End of Ann (Arbor) Era – The Chronicle Closes

Posted August 9, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: media

A sad day for those of us in Ann Arbor who care about local government and want to keep up with issues.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle has announced that it will be ceasing publication on September 2, 2014, exactly six years after its launch.

In-House-Ads-DavidActually, this should read “Dave Askins has announced…” because this publication has always been about its two principals, Dave Askins and Mary Morgan.  It has been an intensely personal project for this married couple.  Both the launch and the closing are scheduled on their wedding anniversary, as we have frequently been reminded.  The online-only publication has incorporated many personal touches, like the use of the watch (evidently a gift) and plays on that word, like the Stopped. Watched. section (our title for this post deliberately incorporates a pun in homage to the enjoyment of language often displayed).  The ads requesting subscriptions are portraits. (Caricatures by Tammy Graves.)

In-House-Ads-MaryIt has been a quirky venture, with a number of idiosyncratic features.  One is the cartoon series Bezonki, by a local artist (Alvey Jones).  Most frequent comment following publication of the current segment:  “I don’t get it.”  This also spurred the Bezonki Awards  (I was honored to be among the first group receiving these) for people deemed to have made local contributions. Honorees were allowed to foster one of several sculptures made by Jones for a year, then pass them on to the next generation.  The Stopped. Watched. feature invited guest contributors (anyone, really) to post observations, which could be as trivial as noting traffic congestion or minireports of major events, often with pictures.  Some of the longest comment threads were conversations spurred by these.

Before launching an online newspaper, Mary Morgan was a long-time reporter and editor for the old Ann Arbor News.  (A publication only very distantly related to the current online/print version of the Ann Arbor News,  part of a statewide, mostly online, news organization.) She has written very affectingly about the demise of that community newspaper.  Dave Askins has not had a career in traditional journalism, though he hosted an online site called Teeter Talk for several years.  (This consisted of interviews of people he considered local notables whilst they were balancing on a homemade teeter totter.)  He is something of a self-made phenomenon who adopted the nom de plume “Homeless Dave” (abbreviated HD) for these early postings.  According to an article that I once read in the Ann Arbor Observer, Dave adopted that moniker after someone described him as “that homeless man” in passing him on the street, evidently misled by the beard.  They combined these histories to create a unique news site.

One of the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s great attributes has been its habit of archiving. This overview has many links to past news stories about the Chronicle, as most regular readers refer to it.  Here is the Crain’s Detroit Business article about the closure, which notes that “The online-only Chronicle focuses on government coverage and civic affairs, and does in-depth long-form reporting. It’s aimed at the educated residents of a major university town.”

Yes, and there is its strength and its weakness.  After many years in which governmental actions were covered only sketchily and often with a distinct bias by the old print version of The Ann Arbor News, the political junkies of Ann Arbor were delivered a real treat.  Mary and Dave literally did chronicle almost every public body, nearly gavel-to-gavel.  Thus the line “It’s like being there”.  While in the past the Ann Arbor District Library Board, the county Board of Commissioners, and the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Commission were scarcely ever even mentioned in the news, much less given in-depth coverage, it became possible to follow them in depth.   The Chronicle had to give up coverage of the Ann Arbor Public Schools (it had been done by a free-lancer) and then coverage of the University of Michigan Regents.  But they have still been following AADL, the BOC, and PAC, as well as the Planning Commission, the Greenbelt Commission, the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, the Downtown Development Authority, and of course the City Council.  That’s a lot of sitting on hard benches.  The result has been a lot of serious reading, the sort that even the most dedicated student of local government has to set aside time for.  I’ve heard comments from several friends that they don’t have time to read the Chronicle, and I’ve sometimes put off reading certain stories for days in order to have time to digest all the material.  This in-depth coverage has provided what amounts to minutes of all these bodies, and archives that are valuable for historical research.  Often they contain links to important documents referenced in the story.

One thing the Chronicle’s reporting has not featured has been much analysis, though there have sometimes been columns that offered opinion and analysis, usually on a subject of interest to Dave Askins.  He has been a strong proponent of open government, adherence to the Open Meetings Act, an issuer of FOIAs for information that should have been available and wasn’t, and has been a critic of Ann Arbor’s City Attorney, Stephen Postema.  But most news stories are reported in a flat factual narrative without much inflection or explanation.  This is valuable as a record but sometimes leaves a lot of heavy lifting to the reader.  Also, there is very rarely any followup with interviews of the parties involved, which could add missing depth at times.  On the other hand, it means objective reporting.

The loss of this reporting is hitting many of us in Ann Arbor with a sensation of the floor dropping out from under us.  How can we find out what is happening in government?  Do we actually have to go to those meetings and sit through them to find out what happened? Happily, the newly reconstructed Ann Arbor News now has a number of young reporters who are doing a decent job at covering some aspects of government, but not at anything like the scope and depth of the Chronicle.  The question is going out by email – What do we do now?

According to Dave’s statement, the effort has been sufficiently profitable (revenue is both from paid advertising and voluntary donations), but they are simply worn out.  This is understandable.  No breaks. Many long meetings.  On top of that, they do not use an automobile, but rely on a bicycle (Dave), a scooter (Mary), or public transit.  This story describes one example of how that can complicate the life of a reporter (Mary).

In her requiem for the Ann Arbor News, Mary says,

I believe the newspaper could have survived if its leaders had better engaged and embraced this community – not as sycophants or vacuous boosters, but as people with a vested interest in the lifeblood of Ann Arbor, its politics and government, arts & culture, schools, businesses, nonprofits – and in the people who live and work here every day, who, like us, call this patch of Michigan home.

The Ann Arbor Chronicle certainly did that.  They are leaving us richer, but sad. Thanks, Mary and Dave, for all that hard work.  You have the best wishes of many.  I hope that the next venture is as successful, with less wear and tear on its creators.

POSTSCRIPT: An immediate question asked by many is, what about the archives?  We have a special interest in this, since many of our posts use multiple links to Chronicle articles.  Evidently the site will remain more or less as is through 2014, and some efforts are being made to house the archives in the Ann Arbor District Library.  The AADL has already performed that service for archives of the Ann Arbor News (check the Old News section especially) and portions of the Ann Arbor Observer.  It is rapidly becoming a major historical source for Ann Arbor.

It is not clear whether current links will continue to be operative once archives are placed at the AADL, but it would be good to preserve the substance.

UPDATE:  Mary Morgan kindly sent along this column from 2010.  It has some great reflections about the meaning of local journalism, and also shows that that they were already planning ahead to have their archives housed at the AADL.  Mary indicated that the AADL has already been in touch, so it looks like a go.

 

The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics

Posted July 30, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Basis, politics

The Placemaking Agenda and its corollary, the New Economy Paradigm, are on the Ann Arbor ballot this August.

For a decade or more, Ann Arbor’s city politics have been driven by two contrasting views of its future. While political contests have sometimes revolved around personalities and personal loyalties, the crucial question underlying almost every race has been that of what kind of community Ann Arbor will be in the future and who (or specifically, what groups) will benefit from that future direction.  At the heart of this divide is the emergence of the Placemaking Agenda.

As has been well discussed here in the past, the traditional party divide (Democratic vs. Republican) is of little value in understanding Ann Arbor politics, since nearly all the action takes place in the Democratic primary.  But there is a real divide, not only in ideology but in the political actors.  This has been thrown into sharp contrast by a recent analysis in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  What is unusual about this analysis is that, rather than displaying the candidates and those who donated to them, it lists prominent political actors and their donations to individual candidates.   The Chronicle, true to its fastidious ways, avoids attaching labels to the two factions.  But it does note that the candidates of one faction are endorsed by the Michigan Talent Agenda.

Michigan Talent Agenda endorsed candidates:

Christopher Taylor – Mayor

Don Adams – 1st Ward

Kirk Westphal – 2nd Ward

Julie Grand – 3rd Ward

 

The Talent Agenda

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

Lou Glazer is the founder of Michigan Future, Inc.

