Video: Panel Shares Stories of People Using Public Transit
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Oct. 18, 2022)
Southfield, MI – In advance of a county-wide proposal to fund public transit, Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter visited Southfield Public Library with a panel of people who rely on transit to help demonstrate the ways access to transit can change lives.
Currently transit in Oakland County is a patchwork of services, with SMART (Suburban Mobility for Regional Transportation) providing fixed route services and some Flex services, mainly in the Southern portion of the county, with some contracts in other communities for limited services geared towards seniors and those with disabilities. Other communities have groups that similarly serve those clienteles, but do not offer fixed route services or rides for everyone or take riders beyond their borders.
The Oakland Transit Millage Proposal aims to bring those groups together to create a more comprehensive system. If passed voters in the Nov. 8 election, the cost of improving the system would be shared by all communities without an opt-out option. It would mean bus service for cities like Novi and Rochester Hills who currently opt-out of the SMART system. It would also provide funding to the smaller transit organizations – North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA), Western Oakland Transportation Authority (WOTA), and Older Persons Commission which serves the Rochester area. These organizations would receive a share of the new funding to develop transit solutions that make sense for their geographic areas, and help them connect their riders to the larger SMART system, which also includes Wayne and Macomb Counties.
The 0.95 mil proposal is a ten year millage that would raise $66.1 million in the first year. For the owner of a $100,000 home, the cost would be just under $50 a year. It’s a cost that Executive Coulter and fellow transit advocates say is small compared to the impact a quality transit system can have on the region’s economy, and on people’s lives.
Lukas Lesecki is a student at Oakland Community College. He lives in Farmington Hills and rides the bus five days a week to classes at the school’s Orchard Ridge Campus. “It saves me from having to expend money to buy, maintain, insure, buying fuel for a car of my own,” Lesecki said. “It saves me the stress of driving. And I feel like a lot of people don’t realize how it is to see a lot of interesting things. You don’t have to have your eyes on the road. You can look around and find things you never knew were there.
Not only is Lesecki concerned about his own ability to get to classes, he’d like to everyone in the county have access to educational opportunities and jobs they might otherwise be isolated from if they don’t have a vehicle or can’t drive. He also sees firsthand how hard it is for people who work in communities without transit.
“There are a lot of people who work at 12 Oaks Mall, at 12 Mile and Novi Road, who go through the same commute every day. Every day on my 740, my 12 Mile bus, I see eight to ten people on their way who get out, make that two and a half, three mile walk to get to their jobs, all because Novi doesn’t have service.”
Kermit Williams is the Director of Oakland Forward and the former Council President in the City of Pontiac. While his community and his organization see the benefits of transit, the issue is even more personal to him.
“My mother is my she-ro,” Williams said. “She has cerebral palsy, and worked two jobs most of my life, and never had a vehicle. she was working on Telegraph on the Marshall’s that was in the Tel-12 Plaza, and she worked there for about eight years. They moved the Marshall’s that she was working at out to Highland Michigan and so in order for her to get to Highland, because there was no bus services, because that was an opt out community at the time, it cost her almost $50 a day to take a cab in order to go there. She worked there for about a month and had to retire because she couldn’t afford to do it. So she had to tap in early t her 401k and it really sent her in a spiral because she wasn’t able to commute.”
“It’s really not only heart-breaking, but it is really taking people out of a viable economy,” he added.
Like William’s mother, the issue of transit isn’t just about getting from place to place, it’s about freedom and independence. Without transit options, older adults and those with disabilities must either rely on family members to drive them places, or they simply are stuck. As more and more people live longer lives, the need for services for older adults continues to grow. Transit gives safe option for mobility, and a system that means individuals can be independent.
Pamela Campbell was among the panelists. At the age of 70 she is still interested in getting out in the world, but is unable to drive due to a disability. She uses SMART services to go shopping, to visit friends, and to go to doctor’s appointments. Even the simple task of going to make copies to turn in for assistance programs requires a bus ride. Without transit, she said, she might not be able to keep up with the paperwork needed, and could loose her disability benefits.
Others on the panel shared their experiences helping others navigate transit systems. Lauren Baker helps people though her role in the Disability Network of Eastern Michigan, including training them on how to use the bus to access jobs, counseling, medical appointments and more. “We work at Disability Network to help people be as independent as possible. And by teaching them to ride public transit that offers them just a whole world of possibilities,” Baker said. “It’s just really nice once they’ve learned how to do it that they can get where they need to go.
There is some opposition to the plan, with the main objection being financial. County Commissioner Bob Hoffman, who represents NW Oakland County communities including Highland and Holly, attended the panel discussion to point out that while the cost on a $100,000 home made be just under $50 per year, that cost is higher for those with larger properties, particularly large farms.
Another concern often shared in the small towns and rural areas of northern Oakland County is that the system won’t benefit them. When Oakland County Times asked about this concern, Coulter replied “You’ll be able to go to not just local services in your community, you’ll now be connected to a comprehensive transit system in Oakland County. But if you eventually get on a SMART bus, anywhere in Macomb and Wayne Counties as well. Your community will now be connected. But in addition we have abilities in this millage to enhance the door-to-door services, the reservation, the app-based services that frankly aren’t always able to be provided under the current cost structure of some of the Northern and Western services, because this millage would completely cover the entire cost of the current existing services and offer these additional enhanced services as well.
“So that’s the idea for folks that are either currently in one of the other three non-SMART systems or not in a system at all. There’s a number of communities that have no transportation system at all available in Oakland County. And at the end of the day, every single community will be connected.”
Coulter added that Macomb County has been an all opt-in county for a decade. “So you can go from Romeo to St. Clair Shores. And that’s how it would be if voters decided to pass this millage.”
Oakland County has details of the proposal and the plan on their website, including an explanation of how funds will be distributed:
“Because this is an Oakland County millage, the final implementation plan will be collaboratively designed for Oakland County by residents, community and county leaders and organizations, transit providers and businesses.
“There will be full transparency with public meetings and oversight by the Board of Commissioners and County Executive. An annual audit will report on the spending, and key performance indicators will measure improvements.
“The millage is expected to generate $66.1 million in the first year. $33.3 million is expected to cover existing SMART service, $12 million would permit expanded routes to high-demand areas and $1.7 million would go to improvements including increased frequency on existing routes.
“In addition, the Board of Commissioners’ resolution set aside: $2 million to NOTA; $2 million to WOTA and $1 million to the OPC in the Rochester area.
“This would allow each of these transit providers to maintain and expand service, partner with neighboring communities, and create additional local transit solutions for their residents.
“Finally, the millage reserves $3.2 million for the expanded Reservation-based Service and $3.5 million for the expanded App-based Service.”
Those who want to learn more about the proposal can visit https://www.oakgov.com/OaklandTransit/Pages/default.aspx.