Jewfro: Schlep For Transit On Nov. 8

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By Ben Falik
By Ben Falik

Let’s talk about the bottom of your ballot. (All I will say about the top is that I am just as excited for my son to have a female president as I am for my daughter; if neither sees a white guy deliver the State of the Union until they are teenagers, it will be too soon.)

But back to the bottom. As much as I believe in the representative and federalist nature of our government — electing and engaging good people to act ethically on behalf of all their constituents — we have a decisive direct democratic decision to make next month.

Some ballot initiatives speak to voter frustration with our gerrymandered, term-limited, lobbyable and otherwise retrograde representatives in Lansing. Some are real referenda offering citizens a direct voice in government.

And we have no one but ourselves to blame if we don’t raise our voices.

refleX is the first transit route coordinated by RTA. It offers limited-stop service linking Detroit and the suburbs every day of the week. (Photo Credit: Neil Greenberg)
refleX is the first transit route coordinated by RTA. It offers limited-stop service linking Detroit and the suburbs every day of the week. (Photo Credit: Neil Greenberg)

Instead of the (relatively) familiar names and animal mascots that accompany elected offices, proposals present us with large blocks of linguistically engineered text that can sometimes mean the opposite of what they say. Don’t be deterred.

Here is the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan proposal with my thoughts and thesis that if you don’t vote Yes, you are big jerk:

A Proposal Authorizing the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) to Levy an Assessment

My thoughts: The RTA already exists, after some serious sausage making in Lansing. It has good independent governance and demonstrable first steps in aligning and adding value to SMART and DDOT. Now the RTA needs the resources to realize its full potential.

  • The proposal would authorize the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan (RTA) to levy within Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties a property tax assessment:

Regionalism! Four contiguous counties that have a chance to realize diverse, dynamic development or silo themselves at their peril.

  • At a rate of 1.2 mills ($1.20 per $1,000 of taxable value);

Easy math: If your house is worth $200,000, the taxable value is approximately $100,000 and the RTA millage costs you $120 a year, deductible from your income taxes. This is a good investment in, among other things, that property value. Renter? Rock on!

  • For 20 years beginning in 2016 and ending in 2035;

2035! By 2035, my kids will have graduated from somewhere with an animal mascot, and I hope they will consider building lives for themselves here. I would hate to tell my grandchildren, over my Skyperosoft Contact Lens, why their engineer mom’s Robot Monkey Butler manufacturer moved to a soon-to-be-submarine coastal city instead of the temperate upper Midwest — because we lacked a serviceable transit system. (Robot Monkey Butlers: That’s Pure Michigan.)

  • That may not be increased, renewed or used for other purposes without direct voter approval; and

Not only that, but your taxable value can’t go up faster than inflation or 5 percent a year (small), so you don’t need to worry that the taxman will take it all. Good day sunshine!

  • To be used upon the affirmative vote of an RTA board member from each RTA member jurisdiction for the purpose of construction and operation of a public transportation system connecting Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, including rapid transit bus routes across county lines, specialized service for senior citizens and people with disabilities, commuter rail, airport express service and other public transportation purposes permitted by law, consistent with RTA bylaws and subject to the limitations of the Regional Transit Authority Act.

Lots here. Appropriately enough. Transportation touches everyone’s lives every day; transit can either mitigate or exacerbate the unconscionable segregation, marginalization and inequality we face (and tend to tolerate) in Metro Detroit. As Rabbi Alana Alpert, leader of Detroit Jews for Justice and their Schlep for Transit campaign, said from the bimah on Rosh Hashanah, “This challenge is deeply spiritual — it’s about collective dreaming and audacious imagination. It’s about the religious imperative to be visionary co-creators.” Listen to the rabbi.

  • If this new additional assessment is approved and levied, revenue will be disbursed to the RTA. It is estimated that $160,907,285 will be collected in the first year.

Sound like a lot of money? Compared to a billion dollars and 14 years of construction to add one lane to a stretch of I-75 or $250 million in public funding paid off over 30 years for the Red Wings arena, consider this a modest investment with a meaningful, measurable return. Plus, it beats sitting in freeway construction traffic on the way to the hockey game.

  • Should this assessment be approved?

Yes. 

Now you know what to expect to see — and what I expect of you — at the bottom of your ballot.

And no funny business at the top either.

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