Wayne County Executive Warren Evans showed strong support for a November millage election to raise funds for a regional transit plan. The executive spoke at a “State of Transit” event hosted by the advocacy group, Transportation Riders United.
Last month, regional transit was the focus of a conversation between the “Big Four” – the Detroit Mayor, along with the executives from Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties – at a discussion that happened at Cobo Center. The issue has been a big topic of conversation in the region after Amazon cited it as one of the reasons the company did not choose Detroit in its top 20 list of potential places for a new headquarters.
In 2016, voters in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw voted down a millage that would have funded a regional transit plan including creating a commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit, a regional fare card and additional cross-county buses. [See map of proposed plan]. To pass, the millage needed a majority of voters in the collective counties, but it lost by less than 1 percent. The proposal almost did not make it onto the 2016 November ballot after waffling support from leaders in Oakland and Macomb Counties months prior to the election.
Here is the full transcript from Executive Evans’ remarks at the transit event Wednesday:
It’s good to see all of you here. Transit Riders United is an advocacy group that we need to have about 10 times as many members if we’re going to get some things done the way we need to get them. Nonetheless it’s important.
When I say some of these things don’t think I fell off the turnip truck. I understand I’m preaching to the choir. But it still needs to be said that we are a region that is woefully behind and has been behind forever with respect to how we approach transit. Over the decades there have been different reasons for that, some of them above the surface that we all like to talk about, some of them below the surface, and we’re really ashamed to talk about. But those issues are there. And we as a region are not getting any closer to the reality of being what we can really be until we do want transit.
…we are a region that is woefully behind and has been behind forever with respect to how we approach transit. Over the decades there have been different reasons for that, some of them above the surface that we all like to talk about, some of them below the surface and we’re really ashamed to talk about.
So, let me just give you a little bit of an update. And, by the way, I think this idea that transit kind of stands alone in people’s minds – not yours, but in other people’s minds – is a problem. Transit is a part of all the growth that you’re seeing now. As we come downtown and we see the economic development opportunities, we see all those things that are, in a large part, millennial-driven.
While people a lot of the times think that our reasons [to be] against transit is, “I’m not sure we want to [take] all those poor folks [to] jobs out in our suburbs” – you’ve all heard that story before. I’m not co-signing. I’m just saying you’ve heard that story.
There’s another story that is millennials, now that live in some of the suburban communities, want to come downtown. Things are happening downtown. It will continue to be that way. And at some point a lot of those folks are going to be faced with whether or not their kids actually stay in the suburbs. With transit they can come downtown and go back. They can come downtown and [text] and do all the things that they want to do, not driving. Or they can get into that issue of driving downtown, paying $50 for parking, by the end, and taking half of their time… and they’re gonna move down here.
And so some of those northern suburbs are actually going to lose people, just because of the lack of transit. I’m not saying that as a threat, I’m just saying it as a reality. If you look over a long period of time [there’s a movement] of people to cities and away from cities. And back to cities. And that’s something that we’ve got to look at.
Amazon, I think, was a serious case study in what this region doesn’t have. And people can talk about all of the reasons, but clearly transit was a big part of it. And if we don’t do anything about it, we’re always going to come up short on those things.
Amazon was not the last big employer that might look at this region going forward. But if we don’t have transit we’re going to be worse, and worse.
It’s not that we lost the deal with Amazon, we didn’t even come in the top 20, and so when you start looking around at transit [at least there’s] one factor, you see that’s just a woeful, inadequate reality for us right now.
We had a plan a couple years ago. It really wasn’t the best plan but I won’t blame those that had the previous plan because at least they did something. They tried. It’s always easy to look at a failure and say, “They should have done it differently.” Another way to look at it is, “Why were they only ones [to force it] and try to make it happen in the first place?”
I don’t think blaming anybody gets us anywhere. But I think we learned something from 2016. And the first thing is I learned we better hurry up and get it done in 2018. [Applause]
I don’t think blaming anybody gets us anywhere. But I think we learned something from 2016. And the first thing is I learned we better hurry up and get it done in 2018.
And those folks who want to push it to 2020, I think one of the things you got to ask is, “Do you really think it’s more viable in 2020? Or, is that you don’t really want to do it in the first place?” Out of sight, out of mind. I think it’s an honest question that we have to look at.
You’ve got a lot of players in transit. We’ve got a lot of things going on. SMART is doing some really great things. SMART is not an enemy, SMART’s a part of a big issue. DDOT’s a part of a big issue.
One of the things we have to think about is not just the transit that we create if it passes but the fact that we start to get in the queue for design and other federal monies down the line to really expand the system. You can’t really get in line for federal money until you have something to be there about.
Transit to the airport and back, to Ann Arbor, lots of things that wind up being light rail and other issues are issues that cost a tremendous amount of money. Let’s face it, it doesn’t necessarily come out of the fare box. It’s money that you have to, as a region, look at and say, “This is an investment in all of us.” Lots of it [we’ll] use, but even the parts we don’t use, if it helps to build the region we’re getting a benefit from it. So, that’s just something that’s critically important for all us to think about and understand going forward.
