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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Regionalism Reconsidered

Posted November 3, 2013 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, Regional, Transportation

What are the realistic outcomes of Regionalism? In Michigan, can it live up to expectations placed on it ?

Regionalism has been a recurrent theme that we have been exploring.  (See our post of two years ago, Is Regionalism Really A Good Thing?; we have now added Regional to our category list, which will make searching for related posts more feasible.) The subject keeps coming up. Many recent initiatives in the Ann Arbor area have been linked to this concept. In particular, transit and transportation planning have revolved around a regional vision.  But there has been little debate about the significance of regionalism to the overall health and long-term development of communities, in other words, to the public good.  Nor has the concept truly been explored and explained in any depth, at least not at the popular level.  (I’d welcome citations to some scholarly work that applies to Michigan or comparable states.)

Rather, a faith in the power of Regionalism has emerged as a category of received wisdom.  It seems that every new City Council candidate expounds on its virtues without the impediment of having studied its history or implementation.  As a very recent example, here is what Chip Smith, a write-in candidate for the Fifth Ward council seat currently held by Mike Anglin, had to say in an interview on the blog Damn Arbor.

Economic Development also includes developing regional transit solutions to more effectively move people into and out of the City…(it) has to grow our regional economy so we can continue to make investments for the future and provide the public services we need to be a great place to live. (skip)We also had a debate during the last budget cycle about making sure we keep five fire stations operating. What’s the return on this investment? Can we engage our neighbors like Pittsfield and Scio Townships to develop a regional partnership to more efficiently provide the same, or better, level of service than we have today?

Unfortunately, such rosy viewpoints ignore the actual structure of Michigan governance and the history of past efforts. Here is a white paper on Michigan governance that lays out the history and impediments to action across governments. Briefly, the history makes clear that the strong direction of Michigan legislation and law has been to strengthen the power of townships and to inhibit the ability of cities to expand.  This has also meant that the development of metropolitan governance so successful and celebrated in other states (think, Portland) (note, Seattle) has been virtually impossible in Michigan. We have previously discussed, notably in this post, township governments and their approach to funding, that make cooperative efforts difficult.

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

Washtenaw County regional planning groups active in 2005

I confess to being a recovering regionalist.  As a county commissioner, I was intent to bring these concepts to Washtenaw County.  The County had a long-standing and successful Metropolitan Planning Department.  It was my mission as a planning commissioner and later as the first chair of a new Planning Advisory Board, to bring a new County Comprehensive Plan into being, which we achieved in 2004.  This was the springboard for many regional initiatives. At the time, Washtenaw County planning had been facilitating many regional planning groups.  Their discussions went beyond land use planning to many issues of mutual interest.

A countywide workshop was held in 2005.  The background material, Thinking and Acting Regionally, encouraged localities to engage in issues from solid waste disposal to farmland protection to transit, as well as sharing expenses for necessary services and using growth management techniques to avoid an undue demand for new services.

Unfortunately, it was all for naught.  As detailed in a scholarly paper by Carolyn Loh and Neha Sami (of Wayne State and University of Michigan, respectively), the Washtenaw Planning department came to an end even in the midst of a major burst of activity in initiating regional cooperation in the county. Here is the abstract:

Advocates have long claimed that a regional land use planning approach achieves gains in equity, efficiency, and environmental protect(ion), but few studies have empirically tested these claims. In this case study of a regional planning process in a weak mandate state, we find that the regional plan would have produced better land use outcomes, but its impact was severely limited by political conflicts at the county level, a recession that necessitated cuts to non-mandated services, and a lack of state leadership around regional planning. Ultimately, all these factors contributed to the eventual disbandment of the entire regional planning structure in the area.

After County finances suffered a collapse during the national fiscal crisis (and the collapse of housing values and thus taxable value), the Board of Commissioners decided to cancel the entire enterprise.  This memo to the Planning Advisory Board (which was soon to be disbanded) details the many regional initiatives that had been begun in the interim between the Comprehensive Plan (2004) and the memo (2009).  Most of those were abandoned.