This sounds off-hand like something related to the entertainment industry.  But actually it is related to a drive to replace Michigan’s fading manufacturing-based economy with a “knowledge-based”, i.e., information technology-based, digital-age economy. This has been very clearly enunciated by a recent report, The New Path to Prosperity, from Michigan Future, Inc.  What Michigan Future says directly that it wants to achieve is a high personal per capita income, and not a high employment rate. From the report:

Our answer: a high-prosperity Michigan—a place with a per capita personal income consistently above the national average in both national economic expansions and contractions…Places with low unemployment rates, but also lower personal income, aren’t successful to us.

How is this to be achieved?  By bringing in the young “talent” who can participate in the knowledge-based economy, either as entrepreneurs or simply the needed workforce.  The key is to make our area a place where they want to be.  By increasing the attraction of the place, it will be transformed into a New Economy.  That is the kernel of the Placemaking Agenda.

Placemaking

The origins of the placemaking conception are lovable and sweet.  As explained by the Project for Public Spaces, placemaking as a word and concept grew out of the movement to create shared public spaces where a sense of community could be built.  It comes from the environmental movement and emphasizes a connection with nature and other people.  It calls for places where people can move around freely (pedestrian access), with shared activities, often artistic, joyful, and nurturing.  Pictures usually involve lots of young children. It is about places where the human family is at home.  A good Ann Arbor representation of this would be FestiFools, which takes over Main Street for a couple of days each year.

It also connects to the idea of the sense of place.  As we described in our previous post, this is a consciousness of what our community looks and feels like in a whole sense. This comprehensive environment can affect our experience of life.  A recent MIT review has an excellent history of placemaking as part of the evolution of an urban sensibility (see the second chapter).

But the word has been taken over to mean a formula to create an attractive location that has economic benefits. Michigan State University has established an entire department, the Land Policy Institute, around this concept.  As one would expect, it has generated a number of academic studies, workshops, etc. A substantive data-driven study by LPI, Drivers of Economic Performance (BIG file!) lists a number of elements as increasing desirability of a location.  It also unequivocally pairs placemaking with the New Economy (emphasis theirs).  “…the New Economy has created a scenario where people move to places with high endowments of amenities, and jobs follow.”  LPI has now published a study on placemaking that contains this triumph of plannerspeak:

Placemaking can be defined as the development or redevelopment of value-added real estate that integrates essential elements of local and regional allure (e.g., mixed use, walkability, green spaces, energy efficiency) to generate an improved quality of life, a higher economic impact for the community, enhanced property tax revenue and better return to the developer and investors, while minimizing negative environmental and social impacts.

(You’ll notice that we have shifted ground from the soft and fuzzy to the real estate.)

Beginning with Jennifer Granholm’s Cool Cities campaign (2003), the emphasis has been on making cities places that will attract the young, especially young professionals who are members of what Richard Florida called the “creative class”.  The idea was that if you make the city a place these valued workers want to live, they’ll flock in and create a positive economic environment for all.  Here are some of the most commonly cited attributes:

  • Walkability
  • Transportation alternatives (transit, bicycling)
  • Third places (places to hang out; cue the “vibrant downtown”)
  • Green infrastructure (parks, etc.)
  • Active public spaces with things to do
  • Cultural amenities, including public art
  • Attractive built environment (including historic buildings)
  • Environmental sensitivity, such as energy efficiency

Want to hear this beautifully explained by a current candidate?  Here is Christopher Taylor’s statement on behalf of  “the young”.

Glazer and his group have been very influential in setting the state agenda for economic development based on Talent.  Governor Rick Snyder, whose professional career was grounded in the field of information technology (he was the Chairman of Gateway Computers, which he left in 1997), has embraced the objectives and language of this “New Economy” effort.   The core concept is that Michigan must create the types of communities and regions (through Placemaking) that will attract Talent.  As MIPlace.org (supported by a consortium) highlights, Snyder has emphasized “place-based governance”, or more simply, “placemaking” from the beginning.  Here are some excerpts from his address to the Legislature in 2011:

Today, I am announcing our next steps to help communities build the kind of places that will enable them to compete in a global economy.

  • Establish a process for evaluating the performance of economic development and placemaking activities.
  • Encourage new initiatives that support local and regional programs involved in economic development and placemaking.
  • Promote best practices for local and regional economic development and for placemaking activities.

Michigan government has indeed gone through some realignment in these directions.  Here is an interview on Bridge Magazine of Gary Heidel, “Chief Placemaking Officer” of MSHDA.  He explains:

The idea behind placemaking is simple: By improving the quality of life in downtowns and neighborhoods you will create more walkability, which will attract talent, creating jobs and economic development…Quality of life investments from both the public and private sectors focus on housing, mixed use, transportation, public spaces and recreation, entrepreneurialism, historic preservation, arts and culture.

Now MSHDA, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority,  is the state agency that is supposed to “create and preserve safe and decent affordable housing”.  But it is now providing personnel and funds to promote placemaking.  It is, for example, one of the supporters of Concentrate magazine.  We reviewed a speaker event that was sponsored by MSHDA via Concentrate in 2010.  Here is a report from MSHDA that seeks to integrate MSHDA’s traditional responsibilities with placemaking.

Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. It influences business development and expansion decisions, inspires downtown revitalization and historic preservation, builds community identity and pride of place, promotes diversity and stimulates the growth of creative enterprise. Placemaking has long been a key organizing idea behind MSHDA’s community development projects. Together with our many partners, we invest in Michigan communities to:  Enhance the quality of life of our residents; To attract and retain businesses, entrepreneurs and workers throughout the state. Place-based economic development—creating vibrant, sustainable communities—is a winning economic strategy that will provide the foundation for a new Michigan.

If one skims through the numerous memos available on the MSHDA website, it is evident that this “placemaking” dictum has penetrated even to the most basic of affordable housing funding applications, including the CDBG and LIHTC.  The 2015-2016 Qualified Allocation Plan description lists “A strengthened focus on project location and placemaking concepts” as the first item in priority changes.  To that end, it indicates further in the document that projects will have to submit WalkScores (walkability) and distance from the nearest transit stop.

The MSHDA details are illustrative of how a ruling paradigm can overtake an entire governmental substructure.  There are many more examples and policy issues that could be brought forward.  Quite a few of them can be seen resonating through Council actions of the last decade.  Just one example: Percent for Art was launched with many public statements that Art would make us into a community that would attract the Right People. (As the guy said in the movie, “but that’s another story”.)

The Golden Future – but for whom?

As with any political agenda, there are likely to be winners and losers with this one.  While not voiced fully, those opposing the “talent agenda” candidates have identified some of the issues.  Who will benefit from bringing in this favored demographic via the potential cost in public money and altered community priorities?

Some of the supporters of the “talent agenda ” candidates have derided opponents as being old fuddy-duddys who don’t want anything to change.  Joan Lowenstein, for example, is the gift that keeps giving.  From labeling residents as “sulky”,  and then elderly, she has now moved on to “prissy”.  But doesn’t classic economic theory suppose that people act according to their own best interests?

There are many more reservations about the “talent agenda” than a simple resistance to change or the wish to be able to stay in one’s home in a nice community.  What kinds of people do we want to support in Ann Arbor?  Do we only want to make this an affluent community or do we want to retain our diversity of incomes and occupations?  This is a regional question as well as a city-based one, but one reason I personally moved to the 5th Ward is its yeasty mix of all kinds of people.  I love our little houses (and bigger houses) with people from all walks of life.

Why am I bringing out this populist theme?  Because the New Economy folks are pretty unambiguous that the point is to make wealth, not to make a diverse community.

The report from LPI cited above also has this paragraph:

Increased creative class employment is associated with positive population change and higher per capita income. This is consistent with previous findings (Adelaja et al., 2009). However, creative class employment is associated with a lower resident employment level. This indicates that the greater the percentage of professionals employed in the creative class, the better the community’s potential for future population and income growth, but not resident employment levels.  (see p. 44)

Get that? Current residents will not see a positive increase in employment.  This is consistent with an article by Richard Florida (yes, the Creative Class guru).  What is now being called “talent clustering” is beneficial to the talent class but not to service and blue-collar workers.  Indeed, they suffer because of higher housing and other costs.  Florida concludes,  “It’s not just a vicious cycle but an unsustainable one — economically, politically, and morally.”  And this is the guy who originated the whole Creative Class idea!

