Livonia residents turned out to City Council yesterday after they heard the Council would be discussing the issue of public transit. Despite their entreaties, however, a majority of Council voted to postpone discussion of rejoining the SMART bus system, which the city quit ten years ago.
Longtime Livonia Mayor Jack Kirksey, 86, led the city out of the SMART bus system in 2005, telling residents the tax money for SMART would be better spent on other services. He opened Monday’s meeting with a PowerPoint presentation on “The SMART Opt-Out: How We Got Here, Why it Works.” You can watch the full council meeting at this link, under “City Council Regular – March 16.”
Kirksey said that previously, only 25% of SMART riders in Livonia were Livonia residents, and that quitting SMART saved Livonia $400,000 per year (about $40 per resident). “No businesses have reported any interest in transit,” he said. “There was some humor at the time, which may be in poor taste for some members of the audience, that if you saw anyone on the bus, get the number and the time and you would get five dollars.” He called the city’s 55%-45% vote to withdraw from SMART in November 2005 a “wide margin.”
A succession of Livonia residents then spoke up in favor of rejoining SMART and participating in regional public transit. No members of the public spoke against SMART, though one resident asked for information on the cost.
“I don’t believe it is working for everyone,” Freedom Rider and lifelong Livonia resident Lynda Franklin told Council. “I’m embarrassed by the disconnect. Successful regions have great public transit systems.” Resident Joan Smykowski noted that the lack of transit shut out low-income workers from jobs in Livonia, and also hampered the city’s ability to attract young professionals. “The high-paying jobs are not coming here,” she said.Angela Ryan, Livonia resident and president of the League of Women Voters of Northwest Wayne County, took issue with Mayor Kirksey’s numbers, noting that only 3% of Livonia businesses had participated in the 2005 survey Kirksey cited to justify leaving SMART. “I do ride SMART Monday through Friday on a full bus,” said Bruce Keezer, a young professional who lives near the Redford border and catches the SMART bus to work in downtown Detroit.
Rev. George Coventry, pastor of St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Livonia, said the Mayor’s assertion that Livonia residents didn’t need transit was simply not correct. As chairperson of Livonia Cares, a network of congregations serving the social needs of residents, he knows “there is a great need for public transit in our community,” particularly since the Great Recession.
Highland Park resident Michael Seunagal, who’s visually impaired, was forced to withdraw from Madonna University in Livonia when the city left SMART. Due to the lack of adequate transit, he wasn’t able to attend the meeting in person, but an attendee (this writer) phoned him in to tell his story.
“I want to live in a diverse community where people are able to get in and out of town,” said longtime resident Linda Tomala, who drew a strong response from Councilman John Pastor with her observation that the council chamber was “lily-white.”
Pastor, who had introduced a resolution to end any further discussion on rejoining SMART, was visibly upset. “SMART just isn’t good for our community,” he said in a five-minute speech. “We weren’t getting any benefit. Zero.” In addition, Pastor said, “I take great offense to anybody that says we’re a racist community, that we put up walls and all of that. Yes,” he told Tomala, “I do shake my head at ignorant comments like that.”
Other members of Council took a more moderate approach. “I’ve talked to people on both sides of this,” said Councilman Brandon Kritzman. “Ultimately, it will take a greater investment [in transit],” he said. “I hope that someday we are part of that, but until it can be proven to me that it works,” he would not support Livonia’s participation in SMART.
Council President Maureen Miller Brosnan was the only member of Council to oppose Pastor’s motion to table discussion of rejoining SMART. “The needs of our residents have changed since 2005,” she said. As Detroit’s redevelopment continued, she said, Livonia needed to give people the opportunity to live in its neighborhoods and take transit to work downtown.
After brief discussion, however, Council voted 6-1 to end discussion of rejoining SMART, with Brosnan dissenting. The Council did vote unanimously to refer the issue of mass transit to the Community Transportation Committee.
The Freedom Riders are grateful to our Livonia friends for speaking truth to power. You can be sure this won’t be the last word on the subject, so stay tuned. We’re in this for the long haul.