Still, the golden gleam of regionalization still calls to those who hope.  The fire protection cooperation idea has been recurrent and its advantages are clear.  (Here is a Washtenaw Metro Fire Cooperation overview from 2006 of a county effort.)  Yet, it seems every time county townships consider it, there are very small steps indeed.  In this recent account, Pittsfield Township joined a cooperative effort based on a technological enhancement.  Here is what the Pittsfield Township fire chief had to say about it:

“I see it as a step in working together. There are good points and bad points to regionalizing,” he said. “In some places it works great and some places it’s not so great. So in Washtenaw County, if it ever happens, we’ll have to wait and see.”

In the next series of posts, we’ll continue to consider what regionalism really offers here and elsewhere.  Does it really improve the human condition?  Some thoughts to consider.

UPDATE:  Detroit’s water system is a case study in regionalization of a vital resource.  This editorial in the Detroit Free Press outlines the issue with some useful links.  It’s the same quandary as with other regional initiatives: control vs. who pays vs. cost vs. “equity” (i.e. supplying a service to those who need it but can’t really pay).

While it might seem that this is a problem for another set of communities, Detroit water actually serves a substantial number of Washtenaw County residents.  Ypsilanti City, Ypsilanti Township, and Pittsfield Township at a minimum rely on Detroit water, as does the neighboring Wayne County Canton Township.  Meanwhile, Ann Arbor has been a regional water source for some other communities, including notably Scio Township.  There are unanswered issues about the future role of Ann Arbor’s limited system in that regard.

SECOND UPDATE:  The effort to regionalize Detroit’s water system has apparently failed.  Here is the Free Press coverage of the latest developments.

 

 

Moving Us Forward: The Urban Core Expansion Plan

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

Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

Click on the thumbnail to see both sides of flyer. Similar flyers for other wards.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is moving forward with a new Five-Year Plan for expanded services.  They describe this plan on their recently remodeled website and have been conducting public meetings all over Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. In the meeting I attended, emphasis was given to local (5th ward) routes and enhancements in detail.  The flyer at the right lists many specific route changes.  (There was a surprisingly vigorous discussion, with one current bus user objecting to some of the “enhancements”.)  Clearly, much planning and fine-tuning has gone into the proposal.

The map below shows detail about enhancements in the Ann Arbor area.  (Similar maps are available on the website for the Ypsilanti and Pittsfield areas.)  Here are a few quick points about the changes:

  • New routes are shown in blue, old ones green.  Express Routes purple.
  • Note that most of the new routes are on the west side of Ann Arbor.  (These have letter designations instead of numbers, but this is temporary.)
  • Routes “leak” outside the borders of the City of Ann Arbor, with excursions into Scio and Pittsfield Townships. Scio Township is not participating in the Urban Core plan but a bus would run along Jackson Avenue to Zeeb Road.
  • There is no expanded service into Ann Arbor Township on the northeast side, despite the complex of medical services and offices at Domino’s Farms in that area.
  • There are several Express Routes shown, including the present ones to Chelsea and Canton, and new ones to Belleville and the Walmart/Saline complex on Michigan Avenue.
Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

Proposed enhancements for Ann Arbor area. Click for larger image.

In my judgment, there are many reasons to say this is a lovely plan on functional grounds.  For example, the plan allows people from Ann Arbor to seek employment at Meijer and presumably makes all the commercial and nonprofit  (like the family shelter) opportunities accessible.  Some of the commercial spots in Pittsfield, like Costco and Walmart, plus the Pittsfield library branch, are also made accessible.  It is rather concerning, however, that the northeast side of Ann Arbor and the WCC/St. Joe’s area appear to be receiving no enhancements.

So, as is always the question: how will this expanded system be paid for?  As we indicated in our previous post, the City of Ypsilanti has joined the authority and Ypsilanti Township has requested to join.  Pittsfield Township and Superior Township will apparently just maintain their current POSA contracts, while Scio Township and Ann Arbor Township have declined to play.  The City of Saline is also a nonparticipant.

