Archive for the ‘Transportation’ category

Topsy-Turvy Transit: Where Do We Go From Here?

December 27, 2012

This has been a tough year for AATA.  What was supposed to be a walk in the park has turned into something more like a ride on Space Mountain.  And The Ride hasn’t finished with the possible surprises and upsets.

As we documented early on, the AATA board settled on a plan to launch a countywide transit authority at a retreat in June 2011, and released its first version of the Transit Master Plan in August 2011.  The process laid out was complex. It required participation of all units of government in Washtenaw County to appoint a 15-member board that would serve as an “unincorporated 196 board” (u196), execution of a very complicated legal document that would result in the city of Ann Arbor dedicating its charter transit millage to the new authority, and approval by the voters countywide of a new transit millage.

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

Roadmap presented to Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

In September the AATA board approved a deficit budget for the next year (FY2012 started in October 2011).  As the Ann Arbor Chronicle reported, Planning and Development committee chair Rich Robben

“led off deliberations by saying it’s not a sustainable budget. But he said it would catapult the AATA towards a transition to countywide service.”

The “catapult” consisted of advance implementation of a number of new services that were presented as part of the countywide plan.  The choice of term was perhaps unfortunate, since it did indeed “catapult” AATA into its first acceleration to the top of the mountain.

The first jolt was felt in October 2011, with Governor Snyder’s announcement of his new transportation initiative, which included a Regional Transit Authority for SE Michigan.  It would include Washtenaw County.  We reported on this in detail in a post that described the reaction of Albert Berriz, the chair of the Financial Task Force.   The FTF had been appointed by the AATA to come up with a financial plan for financing the TMP.  It had its first meeting on October 28.  Snyder had given his talk on October 26.  Berriz was clearly stunned by the implications of the RTA (especially its control of state and Federal funds) and rather summarily canceled most business of the FTF, postponing the next meeting for a couple of months.

But AATA staff and board seemed sanguine and pressed ahead with their plan despite this large dose of uncertainty delivered by the Governor. They came up with a reassuring interpretation of the effects of the RTA on Washtenaw County’s transit plans as being minimal. Apparently these were based on conversations (the text of the legislation was not yet public). Many details are now clearly understood to be mistaken.  And they pressed on with their original plan.

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

From a presentation to the Ann Arbor City Council, December 2011

The FTF appointed a subcommittee of very knowledgeable people who did a very high-level job of analyzing finances needed for the TMP.  By considerable fudging (they simply omitted many facets of the plan from the financial estimates) and raising fares, they were able to recommend a county-wide millage of only 0.5 mills (this was later recalculated to 0.584). But just as they were poised to present this to the full FTF, Governor Snyder’s package of bills were made public and the roll-out was again postponed.   Finally, the FTF met on February 29 and released their recommendations.  A complete set of these reports and recommendations is available on our Transportation Page.   The chair, Albert Berriz, wrote a letter to the committee that was telling.

…we don’t know what the Governor’s plan will look like in its final form, and without that information it’s difficult to say that pursuing the track of a countywide millage is the right thing to do at this time.  Therefore, in my opinion, it’s premature to pursue any millage option at this time…as there are too many parts of the current economic model that we have been asked to review that may and likely will change once the final legislation comes into play.

Meanwhile, in the background, serious discussion was going on in Washington D.C. about the fate of Federal transportation funding.  The then-current transportation bill was on life support after many short-term renewals.  Finally, on July 6, 2012, MAP-21, the new transportation bill, was signed into law.  Regulations and funding schedules have been generated on an ongoing basis.  (For excellent coverage, see Transportation Issues Daily’s MAP-21 Learning Center.)  During much of 2012, AATA did not know how Federal funding (a very important component of their overall financial plan) was going to settle out.

So, let’s summarize.  The AATA was proceeding on a number of assumptions.

