The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress

On November 27, 2012, the Michigan Senate passed a bundle of bills aimed at setting up a Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.  We previously reviewed this initiative.  The most recent discussion was Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance.  The bill package languished through the summer, as was somewhat anticipated. As early as last January,  transportation consultants told the AATA Board that these bills were not likely to be taken up before the lame-duck session.  (See account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

Before we get into any discussion about the political and functional implications of the passage of this package, let’s summarize the bills.  Note that serious study would be aided by consulting this authoritative overview of the major bills (SB 909, 911, 912, 967) and the analysis of SB 445 by the Senate Fiscal Agency.

Senate Bill House equivalent Link to text Summary
909 5309 SB 909 Creates a Regional Transit Authority with 4 counties, described by population.
911 5311 SB 911 Provides for Vehicle License Fee ($1.20/$1000)
912 5310 SB 912 Apparently overrides local zoning for transit purposes.  Little detail.
445 not known SB 445 Direct Comprehensive Transportation Funds to RTA; RTA would distribute. (Incl Federal funds)
967 not known SB 967 Operate dedicated public transit lanes on highways

Conspicuously missing from the bill package passed by the Senate was a bill introduced by Senator Rebekah Warren.  Senate Bill 910 and its House counterpart HB 5312 would have allowed counties to levy a vehicle license fee of $1.80 per $1000 of the vehicle’s list price. So, for example, the owner of a vehicle valued at $20,000 would pay an additional $36 a year. Oddly, this money would be paid to the county treasurer, not to a transit authority or any transportation agency.  The fee would be in addition to existing vehicle license fees and in addition to the vehicle license fee assessed on behalf of the RTA.  (That fee would be $1.20 per $1000 valuation, so our hypothetical vehicle owner would pay $24 for the RTA plus the county fee, a total of $60 in new vehicle license fees.)  There would have to be a majority vote on a countywide ballot before the fee could be enacted.

December 5, 2012:  The House Transportation Committee reported the entire package out to the House floor without amendment.

Preliminary reports indicate that the House adjourned without final action on the RTA (December 5).

Here is the story in the Detroit News in which the measure failed to gain enough votes and was withdrawn without a final vote.  Presumably it will be reintroduced. interviews Ann Arbor officials on the status of the RTA package and its likely effects on Ann Arbor.

December 6, 2012: The House of Representatives voted in two of the five-bill RTA package.  These can now go to the Governor for signing.

The two bills, SB 909 and SB 445, passed with bare majorities. There are 110 members, so 56 votes are required. The vote for SB 909 was 57 in favor, 50 opposed, and 3 not voting;  56 – 52 – 2 for SB 445.)  The other three bills appeared to have between 45-50 votes on the board before leadership cleared the board and suspended voting on them.   The two bills were also declared by voice vote to have immediate effect, meaning they will be law after the Governor signs them, rather than in the next legislative session.

Here are comments sent out today (Dec. 6) by Representative Rick Olson, who is retiring from the House at the end of the term.  (Emphasis added.)

If we had amended the Senate bills, they would need to go back to the Senate for concurrence with the amendments, and there are not enough Republican votes in the Senate to do so. So rather than risk losing the RTA opportunity once again, the committee approved the Senate bills as they had passed the Senate. As I am writing this, the main RTA bill (Senate Bill 909) has passed the House.  We are continuing to work on changes to some of the accompanying bills. 

As the bills stand, the bills only enable an RTA to be formed, they don’t form one. The region will need to put a plan together and then pass by a vote of the people of the region the funding mechanism. If the region cannot get its act together, there will not be a regional transit plan. If it can, then the region will be able to join the rest of the major cities in the US in providing convenient transportation to its non-motorized residents.

The Ann Arbor City Council has scheduled a special meeting to discuss the impact of the RTA billsHere is the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s description.

December 6, 2012: SB 911 has now been passed with 57 votes.  SB 912 was delayed again. According to MIRS, the House adjourned without action on SB 912 and SB 967. The chair of the Transportation Committee, Rep. Paul Opsommer of DeWitt, seemed to indicate that they will be brought back again.

December 7, 2012: The House is evidently not in session today, as no webcasts are scheduled.  Staff are keeping up with the action on bills.  See for example the page on SB 912, where actions are recorded in the box at the end.

December 10, 2012: The House is not in session until tomorrow.

