt out of SMART without a people’s vote.
Oakland University and the Auburn Hills campus of Oakland Community College are located in the city, as are major employment centers of Great Lakes Crossing, Stellantis, and several automotive industry suppliers. The daytime population more than doubles in the city, with more than 52,000 daily trips. The bus stop at Great Lakes Crossing serves as a transfer for the Flint Metropolitan Transit Authority, connecting Flint residents to the Detroit area.
Auburn Hills Councilmen Brian Marzolf and Eugene Hawkins voted against the opt-out and replacement mileage. “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 has indicated his interest in seeking a solution before the decision takes effect next year. “For me, the opt-out solution to this is to try to start a conversation,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the bus service will stop tomorrow – it will continue until early 2023. I think if we get the right people to the table and start a conversation, maybe we can improve something that doesn’t work very well today.”
For decades, Oakland County leadership showed little interest in supporting regional public transportation. With the death of longtime Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and the new Democratic leadership, that equation could change. “For the first time in Oakland County history, we have a pro-transit majority on the Board of Commissioners, a pro-transit executive, and a pro-transit transit authority,” said Oakland County Commissioner David Woodward.
The county administration has begun work in recent months on a transit solution that will integrate several smaller transit authorities across the county, according to Woodward. This includes the North Oakland Transit Authority, Rochester’s Older Persons Commission, and the fledgling 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 or not to renew its SMART mileage this year, which is levied on county residents in addition to city miles.
“I think we have created an opportunity to bring together all stakeholders, providers and communities to push forward an issue of how to ensure we get patients to healthcare, workers to jobs, students to school and seniors where they want to go when they want to go and not be limited to reduced and substandard transportation services,” Woodward said, noting that the county is looking to Macomb for ideas on how to perform county-wide transit.
In the short term, Greimel said the next step for Pontiac will be to try to organize some sort of transit option for its residents who need to commute to Auburn Hills for school and work.
“Maybe we could do something in partnership with Auburn Hills, to try to facilitate some transit options between Pontiac and Auburn Hills as a stand-alone partnership between the two cities,” he said.
Cowart said she didn’t know what she would do to keep her job after SMART service ended in Auburn Hills. She said she couldn’t afford ride-sharing 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 don’t have a plan B,” she said. “I have to work. I take the bus. I can’t go in person and talk about my track.”
The story was co-published with Planet Detroit.
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