  1. The elected officials of all the units of government in Washtenaw County would assent to being included in a new scheme that included a likely new tax and a governance model that left Ann Arbor mostly in charge.
  2. Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, and Washtenaw County would all sign off on a couple of fairly substantial legal documents.
  3. The RTA either would not materialize or would not affect them significantly.
  4. The voters across the county would vote in a new property tax, including in both tax-adverse rural townships and the voters of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, who were expected to add this millage to one already existing.
  5. Changes in Federal transportation funding would not affect them negatively.

To all of these challenges, the response was to press ahead.  After all, what could go wrong?

In order to pursue the county-wide vision, the AATA invested big.  Over a three-year period, they spent $463,499.66 of Ann Arbor millage money.  The rest of the $1,418,890.15 cost for consultants, survey research, promotional materials and “outreach” was borne by Federal and state funds. See spreadsheet from AATA here.

The effort to get the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to sign off on both the four-party agreement and the Articles of Incorporation was longer and much more tedious than hoped.  But finally, on September 5, the BOC approved the AOI (account by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  The AATA immediately (September 7) approved their 5-year plan and launched the countywide plan.  This would presumably lead to starting a 30-day clock for local units to opt out, after which the 196 board could be seated.

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

File directory of toolkit presented to AATA board on a flash drive

A very thorough campaign was conducted through the u196 members and their associated District Advisory Committees (staffed by u196 members and AATA staff) to convince communities to support the countywide effort.  It included postcards to be sent to elected officials and drafts of emails, letters to the editor, Facebook posts, and letters to officials.

The objective was to build a public pressure to get local governments to sign onto the countywide plan.

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Postcards provided in a promotional packet handed to AATA board members and u196 members

Next: So how did that work out?

Note: Posts on this subject and much reference material is on our Transportation Page.

The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress

December 3, 2012

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.

Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance II

November 8, 2012

David Nacht at a March 2012 AATA Board meeting

A long road to countywide transit comes to an abrupt end.  Why?

Just as governance has been a critical issue for the proposed Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (discussed in our previous post), it has also been a key factor in the development of a Washtenaw County regional (county-wide) authority.  Under the leadership of David Nacht, the previous Chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, AATA has been working toward this goal since the board took a straw vote in May 2008 to become a regional authority.  We described some of those early efforts in our December 2009 post, AATA’s Uncertain Future.  Nacht led the AATA to consider several models of governance for a regional authority,  including one in which the City of Ann Arbor (supported by its perpetual transit millage) would remain separate, but cooperating, with the rest of the county, while the “out-county” would enact its own millage for the regional service.  This “donut hole” model was set aside for the “layer cake” model in which the City of Ann Arbor’s millage forms the foundation for the entire regional system, with just a little assist from the rest of the county’s municipalities via a new millage.  The many twists and turns in the evolution of this proposed system have been discussed in posts on our Transportation Page.

There is an enduring conflict in our country between two firmly held concepts.  One is the principle that a local community should be able to determine its own fate (self-determination).  The other is the ideal of a regional governance for the common good across the region.   As we described in an earlier post, Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?,  this inherent conflict is playing out right here in Washtenaw County.  Michigan has a stubbornly vital tradition of local rule.  In fact, it’s in our state constitution. The township system of government makes every issue intensely local, with citizens of each township deciding on the level of services and taxation they prefer, while viewing the efforts of other governments (especially, in this county, Ann Arbor) to dictate their activities with suspicion and mistrust.  Yet putting a regional authority into place requires, roughly paraphrasing Pittsfield Township Mandy Grewal, that “we all join hands and jump”.  The makers of the Washtenaw County regional authority sought to address this conflict by using a blended system of representation.  As described in a presentation by Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) director Terri Blackmore,  a combination of population (less-populated townships were combined into larger districts) and financial contribution were taken into account to award seats at the table. (Blackmore was strongly instrumental in developing this scheme.)

District map as presented in December 2011

The thinly populated western townships, along with the city of Chelsea and village of Manchester, were awarded just one seat on a board of 15.  Pittsfield Township, with a large partly urbanized population, got one full seat.  The tiny population of the city of Ypsilanti earned itself a full seat by voting in a charter millage (about 1 mill) to pay for its service contract (POSA) with AATA.  And Ann Arbor, with its fat perpetual millage (now almost 2 mills, down from 2.5 mills), got just under a majority of seats (7 of 15), despite having only about a third of the county’s population.

