AATA: Moving Us Along

Where we stand on the county Transit Master Plan process

Action has started on moving the countywide transit plan through the planned governmental hoops.   Actually, there is some confusion implied by that sentence, which exists also in the legislative mind.  There are two processes, not one.   (Though they are presented as one; see our post, AATA: Moving Us Where? The Big Picture for a review and overview of the process.)  It is important to know that these two processes are running on their own timelines and that each could occur without the other.

1. The Transit Master Plan (also the “countywide transit plan”)was devised over a couple of years and finally distilled in the form of four reports that can be found on the Moving You Forward website.  It also exists as a complex model on the computers of AATA’s consultant, Steer Davies Gleave.  SDG is an international force in transportation planning, based in London (England), which contributes to small slips in spelling (Britishisms in the TMP) and other tell-tales (referring to costs in pounds on a conference call).  But their computer model is obviously of a high level of sophistication that allows what-if scenarios whereby one can put in assumptions and change figures, for example predicting what happens if a fare is increased.

In the TMP, a number of services are listed that are actually separate programs.  Each of these has its own targeted audience, timeline, cost structure, and funding source, all residing somewhere in SDG’s algorithms.  For many of them, the funding source is still hypothetical, if predicted.  But a number of them have been launched and are already some place along their programmed progression.

ADDENDUM:   A good overview of the “aggressive” progress toward the countywide plan, with links to the work plan, was provided in AnnArbor.com’s report of the 2012 budget.

2. The New Authority, a transit authority to be established under Act 196 (PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY ACT, Act 196 of 1986).  This Michigan law permits the establishment of an authority that embraces more than one “political subdivision”.  The New Authority (evidently it is intended that a permanent name will be determined later) must be established under Articles of Incorporation, with clauses as defined in Act 196.  “Formation of a public authority pursuant to subsection (1) shall be accomplished by adoption of articles of incorporation by an affirmative vote of a majority of the members elected to and serving on the legislative body of each political subdivision.”  In this case, since it is to be a Washtenaw County authority, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners must adopt the articles (AOI).

Two processes, not firmly linked

These two processes are related but not identical.  For example, some parts of the TMP are already being implemented by the AATA.   But AATA has been moving in the direction of forming a countywide authority for over two years with a resolution in November 2009 (reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle). They launched this with a public forum in December 2009 that featured a number of officials from other communities and legal experts.  AATA’s own attorney, Jerry Lax, provided a valuable short guide to the process (pdf here) which recommended an Act 196 authority to achieve the goal of a countywide transit authority.  He described several options, including a “layer cake” option whereby Ann Arbor’s charter millage would be retained, layered with a countywide additional millage.  Now this has become an even more complicated dish with the Ypsilanti city charter millage brought in, as perhaps the fondant filling.

Meanwhile, the TMP itself has been developed by AATA staff over the same period, with many public meetings to learn “the vision” that county residents have.  It has emphasized the wishes of Washtenaw County residents for a plethora of possible services, without specifying either a price tag (until late stages) or means of payment.  There is a support group, Partners for Transit, staffed by the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS).

Forming the New Authority

As described, the process seems pretty simple.

  1. The Board of Commissioners votes in Articles of Incorporation (AOI).
  2. The New Authority forms.
  3. Political subdivisions get a chance to opt out (but only once, and right away).
  4. The authority levies any taxes available to it, currently pretty much limited to a property tax millage, which under Michigan law requires a ballot vote.

But the process in our local situation has gotten a lot more complicated.

  1. A 4-party agreement is signed by Washtenaw County, AATA, and the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
  2. The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners votes in the AOI.
  3. Before actually filing the AOI, the makers of the 4-party agreement (AATA, operating under what guise is a little unclear) promise to provide certain information and take certain steps.  Some of these are spelled out as contingencies in the 4-party agreement.
  4. There is a separate event, the “closing”, in which all assets of the AATA are transferred to the New Authority, and the charter millage of both cities is assigned to them.  There are contingencies to that in the 4-party agreement.
  5. The makers pledge that a source of publicly voted funding will be secured before (4)  (although, as noted in the Chronicle’s excellent account of the recent Ann Arbor City Council meeting, there is an apparent contradiction in the language between two of the contingency statements).
  6. The makers also pledge to give the whole thing up if they haven’t secured funding by December 31, 2014, (and? or?) closing has occurred by December 31, 2015.