Murph (aka Richard Murphy) has posted an analysis of why Ann Arborites should not be concerned about the RTA on his blog Common Monkeyflower.  Note that Murph is employed by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

The Ann Arbor City Council’s special session today at 4 p.m. has been moved to the City Council chambers from the Jury Room after a question raised about public access and also use of electronic devices (prohibited in the Justice Center).  CTN coverage still TBD.   This session is to consider a resolution asking Governor Snyder to veto the RTA package, or at least SB 909 which causes Washtenaw to be included in the RTA.

Conan Smith’s letter to the Ann Arbor City Council: Hours before the Council meets to consider a resolution calling for the Governor’s veto, Conan Smith, the mover behind Washtenaw County’s inclusion, has sent a letter imploring the Council to step back from the brink.  It had an attached document that explained aspects of the RTA at length.  Conan Smith letter to Ann Arbor City Council

The scope of Smith’s ambition with this measure can be guessed from this sentence:

Ending the balkanization of our transit systems is a fundamental reform if we are to create a system that serves the broadest set of the population and competes successfully against places like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco for federal investments.

Ann Arbor City Council, December 10, 2012 voted to pass the resolution, slightly amended. Discussion was somewhat subdued. According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the vote was unanimous. Ann Arbor Chronicle account of the special meeting

The story in quotes some officials who have a mixed view of the RTA.

December 11, 2012:

The Ann Arbor City Council’s final resolution regarding the RTA package is now available. DC-1 Protest SB 909 Certified Copy    The resolution removes the issue from the frenetic press of last-minute legislation and pushes it into next term.  It no longer calls on the Governor to veto the existing package.

council resolved

December 12, 2012: The Ann Arbor Chronicle has now published an article detailing the discussion at the December 10 City Council meeting.  According to the article, as of noon on December 12, Governor Snyder had not signed any of the RTA bills.

December 13, 2012: The final two bills, SB 0967 and SB 0912, have still not passed the House.  (By clicking on the links to the bills, it is possible to see their status.  According to the status update, neither bill has yet been taken up again since December 6.)

Today the Detroit News published an article that quotes Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as saying that these two bills must pass in order for Detroit and Michigan to receive the $25 million hoped for the M-1 streetcar project on Woodward Avenue. “The legislation ‘is really one of the last pieces that has to be put in place in order for us to give the green light,’ LaHood said.”

What did we tell you?  (Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance)  It is really all about that M-1 project.

December 14, 2012: SB 912 and SB 967 passed the House “early Friday morning”. According to MIRS, the vote was 57-48 and 56-49, respectively.
The entire package has thus been passed and is expected to be signed by the Governor, since it was his package of bills at the outset.  This completes the program for a Regional Transit Authority that he laid out in his transportation talk on October 26, 2011.  (See our summary with links here.)
There are many questions to be answered, especially for us in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County who depend primarily on the AATA for our transit service.  See our early discussion of this.  Future posts will examine the effects on the AATA and its plans for a modestly expanded regional coverage in Washtenaw County.  Meanwhile, we’ll wait to see whether the plea from Ann Arbor’s City Council to remove Washtenaw from the RTA is effective (my best prediction is that it will be fruitless) and who is appointed to the RTA board, and when.
Some of the bills were passed with immediate impact.  However, Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United predicts that the RTA will take shape 90 days after signing, in March 2013. It will have fiscal authority as of October 2013 (the start of the Federal fiscal year).

Conan Smith to appoint Washtenaw County Board Members

Smith has informed the Board of Commissioners that he intends to move ahead with appointments to the Regional Transit Authority Board as soon as the RTA bills are signed.   Here is the text of his message:

Members of the Board(s) . . . next week the governor will sign SB 909 creating the Regional Transit Authority, which includes Washtenaw County.  The legislation authorizes the chair of our commission (sic) to make two appointments to the board.  I’ve discussed options with Curt and the incoming leadership team and with their support will be making these appointment before the end of the year.  The general terms are three years, but one of the initial appointment is for a single year, so that one will expire within the purview of the incoming board who can review and reappoint or replace my selection.

I’ve invited a small group of community leaders to serve as an advisory board in this process:
  • Rolland (Sizemore, Jr.) as the immediate past chair and Yousef (Rabhi) as the (presumed) incoming chair;
  • Michael Ford, CEO at AATA, to ensure our transit agency’s perspective is represented;
  • Bill Milliken, Jr., to represent the business community; Bill served as the chair of the Washtenaw Development Council for many years and continues on the SPARK board; and
  • Carolyn Grawi, Director of Advocacy and Education at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, to represent the interests of transit users.