Contrast this with the system proposed for the SE Michigan RTA in which each participating county was tentatively given the same number of seats.  As we discussed in the previous post, awarding seats on the basis of  either population or financial contribution has a potential effect of sowing mistrust and doubt.  Smaller communities may fear domination by the larger ones, and larger contributors may fear the redistributive effect.  Yet awarding seats on the basis of monetary share highlights any perceived inequities in the way those funds are distributed.  While the regional approach is presented as cost sharing, it is also inevitably cost shifting.  When differential weight is given to monetary contribution, the question then becomes, “Am I getting MY money’s worth?”.

Nevertheless, AATA assembled a “u196” (unincorporated 196) board along those lines.  It has been meeting since December 2011.  Many of the members are actually township officials, and there seemed to be a fair amount of enthusiasm and support for the idea.  They were presented with what appeared to be a carefully thought-out process. AATA staff endured many sessions before the Ann Arbor City Council and the Board of Commissioners, and finally got their Articles of Incorporation approved.  They requested that the County file the AOI, which was on October 3, 2012.  (See the report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle explaining that moment) Letters were sent to all affected jurisdictions in early October that specified how each one could opt out – or choose to stay in.  This should have launched a 30-day window for opting out, but because of some confusion about the legal requirements (summarized by the Ann Arbor Chronicle), Washtenaw County administration sent out a second set of letters, so that the opt-out window was “reset” to December 10.

But even before that final moment, there were indications of trouble with a universal buy-in.  Six townships simply refused to participate even at the most preliminary stage.  Then, as early as September, AATA board members began referring to the possibility that some communities might opt out and then opt back in later.  Comments were made indicating that opted-out communities might be able to retain a seat at the table for the interim, in hopes that they would decide to opt back in.  This possibility and some of the legal tangles involved were reviewed by the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  According to that account and to comments made by staff on venues such as WEMU radio programs, opted-out communities might come back in up until the (presumably) May millage vote.

At the October 2, 2012 meeting where the AATA board voted to submit the AOI, the new chair of the board Charles Griffiths gave voice to that approach, as quoted by the Ann Arbor Chronicle:

Griffith addressed the possibility of opt outs, by saying that everyone knew that some jurisdictions will not feel ready at this time to join in this effort – but that’s okay, he said. What’s important is that we give it our best shot to provide an opportunity to everyone. He said the AATA had come up with the best that it could to meet the needs that had been identified and expressed through communities across the county. “If, for whatever reason, we didn’t get that right, we can keep working at it,” he said. He characterized this step as the beginning of the journey, not the end. He hoped that as many jurisdictions would cooperate as possible.

The AATA board and administration must have been surprised, however, at the totality of the reaction.  Municipalities began voting to opt out almost on receipt of the letter (see the post, Washtenaw County Transit: More Outs than Ins, for more details.)  By the end of October, every township, with the exception of Ypsilanti Township, had opted out, as had many villages and cities.  Among cities and villages, only the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline remained.  (Saline passed a resolution affirming its intention of joining the authority.)  The Village of Dexter postponed its decision.

Remaining (green) and opted-out (red screen) communities in Washtenaw County as of October 30, 2012. Dexter Village had not voted.

What Happened?

So why did most Washtenaw County communities opt out after sending representatives to nearly a year’s worth of meetings, many of whom were very encouraging about the process and even allowed their images to be used in promoting it?  One reason is that they simply didn’t have much to gain by joining.

Summary map for Washtenaw Ride services as of September 2012 (click for larger version)

As seen in this map, most townships were offered very limited services.  (Poor Bridgewater counted for so little that is covered up, as is most of Saline Township.) They were offered vanpools (AATA has already moved to take over this service from a previous operator) and enhanced service from WAVE (a contractor; the green lines).  The red lines are express buses that have limited stops and times and are mostly designed for 9-5 commuters into Ann Arbor.  The larger villages and cities have a local circulator (blue).  Otherwise, most bus services and even the demand services like Dial-a-Ride are limited to the urban area.