If you reread the statement by Glazer and Grimes, you’ll note that  the point is not jobs, not employment, but an opportunity for high levels of personal wealth.  (Note that a high per capita income is an average and can be driven by a small percentage of very high incomes, while a median income figure would better denote the income status of the population as a whole.)  So it appears that the “Talent Agenda” is quite inequitable.

Something to think about before voting in a Democratic primary.

UPDATE: A post by Washtenaw County planner Nathan Voght, writing on Concentrate magazine, makes a forthright argument for placemaking.

Why is creating “places” a key to transformation of the corridor? Millennials and Baby Boomers together make up the largest segment of the population. Attracting and retaining these age groups is critical to building communities now and in the future, as Millennials will make up most of the work force and represent the future of the economy, and Boomers are downsizing, looking for walkable places with amenities, and have disposable cash. These segments are driving a shift in housing and quality of life that “places” provide, where access to transit, downtowns, and walkable communities is the highest priority.

Voght is the manager for Reimagine Washtenaw, which has incorporated plans for transit-oriented development of denser housing alongside the corridor.  However, it seeks to create the walkable community in an area where most people will be living only to travel elsewhere (downtowns and employment centers) to work and shop.

 

 

Ann Arbor’s Secret Sauce: Our Historic Buildings

Posted July 27, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Historic preservation

Cities have personalities, and these influence their fates. The civic persona derives partly from economic circumstance (oil boom towns differ from cities where most income is from farming, or from a dominant industry), partly from the individuals who possess the means of power and influence (think of Chicago without the history of Richard Daley), and partly from the origins and mix of the people who live there.  But the physical environment has a strong influence.  When one first encounters a city, it is the sense of place that forms a first impression.  Like first impressions of a person newly met, this may be formed from superficial features, but it is often fairly accurate.

So what is the first impression that a visitors  might have of Ann Arbor?  If they are lucky, they’ll see lots of trees, open green spaces, and our charming downtown.  They’ll also see an attractive central campus and perhaps drive or walk through some of the near-downtown neighborhoods, like the Oxbridge area, Broadway, the Old West Side.  They’ll see that we have many architecturally interesting buildings from different historical periods.  If they are being given a tour, they’ll stroll through the Nickel’s Arcade (a replica of arcades seen in London, England) and perhaps get a look at the Law Quad.  Our historic buildings are Ann Arbor’s secret sauce.  Take those away and you just have a really bad highway system and some shopping malls.  (Okay, and some nice parks.)

A Sense of Place

The importance of  experience of place has been acknowledged for decades. Here is what Tony Hiss said in his book, Experience of Place (1990, Random House) :

“…our ordinary surroundings, built and natural alike, have an immediate and a continuing effect on the way we feel and act, and on our health and intelligence.  These places have an impact on our sense of self, our sense of safety, the kind of work we get done, the ways we interact with other people, even our ability to function as citizens in a democracy.”

More recently, a sense of place has been discovered as an economic driver.  A recently published overview by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a good historical review and a number of case studies of the practice of  “placemaking”, which often focuses on public spaces but also on cultural amenities.

“Place” has many benefits.  It means everyone gets a nice place to live and a better sense of community.  It is also good for business.  Employees are likely to be more attracted to a “place”, and businesses based on  tourism are more successful.  But I question whether it can be developed overnight according to a plan.  It takes years for a community to develop a sense of place.  And it needs nurturing.  Preservation of our historic buildings and neighborhoods is part of the needed sustenance for our sense of place and quality of life, not only for those of us who live here, but for those we want to welcome in the future.

Historic Ann Arbor

Ann Arbor's historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Ann Arbor’s historic districts, courtesy AAPA

Fortunately for us, we have many dedicated individuals who have been helping the cause of historic preservation in Ann Arbor for years.  Since 1975, historic preservation has been recognized as a public purpose, and we have a number of historic districts in which the Historic District Commission oversees changes in historic buildings.  The Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, a group of citizens who advocate for historic preservation, have produced a brochure describing this process. (Click on the figure for a larger view.)

One name that immediately springs to mind when talking of historic preservation in Ann Arbor is Grace Shackman.  She has been studying and writing about historic Ann Arbor for decades.  Notably, she has published many articles in the Ann Arbor Observer, under the title of Ann Arbor, Then and Now.  These have been pulled together into a book, Ann Arbor Observed  (but more articles have been written since that publication!).

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

The Planada, before its demolition by the UM. Photo Stan Shackman

An excellent example of her articles is this one, Ann Arbor’s Oldest Apartments (note that this and many articles that preceded the Observer’s online presence have most thoughtfully been made available on the Ann Arbor District Library’s website).  This article not only describes many historic buildings but the political decisions being made in 2004 that would affect their future. (Sadly, the City Council led by John Hieftje failed to preserve the Individual Historic Properties described.  “Then and Now” indeed.)  It also shows the mix of archived (old) photographs from Grace Shackman’s research and the contemporary photographs made by her husband and collaborator Stan Shackman. (The Shackmans collaborated on two photographic essays as well, Ann Arbor in the 19th Century and Ann Arbor in the 20th Century.)

HistoricAnnArborCoverFrontAnother name that springs readily to mind in discussing Ann Arbor’s historic legacy is Susan Wineberg.  Like Grace Shackman, she is the author of books and articles, and a longtime student of Ann Arbor’s historic buildings. (An archive of her documents is maintained by Eastern Michigan University.) Her book, Historic Buildings of Ann Arbor,  is evidently out of print but is available as an electronically accessible version.

Now Wineberg has put this long experience into a guidebook, Historic Ann Arbor, published by the Ann Arbor Historical Foundation.  Together with her co-author Patrick McCauley (who has been active in restoration and is the current chair of the Historic District Commission), she has organized information about the currently existing historic buildings in Ann Arbor so that it can be used in different ways – an individual look-up of a given building,  with use of an index for historic figures associated with different buildings, a look at one’s own neighborhood, or even a walking tour.  (The book is organized by geographical sections with maps. Each map is marked with numbers that refer to the buildings, named in sequence.)

The book begins with a succinct and useful summary of architectural styles, with pointers to Ann Arbor examples.  Knowing the style is useful in appreciating an individual building, and this book takes us from the Federal Style (1780-1840) to the Brutalist Style (1955-1975).  Happily for Ann Arbor’s charm quotient, the latter style has few representatives here.  Regarding the Federal Style, it is a reminder that Ann Arbor became a village in 1833, before the founding of the State of Michigan.  So we go way back.

Then, arranged by neighborhoods with those useful maps, the buildings are listed with approximately a page of description each, and a black-and-white photograph.  Each entry has a number of interesting notes about the history of each structure.  Who knew that the Fleetwood Diner was from a kit produced by the Dag-Wood Diner company, ca. 1948?  Or that Gloria Steinham was the featured guest at the Hermitage reception to benefit the Ann Arbor Feminist House (1972)?.

This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity.  As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book,  “Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.”

(Our previous posts on this subject are now indexed under the Historic Preservation category.)

ADDENDUM:  The price for Historic Ann Arbor: An Architectural Guide is $35.00 plus tax.  It is available at several Ann Arbor independent bookstores and can be ordered through Nicola’s Books or shipped by arrangement with the Mail Shoppe 734-665-6676 (email is MAILSHPPE@AOL.COM) (there is a shipping and handling charge).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Transportation Issue

Posted March 27, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Transportation

Tags: , ,

What do potholes have to do with a local transit millage?  More than you might have thought.

snyderholesUnderlying the discussion of a new millage to expand our local transit system is the general frustration of the public at large with Michigan’s transportation system, most specifically the condition of the roads. Almost every political discussion now ends with a public cry: What about the potholes?  The liberal political group MoveOn.Org, usually concerned with social issues, has a petition asking state lawmakers to fix the potholes. The Michigan Democratic Party is even trying to make this a campaign issue with a Snyderholes website.  This political message encapsulates the transportation issue:  everyone agrees that it is a huge problem, and also that someone else ought to pay for it.  Note that the suggestion is that business taxes, rather than gas taxes, should be fixing our crumbling infrastructure.

