Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Time to go big on Regional Cooperation

When I read that Brooks Patterson had pulled his support for a ballot proposal to raise property taxes to support mass transit, I was disappointed yet not surprised.  Sure, Brooks doesn't represent the views of all or even necessarily a majority of Oakland County voters.  Brooks was simply appealing to the fiscal rationality of property owners in his county, a majority of which do not leverage mass transit today nor would leverage it tomorrow with the expansion of bus service, the centerpiece of the proposals put forth by the RTA. 

It's not even clear that those voters would tax their own property to pay for better roads despite the fact that our roads and bridges continue to deteriorate.  Metro Detroiters won't bat an eye when given the opportunity to complain about potholes or the cost to repair their car or the threat poor road conditions pose to their personal safety, but when it comes to using property taxes to pay for better transportation, most voters want those tax dollars spent as close to their home as possible - on their local roads, their schools, and their police and fire.

Hundreds of thousands of Metro Detroiters drive across county lines each day for work.  Tens of thousands more travel across counties on the weekends to go to dinner and see a concert or sporting event in Detroit, to shop at Somerset in Oakland County or Partridge Creek in Macomb County, to see a concert at DTE Energy Music Center in Oakland County, to get on a plane at Detroit Metro Airport in Wayne County, or to go to a football game in Ann Arbor or Lansing.  Despite our tendency to identify ourselves by our actual city, most of us actually live regionally.  Most people don't think twice about the cost to access the market for restaurants, shopping, sporting events, concerts, or even to visit family and friends that live on the other side of town.  Even fewer think about the cost involved with delivering the food to that restaurant or the goods to the mall or the gas to the gas station we need to stop at to make sure we make it back home.  Even fewer think of the costs of transporting the goods that they order from Amazon.com.

But there is a cost to accessing the people and things we want to consume, and unfortunately, the costs to access those things isn't being accounted for, resulting in deteriorating roads.  Worst is that we have allowed sprawl to go unchecked in our region, resulting in more roads and infrastructure to maintain and repair.  In some cases, we paid for major infrastructure to access a new shopping center only to see that strip mall close, leaving crumbling concrete boxes dotting our landscape.

To make matters worse, we happen to live along a major trade corridor between Canada and Mexico, and we allow overweight vehicles to pass through the state and degrade our roads without paying the full cost of using those roads. 

So, to put myself in the mindset of the average property owner and taxpayer, why would I want to pay higher taxes on my house to pay for roads I may never use?  The same argument can be made for transit by folks who live in Armeda or Clarkston who may never use that transit system they would being paying for through their property taxes. 

Yet, those same residents in Armeda or Clarkston might drive down to a few Tigers or Lions games a year in Detroit.  Some of them might even work in Detroit.  They might drive to Metro Airport to catch a flight and take their family to Florida during our gray, cold winters.

Residents of Detroit commute out of Detroit into Oakland County and Macomb County for shopping and jobs too.

As for me, I live in Grosse Pointe in Wayne County.  My closest Costco is in Macomb County.  The closest Apple Store is in Oakland County.  My favorite restaurants are in Detroit.  I split season tickets to Michigan football, so I find myself in Ann Arbor at least 3 or 4 times each fall.

So if you want folks to begin paying for the true cost of accessing the things they want, leverage a sales tax which doesn't penalize you for where you live, but does tax you for what it costs to access the goods you want.

Years ago, the voters in and around Denver voted to tax themselves .5% to build a modern transit system.  To make the math simpler, that's a quarter more (25 cents) on a $50 restaurant tab. 

In Michigan, cities and counties don't have the ability to raise a local option sales tax.  This is not allowed according to the Michigan constitution.  So even if we wanted to raise a regional sales tax to pay for transit or even roads, we couldn't.  For a region that is proud of its heritage, it's sad that we don't have all the tools at our disposal to build regional assets.

What may be worse, however, is that Michigan "home rule" has resulted in three county executives and a mayor that aren't even legally bound to work together with one another.  Whereas other regions like Minneapolis have leaders elected at a regional level to a regional body, we still allow geographic borders to determine our regional destiny.  Instead, we have SEMCOG, a body not elected by people, but by mayors and supervisors from governments that choose to participate and fight for the limited transportation resources we have.

This isn't to say that the ability to raise a regional sales tax or have a regionally elected transportation and planning body is the solution for our regional dysfunction.  Our auto companies are also vested in mobility and exporting the next generation of mobility options - autonomous vehicles and shuttles - to the market as well.  There is a grand opportunity in Metro Detroit to forge a truly public private partnership to deploy and export new transportation options to the U.S. and the world.  And this opportunity doesn't have to pit transit against auto mobility or Oakland and Macomb against Wayne and Washtenaw.  It can work for all residents of this region and other metro regions in our state.

What's clear is that the taxation and government model we have here is not working to serve regional interests, and the "big 4" getting together on a stage at a pancake breakfast to joke about our regional dysfunction is no longer funny. 

My proposal?  Create a regional elected entity with authority over transportation, infrastructure, and land use planning.  Levy a sales tax that goes not to just transit or roads but transportation sustainability that promotes efficiency and quality over sprawl and exclusive dependency on the automobile.   

It's time to change the conversation on transportation in Metro Detroit.  It's time to go big and revolutionize how we cooperate as a region and compete as a region against other regions for employers like Amazon.  It's time to quit fighting each other and scrapping for limited resources and instead build something together.  In a region with people known for their endurance and innovation, anything is possible if we work together. 

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