So why did this get so complicated?  After all, according to Act 196,

All tax revenue, or real or personal property or property rights, money, authorizations to levy a tax, and all other rights, duties, and obligations of an existing authority that forms a public authority in accordance with section 3 shall be assumed by and transferred to the public authority created under this act without execution or delivery of any document or instrument transferring or assigning them.

But the second paragraph in that clause has some telling language:

However, a transfer or assignment shall not be made which materially adversely affects the contractual rights of a person having a contract with that political subdivision.

It could be argued that since the Ann Arbor public voted in the original AATA millage, there is a contract with the City of Ann Arbor to provide a city transportation system.  (Click on the image to see the full language of that section.)  Presumably the same is true with Ypsilanti.

As we noted in a previous post,  there seems to be a terrific rush to position the New Authority to be our transit provider, without actually fulfilling all the contingencies and completing the transition.  In our post, we worried about the possibility of a “soft transition”, one in which actions could take place prior to actual closing that might obligate the New Authority prior to its assuming the full mantle of Ann Arbor’s transit authority.  This is, of course, not a certainty.  We need to examine the legal position and also the ongoing actions of the makers to see how likely this outcome is.

Michael Ford, the executive director of AATA and the TMP/New Authority’s chief ambassador, has evidently heard some of these concerns from councilmembers and others, and appeared at the January 9, 2012 Ann Arbor City Council meeting to reassure councilmembers.

His PowerPoint presentation is linked in the AnnArbor.com report of the meeting.  In addition, he has answered many specific questions from councilmembers in a recent letter. (pdf of Ford’s letter to council)

These statements contain a number of assurances (though these are always difficult to sort out from actual guarantees) that will need to be analyzed in a future post. But it should be noted (again) that a number of aspects of the TMP are already in place, and proceeding along their separate timelines.

Current milestones in the New Authority timeline

Meanwhile, where do we stand?  The Ann Arbor City Council has postponed a vote on the 4-party agreement until January 23, 2012.  In an act of generosity to the Ann Arbor public (or at least, the worriers among us), the Mayor and Council have granted a (not required by law) public hearing on the agreement.  By the rules of a public hearing, it is not necessary to sign up ahead of time and as many people who wish may speak.  (Generosity is when Council consigns itself to a possible 1-2 hour extension of their meeting.)

The Ypsilanti City Council, meeting the day after the Ann Arbor City Council, most prudently and understandably decided to put their own resolution endorsing the 4-party plan on hold until Ann Arbor has decided what it wants to do.  (Article from AnnArbor.com)

Further, there is no item on the January 18 agenda for the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners  (regarding either the 4-party plan or the AOC).

There is also no item regarding this matter on the January 19 agenda for the AATA board meeting (they would have to accept the 4-party plan as a formal resolution, presumably after at least Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have signed off).

Other significant dates:  The u196 board (appointed, essentially, by the makers) is scheduled to meet on February 6.  The AATA board has only three representatives on that body, Jesse Bernstein, Charles Griffiths, and Rich Robben.  However, Rich Robben is said (in the current AATA board packet) to be leaving the AATA board, and presumably the u196 board.  Their task is to define what the New Authority will do.  They have relatively little impact just now on the Transit Master Plan.  (Note that this is not actually the same board as will govern the New Authority, which is supposed to include all 7 AATA board members.)

The Financial Task Force (appointed by the AATA) is to meet on January 27  (after the Ann Arbor Council next considers the matter).  (Again, see this post  for a description and list of members.) Their task is not really about the New Authority, but about the Transit Master Plan.  They have a number of recommendations from a subcommittee to consider that materially affect the TMP, plus they are supposed to come up with a funding proposal.

As we watch this process for the New Authority work its way through with hitches and side diversions, it is important to remember that the Act 196 authority is  not the only way to achieve countywide transit, but merely the one that was chosen.  Though it is often presented to our local officials that they are voting up or down for countywide transit, they are merely voting on a single way to achieve that.

(Note:  Topics relating to this post can be found on our Transportation Page.)

UPDATE:  Looking again at the legislative calendar, the City of Ypsilanti council meets again on February 7.  Assuming that Council passes an amended 4-party agreement on January 23 (which seems likely, given the force behind it),  and that Ypsilanti also approves it, this would position the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to approve the 4-party agreement on February 15, unless (as very well might be) they choose to wait until all other parties have finalized it.  Since the AATA Board does not meet again until February 16, the earliest the BOC could consider the agreement would be March 7.

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

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