The technology will change, but if we’re not there with a transit plan, able to get into the design work that says, “This works better here,” or “This will work better there,” then we’re just… it’s a pipe dream. You’ve got to get in the game. You know [we’re] really minor leagues, we need to get to the Majors. We may not be world champions overnight but you can’t ever be a world champion if you’re still in the minors.
It’s the pulling-together of all of the regional leaders like myself to find a happy medium of meeting-ground where we can all be on the same page.
I want to tell you that we have been, by we, the big we now, not Warren Evans, but we – all of the county executives, the mayor of the City of Detroit, and their staffs – have been working on this transit plan. In April, it will be a year. I can honestly tell you there has not been a day that we haven’t worked on it. There may have been a day we didn’t have a meeting, but you’re still working on the plan, you’re working with the consultants [of that we have] to help design [it].
I don’t want to have anybody have an impression that this is a late start out of the gate and somehow that’s the problem – that’s not the problem at all. The problem is we’re now down to nuanced differences in the region that we have to sit in a room and figure out. Everybody’s got politics in their area and I get that. What I don’t get is, since the ‘70s we’ve been letting the politics stop us from moving forward and at some point you can’t just wait for the political wind sometimes you’ve got to blow yourself. You’ve got to make some things move [applause].
Since the ‘70s we’ve been letting the politics stop us from moving forward and at some point you can’t just wait for the political wind sometimes you’ve got to blow yourself. You’ve got to make some things move.
This will never be a consensus issue. Some people will vote for it and some people will vote against it. I know that when we lost before, it was by less than 1 percent and you didn’t have the enthusiasm of all the leaders involved. My common sense of it is we win if we get enthusiastic. I’m not talking about you now, I know you’re enthusiastic, I’m talking about the leaders who are going to be the decision-makers in terms of getting this on the ballot and helping to [stump for it].
I’m very comfortable in my county there will be people who are not for it. And that’s their right as Americans. But it’s also my obligation as a leader to say, “I think this is good for the region. This is why I think it’s good for the region. Please vote for it, and if you don’t I’m not mad at you.”
I’m very comfortable in my county there will be people who are not for it. And that’s their right as Americans. But it’s also my obligation as a leader to say, “I think this is good for the region. This is why I think it’s good for the region. Please vote for it and if you don’t I’m not mad at you.”
If we all advocate like that, my sense is, it passes, and we move to the next level which is getting this region closer to being what I think we all know that it can be, with the collaboration and cooperation that we’re starting to pull together.
Let’s be realistic, what [holds] this region back really? Education and transit. Let’s fix some of it. I’m not going to belabor the fact that it’s been a problem forever, it’s just, “Do you want it to be a problem forever?” I think is the question. Transit has been an issue for 40 years. I don’t think I’ve got 40 more. I’d like to see something happen before my grandkids are here talking about what ought to happen [applause].
Transit has been an issue for 40 years. I don’t think I’ve got 40 more. I’d like to see something happen before my grandkids are here talking about what ought to happen.
So, “Big Four” is seriously talking. As I said, our staff work every day. We haven’t nailed it down yet. Am I optimistic for 2018? I’m optimistic. Am I going to bet my life savings on it? Well, I wouldn’t be losing much anyway, but probably not. But it doesn’t stop me from being a strong advocate for what I think is important.
Am I optimistic for 2018? I’m optimistic. Am I going to bet my life savings on it? Well, I wouldn’t be losing much anyway, but probably not. But it doesn’t stop me from being a strong advocate for what I think is important.
Your agitation, the agitation from executives of major corporations, the folks who own the companies that folks need to get to work and get back, everybody needs to dig in and start applying the pressure where it needs to be to get the consolidated… I’m trying to be careful not to piss my three friends off… to get the kind of collaborative decision-making that says, “Okay, this is a plan we can live with. There are no deal breakers in here. We need to get this on the ballot soon.”
And the only way that’s going to happen is to move very, very quickly. Because if you want to change legislation and change the boundaries, that’s got to be done very, very quickly, and in reality we don’t generally work that quickly.
If we’re going to go with the same, fully-inclusive region as we did before, let’s just make it happen. And let’s make sure that we’re providing enough service to all of those communities to warrant the additional support we need to try to make it happen.
Thank you very much for listening to me. It is an honor to talk to advocates, because you have a passion for something, [and that’s] kind of what makes public service work is, that passion to move forward, to move somewhere, to do something.
Keep advocating. Please understand that I’m working as hard as I can and I’m not suggesting that my colleagues are not doing the same. When I say we’re meeting every day, that’s all of us, not just my people. There’s real work by staff going into this. Now we just have to get the four electeds [sic] a little more in tune to something we could all live with. And we’re working very hard to do that.
Thank you so much.
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Image credit: WDET/Laura Herberg