As we have outlined earlier, most townships have a very low operating millage rate, by design.  The millage for the countywide authority has been forecast to be 0.58 mills, though that was subject to revision depending on how many units opted out.  To many Ann Arbor residents, that might not seem too consequential as a standalone amount, as we have many millages for specialized services that have received a popular vote.  But to understand county politics, you must understand how large a commitment that seems to many township residents.  If they are going to tax their residents even that much, they must receive visible services for that money.

Pittsfield Township trustees were very clear in their discussion prior to opting out, as reported by

The township currently levies a 0.5 mill tax on residents for parks and recreation activities, Grewal said, and prides itself on its low taxes.

Israel stated that he did not believe Pittsfield Township’s participation in the new transportation authority guaranteed the expansion of transit options in the township.

The township’s trustees also noted another feature of the plan: that their township’s taxes would be paying for other services elsewhere.

Israel noted AATA’s proposed express route to Canton Township in its five-year service plan – and said he didn’t think Pittsfield Township voters should be paying out for that kind of service.

On the other hand, Ypsilanti Township, the sole township to stay in the regional authority, will receive expanded bus services and “demand” (Dial-a-Ride) service.  (Note the dashed red outline on the map.)  Its supervisor, Karen Lovejoy Roe, remarked in a comment on’s earlier coverage of the Pittsfield decision that the availability of services for seniors and enhanced ability for workers to get to jobs were important reasons for the township to ask its voters to take on the additional millage.

Mixed Messages

One of the reasons this venture hasn’t quite come together is that there are several different, sometimes competing, messages about why we need county-wide transit.  Looked at from a township perspective, they don’t compute.

Connectivity:  “Our life does not end at city borders.  We should recognize that we are a greater community.”  This is a nice sentiment but it is hard to attach dollar value to it.  Also, the bus routes provided are not designed for casual travel to other communities, but only for commuting.

Environment: The argument is often made that mass transit will reduce air pollution and global warming.  But though this is likely true (and we certainly hope so), there have been some contrary comments about how this really pencils out.  Those making the argument for environmental benefit often use the “hand-waving” method, rather than citing data studies.  In any case, clearly a substantial ridership is needed for an individual transit vehicle to make a difference; there must be a payback ratio, and this is not discussed much.  Certainly no dollar value to local communities is easily attached.

Need:  It’s hard to argue with this one, since it is a primary reason to support mass transit.  People who have poor access to personal transportation or are low income need to be able to get to work and other places.  But the countywide plan really only addresses this for the urban area (Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti areas).  As someone from Lyndon Township told me, in order to get to Ann Arbor, they’d have to take WAVE to Chelsea, then take the express bus, and then they wouldn’t be able to get home again later (unless at strictly commuter times), and it would be expensive.

Regional Business Development: This is, in my opinion, one of the primary drivers behind the plan.  Notice all those express buses going out of the county to areas that are not paying in?  But it would mostly benefit businesses located in the greater Ann Arbor area, and of course the University of Michigan.

And of course, though most of the discussion is about bus services, the county-wide authority is also seeking money to support expensive rail and connector services that will benefit only a very limited population, and centered on Ann Arbor.  The townships are rightly suspicious.  The idea of paying into a regional pool for something that doesn’t benefit them (or their residents) directly doesn’t match their idea of governance.  As we noted some time ago, there has been a suspicion among township residents that this entire scheme was a way to get their money for the benefit of Ann Arbor.

Partners for Transit, a rather informally organized advocacy group for regional transit (it appears to be supported by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Conan Smith’s shop), has been making the case that really, the massive opt-out is not a concern because the greatest population of the county will be served.  Further, this is where the need is.