Transportation funding is complex and always contentious. But it is important to understand it if one wishes to make any prescriptions for change.  See our posts on Transit, Transportation and the Money Question (all available from the Transportation Page).  See especially the post on the Comprehensive Transportation Fund as it pertains to transit, and the post explaining Act 51.  Understanding these two pillars of transportation funding in Michigan is key to understanding the fix we find ourselves in.  Transportation has become a zero sum game in that multiple constituencies are chasing fewer and fewer dollars for deeply felt needs.  A central problem in Michigan is that the main source of transportation funding (the state gas tax) is less and less adequate to pay for the increasing needs in infrastructure and service.

Federal funds a problem

Highway Trust Fund ticker. Goes into deficit before end of FY2014.

Highway Trust Fund ticker. Goes into deficit before end of FY2014.

A tax on gasoline is intended to be a user tax in which users of roads pay for them.  It has been the principal means of paying for most forms of transportation.  In the Federal Government, the (Federal) gas tax is the basis of what is called the Highway Trust Fund.    That fund is regulated by the transportation act, currently MAP-21 (expires in September 2014).  Here is SEMCOG’s summary of MAP-21.  MAP-21 is the source of most highway and transit funds that come through to Michigan communities via the Michigan Department of Transportation.  An important thing to know about the Highway Trust Fund is that it essentially funds an entitlement, since funds are distributed according to the formula set up by the current transportation bill.  For example, Federal support for transit projects is distributed by formula rather than by earmarks or other special treatment. But since this revenue source is actually trending toward zero, transportation needs nationally look rather desperate.  Here is an analysis by Transportation for America, a nonprofit interest group. Certainly there is no room there for helping Michigan solve its problems.

Michigan impasse

So, returning to Michigan: a logical solution to insufficient funds would be to raise the gas tax rate, or to add some other form of tax to it.  Last year, Governor Snyder’s budget message proposed an ambitious program of a new way of computing gasoline and diesel taxes plus new registration taxes.  He also proposed a local option that would allow counties to have a separate registration fee to help pay for local transportation.  In our tax-aversive state, this was (as we say in government circles) dead on arrival.  Instead, the Legislature allocated modest sums from the general fund in a supplemental appropriation to patch up a couple of major problems (one of which was the money needed to keep Amtrak’s Wolverine line running).

This year, it has been much the same story, though the Governor dropped the special fixes and simply made budgetary recommendations.  Here is the final version of the supplemental bill (SB 608), as summarized by the Senate Fiscal Agency.  A very rough-and-ready approach assigned $100 million from the General Fund to pay for “special winter road maintenance” and $115 million for “priority road projects” (to be determined by politicians, natch).  Here’s what they said about the special winter road maintenance:

Sec. 702. Transportation. Requires the funds appropriated for special winter road maintenance to be distributed to the State Trunkline Fund, county road commissions, and cities and villages, in the same percentages described in Public Act 51 of 1951, and requires distribution to each entity in amounts proportional to the current year amounts distributed from the Michigan Transportation Fund. Also requires that special winter road maintenance funds be used only for road maintenance, excluding administrative, overhead, and other indirect costs.

So that may help with the potholes in the short run.  (Note the reference to the percentages in P.A. 51.  This is practically the stone tablets of transportation funding in Michigan.  That was P.A. 51 of 1951, and heaven help those who wish to change those allocations.  See more information on those percentages here.) But we haven’t even begun to address generally bad road conditions, including more rural roads that have degraded far beyond potholes.  There are bridges that are unsafe.  (The Legislature advised some warning signs.)

County efforts

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, which includes several commissioners representing rural townships, have been wrestling with the lack of adequate funding for the Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) for many months.  While Ann Arbor and other cities and villages in the County have their own allocation (21.8%)  from Act 51 funds, the rural roads are entrusted to the Road Commission, an appointed body.  They use their own allocation (39.1%) to address all maintenance problems and some of the improvements for rural roads. The news is not good.  As the Ann Arbor News reported, county (i.e., rural) roads are in really bad shape, both from years of “deferred maintenance” and because of the rough winter.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle has reported substantively on the efforts of the BOC to address a problem for which they do not really have jurisdiction (the WCRC has a completely separate administration and governing board; the commission members are appointed by the BOC, but it has no influence over day-to-day decisions).  The BOC has kicked around ideas about absorbing the Road Commission into their own body (in essence, becoming the WCRC) and appointed a subcommittee to look into that possibility, as well as expanding the size of the WCRC and making it an elective body.  According to a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle of their March 1, 2014 meeting, it appears that none of those options will be exercised.

A possibility that appears still to be alive is that the BOC would use a pre-Headlee Act 283 (P.A. 283 of 1909) to levy a millage on all the county for roads.  The discussion, as reported by the Chronicle, seemed to veer between the idea that Ann Arbor and other cities would be allocated parts of this and that use of the funds would be decided by the WCRC.  Unlike post-Headlee legislation, this tax could be enacted without a vote of the public.  Township representatives at the BOC meeting were enthusiastic about this, given support by Conan Smith (an Ann Arbor Commissioner).  But Commissioner Dan Smith was instead suggesting a county-wide road millage to be approved by the voters.

The problem is that most cities and villages already levy special taxes on their residents to pay for their own road maintenance. For example, Ann Arbor voters have consistently renewed a local road millage.  For 2013, it was 2.125 mills. 

We come back to the issues of governance and equity.  Who should pay and who benefits? The discussion at the BOC elucidated those nicely. Commissioner Conan Smith explained the political problems entailed. He is a regionalist and favors having Ann Arbor taxpayers help to pay for rural Washtenaw County roads.  But should Ann Arbor residents help to pay for roads in areas outside the city, especially if they have no say in how those additional funds are spent?

Interestingly, Conan Smith (a city commissioner) and Dan Smith (a rural commissioner) had different solutions, where Dan Smith would allow Ann Arbor voters to make this decision for themselves (a countywide millage is unlikely to pass without a majority vote in Ann Arbor), while Conan Smith would prefer to impose a solution (using Act 283 ) that would bypass the voters.  Conan Smith, who recently announced that he would be running again for his seat on the BOC, acknowledged that he would be moving against the desires of many of his constituents and that this would cause some political problems.  As quoted by the Chronicle,

The road commission doesn’t have control over streets in Ann Arbor. So if he advocates for a tax to fund roads outside the city, and his constituents are looking at the poor condition of city streets, “I’m going to get hammered, right?”… (and later)… “He said he’s cast many votes that were counter to the direct, immediate financial interests of his constituents. For example, he cited the fact that he was in the majority in voting to fund the sheriff’s road patrols. It was a heavily-divided city-versus-township issue, and at least one Ann Arbor commissioner needed to support it in order to pass. He said he was a “different kind of politician than others, because I take that countywide perspective.”

Apparently much of Conan Smith’s interest in this was in bringing the function of the WCRC into the BOC.  In the end, he was the only vote in favor of that option.

There was evidently no discussion of when a countywide roads millage would either be imposed or voted on, or the rate of that millage.  Presumably the commissioners are aware of potential overlap with the urban core transit millage.

One pothole away from transit

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority brought up potholes in their March 20 meeting.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of the meeting included some moments of perhaps unintentional hilarity as board members sought to incorporate information about transportation funding into their own concerns.  Lobbyists Clark Harder and Dusty Fancher were there to brief the board on events in Lansing.  It was pointed out that the public is very concerned about the condition of the roads, which board members evidently took as a bit of challenge to their own priorities.  Eli Cooper stressed the importance of continuing to improve funding for transit. From the Chronicle’s account:

There’s an opportunity right now because the potholes are creating focus. “We should never let a crisis go unused,” he quipped. Harder agreed with Cooper, but said that some of the MPTA members get a little antsy and concerned when everything they read in the newspaper is about potholes. But that is what drives the message statewide. And if that is what they have to use to get more funding for public transportation, then Harder was OK with that –as long as they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

 This moved Larry Krieg to suggest a slogan for the AAATA, “You are one pothole away from public transit”.  Presumably this was meant to say that your auto might be disabled so that you would be dependent on transit.

A reason to vote for the transit millage?

A reason to vote for the transit millage?

CEO Michael Ford, who receives a comfortable automobile allowance from the AAATA, supported this concept by sharing that “he’d had an incident with a pothole this week and found himself taking the bus. “It’s nice to have that option,” he said.

