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.

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield retains its POSA, Saline does not participate

The limits of the expanded authority. Pittsfield and Saline are not authority members.

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:
ballot languageThe 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.)

morebusesThe 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 tax received clear majority support in all jurisdictions: Ann Arbor (71.4%); the city of Ypsilanti (83.4%); and Ypsilanti Township (61.6%).”

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.

EIGHTH UPDATE: According to a report in the Ann Arbor News, Pittsfield Township has now (as of late October 2014) agreed to an expanded POSA that will increase bus service to the township.  I have not reviewed it to determine whether this will provide the full extent of service envisioned in the Urban Core plan.


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5 Comments on “The Transit Question”

  1. Murph Says:

    Vivienne — Thanks for considering me an asset to the conversation!

    To continue the spiral of tagging under-supported assertions, I think these statements of yours are misleading. I wouldn’t quibble over a few thousand dollars here or there, but your statements seem to be order-of-magnitude off in places.

    “The additional revenue [from Ypsi City] would only be about $202, 700, which might just pay for current service but not much more.”

    AATA docs suggest that in FY2013, Ypsi City’s “full cost” would have been $302k; the existing Ypsi City millage raised $285k. So that’s only a $17k gap, assuming no increase in taxable values this year, leaving most of the proposed millage revenues available for additional service.

    “Ypsi Township will simply offload its current general fund expenditure onto the new millage, and then ask for more service.”

    This allows the reader to think that Ypsi Township taxpayers won’t be paying any more than they are now, while getting a lot more service than now — not sure if that was your intent, but it would be an inaccurate conclusion. Ypsi Twp’s current POSA looks like about $330k, while the new millage would raise about $707k. So part of the new millage could replace Ypsi Twp’s current general fund allocation for the POSA, but the revenue raised in the Twp would more than double from the current POSA amount.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Thanks for the correction, Murph. I didn’t have the actual cost of the City of Ypsilanti service. I’ll have to check, but I think that the figure you cite is probably their basic service under the old POSA. (I believe that has now been transmogrified into a new agreement transferring the millage to the authority.) They also added new service, such as the enhanced #4 schedule and the Night Ride service. I’ll have to work back through some documents, but that last in particular turned out to be quite expensive.

      As to the more service for Ypsilanti Township, it is alluded to in their resolution that commenced their joining the authority. The issues paper prepared by AAATA indicated that this enhanced service would be supplied upon passage of the millage or when Ann Arbor property values increased, indicating that they might not have to pay more for the new expanded service even if the millage doesn’t pass.

      I’ll have to find all those figures and put them together. That’s the problem with policy wonks – they put you to work.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Murph, I’ll address Ypsilanti Township in an update. Ypsilanti City’s improved #4 service was an advance implementation of the countywide plan that began in January 2012. It was not part of the POSA.

      According to a memo in December 2012, the additional discretionary cost from AAATA funds (not state or Federal ridership match or fares) was $303,028. So even the new millage would not pay for the full cost of that service. (I don’t have updated figures but I suspect they have only gone up.) According to a memo from September 2012, the cost was covered by Section 5307 funds, reducing the amount available for capital purchases.

      That service is pretty generally acknowledged to be both needed and successful, so well worth having the entire system subsidize it (my viewpoint), but Ypsilanti City will still not be paying the full cost of its service.

      • Murph Says:

        Thanks for tracking that down! Is the $303k Ypsi City’s share of the #4, or the cost of the expanded service on the full line? (Including A2, Pittsfield, Ypsi Twp and Ypsi City?)

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Murph, the AAATA doesn’t make public a line-item accounting of their programs (at least I’ve never seen one). But here is my best shot from other documents.

    The expansion of #4 was associated with the ReImagine Washtenaw program. AATA was a participant and brought some important funds to the table in order to extend the service along Washtenaw. It presumably did/does include service through all municipalities (Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, and the two Ypsilanti communities). I believe that there was an explicit Federal grant associated with that expansion, or it may be that AATA simply allocated some of their existing Federal funds.

    Here is what Michael Ford says in his letter appended to the grant application (this was the 2011 Sustainable Communities grant):

    “Beginning in January, 2012, the AATA will double the frequency of weekday service along Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. During the morning and afternoon peak periods, service will increase from 4 to 8 trips per hour in each direction. During the midday period, service will increase fiom 2 to 4 trips per hour in each direction. The added cost of this additional service will be $448,000 per year in non-federal funds, a total of $1.344 million during the 3 years of the project in this application. In addition,
    the capital cost of 4 buses and bus stop improvements with a total cost of $2.8 million. Up to 80% of the capital cost will come from Federal funds.”

    Note that AATA also expended a fair amount of capital costs on the bus stop reconfiguration, a long-time investment, and the new buses will also last a long time. So presumably the $303,028 was to pay for the ongoing schedule increase to the entire Washtenaw corridor.

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