Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance

Some public services are best performed on a strictly local basis; those aimed primarily at privately owned property, for example.  But others lend themselves best to a broad regional approach, and transportation is surely one of them.  A transportation network needs central planning.  Imagine the Interstate Highway system administered by counties.  Public transit systems logically should be regional in nature, especially in this era where people expect to work at a distance from where they live.  But two attempts in southeast Michigan to institute regional transit have run up against obstacles inherent in Michigan political organization.  The two wannabe regional transit authorities are the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Washtenaw Ride.   Each of these must resolve a matter of governance in order to launch successfully.

Regional transit hopefuls (L to R), Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United, Jesse Bernstein of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and Conan Smith of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, August 2012

Governance is a word that has come into vogue lately.  It alludes to the manner in which government conducts its business and especially the way it interacts with its citizens.  Some of the important elements in this interaction are representation, taxation, and power.   People generally want to believe that they are fairly represented at the decision-making level.  If the body collects taxes, are they proportionate to the function of the governing body?  And does this body exert a level of power over daily lives that is appropriate to its function, not dictatorial or burdensome?

The proposed Detroit metro area RTA has a very specific prescription for how representation will be determined.  As we reported, Governor Snyder proposed a major revamp of Michigan’s transportation laws and system nearly a year ago.  A summary of the bills that emerged to implement this ambitious plan is available in our post, Those State Transportation Bills and the Regional Transit Authority.  Most of the bills have not moved very far.  The bills that would implement the RTA are “tie-barred”, meaning that the principal bill, Senate Bill 909/House Bill 5309, must pass before the others in the package can be implemented.  The best explanation of this package of bills is contained in an analysis from the excellent Senate Fiscal Agency.  SB 909 has been amended  and a substitute (S-3) has been reported out of the Senate Transportation Committee, which I understand to mean that it may be taken up by the Senate as soon as it is placed on an agenda.  The analysis has a good deal to say about governance, specifically about representation. There is apparently some rule that legislation cannot name specific municipalities, thus they have to be described by population and other indirect means. The legislation calls for two members appointed from each of the four counties (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw), plus one appointed by the Mayor of Detroit. This has proved to be an issue that has apparently been at least one reason for the slow progress of the legislation.  Detroit representatives have complained that they should be entitled to more than one seat.  But one of the Wayne County seats is allocated to Detroit as well.  This has led to Wayne County’s complaint that they are entitled to two full seats and the suggestion that Washtenaw County should give up one of its seats. Conan Smith, who as one of his hats has been negotiating on behalf of Washtenaw County at both the state and regional levels, has apparently (according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle) offered to give up one of Washtenaw’s seats in order to seal the deal.  (Smith is very invested in the RTA concept, presumably in part because of his position at the metropolitan Detroit Michigan Alliance of Suburbs;  the MSA is hiring staff to promote the concept.)

Rounded-down figures for population of the 5 RTA communities

Note that the representation is based on a simple formula of equal representation for each geographical unit, except for the single appointee from the city of Detroit.  The populations of the different geographical units are quite different.  If the basis of the appointments was on an equal representation for each person (one man, one vote concept), the result would be very different.  This first table shows the lower figure of population of each unit from the legislation.  Note that the figure for Wayne County must include the population of the City of Detroit, since it is within that county.

Seats apportioned on the basis of percent population, if current 9 members were retained

If we subtract the population of Detroit from Wayne County, it still holds its own as one of the highest populations among the five communities to be represented in the RTA.  If we then apportion the number of seats based on percentage of the total population, Detroit and Washtenaw would both have only one, while the biggest two counties would have three. The problem with such a solution is that these are all sovereign entities, each with local constituencies and concerns.  Pride is a factor, especially for Detroit. But self-preservation also makes joining an alliance as a weaker member unsavory.  The possibility exists that the more powerful (in terms of votes) communities could force policies or requirements down the throats of the weaker ones.

Another way to apportion seats could be by relative monetary contribution.  But since this is to be funded by vehicle registration fees, it could be a shifting number over time, and it could also be a measure of the relative affluence of each community, which would presumably disadvantage Detroit, again unpalatable from a political viewpoint.  Yet on the other hand, one suspicion that participants in a regional venture have is that this is not a cost-sharing opportunity, but rather a cost-shifting move.  In other words, that the suburban counties (including Washtenaw) might be picking up the tab for Detroit.  This has its own political calculus. Emphasizing the difference in monetary contribution could also lead to heavy-handedness on the part of the larger contributors, and to squabbles over what the exact proportions are, or other factors.  The lesser contributors might also fear that their needs would be slighted in favor of the more powerful members’ priorities.