Partners for Transit cartogram representing communities’ areas as a function of population

But though this observation is true enough, it ignores the entire question of governance.  An authority limited to these urban communities abandons the idea of “county-wide” transit (and many of the rationales on which it was based) and it will inevitably mean that Ann Arbor is simply subsidizing the two Ypsilanti communities.  (The purchase of service agreements shown for connecting townships are not necessarily in place or defined.)  Recall that the plan is for Ann Arbor to continue paying 2+ mills, plus the new one, Ypsilanti City to continue  its approximately 1 mill, plus the new one, and then Ypsilanti Township would pay only the new millage.  It also means that a higher millage (in addition to the existing Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city millages) would be necessary to achieve that level of service.  To get some sense of proportional contribution, see our earlier post in which even with the entire county participating, we would be paying approximately 75% of the cost.

If we wish to subsidize Ypsilanti, surely there is a more efficient way to do it rather than to create a whole new authority with expanded powers but a territory hardly larger than is served under our present system.  And there will still be an issue of governance.  Would we give the two Ypsilanti communities seats on our joint transit board, even though we are subsidizing their service?  They would probably expect that.  And how would we allocate them?  The same options apply as mentioned earlier: a choice between unitary representation, population-based, or monetary contribution.  Each of these has potential political obstacles. If we include the townships that wish to have only a service contract (in which they would pay only the cost allocated to their own service), an even more unequal form of governance might be possible.

Partners for Transit is also stating that Ann Arbor would have a higher level of service, as well.  But we could achieve that ourselves, simply by using our existing millage for Ann Arbor rather than to support the many regional and commuter-oriented additions that the AATA board has introduced.  Or we could pass an additional millage for our own use.


With all this before them, a good-sized fraction of the Ann Arbor City Council is now preparing to regroup.  Tonight (November 8, 2012) has a new agenda item.  The resolution to opt out from the Act 196 authority also calls for abrogating the 4-party agreement.  (A lengthy discussion and analysis is in this from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)  It contains this language in explanation (click on the text for a larger view):

UPDATE: The Ann Arbor City Council voted 10-0 to withdraw from the Act 196 authority and the 4-party agreement (November 8, 2012).    Here are links to news accounts:        Ann Arbor Chronicle

Michael Ford sent out a news release acknowledging the loss and pointing to future action.   He pledged to concentrate on the urban core but also said “Efforts to extend the benefits of transit to a greater number of Washtenaw County residents will continue”.  AATA Press Release-New Transit Authority Update

Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance

October 30, 2012

Some public services are best performed on a strictly local basis; those aimed primarily at privately owned property, for example.  But others lend themselves best to a broad regional approach, and transportation is surely one of them.  A transportation network needs central planning.  Imagine the Interstate Highway system administered by counties.  Public transit systems logically should be regional in nature, especially in this era where people expect to work at a distance from where they live.  But two attempts in southeast Michigan to institute regional transit have run up against obstacles inherent in Michigan political organization.  The two wannabe regional transit authorities are the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and the Washtenaw Ride.   Each of these must resolve a matter of governance in order to launch successfully.

Regional transit hopefuls (L to R), Megan Owens of Transportation Riders United, Jesse Bernstein of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, and Conan Smith of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, August 2012

Governance is a word that has come into vogue lately.  It alludes to the manner in which government conducts its business and especially the way it interacts with its citizens.  Some of the important elements in this interaction are representation, taxation, and power.   People generally want to believe that they are fairly represented at the decision-making level.  If the body collects taxes, are they proportionate to the function of the governing body?  And does this body exert a level of power over daily lives that is appropriate to its function, not dictatorial or burdensome?