As was explained at the meeting, a major cost of implementing the plan will be buying new buses.  Most of the buses in the existing fleet were purchased with Federal funds, but for a variety of technical reasons those won’t be available to expand service. improve and expandAll this will not happen without a major infusion of cash.  As we reported earlier, there was an informal consensus at the “Urban Core Meetings” that the “Improve & Expand” option was to be selected.  According to the description offered, that option will require an annual additional revenue of $5.4 million by 2019 (the last year of the Five-Year Plan). (Since Pittsfield and Saline are not participating, the actual figure is not clear.)  Much money is needed to start up. The planner, Michael Benham, stated, “We’re using every cent we’ve got right now.”   So where will the cash come from?

It is an open secret that AAATA hopes the answer will be a new authority-wide millage.  (The authority is expected to include Ypsilanti Township, along with Ann Arbor and the City of Ypsilanti, the two current members of AAATA.)  The number mentioned is 0.7 mills, to be approved by voters in May 2014.

So as explained in the public meeting, Year One of the Five-Year Plan will begin in August 2014, assuming that a millage passes through the entire authority in May 2014.  This was not obvious, since the assessment and tax cycle has various milestones.  A November millage vote would not provide revenue until the succeeding year.  However, since taxes are paid every July, the May vote will deliver the needed revenue in the same year as the ballot.

AAATA is currently on a charm offensive, with many meetings with local officials and the public meetings.  Although officials have been careful to say that the AAATA board has not yet authorized a millage vote, it is clear that that is in our future.  But the outcome is not certain.  Will voters endorse the plan with their dollars?

UPDATE: AAATA has now released electronic versions of flyers for all Ann Arbor wards.  Here they are.Ward 1 Ward 2  Ward 3  Ward 4  Ward 5

NOTE: A list of previous posts on this topic can be found on the Transportation Page.

The Reach for The Ride: Local Governments and Funding

Posted October 20, 2013 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, Regional, Transportation

As we have noted before, transportation is one of those governmental functions that is almost necessarily delivered on a regional basis.  Yet two local concerns inevitably appear almost immediately in any discussion of a regional transportation system.

  • Governance: what power does any one locality have over what services are provided?
  • Equity: who pays, and who benefits?

In Michigan, as again we have noted, these concerns are made especially vivid by the strong tradition of home rule. Regional transit is a vision gladly embraced by many, and it is rightly described as having many potential benefits in providing connectivity across borders and economic benefits.  (For an excellent overview of recent regional transit efforts, see this recent article from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

Our previous post suggested rather harshly that the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority was “exceeding its reach”.  That judgment was based on the expectation that the AAATA will run up against those same two obstacles in its effort to achieve a somewhat more limited version of its county-wide 5-year plan.

Here is the blunt truth: Township officials are conditioned by tradition and possibly legal constraints to spend money only to the extent that it buys a direct service.  They will not easily contribute to a regional approach in which monetary contribution and location of service delivery are disconnected.  But the very essence of a regional system is that resources must be made available to the entire system without regard to the source of the funds.

Another blunt truth is that even when the money to be spent is not coming from township coffers, officials will be very cautious about subjecting their residents to taxation via a regional tax.  One argument often made is that even though a “vote of the people” may be required for a new tax (such as a transportation millage), the relatively low-population townships and small cities can be “swamped” by votes from larger urban areas.  One reason people choose to live in townships is the lower tax rate, and placing them in hazard of a new tax is politically unpopular.

best for usFor these reasons, a broad vision of improved connectivity and access across the “urban core” will always be trumped by a careful accounting of the precise benefits to each unit.  This quote from MLive coverage of Pittsfield Township deliberations makes the point: “(Mandy) Grewal (Supervisor) noted that Pittsfield Township opted out of joining a proposed countywide busing authority last year because the township was unclear on service levels it would receive and didn’t have a good cost-benefit analysis.”   Even more illustrative, from MLive coverage of Ypsilanti Township deliberations, (Trustee Stan Eldridge) “I’m in favor of the AAATA expanding transportation, I’m just a little uncomfortable with some things … and I want to make sure we’re doing what’s best for our residents first and the rest of the county and region second.”