We will post notice today that applications will be accepted through the end of next week.  The advisory committee and I will review those applications and create a short list.  From that list I will select two preferred candidates and one or two alternates.  The advisory committee will interview those individuals on December 27 at a public meeting at LLRC, present their responses to me and I will make the final appointments at that point.

It is rare that statute specifically empowers the chair to make an appointment (typically it is the “commission [sic]”), so I recognize that appointing without board approval steps outside of our standard operating procedures — hence the engagement of the advisory board and a public interview process.   I will happily ensure that you all have as much information as you desire in this process as it moves forward.
I’ll be sending a press release out this afternoon and would greatly appreciate your support in distributing it and alerting community members to this opportunity to represent the county.

NB: The body that Smith chairs is the Board of Commissioners. It is often informally called the County Commission, but no such body exists in Michigan law. The RTA legislation correctly identifies the Chair of the BOC as the responsible party in this instance.

Governor Snyder signs RTA package of bills

Governor Snyder signed the RTA package and several other bills on December 19, 2012.  Here is a picture.

Note: Subjects in this category are listed on the Transportation Page.

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9 Comments on “The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress”

  1. Jack Eaton Says:

    Thanks again for keeping us up to date on these developments. The passage of these bills is not likely to be good for our local transit system. DDOT and SMART are each about three times as big as AATA. They are both suffering underfunding. It is hard to believe that any efforts to “coordinate” service in the four counties will provide much benefit to us.

    On the other hand, the RTA may keep our AATA out of the commuter rail business for the foreseeable future. Section 6 of SB 909 requires unanimous approval of all nine RTA board members before any rail service can be initiated. It is hard to believe that the RTA will place much importance on commuter service between Livingston County and Ann Arbor, while the largest city in the state has little or no commuter rail service. Perhaps we will see Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter service, but not until we are done spending money on the M-1 rail from Detroit out Woodward to the suburbs.

    One remaining question for me, will the RTA have authority over other transit operators in Washtenaw County, like the WAVE?

  2. varmentrout Says:

    That is a good question (about other transit operators). What the legislation says, paraphrased, is that it will incorporate transit plans from existing operators and then start to manage them. Would WAVE qualify as an existing public operator, or is it semi-private (commercial) and not amenable to this approach? This will bear a lot of study.

  3. AATA is presently the pass-through entity for state and federal grant money to WAVE. So, as with other rural transit providers – like NOTA in Oakland County, which has a somewhat similar relationship to SMART – I believe the RTA would have umbrella authority over those transactions. I don’t know if it would actually take AATA’s place in the process, though.

  4. Timothy Durham Says:

    The scope of Smith’s ambition with this measure can be guessed from this sentence:

    “Ending the balkanization of our transit systems is a fundamental reform if we are to create a system that serves the broadest set of the population and competes successfully against places like Boston, Chicago and San Francisco for federal investments.”

    I agree with Smith’s statement here. Unfortunately, as often happens in Ann Arbor politics, things I think are important get inexorably tied to one person’s political ambitions. (And sunk for that reason instead of the merits- or lack of merits)

    Since formation of the regional authority has been made (by Ray LaHood) a prerequisite for federal transportation (stimulus?) funding, Smith took his one opportunity to seed the RTA with future votes for future positions for himself. Or so it seems.

    His disregard for the wishes of the very board he appointed to choose RTA members is pretty blatant. But… coordinating regional transportation should be a no-brainer. Why would you NOT want your public transport system to widely integrate? And there will be right-of-way, funding and condemnation issues no matter who runs it. So it’s either support the guy who supports your vision or oppose him on personality grounds.

    It’s an oddly tough call.

    • varmentrout Says:

      I think you are conflating some issues here. It is too long to explain the conflict between the RTA and Washtenaw County’s own regional problems, though I hope to do so in a future post.

      • Timothy Durham Says:

        It’s difficult to get a grasp of all these issues and how they connect or don’t connect. Fed/State/Local… I appreciate all your work explaining it but I cannot yet say I have a handle on it.

  5. Timothy Durham Says:

    If you don’t mind my asking, what is the basic opposition to light rail amongst the big thinkers?

    • varmentrout Says:

      I don’t know of any opposition to light rail. It simply is not being discussed in this region, unless possibly in the context of the NS connector.

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