 UPDATE:  Evidently the transit-charm-against-misfortune theme is not restricted to AAATA.  Suburban Detroit’s SMART bus system is coming up for an increased transit millage vote.  Megan Owens of Transit Riders United says  “Any one of us is one broken leg or one bad pothole away from public transit.”   Ouch.  That happened to me. But my own bus route 13 wouldn’t take me to evening meetings – it quits too early.

SECOND UPDATE: MDOT has announced the amounts awarded to each municipality from the special appropriation.

“The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) allocated the one-time appropriation of $100 million according to the Public Act 51 of 1951 road funding formula, meaning MDOT received $39.1 million, counties $39.1 million, and cities and villages $21.8 million.”

“The Act 51 formula is complex. How much a county, city or village receives in funding through Act 51 depends on several factors, including road mileage and population. Counties, cities and villages receiving portions of the $60.9 million must use the money for winter maintenance costs, and not for things such as administration, overhead or other indirect costs.”

Here is the list of awards to counties, cities and villages the list of Michigan counties, cities and villages with their award amounts. Washtenaw County (i.e., the Road Commission) will receive $1,091,502.29 and Ann Arbor will have $461,171.49.  I suspect that the potholes will consume those funds rather handily.

THIRD UPDATE: A proposal has surfaced to rework Michigan’s fuel taxes. Whether it would actually increase money going to roads is questionable, and it is also not clear what effect it would have on transit funding.  Here are a few details as reported by MLive.

 FOURTH UPDATE: A commenter on a recent Ann Arbor News report about transit millage supporters and opponents seems to suggest that I am the source of the anonymous flyer linked to in the report.  While that flyer does reference potholes, it is a rather crude and questionable statement that buses cause potholes.  I don’t support that thesis (haven’t bothered to do their math), am not in the habit of putting out anonymous flyers (I sign my own blog and Twitter account), and emphatically reject any part in preparing or distributing that flyer.

In making some inquiries, I have been told that the flyer was distributed by email among a group of friends.  It is too bad that the Ann Arbor News chose to publish it.

FIFTH UPDATE: The Legislature is moving to assign the $115 million in “priority road projects”.  Expectations (as reported in the Detroit Free Press) are that the assignments will mirror the process from last year, in which almost all projects were assigned to districts represented by Republicans.   Here is the list of such projects from 2013.  Washtenaw County is noticeably missing from the list.  We are completely represented by Democrats.

Trans4M's diagram of effect on transit and other sections of CTF with Bolger's proposal

Trans4M’s diagram of effect on transit and other sections of CTF with Bolger’s proposal

SIXTH UPDATE: Trans4M (Transportation for Michigan) has a post discussing House Speaker Bolger’s proposal for altering the transportation formula.    It is a concern because it would bypass the Comprehensive Transportation Fund. The CTF is the source of much transit funding in Michigan.  The obvious intent is to emphasize roads even more.

SEVENTH UPDATE: Board of Commissioners chair Yousef Rabhi has confirmed that the May 7 BOC agenda will include discussion of road funding and setting of a public hearing.  The agenda will not be available until May 2.  Informal communications indicate that the BOC would set a public hearing for May 21, either for the option to place a millage on the ballot, or for the option to impose a countywide millage via Act 283.  The attractive thing about the Act 283 option is that the money could be available immediately, with the July tax bill, assuming that this item passes on May 21 and the subsequent meeting.  (The BOC customarily votes on such items at Ways & Means after a public hearing, then at the Board meeting two weeks later.) Cmr. Rabhi has informed us that this use of Act 283 is likely not feasible, on the advice of counsel.  May 7 agenda merely lists a discussion of  “options for road funding”. Depending on that discussion, a future public hearing could be set for a ballot measure.

EIGHTH UPDATE: Federal funding could take a real hit if the MAP-21 Federal Transportation Bill is not renewed by Congress.  It expires at the end of this fiscal year (October 1).  Here is an overview from Transportation for America.  The Ann Arbor urbanized area alone could lose $11.8 million in transportation (including transit) funding.

NINTH UPDATE: Here is an excellent, if belated, report of the April 17 Board of Commissioners working session on road funding from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

TENTH UPDATE: The AAATA transit millage ballot issue was a resounding success.  Here are the numbers from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

ELEVENTH UPDATE: Regardless of the information about legality of using Act 283 for a countywide road funding millage (see the SEVENTH UPDATE), the BOC has set a public hearing for May 21, 2014 on possible use of Act 283 for this purpose.  The brief report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle makes it clear that the BOC is not settled among themselves on this issue.

TWELFTH UPDATE: A new report pushes the idea of a mileage-based road funding tax. A report in the Detroit Free Press describes it. The actual SMART Mileage Fee Study is here.  In my opinion, this “road user fee” is a really bad idea from the viewpoint of global warming (it would penalize users of low gas mileage cars).  My guess as to why the Michigan Environmental Council is pushing it is that they are hoping for increased funding of transit.

 THIRTEENTH UPDATE: It looks as though attempts to find new revenue for transportation funding in the Michigan Legislature are dead for the current session. According to Mlive, putting a sales tax increase on the ballot was rejected, as was an increase in fuel taxes.  Senate Democrats attempted to link the fuel tax increase to a low-income tax break, which probably didn’t help.  Here is an additional update from Crain’s.

FOURTEENTH UPDATE:  MDOT has now released the list of special “ priority projects” to be funded by the supplemental legislation. Looks as though the major Washtenaw County allocation was to Prospect Road in Ypsilanti.  That beats last year, when our county got none of the special money (we are represented by Democrats).

FIFTEENTH UPDATE: The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has now appointed a road funding committee. Here is the report from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

SIXTEENTH UPDATE: On July 31, 2014, the U.S. Senate did a last-minute save on the Highway Trust Fund, passing a House bill that barely extends the funding till next spring.  It is a very short-time fix for several reasons, including the means of funding, which were a temporary adjustment in the way pension payments are shown in tax filings (“pension smoothing”). There is no long-term solution to HTF underfunding.  The main transportation bill, MAP-21, expires at the end of September.

SEVENTEENTH UPDATE: President Obama has now signed the temporary HTF save bill.  (Maybe that syntax is ugly, but so was the bill.)  Here is an overview from Transportation for America.

Now the countdown can begin for MAP-21 (expiring September 30).

 

 

 

The Transit Question

Posted February 23, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, Regional, Transportation

With a May millage vote scheduled, the question of whether Ann Arbor and its immediate neighbors really want an expanded transit system should finally be resolved.

At last the board of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority have voted (after a good deal of hesitation) to put a measure on the ballot which will ask the public to endorse their vision of an expanded transit system.   The board of (then) AATA had a “straw vote” (nonbinding) in May 2008 to become a regional authority, rather than one centered in Ann Arbor.  In November 2009, the board t00k a formal vote to move toward becoming a countywide system and began calling in the experts to figure out how.  That effort was an embarrassing failure, as we have documented in our Topsy Turvy Transit series.  In a recovery move, AATA launched a campaign to establish a smaller Urban Core regional authority.  They encountered some of the same barriers (regional and township politics, limitations of the Michigan governance system) and were not able to persuade even all of this smaller number of targeted municipalities to join them.

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield retains its POSA, Saline does not participate

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield and Saline are not authority members.

In the end, only the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township have joined the newly named AAATA.  (As this formal description of the service plan indicates, Pittsfield Township and the City of Saline remain active participants in talks and have service scheduled, hypothetically to be paid for by Purchase of Service Agreements, or POSAs.)  Thus, the millage vote set for May 6 will be held only in the City of Ann Arbor, the City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township.  Voters in all three municipalities will be asked to vote for this:
ballot languageThe campaign has already begun.  AAATA, as a public body, is not legally entitled to campaign for passage of the millage, but has an “information” page that pushes beyond simple facts into persuasive language.  A campaign by a coalition supporting the millage called “More Buses” is already soliciting contributions (it is largely fueled by Partners for Transit via the Ecology Center).   And now an opposition group is registered as Better Transit Now (their website is not yet active).  The Ann Arbor News has covered the contest with quotes from the participants.

