Auburn Hills, MI—An upcoming Auburn Hills City Council vote could mean the end of SMART bus service in the city—and the end of the only regularly scheduled public transit option for Flint residents traveling to Detroit.

On Monday, Feb. 21, the Auburn Hills City Council will vote on whether to remain part of the Oakland County Public Transportation Authority. 

Should the council choose to withdraw, Auburn Hills would be “opting out” of SMART, or the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation, the regional public transportation provider for Southeast Michigan.

The plan has spurred public transportation advocates like Transit Riders United and the Rochester Riders into action.

Both groups have noted the loss of SMART services in Auburn Hills will not only affect Auburn Hills residents, but many residents of nearby cities who rely on connections made in Auburn Hills.

“People’s lives don’t end at city borders,” said Thomas Yazbeck, one of Rochester Riders’ lead organizers.

For Flint’s public transit riders, the loss of SMART service in Auburn Hills would take away Flint MTA’s connection to SMART’s Route #462 at Great Lakes Crossing Outlets—the sole location where a Flint MTA bus route currently connects with a regularly scheduled route to Detroit.

“The MTA has a pass and transfer acceptance agreement with SMART which allows our riders and theirs to transfer between systems at no additional cost,” explained Harmony Lloyd, Flint MTA’s COO, in an emailed statement. Lloyd said the Flint MTA will continue to provide transportation to Great Lakes Crossing, but without SMART, that is where Flint residents’ public transit option to Detroit will end. 

“Public transportation is most effective when it allows people to move affordably and efficiently throughout a region,” Lloyd said. “It is our hope Auburn Hills will realize the value a connected transportation system has for both people that live in its community and those traveling to it for work or other purposes.”

A MTA bus travels towards downtown Flint, Mich. on Nov. 10, 2021. (KT Kanazawich | Flint Beat)

Flint Beat contacted City of Auburn Hills Mayor Kevin McDaniel to discuss the city’s rationale for opting out of SMART’s services—which include fixed routes, shuttles, ADA accessible options, and a rideshare app—supported through the public transportation millage.

McDaniel responded, “I cannot comment on what the position is for each individual City Council Member. However, I am confident that the City Council will do what it feels is in the best interest of the residents of the City of Auburn Hills.”

Public records show that Auburn Hills City Council took part in a “Local Transit workshop” on Feb. 7, during which it reviewed the city’s relationship with SMART.

According to draft minutes from that workshop, the council was presented with data around SMART service usage, city officials’ concerns about the service—which included cost, communication issues, and long vehicle repair wait times—and four options for continuing a partnership with SMART or not.

At the end of the meeting the vote stood at five yes and two no to draft language that would remove Auburn Hills from the millage and set up an alternative transportation solution for senior and disabled residents. 

Yazbeck, of the Rochester Riders, noted that the proposed solution does not consider the full array of SMART’s riders, many of whom do not own a car and use the service to get to work or school.

“It’s a civil rights problem,” Yazbeck said. “The people that are affected most (by this vote) are not people that have other options. They’re not people that can drive, necessarily.”

Yazbeck added that the council doesn’t seem concerned with Auburn Hills residents’ opinion, either.

About 75 % of Auburn Hills voters have been in favor of the millage since 2010, according to the Oakland County Register of Deeds. The most recent millage renewal was in 2018, with 2,886 voters, or 74.17%, in favor.

Table showing the most recent Oakland County Public Transportation Authority millage vote in Auburn Hills, which happened in 2018. (Oakland County Register of Deeds)

When contacted for comment, Robert Cramer, SMART’s Deputy General Manager, said his organization does not interfere in local politics.

“It is totally their choice,” Cramer said of Auburn Hills City Council’s upcoming vote.

He explained that should the city choose to opt out, SMART would wind their services down by January 1, 2023. 

Cramer, who was present at the Feb. 7 local transit workshop, said that in explaining SMART’s variety of services to the council members present, he realized SMART needed to better advertise those services beyond the workshop, too.

“We admit and understand that part of that’s on us if there are members of the community that are paying in … but they have that feeling of ‘hey, we don’t really know if we’re getting anything,” he said.

The draft meeting minutes from the transit workshop also noted there were multiple suggestions that Auburn Hills might elect to opt out of SMART now and opt back in later.

“They could certainly opt back in later,” Cramer said. “I would say that it’s not ideal for anyone—whether it be us, them, or people who rely on the services—because there’s a lot of disruption there.”

Auburn City Council is set to vote on whether to opt out of SMART service at its Monday, Feb. 21 meeting

When asked if there was a plan for Flint-to-Detroit public transit riders if Auburn Hills opts out of SMART, Flint MTA’s COO Harmony Lloyd responded, “Unfortunately, at this time there is no other solution.”

A previous version of this story misstated the number of Auburn Hills residents in favor of a public transportation millage.

Kate Stockrahm

Kate is Flint Beat's business and nonprofit reporter. She joins the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered...

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