The proposed Detroit metro area RTA has a very specific prescription for how representation will be determined.  As we reported, Governor Snyder proposed a major revamp of Michigan’s transportation laws and system nearly a year ago.  A summary of the bills that emerged to implement this ambitious plan is available in our post, Those State Transportation Bills and the Regional Transit Authority.  Most of the bills have not moved very far.  The bills that would implement the RTA are “tie-barred”, meaning that the principal bill, Senate Bill 909/House Bill 5309, must pass before the others in the package can be implemented.  The best explanation of this package of bills is contained in an analysis from the excellent Senate Fiscal Agency.  SB 909 has been amended  and a substitute (S-3) has been reported out of the Senate Transportation Committee, which I understand to mean that it may be taken up by the Senate as soon as it is placed on an agenda.  The analysis has a good deal to say about governance, specifically about representation. There is apparently some rule that legislation cannot name specific municipalities, thus they have to be described by population and other indirect means. The legislation calls for two members appointed from each of the four counties (Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw), plus one appointed by the Mayor of Detroit. This has proved to be an issue that has apparently been at least one reason for the slow progress of the legislation.  Detroit representatives have complained that they should be entitled to more than one seat.  But one of the Wayne County seats is allocated to Detroit as well.  This has led to Wayne County’s complaint that they are entitled to two full seats and the suggestion that Washtenaw County should give up one of its seats. Conan Smith, who as one of his hats has been negotiating on behalf of Washtenaw County at both the state and regional levels, has apparently (according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle) offered to give up one of Washtenaw’s seats in order to seal the deal.  (Smith is very invested in the RTA concept, presumably in part because of his position at the metropolitan Detroit Michigan Alliance of Suburbs;  the MSA is hiring staff to promote the concept.)

Rounded-down figures for population of the 5 RTA communities

Note that the representation is based on a simple formula of equal representation for each geographical unit, except for the single appointee from the city of Detroit.  The populations of the different geographical units are quite different.  If the basis of the appointments was on an equal representation for each person (one man, one vote concept), the result would be very different.  This first table shows the lower figure of population of each unit from the legislation.  Note that the figure for Wayne County must include the population of the City of Detroit, since it is within that county.

Seats apportioned on the basis of percent population, if current 9 members were retained

If we subtract the population of Detroit from Wayne County, it still holds its own as one of the highest populations among the five communities to be represented in the RTA.  If we then apportion the number of seats based on percentage of the total population, Detroit and Washtenaw would both have only one, while the biggest two counties would have three. The problem with such a solution is that these are all sovereign entities, each with local constituencies and concerns.  Pride is a factor, especially for Detroit. But self-preservation also makes joining an alliance as a weaker member unsavory.  The possibility exists that the more powerful (in terms of votes) communities could force policies or requirements down the throats of the weaker ones.

Another way to apportion seats could be by relative monetary contribution.  But since this is to be funded by vehicle registration fees, it could be a shifting number over time, and it could also be a measure of the relative affluence of each community, which would presumably disadvantage Detroit, again unpalatable from a political viewpoint.  Yet on the other hand, one suspicion that participants in a regional venture have is that this is not a cost-sharing opportunity, but rather a cost-shifting move.  In other words, that the suburban counties (including Washtenaw) might be picking up the tab for Detroit.  This has its own political calculus. Emphasizing the difference in monetary contribution could also lead to heavy-handedness on the part of the larger contributors, and to squabbles over what the exact proportions are, or other factors.  The lesser contributors might also fear that their needs would be slighted in favor of the more powerful members’ priorities.

The rationale for passage of the bill package and establishment of the RTA shifts depending on whose eyes you are looking through.  To Transportation Riders United, it is a simple question of needing adequate bus transit service within the greater Detroit area.  Bus transit in the Metro area has a sad confused history, as recorded in this detailed chronology.  Two different bus systems, Detroit Department of Transportation (City of Detroit) and SMART (regional transit authority which serves Oakland, Macomb and Wayne Counties) do not interconnect adequately and leave many functional gaps in transit coverage. This is frustrating to everyone from riders to civic leaders to economic development planners.  We explained in our earlier post that improving this coordination is apparently one motivation for the new RTA.  Dennis Schornack, the Governor’s spokesman, intimated at one meeting that his intention (not expressed in these words) was basically to smack the two authorities alongside the head and make them behave.

Proposed BRT routes into Detroit. Graphic by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, used with permission. Pointer is Detroit Metro Airport.