Regardless of the outcome, this ballot issue should help to resolve the direction that AAATA will take in the future.  If the millage passes, the organization will likely continue to seek expanded regional initiatives (already they are contemplating additional “express” buses, including one to Belleville).  If the ballot fails, it should at the minimum be a moment for some serious soul-searching.

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle now has an article describing the AAATA meeting at which the vote establishing the ballot issue was taken.

SECOND UPDATE: On his blog, Mark Maynard discusses the transit millage with some of its proponents.  They have few kind words to say about the opponents.  Martha Valadez, who is described as the field organizer for More Buses (she works for the Ecology Center), says this about the measure’s opponents:

They just refuse the truth and, instead, produce false information, stirring up fear.

Unfortunately, Valadez herself is given to careless use of the facts and overstatements of her position.  An example:

People involved in this anti-millage campaign complain that Ann Arbor is subsidizing services for Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. This just isn’t true. Each individual community would, under this newly proposed plan, be paying for the services they would receive in the five-year plan.

Actually, the City of Ypsilanti is even now being subsidized by taxpayers in the City of Ann Arbor.  The millage currently being collected from Ypsi City no longer is adequate to pay for their basic service, let alone the expanded service currently being provided.  The additional revenue from the 0.7 mills in the ballot measure would only be about $202, 700, which might just pay for current service but not much more.  What Ypsilanti Township expects to do is to move its current POSA costs to the millage collected by the authority.  Strictly speaking, Ypsi Township will not be paying anything at all as a community.  While Ypsi City’s taxpayers will continue to pay their current millage of just under 1 mill in addition to the new millage, Ypsi Township will simply offload its current general fund expenditure onto the new millage, and then ask for more service.  Here is the final text of the Ypsilanti Township funding agreement with the AAATA.

Fortunately, Maynard also includes policy wonk Richard Murphy (“Murph”), who makes a number of useful observations about route planning (hub-and-spoke emerging into a “spiderweb”).

Interestingly, Maynard’s guests draw comparisons to the failed AADL bond issue, saying that “the same people” are behind the opposition to the transit issue.  Actually, the only person that the two campaigns really have in common is Kathy Griswold.  But it sounds better to make the opposition into a tax-hating cabal.

THIRD UPDATE:  The history of the campaign against the AADL bond measure, which was on the November 6, 2012 ballot,  seems to have become relevant to this transit millage issue.  Here is a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle listing the three campaign committees that formed to oppose the measure.  They were Love Our Library (Sheila Rice, treasurer), Save the Ann Arbor Library (Douglas Jewett, treasurer) and Protect Our Libraries (Kathy Griswold, treasurer).  Protect Our Libraries was probably the most muscular effort. Here is a contemporaneous story about the campaign that shows some of the advertising.

The committee supporting the bond measure, Our New Library, led by Ellie Serras, had a stellar list of endorsers and raised over $71,000, with in-kind contributions of just under $10,000.  In contrast, Protect Our Libraries raised less than $3,000 in cash and had an in-kind contribution by an advertising agency of about $33,000.  (Much of the campaign was run on its treasurer’s credit card.) (Libby Hunter, the treasurer for Better Transit Now, informs me that she was also part of the Protect Our Libraries campaign.  I don’t know in what capacity.  Both she and Lou Glorie contributed modest amounts to the campaign.)

morebusesThe measure was defeated rather decisively (55.17%  No, vs. 44.83% Yes).  (Here is the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)  It wasn’t supposed to happen.  All the right people and the big money got behind the AADL bond and expansion.  Now that the transit millage campaign is being promoted in a similar way – lots of support from organizations and community leaders, confident media campaign, a puppy-love kind of subject (though buses perhaps less cuddly than libraries) – there seems to be some concern that an upstart group could once again deal a killing blow.

My take is that the library campaign was less the issue than that the community just didn’t buy it, or at least not enough voters did.  I think this millage vote is likely to rest on just such a question: is this what we want for our community?  The discussion won’t be over for some weeks.

FOURTH UPDATE:  The AAATA has now published a “report” that is a further marketing piece for the millage.  It has a number of “facts” that will need to be examined closely.  Some of them come from older general reports (state or national).  As an example, it claims that there will be a 15% reduction in drunk driving for each additional hour of evening service.  This “fact” references a Cornell University study conducted in 2008 that examined the effect in the Washington D.C. area of service via the Metro.  A preliminary draft of the study shows some meticulous protocols and data-gathering.  For example, the estimates of the amount of drunk driving are based in part on DUI arrests.  They also study the effect of placement of bars vs. Metro stations, and identify at which bar a particular DUI originated.  As you might expect, a location effect exists.  Bars located more than a 5 minute walk from Metro stations showed less reduction in DUIs than those located within a 5 minute walk.

Now, intuitively, if public transit is available and drunks are either smart enough or encouraged by friends to take transit, it will indeed cut drunken driving.  But what kind of numbers are we likely to see in a highly dispersed rural area?  What is the location of most bars in regard to transit stops?  Where are our drunks coming from?  (Let’s just exclude all our campus drinkers from the question – many of them presumably walk home.)  I don’t think a census has been performed, thus this is not a “fact” as far as the Ann Arbor area goes, just a nicely intuitive suggestion.

I’m sorry to say that this approach to data and presentation of facts seems to be rather typical of the AAATA’s marketing approach.  It shouldn’t be necessary to get down in the weeds and check every number, but I guess it will have to be done.

FIFTH UPDATE:  The Ann Arbor News has published a twin set of reports on the transit millage.  The first describes the objections that Ted Annis, a former treasurer for the AATA, has about the millage.  This article refers to a number of datasets about AAATA budgets and performance.  The second is primarily about salaries paid to AAATA officials.

Part of the interest in the two articles are the comments.  While some of them are the usual trolls, there is some serious discussion about such issues as efficiency, fares, the University of Michigan’s arrangements with the AAATA, and resistance to additional taxes.

SIXTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report on a Board of Commissioners meeting where a discussion of the transit millage was held brings up an interesting point: to what extent will the millage solidify the income separation of Ann Arbor from the two Ypsilanti communities?  Yousef Rabhi is quoted as saying that he endorses the millage but not the idea that Ann Arbor should thus give up its accessibility to housing based on income.  “Rabhi said he wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports using public transit to divide the community based on socioeconomic levels.”

 SEVENTH UPDATE: The question has been answered.   The Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti communities voted “yes” to an additional transit tax, with an authoritative majority of over 70%.  Some numbers here in the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.

The AAATA can now place the orders for those buses.  The July tax bill will include the new millage and preliminary plans for implementation begin as soon as August.  The 5-year plan is detailed on the AAATA website.

Some elements of the plan require assent by communities not in the Authority, notably Pittsfield Township and Saline, to contract with AAATA for increased service. That will bear watching.

 

AAATA and the Zen of the Millage Vote

Posted January 16, 2014 by varmentrout
Categories: Regional, Transportation

Will they or won’t they?  The tantalizing wait for a May millage decision.

The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been on a long journey.  We began reporting  in December 2009 on their efforts to put in place a county-wide transit authority.  It’s been a long Ride.  On November 8,  2012, the culmination of much planning, consulting, execution of legal documents, and public engagement collapsed when the Ann Arbor City Council voted to opt out from the nascent authority, in the face of the withdrawal by virtually every other jurisdiction in Washtenaw County.  But the AATA got busy and assembled “urban core” communities for some serious talking.

Partners for Transit cartogram representing communities' areas as a function of population

Partners for Transit cartogram showing population (click for larger)

The idea was to put together a smaller, tighter version of the countywide plan to serve only the relatively urbanized communities surrounding Ann Arbor.  This matches the population profile of the county and makes sense, as mass transit does require some masses.  They had some measure of success.  They have now succeeded in expanding the authority to include the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.  Other communities continue to be reserved about jumping in to a membership that includes being vulnerable to a future millage tax.  Still, the newly christened Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority plans to include Pittsfield Township and perhaps the city of Saline and village of Dexter via longer-term POSA contracts.

With that in hand, the AAATA has been involved in a major public engagement campaign for the new, reconfigured 5-year plan.  Our post Moving Us Forward: The Urban Core Expansion Plan explains that in some detail.

