Fairness and Transit: Where AATA Is Moving Us

Is the countywide transit plan fair?

Underlying many of the debates about the “transit transition” – whether we should move to a new type of  “countywide” transit authority – is a question of fairness. For most government programs some people will always pay more than they receive in benefits and others will receive them while paying almost nothing. We have generally accepted that in order for society to work, we must pool our resources and distribute them on the basis of need.   But we hate it when that isn’t done fairly.

Because of the tax revolt that started in the 1970s and most recently with the rise of the Tea Party, this question of fairness in taxation vs. benefits is a constant source of friction among us.  Many people now think that they should receive a direct benefit from paying taxes, in a payment for services rendered model.  This has a lot of problems, including that it is sometimes hard to recognize the benefit.  A thought-provoking recent article in the New York Times revealed that some of the people (and the states) that have become most vehemently opposed to taxation and to government benefits are the ones who most benefit from those programs.  As the article says, “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it.”, yet those who consider themselves middle class are increasingly dependent on government programs.  Paul Krugman reflected on this in an excellent column and pointed out another study that “points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system… that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they ‘have not used a government program.’”  He concludes, “Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on.”

The need for fairness is apparently built into our very nature.  A great deal of research with both animals and humans indicates that we are “hard-wired” to a sense of fairness.  So while children can readily be socialized (and may not require much) to share their cookies, they will protest loudly if they are required to give them all away.   This is an example of distributive justice and we feel it on behalf of others as well as ourselves.  It is reflected in actual brain activity and some studies have shown that aggressive behavior can result if actions are perceived as unfair to the group.

One way this is often expressed is the concept of “social equity”.  Except for those serious tax-haters, most people still recognize that we should, in effect, redistribute resources (wonkspeak for “money”) from those who can afford to pay to those who have less but who still have human needs that we recognize as a societal responsibility.  I’ll share my cookies with you rather than see you go hungry.  But note that concept of the “deserving poor”.  If you eat my cookies and then pull a candy bar out of your back pocket which you eat in front of me without sharing, I’m going to be angry.  Many people are suspicious that others are in essence doing this, taking benefits and then using their own resources for private purposes rather than paying their own way.  “Paying your own way” can either mean that you put just a small contribution into the common pool, or that you carry out some obligation that you have accepted as a condition of receiving the benefit.  An example would be that you use a scholarship to obtain a degree and become a productive worker, rather than spending it all on beer and pizza.

Regions used for the survey (click for larger map)

AATA has endeavored over the last several years to start a broad public discussion about public transit, how it is used, what its importance is, how desirable it might be.   There have been endless public meetings, press releases, and educational materials about their Transit Master Plan.  (See Moving You Forward for history and the TMP reports.)  There have also been surveys to gauge public response, and the latest has finally been released.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account is probably the most accessible way to review the results.  (The full set of presentation slides is here.)  It is clear that public acceptance of transit is very high.  Almost all the respondents (91%) said that transit was important, and the AATA itself got a positive rating from 89%.  But once the subject of how this will be paid for was raised,  approval became more fractured. The overall response to the question,  “would you be likely to vote for a 1-mill tax to support an expanded program?” was 59% (after some discussion of the issue); but this was strongly influenced by geography.

The survey was taken in four geographic regions (the full report that discusses actual distribution of samples has not yet been released), and the results differed by region.  While 68% of Ann Arbor residents said that they definitely or probably would vote for a millage, 56% of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield residents, 48% of Saline and eastern townships, and only 42% of the western townships, including the city of Chelsea, gave this positive answer. (Click to see a full-size chart.)

The telling reasons behind reluctance to vote for a millage even when approval of the idea of transit is so high are (quoting from the Chronicle):

They were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for everyone in the county to pay for a tax that mostly benefits Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And they were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to pay more than others for transit benefiting everyone. A roughly equal number of people agreed or strongly agreed with each of those sentiments (32% and 30%).

In other words, the underlying question in many minds is really a question of fairness.

Next: evaluating the question of fairness in the transit transition.

Note:  Other posts in this series are listed on the Transportation Page.

UPDATE: The final report on the survey is here.
Like any 97-page report, it will take time and study to analyze, but it gives an interesting insight into the difficulty of conducting a proper survey (sampling controlled, etc.) under the current conditions in which many people, especially younger ones, no longer have landline telephones that are listed in public directories.

Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation

10 Comments on “Fairness and Transit: Where AATA Is Moving Us”


  1. If AATA wants to pass this thing, they are going to need to explicitly and insistently reframe the discussion. Exurban taxpayers only seem to talk about fairness when it comes to transit millages — there is never any question raised about fairness when it comes to road maintenance.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Could you expand on that? Yes, road maintenance is certainly a broader transportation issue that interacts with the provision of transit, but I’m not sure what you are getting at.


    • What I’m getting at is that my tax dollars pay for roads in a remote rural area I personally may never use. Is it unfair that part of my tax dollars nonetheless go toward those roads?

      • varmentrout Says:

        I think that you are pinpointing the issue of pooled resources vs. local benefit, in other words the distribution problem. The distinction is perhaps the method of imposing a tax. Your tax dollars used for rural roads are mostly gas tax dollars from the state and Federal transportation programs. Those dollars are allocated across the country according to various formulas (WATS, or Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, is an intergovernmental group that allocates funds locally). So while fairness in distribution is always debated, it is difficult for you to say that your tax dollar is being used in Lima Township.

        With the transit millages, taxpayers are asked to make a voluntary contribution to a local system. This makes the uneven distribution of services much more personal.

      • Andy Says:

        So I’m still subsidizing other people’s roads, the same way I subsidize all kinds of other services I don’t use. I don’t see how whether the subsidy happening at a local, state or federal level makes a difference except insofar as it it is a more convenient argument for a rural voter who doesn’t want to pay more taxes.

      • Andy Says:

        BTW, don’t get me wrong, I am not sold on a countywide authority yet either… I just think don’t buy that it would be unfair to rural voters.

  3. john floyd Says:

    One observation: no one, whether they live in Ann Arbor/Ypsi or out-county, trusts the AATA or its successor to manage county-wide transit well/equitably. This absence of trust is worth paying attention to.

    Suspicion: this is simply about moving more commuters into Ann Arbor, period. This is not about income redistribution, or taking care of our brothers, helping the poor, or any higher motive. It’s simply about getting the Ann Arbor public to subsidize the work commutes of out-county and out-of-county residents, so that employers don’t have to.

  4. Ken Says:

    @john floyd, several folks through out this whole process have pointed out that many individuals particularly in Ypsi “desperately need” this transit expansion to connect with employment. Personally, I agree that some type of expansion is needed, however, I truly believe this goal is reachable with the AATA as it is today. My question or objection with this is how much are we expected to pay for this enhancement?

  5. varmentrout Says:

    Andy, I gather that you are playing a devil’s advocate role here. My only response is that a sense of fairness is all about perception and feeling, not necessarily logic.

    A point I was trying to make in the post is that people’s view of fairness is often not logical or particularly reasoned out. But we can still discuss it and perhaps modify initial responses.

    Now I need to get the rest of my series on fairness out!


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