But this wasn’t what the Governor stressed when he made his presentation.  Instead, he stressed the importance of rapid efficient transit within the metro area, including to Detroit Metro Airport.  As explained in various venues, this would be in the form of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) routes.  The famous example of this is Cleveland’s Euclid corridor line.  BRT routes in the purest form are segregated lanes with high-tech long buses, somewhat like a small train.  They are necessarily express routes, especially over a long route like those being proposed here, so they don’t stop at every corner.  The purpose is to enable commuters and business interests to travel quickly to the economic center in Detroit.  This is favored by economic development planners.

In spite of these two bus-related types of motivations, the RTA legislation has languished in the legislature.  Suddenly in September, the House Transportation Committee held a public hearing on the bills.  (No action was scheduled, just the hearing.)  Many business and civic leaders turned up to testify, along with a crowd of enthusiastic transit supporters.  But in watching it, one suddenly realized that the subject for many of them was not buses, even BRT.  The subject was light rail.  A group of investors has been pushing a light rail line down Woodward Avenue, called M-1.  It is 3.4 miles in length and it could be argued that it is less about transit than about development and economic revitalization.   But the investors have run up against resistance from the Federal government when seeking grant funds to help finance it.  It turns out that US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been pressing local leaders to achieve a regional transit authority before Federal funds will be made available.  From this Detroit News story,

LaHood has said federal officials are prepared to offer $25 million for a proposed light rail project on Woodward “if the community can get its act together.” On Monday, he wouldn’t specify the amount, but noted one of the hurdles is the creation of the regional authority to coordinate mass transit.

The Michigan Chronicle lays out some even more specific points about the pressure being put on legislators:

We’re willing to put on the table millions of dollars if this community can get its act together,” LaHood said of the Metro Detroit region… I met with the speaker of the house and senate majority leader and they told me that they support the idea of a regional transportation system and that legislation.

The story goes on to quote Governor Snyder in saying that he hopes that the Legislature will address the matter in the lame-duck session.  That makes sense from a strategic viewpoint because it is a time that legislators can take action with relatively little fear of retribution from constituents.  [I’m sure that Conan Smith is hoping it will be passed as immediate implementation (otherwise it might not take effect until next year).  One provision is that the Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners appoints the two Washtenaw County members of the RTA board, and his term as Chair expires on December 31, 2012.]

There are many fine details to this legislation that deserve attention, including the question about the true priority for attention and funding.  Is it the bus system?  The BRT? The M-1 rail?  The voters of the four counties will still have to approve the vehicle fees, and the description of what services are being provided will be critical.  The populations of the three counties outside Detroit may not be persuaded by the M-1 priority, for example.  New taxes usually hold out a promise for delivery of services.  Will that be convincing across the region?

And ultimately, the message to the voters will have to deal with the governance question successfully.  Voters from each municipal unit will have to be convinced that they are signing on to a system which represents them and for which they receive at least some direct benefit.  Of course, since Washtenaw County has such a small proportion of voters, our vote may not matter much.

UPDATE:  As reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners acted to withdraw support of the RTA on November 7, 2012.  It is not clear what effect that action will have on the ultimate fate of the initiative.

SECOND UPDATE: The Detroit News reports today (November 27, 2012) that the RTA legislation is having a rough go in the state legislature.  Ironically, much of the story focuses on the possible loss of funds for M-1.

The story mentions the actions earlier this month withdrawing BOC endorsement of the idea:

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution this month saying the county wants to manage its own transportation systems and funds and let voters decide whether to join the authority. Ann Arbor and several townships opted against forming a countywide bus system.

There are numerous issues, including funding and condemnation powers the new authority would have.

The story quotes Mark Ouimet, who lost his re-election bid this year when Gretchen Driskell was elected instead.  Ouimet was a major supporter of the RTA concept.