Now the AAATA has refined their plan, following public input. Tonight (January 16, 2014) the Board will be asked to approve the revised 5-year plan (formally the Five-Year Transit Improvement Program) “for implementation when local funding is secured”. The plan has a roughly $5.47 million funding gap. That is what is supposed to be filled by an authority-wide (Ann Arbor, City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township) millage.  There is also a fairly hefty expectation of additional POSA funds. (Click the figure for larger view.) Note that the expected millage amount is still 0.7 mills, as has been estimated for months.

Estimated funding gap calculations from AAATA resolution

Estimated funding gap calculations from AAATA resolution

Who moved my millage?

But what is missing from tonight’s agenda is an approval of a millage ballot measure.  Partners for Transit, an organization formed originally to promote a countywide transit organization, today put out a public statement calling for AAATA to authorize a millage measure.

Partners for Transit, a coalition of business and community leaders, religious groups, social service organizations, and environmental organizations today called on the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority to propose a new millage to advance the AAATA’s five year plan for improving public transportation in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and the neighboring region.

The account on the Ann Arbor News mentions that “AAATA officials have been talking about putting a 0.7-mill tax on the ballot in May to fund the expanded services in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township”, and doubtless PFT assumed that this vote is on tonight’s agenda.  But it isn’t.  Further, there is no mention of this issue in the minutes of the Planning and Development Committee, where agenda items are usually discussed.

Now, this is very peculiar.  We’ve been hearing for months about a likely May millage vote, and it is already being debated by the public.  Indeed, I spoke at public comment to the PDC two months ago and urged them to go ahead and schedule the vote. But apparently, AAATA administration and Board are still weighing their options.

The May ballot made sense for an important reason: the property tax collection schedule.  Local property taxes are collected in July.  A millage on the May ballot would mean that money would start rolling in for an August implementation, and indeed schedules presented at the fall workshops seemed to factor in that expectation.  A millage passed either at the August primary or the November general election would not be available until July 2015. This would put off implementation by a full year.

There was some urgency in getting the matter voted on by the AAATA Board.  There are statutory deadlines for putting measures on the ballot.  Two steps, first informing (by “petition”) the local clerks, then getting the final language to them for the ballot.  Here are the deadlines for this year.

millage deadlinesNote that unless AAATA holds a special board meeting,  they will already be too late for a May election.  Further, if they want to put something on the August ballot, they’ll have to act by April.

This was an error and the table has been replaced with one showing correct dates.  The “petition” step does not apply to ballot measures placed by a governing board, but rather to petitions which require collection of signatures.  In each case, the Board meeting for a month in which action is necessary does precede the deadline in that month.

Why the holdup?  We can only speculate.  There is always a strategy involved in getting a ballot measure passed.  We don’t know what the fine details of all the surveys that they have been conducting.  Has there been some uncertainty about public acceptance?  Any tax issue is always controversial. But positive survey results are not necessarily a guarantee.

The later elections this year seem to be problematic for a couple of reasons.  One is the possibility (probably remote) that the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority might also place a transit millage on the ballot.  This seems not very likely reading between the lines of the Detroit News report of the RTA’s recent meeting.  They have had some setbacks, including a lack of support from the State Legislature and the loss of their selected candidate for CEO, John Hertel.  But the Chair of the RTA board, Paul Hillegonds, is quoted as saying that they have enough funds to get along for a while (mostly just to pay staff, not to undertake any initiatives).

Even more troubling might be the chaotic nature of current Ann Arbor politics.  With John Hieftje’s departure from his mayoral chair, the music has been getting downright frenetic, with four council members running for mayor and three new council candidates for vacated seats (partial summary here).   The months of June and July are likely to be steamy regardless of the weather.  The November election looks calmer in the city, but it is a gubernatorial election and there will be plenty of action at the polls for statewide seats.  Based on the November election of 2012, Ann Arbor is likely to contribute about 64% of the voters to an AAATA-wide election.  (The City of Ypsilanti is about 7%, Ypsilanti Township 28%.)  So the political mood in Ann Arbor could be important to the AAATA.  In addition, it is always the mix of voters for a particular election that matters.  Is a bigger turnout more or less favorable?  Typically there are many more voters, often less informed, in the November elections.  For a millage vote, it might be better to try to turn out favorable voters in a smaller election.

A timely report on tonight’s (January) board meeting from the Ann Arbor Chronicle provides one possible reason for the delay; a May ballot will incur more costs (because they’d have to pay for the election) than later.  With all the money spent to date, it seems it might have been worth it.

UPDATE: AAATA has already issued a press release regarding the Board’s approval of the plan.  Here is what they say about a millage:

AAATA officials say they are considering a recommendation that calls for the TheRide Board to approve placing a 0.7-mill, five-year property tax increase proposal on the 2014 ballot for residents in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. The date of a potential election is still to be determined pending the outcome of the AAATA Board’s decision.

SECOND UPDATE: In a follow-up article on Ann Arbor News AAATA Board Chair Charles Griffiths describes the potential benefits of the plan for “this year”, apparently without understanding that a deadline for the May ballot is about to pass without his board’s action.

THIRD UPDATE: I’ve been informed that I am misinterpreting the ballot deadlines.  The petition deadline applies to measures for which signatures must be collected. (See corrections in the body of the text.) The relevant deadline for a May ballot is February 25, for ballot language.  So it looks as though they can still make it.  But why the delay in approving it?

FOURTH UPDATE: Here is a report from ModeShift of the latest RTA meeting in which there was discussion of both an RTA millage and possible conflicts with provider millages (including AAATA) .

FIFTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has produced a comprehensive summary of the January 16 AAATA meeting, in head-spinning time.

SIXTH UPDATE:  At their Planning and Development Committee meeting of February 11, 2014, AAATA board members sent forth a resolution to place a measure calling for an authority-wide millage of 0.7 mills on the May 2014 ballot.  This is likely to sail through the February 20 board meeting without a hitch, in time to be submitted before the deadline.

This is a boon to Council and Mayoral candidates, who are now relieved from being asked questions about their position on this measure prior to the August primary.

SEVENTH UPDATE: As predicted, the AAATA board voted unanimously to place the millage on the May ballot, after some carefully staged political theater (many speakers were present to urge them on). Excellent coverage by the Ann Arbor Chronicle has the details.

Regionalism Reconsidered II

Posted November 26, 2013 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, Regional, Transportation

So what is Ann Arbor’s region?

In our first post in this series, we noted the importance of the concept of regionalism in current political discourse. But we also noted that there has been little discussion of the impact of regionalism on “the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.”

First, what is a region?  It is a general term, of course, but there have been a number of attempts to define our region.  Here is an overview.

Let’s Make a Plan

SEMCOG region of 7 SE Michigan countiesBroadly speaking, in its simplest formulation regionalism is practised by information sharing and coordinated planning across jurisdictional boundaries. In Southeast Michigan, the regional planning agency has since 1968 been SEMCOG (the SouthEast Michigan Council of Governments).  This is the designated Metropolitan Planning Organization for Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne Counties.

As their website explains, SEMCOG is the contact point for many governmental programs, including regional transportation planning under MAP-21 (Federal trust fund), air and water pollution under those Federal acts, housing and land use under Housing and Urban Development (Federal) and many other Federal planning projects under MFPRS.

SEMCOG is also known for its data collection and summarization of items such as census figures, and its projections of population, job growth, etc.  These are sometimes taken as predictions, a mistake.  (It would be entertaining but time-consuming to go back 20 years and track how closely these projections have been made real over time.)  On the basis of all these data and projections, they consider trends and how to address them in their work program.

SEMCOG doesn’t implement or do.  SEMCOG facilitates discussion and makes plans.  Here is what the site says about how they operate (emphasis is mine):

All SEMCOG policy decisions are made by local elected leaders, ensuring that regional policies reflect the interests of member communities. Participants serve on one or both of the policy-making bodies — the General Assembly and the Executive Committee. These bodies act on recommendations developed through SEMCOG’s various engagement methods. We engage regional stakeholders from local governments, the business community, and other special-interest and citizen groups.

The significance of that statement is that all parties are equally represented.  That is a governance model that is very easily understood.