The rationale for passage of the bill package and establishment of the RTA shifts depending on whose eyes you are looking through.  To Transportation Riders United, it is a simple question of needing adequate bus transit service within the greater Detroit area.  Bus transit in the Metro area has a sad confused history, as recorded in this detailed chronology.  Two different bus systems, Detroit Department of Transportation (City of Detroit) and SMART (regional transit authority which serves Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties) do not interconnect adequately and leave many functional gaps in transit coverage. This is frustrating to everyone from riders to civic leaders to economic development planners.  We explained in our earlier post that improving this coordination is apparently one motivation for the new RTA.  Dennis Schornack, the Governor’s spokesman, intimated at one meeting that his intention (not expressed in these words) was basically to smack the two authorities alongside the head and make them behave.

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission. Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

But this wasn’t what the Governor stressed when he made his presentation.  Instead, he stressed the importance of rapid efficient transit within the metro area, including to Detroit Metro Airport.  As explained in various venues, this would be in the form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes.  The famous example of this is Cleveland’s Euclid corridor line.  BRT routes in the purest form are segregated lanes with high-tech long buses, somewhat like a small train.  They are necessarily express routes, especially over a long route like those being proposed here, so they don’t stop at every corner.  The purpose is to enable commuters and business interests to travel quickly to the economic center in Detroit.  This is favored by economic development planners.

In spite of these two bus-related types of motivations, the RTA legislation has languished in the legislature.  Suddenly in September, the House Transportation Committee held a public hearing on the bills.  (No action was scheduled, just the hearing.)  Many business and civic leaders turned up to testify, along with a crowd of enthusiastic transit supporters.  But in watching it, one suddenly realized that the subject for many of them was not buses, even BRT.  The subject was light rail.  A group of investors has been pushing a light rail line down Woodward Avenue, called M-1.  It is 3.4 miles in length and it could be argued that it is less about transit than about development and economic revitalization.   But the investors have run up against resistance from the Federal government when seeking grant funds to help finance it.  It turns out that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pressing local leaders to achieve a regional transit authority before Federal funds will be made available.  From this Detroit News story,

LaHood has said federal officials are prepared to offer $25 million for a proposed light rail project on Woodward “if the community can get its act together.” On Monday, he wouldn’t specify the amount, but noted one of the hurdles is the creation of the regional authority to coordinate mass transit.

The Michigan Chronicle lays out some even more specific points about the pressure being put on legislators:

We’re willing to put on the table millions of dollars if this community can get its act together,” LaHood said of the Metro Detroit region… I met with the speaker of the house and senate majority leader and they told me that they support the idea of a regional transportation system and that legislation.

The story goes on to quote Governor Snyder in saying that he hopes that the Legislature will address the matter in the lame-duck session.  That makes sense from a strategic viewpoint because it is a time that legislators can take action with relatively little fear of retribution from constituents.  [I’m sure that Conan Smith is hoping it will be passed as immediate implementation (otherwise it might not take effect until next year).  One provision is that the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners appoints the two Washtenaw County members of the RTA board, and his term as Chair expires on December 31, 2012.]

There are many fine details to this legislation that deserve attention, including the question about the true priority for attention and funding.  Is it the bus system?  The BRT? The M-1 rail?  The voters of the four counties will still have to approve the vehicle fees, and the description of what services are being provided will be critical.  The populations of the three counties outside Detroit may not be persuaded by the M-1 priority, for example.  New taxes usually hold out a promise for delivery of services.  Will that be convincing across the region?

And ultimately, the message to the voters will have to deal with the governance question successfully.  Voters from each municipal unit will have to be convinced that they are signing on to a system which represents them and for which they receive at least some direct benefit.  Of course, since Washtenaw County has such a small proportion of voters, our vote may not matter much.

UPDATE:  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners acted to withdraw support of the RTA on November 7, 2012.  It is not clear what effect that action will have on the ultimate fate of the initiative.

SECOND UPDATE: The Detroit News reports today (November 27, 2012) that the RTA legislation is having a rough go in the state legislature.  Ironically, much of the story focuses on the possible loss of funds for M-1.

The story mentions the actions earlier this month withdrawing BOC endorsement of the idea:

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution this month saying the county wants to manage its own transportation systems and funds and let voters decide whether to join the authority. Ann Arbor and several townships opted against forming a countywide bus system.

There are numerous issues, including funding and condemnation powers the new authority would have.

The story quotes Mark Ouimet, who lost his re-election bid this year when Gretchen Driskell was elected instead.  Ouimet was a major supporter of the RTA concept.

THIRD UPDATE:  News services report that the RTA passed the State Senate this afternoon (November 27), with amendments.  Washtenaw County is still included in the region.   SB 0909 passed 22-16.  SB 0911 passed 22-15.  SB 0912 passed 23-15. SB 0967 passed  23-15.      SB 0445 passed 23-15.

FOURTH UPDATE: Most measures have now (December 9, 2012) passed the House and are anticipated to be signed by the Governor. (SB 912 and SB 0967 are still pending.)

For further updates on this subject, see The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress.

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

One Comment on “Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance”

  1. Larry Krieg Says:

    Well thought out article, as usual Vivienne. Thanks for “going regional” in your coverage! ;-)


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