The Transit Question
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.
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:
The 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.)
The 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.
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