A limited result

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

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

What is unfolding is that AAATA will not succeed in their broader plan.  However, they will manage to bring in both Ypsilanti communities, on unequal terms.

The final steps have now been taken (admirably summarized by the Ann Arbor Chronicle) to incorporate the City of Ypsilanti into the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.  It is now the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, with one seat on the board designated to the City of Ypsilanti. (The Ypsilanti City Council must still approve the Transportation Funding Agreement , scheduled for November 5, but it appears unlikely that they will fail to do so.)  By the agreement, the City will transfer its transit millage to the AAATA, less an administrative fee of 1%.

This expansion of the AAATA to include the City of Ypsilanti solves the problem that they had run up against their ability to tax themselves adequately to pay the POSA charges required not only for their previous routes, but for the expanded #4 service and additional Night Ride service that were provided as part of the “advance implementation” of the countywide transit plan.  On practical terms, it means that Ann Arbor taxes are now supplementing Ypsilanti’s millage to provide transit to Ypsilanti.  My own view is that this is a good bargain.  Ypsilanti is our sister city and our success depends on their success, in community terms.  The two cities together really are our “urban core”.

AAATA officials have reached out to the other three main communities in the plan with a proposal that they, too, should consider joining the Authority or at least step up their POSA service.  Most of the proposals for additional service date from the proposed countywide plan improvements, with some refinements.  There have been three different outcomes:

Pittsfield Township heard the proposal from the AAATA on September 11.  They politely declined any expansion of service at this time, but left the door open for later.  Supervisor Mandy Grewal, who has always been supportive of expanded regional transit on an abstract level, commented that “she thought the board needed to look for ways to cut the final cost”.  I predict that they will never join the AAATA, since it would expose their residents to a future millage.  They will maintain their current POSA and likely add service on a carefully metered basis as it seems needed, but the broad expansion envisioned by AAATA is unlikely in the near term. (A chart showing proposed increases over 5 years is here; also refer to service plans in pages illustrating the Urban Core concept.)

The City of Saline was very supportive of the countywide plan and was one of the last to opt out.  However, they do not currently receive service from AAATA; instead, they have a contract with WAVE.    Evidently AAATA made a presentation to their City Council on July 1, and were turned down even for limited POSA service ($175,000/year).   An informal newspaper poll showed a small sample were about even on the proposal (37 for, 41 against, 19 wanted a smaller proposal).  The single commenter on the poll probably spoke for many others, “The City just raised taxes stating that there where no more places to cut. And here they go finding new places to spend the money that they confiscated from their own citizens.”   It appears that Saline will not be a joiner in the near future.

Ypsilanti Township voted to join the AAATA on September 9, 2013.  An account of that meeting, reported by MLive, indicates that there was extensive discussion about proposed future expansion of services, though there is currently no funding source for them.   In their resolution asking to join AAATA, the single “Resolved” clause reads

the Charter Township of Ypsilanti Board of Trustees requests membership in the Ann Arbor Area Transportation
Authority in accordance with the State of Michigan Public Act 55 of 1963 and asks the AAATA Board of Directors to approve the request.

At the request of the AAATA PMER committee, they also included a Whereas:

WHEREAS, the Charter Township of Ypsilanti wishes to join AAATA in return for continuing to contribute general fund dollars equal to the cost of providing services represented by Purchase-of-Service Agreement costs to AAATA;

What AAATA board members apparently failed to understand (odd, since some of them have been on other boards) is that Whereas clauses have no force of law.  When a unit of government passes a resolution, the Resolved clauses are binding until revoked.  But Whereas clauses are often used as a summary of known facts or statement of principle.  In this case, another Whereas indicated Ypsilanti Township’s expectations for this arrangement:

WHEREAS, bus service in the Charter Township of Ypsilanti can be improved to more efficiently meet the transportation needs of Township residents by increasing frequency and hours of current operations, as demonstrated by a 30 percent ridership increase on AATA Route 4 and further expanded urban core bus service improvements such as an additional route to service the Ypsilanti District Library and residents in the southern part of Ypsilanti Township, increased frequency and hours on routes in the north, west and east parts of Ypsilanti Township, a new Park and Ride lot and the institution of Ypsilanti Township-wide Dial-a-Ride Service for all Ypsilanti Township seniors and disabled are needed and identified as a part of the future Urban Core transit expansion plan…

As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the AAATA board approved the addition of Ypsilanti Township to the AAATA on September 26, 2013, despite urgings (mine) to examine the fine print more closely.

My interpretation is that both parties have been proceeding from good intent but misleading impressions.  This is essentially a “handshake” arrangement in which Ypsilanti Township, unlike the City of Ypsilanti, brings no fixed financial contribution to the table.  All along, the Township has evidently been persuaded that they can better the services offered to their residents without any real cash on the table.  In fact, Karen Lovejoy Roe suggested as much at an early urban core meeting – that if the authority-wide millage passed, they could remove the burden from the general fund.

AAATA depiction of relative millage contributions (dollars are not shown)

AAATA depiction of relative millage contributions (dollars are not shown)

The material provided by AAATA staff reinforces that intent. As the figure indicates, the promised POSA contribution from the general fund will be omitted if an authoritywide millage is passed.  The new millage (paid by Ypsilanti Township residents as well as the other two communities) will also pay for expanded service in the Township.

AAATA published a concept paper with many questions and answers.

Here are a couple of points about the millage and the POSA. (Added emphasis is mine.)

  • Question: If Ypsi Township becomes part of the AAATA organization, will they no longer have to pay for services under a POS contract? Answer: Only if Ypsi Twp becomes a member AND there is a successful millage, would Ypsi Twp stop paying for service from their general fund and start paying the full cost of service through their millage contribution.
  • Question: Is there a backup plan in case new funding through a millage is not approved? Answer: If millage funding is not feasible for any reason, the AAATA will continue running the services already being provided, funded through existing mechanisms, including the POSA mechanisms that have existed for over thirty years. As property values continue to rise in Ann Arbor, AAATA revenues may increase sufficiently to add new services. We can also increase service to the nearby communities if they are willing to increase their POSA payments.

If no millage, what?

So AAATA is running up against its limits.  Although its administration has demurred on the plans for a millage, it is clear from all their planning documents that they are depending on the passage of one, perhaps in May 2014.  They have brought no new revenue in through their expansion efforts, and have only succeeded in expanding the authority to include the two Ypsilanti communities.  This will doubtless lead to more expectations (and probably needs) for increased service.  (Note that the concept paper hinted that increased services would be available via Ann Arbor tax proceeds.) But to pass the millage, they will have to persuade the Ann Arbor public that they will vote in an additional 0.7 mills in taxation in order to accomplish this truncated expansion of transit services.

UPDATE:  The Ann Arbor City Council voted to postpone the resolution approving the addition of Ypsilanti Township to AAATA.  See coverage by the Ann Arbor Chronicle .  It will be taken up again on November 18, when the new Council is seated.

SECOND UPDATE:  Regarding the obligations of township governments to spend for the benefits of their residents: I have been provided with this article with a summary of lawful expenditures for township governments.  Clearly any township trustee would feel quite constrained in making broad commitments.

THIRD UPDATE: The Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce evidently intends to make a recommendation to the Ann Arbor City Council regarding the Ypsilanti Township addition to the AAATA.  They invited me to present my views at a committee meeting on November 12.  Here is the position paper I prepared for them.  As you will see, it also includes an overview of tax equity issues for a future millage.

FOURTH UPDATE: The Ann Arbor City Council voted to include Ypsilanti Township in the AAATA, but not without some debate.  Here is the account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 42 other followers