Regional Transit Coordination

regional transit authority2The Regional Transit Authority, formed as a result of state legislation, involves just four counties, all of which are also part of SEMCOG.  As we noted early on, there was some degree of fuss about how representatives were to be allocated to four counties and the City of Detroit, but after some down-to-the-wire legislative high-jinks last December, it materialized as a reality.   The authority is temporarily housed on the SEMCOG website, where meeting notices are to be found. (Evidently, minutes are not yet being made public.)

Information on the RTA is only sketchily available.  It will, according to its legislative mandate, coordinate the transit agencies within its borders (currently, DDOT, SMART, and AAATA).  In the future it may also create some regional high-capacity transit corridors.  According to an account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the RTA is still looking for a source of operating funds.  It is working with a small grant from MDOT and a minimal appropriation from the original legislation.  One possibility was use of local bus operating funds, which would have reduced the ability of local transit agencies to provide transit.  That has now been excluded by agreement.  The authority could place a millage on the ballot for all four counties next year, or could attempt to impose a special vehicle license fee, which would also require a majority vote across the four-county area.  (No opting-out by individual counties is possible.)

Good for Business

One of the drivers for regional planning has been to enhance the opportunities for economic development.

a2 successAn early attempt at a regional economic entity in Washtenaw County was the A2Success venture.  This was an initiative of the Board of Commissioners and took the “suits around a table” approach.  In October 2007 a number of community leaders were assembled to launch a county-wide effort to boost regionalism in several areas, including education, transportation, business marketing and incubators, and human services. (One of the participants was a guy named Rick Snyder, a local entrepreneur.)  They formed “action teams”.  Several projects were launched and took on their own identities. washtenaw One was ReImagine Washtenaw; another was the effort at a countywide transit authority. The “A2Success” title referred to the notion of rebranding all of Washtenaw County as Ann Arbor. The idea was that Ann Arbor was a nationally recognizable location with a favorable image. Indeed, SPARK (an economic development not for profit that is partly supported by tax dollars) has characterized itself as AnnArborUSA.   Although A2Success is still listed on the Washtenaw County Economic Development webpage, its website is no longer active; an annual report  was last published in 2009.

Livingston plus WashWhile SPARK has retained its “AnnArborUSA” title, it has pushed into new territory.  It has had a business incubator in Plymouth Township (Wayne County) for some time.  In 2011, it moved into Livingston County as well.  In a telling statement at the time, its CEO, Paul Krutko, is quoted as saying, “We recognize the old parochial boundaries that are from the 18th Century … are not how the 21st Century works”.

Greater Ann ArborNow those boundaries have been expanded over six counties.  Greater Ann Arbor includes not only Washtenaw County and its adjacent semi-urbanized neighbors Livingston and Jackson Counties, but also rural Lenawee and Hillsdale Counties, not to mention Monroe County (which is due south from Detroit).

Located at the crossroads of the nation, anchored by the University of Michigan and home to one of the world’s most highly educated workforces, the Greater Ann Arbor Region is equipped and ready for business. No one can imagine, engineer, build and deliver your idea to the world better than we can.

Talk about a reach!  It was announced in MLive this month by Councilmember Christopher Taylor.  SPARK is, of course, involved.  As quoted by MLive,

Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO Paul Krutko said that the new region will help all parties involved by allowing them to take advantage of the Ann Arbor name while giving companies more flexibility when exploring the region.

The 10 state prosperity regions in Governor Snyder's initiative.

The 10 state prosperity regions in Governor Snyder’s initiative

The geographic form of this enlarged Ann Arbor is easily traceable to Governor Snyder’s Regional Prosperity Initiative, which divides the state into ten economic zones.  We are Zone #9.  As the page describing the initiative acutely observes,

Michigan has numerous regional entities, including regional planning and development organizations, metropolitan planning organizations and workforce boards. Unfortunately, they were designed in such a way that results in overlapping goals and competing priorities.

And in another paragraph:

As it stands today, many of Michigan’s regions and their various public planning and service delivery entities have overlapping responsibilities yet competing visions for their economic priorities. The absence of a broad based regional vision and coordination of services create both redundancies and gaps.

required participantsSo what does the Regional Prosperity Initiative amount to?  It is a competitive grant program.  As the Governor’s message indicates, the intent is to avoid additional “layers of government or bureaucracy”.  Regional entities are encouraged to apply for grants from $250,000 to $500,000 (it is a little unclear whether that is a one-time grant or annual) to enact a 5-year “regional prosperity” plan that will have a “performance dashboard and measurable annual goals”.  This is classical Management By Objective language.  The required participants are split between existing educational, “workforce development” (typically training and employment counseling), economic development, and transportation agencies.  Clearly the intent is to create an efficient business environment with good transportation and readily available employees throughout the region, as well as to facilitate recruitment of new business to the area.

Something is missing

So what do all these regions have in common? Mostly, they have no power and no relationship to the population of the region.  And they are lacking a reliable funding source.  SEMCOG has some power in that it allocates grants, and its funding is by dues paid from the constituent governments, who are all represented.  The Regional Transit Agency will eventually have the ability to levy taxes (if the measures pass) and to make changes in local transit provider plans so that the area’s transit is better coordinated.  But the funding for those local transit plans is mostly based on funding by the localities where they are based, so that the issue of governance of this additional layer of bureaucracy will likely re-emerge over time.  Neither of these agencies has the power to pass or enforce laws and regulations over the region.  The economic development initiatives appear to be most active as marketing efforts.

It is notable how variable and inconsistent the regions are in their definition.  Washtenaw County is included in the greater Detroit metropolitan area in two, and separated from it in another.  (What in the earth does Washtenaw County have in common with Hillsdale County?  Not the politics, at least.)   Does it make sense to try for “regional cooperation” when the regions keep shifting?

In the end, all of these efforts are destined to be limited in effect, because they have no effective governance mechanisms.  Unless Michigan localities choose to be blended into regions, or unless the State Constitution is radically amended, most of these efforts will be talk, even if very well-informed talk by estimable citizens sitting around those tables, and staff generating reports with many tables of data.  As we indicated in our first post of this series, it is very difficult to get localities, especially townships, to give up any level of sovereignty.

ADDENDUM: Alert readers will have noticed that I left out one recently-discussed region encompassing Ann Arbor: the “urban core” that AAATA is basing its recent expansion on.  We discussed that at length in a recent post, Once Again, AAATA Exceeds Its Reach, and the post that follows it.

UPDATE:  Another important “region” for Ann Arbor is the Ann Arbor MSA, or Metropolitan Statistical Area.  This is a census region that includes the actual city of Ann Arbor but is actually the entire county.  Some articles and reports talking about Ann Arbor or ranking it according to various measures are actually referring to the MSA because that is a region for which the census collects a lot of data.

The Milken Institute recently rated cities according to their economic development success, or “performance”. Ann Arbor was placed in “large cities” because the rating really applied to the MSA  (Ann Arbor’s rank was 87, a loss of 11 notches in rank since last year).

SECOND UPDATE: Bridge Magazine has used the Governor’s economic regions in an analysis. They indicate that Region 9 (aka Greater Ann Arbor) nearly matches the Grand Rapids region in expected job growth for 2023, both just a little over 9%.  Of course, that is simply a projection.  Don Grimes was involved in the study. He links economic growth to population.  (Can anyone say “young talent”?)

THIRD UPDATE:

MDOT divides the state into 7 regions. The yellow one containing both East Lansing and Ann Arbor is the "University" region.

The yellow region containing both East Lansing and Ann Arbor is the “University” region.

Yet another region that Ann Arbor belongs to is significant in transportation planning.  The University Region is a planning category for the Michigan Department of Transportation.  Projects are assigned by region, and there are staff specifically tasked for the region.  Ann Arbor is separated in this case from the Detroit Metro region and combined with nine other counties, including Ingham  County, the location of Michigan State University.  Recently MDOT released a list of accelerated road projects that received additional funding from the Legislature.  None of the projects in the University Region are located in Washtenaw County.

FOURTH UPDATE:

ModeShift’s David Sands with another excellent transportation article, this one about SEMCOG’s role.

FIFTH UPDATE: SEMCOG has now posted a compilation of all their transportation initiatives.


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