Transit, Transportation, and the Money Question

If Ann Arbor had a Time Magazine cover for Topic of the Year, the winner would surely be Transportation.  Or, more specifically Transit.  This last year has seen a tumult of transit proposals.  In our post of almost exactly six months ago, we referred to the Ball of Confusion that is local transit proposals.  It hasn’t gotten better. We still have proposals for regional transit (read, mostly bus) organizations, connectors, corridor studies, train stations, and most especially commuter trains tumbling around and bumping into each other, leaving most everyone scratching their heads and trying to figure out where things fit.  Transportation in the sense of infrastructure (roads and bridges) is an issue too, and it affects transit discussions because the two compete with each other for an increasing scarce commodity: MONEY, or as we wonks refer to it, funding.

Any process so intensive as our current tangle of transit proposals must have an energy source behind it, and a mechanism.  In the case of Ann Arbor, it is not that difficult to see that our Mayor, John Hieftje, is the man behind the curtain.  He first laid out his plan, the Mayor’s Model for Mobility, in 2006.  Since then, he has consistently and methodically used every tool at hand (and that is a lot, being the Mayor) to move toward implementing it (we discussed this earlier).  He has seated the entire AATA Board, hired a transportation specialist whose job description is essentially to execute the model, and has pulled every possible political string, including that connected to our sitting Congressman, John Dingell.  The result has been plenty of energy directed at transit.  But most specifically, it appears to be directed at Hieftje’s dream of establishing two commuter railroads.

We have previously discussed the compelling image of trains in our posts, Train of Dreams and Train of Dreams II.

Trains occupy a singular place in our culture’s mind’s eye.  There is a romance, a jumbled set of personal and relayed memories that combine to make just the idea of a train the cause of an emotional rush.

Partly because of this, many of the general public have responded to Hiefje’s vision without much critical attention to practicalities, or to the question of how two new rail systems can be paid for.  And this vision is still driving much planning in the city (only recently, stories have come out about a downtown station for WALLY in which we may demolish a building at 415 W. Washington for a possible station, and the continued existence in the budget of additional funds to plan for the Fuller Road Station).

MyOtherCar 9in

But how realistic is this apparent obsession? We will attempt to examine factors affecting our current transit proposals, including the trains, in future posts. First, the next post will examine the current state of transportation funding.

UPDATE:  For a review of AATA’s explanation of transit funding, see pages 33-35  of this draft package for a panel discussion on “Urban Core Transit”, held March 28, 2013. Some pages of the draft package were replaced by final text in the package actually handed out at the meeting.

SECOND UPDATE:  If these comments about Mayor Hieftje seem a little hyperbolic, read this account of a speech he gave on June 14, 2014.  It is amazing how he and many other public officials seem to believe that somehow just wishing will make it so.


Explore posts in the same categories: civic finance, Transportation

2 Comments on “Transit, Transportation, and the Money Question”

  1. Larry Krieg Says:

    Vivienne, I’ve come to respect your intellect and analytical prowess, if not the conclusions you tend to reach. So why not try to bring clarity to a complex situation, rather than further encourage confusion?

    Your “ball of confusion” mantra sounds like the moan of someone who is trying to force a complex world back into a wishful simplicity it never truly had, by blowing fog over the details. It doesn’t work, it’s not helpful, and it doesn’t speak well for someone of your caliber. Staff at AATA and the City of Ann Arbor have always been quite willing to sit down and explain anything that is unclear in the plans. Wouldn’t it make more sense to make use their willingness, and arrive at a clear understanding of your own? If you disagree with what they are trying to do, at least you have a valid understanding of their goals and can critique them intelligently. That makes a more forceful and effective debating position than simply crying, “ball of confusion!”.

    You speak of Mayor Hieftje’s desire for rail transportation as an “obsession” and the “emotional rush” evoked by trains, as if the only motivation for them was a childish or neurotic compulsion. Those of us who have studied transportation systems – as *systems* – have a clear-headed appreciation of the benefits of each method of transportation. We see rail as filling a useful niche in these systems effectively and efficiently – in fact, better than any other transport technology in terms of energy efficiency and the limited damage they do to the environment. Yes, some of us enjoy trains *as trains*, but please, give us credit for a left brain as well as a right brain! And while you’re at it, would it be too much to ask for a little more of your left brain in your blog…?

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Hi, Larry, always good to spar with you. Having just peeked at your own recent post on trains, I can see why you found this annoying. Truthfully, I find your optimism on this score to be unfounded – and that is a real System 2 conclusion (I’ll leave the old left/right brain thing behind and skip to the Kahneman model).

    The “ball of confusion” is a quote from Michael Ford. And I’ve been hanging on virtually every word and datum available from AATA since 2008. As to the Mayor, he is inscrutable but has left a clear indication of his obsession on the rail issue.

    Hope you have a chance to read the rest of this series on transportation funding. It’s my own attempt to bring clarity.

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