AATA Yesterday and Tomorrow

Last night (June 16, 2011), the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board took the first step toward implementing its Transit Master Plan (TMP) for a countywide or regional transportation authority.  Links to pdf files of Volumes 1 and 2 of the TMP are available in the short notice on the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Volume 1 is a very large file; it is titled “A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County” but contains many full-page and full-color photographs from unnamed cities that are not located in Washtenaw County.  Volume 2, “Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy”,  is thin on actual procedural steps and strong on sweeping statements about land use planning.

If fully implemented, the TMP will result in a new (yet unnamed) county-wide or regional transportation authority and the current AATA board will be translated magically intact into a new board, currently known only as the Act 196 board.  As we detailed in a previous post, AATA’s Uncertain Future, the objective is to incorporate under a different state law, Act 196.  Currently, AATA is incorporated under Act 55, which is for a local municipal authority.  They are able to offer service outside the city limits (and do) under Purchase Of Service Agreements (POSAs), by contract.  As an Act 196 authority, they can also offer service outside the county lines – as in commuter rail.

So what will happen to the old AATA?  Will it simply be left behind as a lifeless husk once the brilliant butterfly has emerged?  And most importantly, what will happen to the perpetual millage that Ann Arbor citizens currently pay?

It is worthwhile to recall how AATA began and what its legal basis is, in considering that question.  As we spell out in detail on our Transportation Page,  AATA was incorporated in 1968.  It purchased buses with the help of Federal money, helped out by a donation from the city Sewer Fund.  (Don’t ask me to explain that.)  Then, a citizen initiative, led by (of course!) the League of Women Voters, successfully ran a ballot initiative in 1973 that placed a 2.5 mill tax on Ann Arbor property in perpetuity to support the public transportation system.

But, as usually happens when money is involved, trouble was on the horizon.  According to the history recounted in a citizen’s lawsuit against the City of Ann Arbor, the acting city administrator sent AATA a bill requesting repayment of the city’s subsidy in past years. Further, he informed the authority that it would be levied a “municipal service charge” amounting to nearly 10% of the revenue from the millage. (Ah, how little things have changed.)

The enraged citizens who had supported the millage brought suit against the City in January 1974 and won.  The righteousness of their cause fairly drips from the brief.  Here is how the lead plaintiff described herself:

Sally Vinter, 603 Sunset Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan, is and has for several years…been a resident and a taxpayer of local property taxes and of state income, sales, and motor vehicle taxes.  She has been the chairman of a committee designated “Citizens for a Better Transportation System”, which successfully promoted the 1973 referendum to provide a annual 2 1/2 mill tax levy for mass transportation, as set forth hereinbelow.

In a series of partial judgments (January 10, 1975  ; January 29, 1975; July 24, 1975), Judge Patrick J. Conlin found for the plaintiffs. In a final partial judgment, he indicated that the parties had come to a settlement (we aren’t told the terms) and that no further action on the suit would be taken.

The AATA has been an independent authority ever since then, and the City Council and Mayor have been very little involved, except to appoint board members (who were often long-serving).  But in recent years, Mayor John Hieftje has taken a strong interest in transportation.  He laid this out in a remarkable document, the Mayor’s Model for Mobility, in 2006. As we described in an earlier article, it included a strong focus on two commuter trains, one to Howell and one to Detroit.

Hieftje has molded the AATA board to match his vision.  In a conversation some years ago, he specifically stated to me that he had appointed David Nacht (a Scio Township resident) to the AATA Board in order to promote regional transportation.  Under Nacht’s leadership as the then chair, the board took a straw vote in May 2008 to become a regional authority.  The TMP, if achieved, would complete that ambition, and fulfill many aspects of Hieftje’s vision of a complex transit system, with two commuter trains, in-city routes utilizing light rail or bus rapid transit, and major new infrastructure, including a new train station.

But there are many unanswered questions about the fate of the AATA as a city bus service, and about how that hard-won perpetual millage will be used.  They’ll be in future posts.

Explore posts in the same categories: Sustainability, Transportation

2 Comments on “AATA Yesterday and Tomorrow”

  1. Tom Whitaker Says:

    From Page 31 of the City Charter:

    Funds for Public Transit
    SECTION 8.18. In addition to any other amount which the City is authorized to raise by general tax upon real and personal property by this Charter or any other provision of law, the City shall annually levy a tax of two and one-half mills on all taxable real and personal property situated within the City for the purpose of providing funds for operating and equipping a public transportation system for the City. (Section 8.18 added by election of April 2, 1973)

    I would love to see the original ballot language from the millage, if you can find it. The charter is very explicit that this tax is collected on property within the City to provide a public transportation system FOR THE CITY.

    So, I wonder, how much of this dedicated millage money has already been spent on researching and promoting this countywide (and beyond) plan? Also, can this dedicated City money be used to support the activities of an Act 196 board that is acting on behalf of townships outside the City?

    It seems this *bucket* may have a hole in it.

    • varmentrout Says:

      The language is shown on our Transportation Page, and the original documents with the language are there in a pdf.

      “Shall the Charter be amended to require the levy of a tax
      of two and one-half mills annually for the purpose of
      providing funds for operating and equipping a public
      transportation system for the City?”

      Since all money is fungible and the AATA receives a fair amount of operating money from the state plus a number of Federal grants, it would require a forensic accountant to know whether they are inappropriately spending city millage money for the TMP.

      The whole question of how Ann Arbor’s millage will be used in a 196 organization has been finessed so far. However, the board has already acknowledged that their staff will be staffing the unincorporated 196 board.


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