THIRD UPDATE:  News services report that the RTA passed the State Senate this afternoon (November 27), with amendments.  Washtenaw County is still included in the region.   SB 0909 passed 22-16.  SB 0911 passed 22-15.  SB 0912 passed 23-15. SB 0967 passed  23-15.      SB 0445 passed 23-15.

FOURTH UPDATE: Most measures have now (December 9, 2012) passed the House and are anticipated to be signed by the Governor. (SB 912 and SB 0967 are still pending.)

For further updates on this subject, see The SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority in Progress.

Washtenaw County Transit: More Outs than Ins

October 21, 2012

An impressive number of impressive people have been working since 2008 to create a county-wide transit system for Washtenaw County.  We’ve been following this process for nearly as long.  (See the Transportation Page for a list of posts.)  Now it appears that the process is almost complete.  Articles of Incorporation for the Washtenaw Ride were filed on October 3, 2012.   This was supposed to launch a 30-day period in which units of government could choose to opt out of the new authority’s district.  They could simply wait the time out if they did not wish to decline.  The process got a lot more confused suddenly, as the Ann Arbor Chronicle has admirably detailed.  (See County Likely to Send Out Transit Notice and Positions Open: New Transit Authority Board .)  As those articles explain, the 30-day window has been stretched somewhat.  But most Washtenaw County political units didn’t wait till the deadline.  They have moved with alacrity to opt out of the new authority.

Map showing opt-out (red diagonal) and staying in (green) communities as known on October 21, 2012

The map to the right shows that almost all townships in the county have opted out. Note that the City of Ann Arbor and City of Ypsilanti are presumed to have opted to stay in, since they are signatories to the 4-party agreement.  (Technically, they could still choose to opt out.)  The City of Saline and Ypsilanti Township have passed measures explicitly stating that they wish to remain in the authority.  The City of Chelsea and Pittsfield Township are shown as “pending” because they have resolutions on a future agenda to opt out. The sources for this information vary from news reports to reports from persons who attended meetings to minutes and agendas from relevant units.

Legend for opt-out map

The status of several townships is still not known.  Agendas and minutes for Lyndon, Freedom, Lodi and Scio Township have been difficult to track down, and there have been no news reports.  It seems extremely unlikely that Freedom, Lodi, and Lyndon townships will participate, since these rural townships would not benefit directly from most transit programs.  Status of Manchester Village and Dexter Village is also to be determined.  Milan’s city council expressed interest in a “whole city” participation (including the Monroe County portion of the city) back in July 2012, but also reserved the possibility that they might opt out.

The loss of Pittsfield Township must be felt severely by the proponents of a larger authority.  Pittsfield had the highest taxable valuation in the county, after the City of Ann Arbor, in 2011.  The next highest was Scio Township.  Scio’s status will be of intense interest in evaluating the possible success of this venture.

This post will be updated.  See our post from January 2012, How Much County in Washtenaw County-wide Transit, for an earlier speculation and discussion of participation.

Revised map showing opt-outs as of October 22, 2012. Scio Township and Dexter Village have not yet acted.

UPDATE: Calls to township and village clerks indicate that Lyndon, Lima, and Freedom Townships have also opted out. (A list is also provided today in a comment on the Chronicle’s coverage of the October 18 AATA board meeting.)  Manchester Village has also opted out, per the village clerk.  Scio Township and the Village of Dexter have the matter on agendas for this week, with no indication of which direction the decision is going.

SECOND UPDATE: Benjamin Swayze, the City Administrator of Milan, said that the matter is coming before the Milan City Council on October 29.

THIRD UPDATE:  Ypsilanti Township voted tonight (Oct. 22) to opt in.  We had already shown their participation based on their packet resolution.

Updated map showing the opt-out by Scio Township on October 23.

FOURTH UPDATE: Scio Township voted tonight (Oct. 23) to opt out.  They left Dexter Village to decide its own fate.

FIFTH UPDATE: According to the Dexter Patch, the Village of Dexter trustees postponed their decision as to whether to join the authority on October 22.  The report indicates that trustees wish to see whether Scio and Pittsfield Townships withdraw, since their high taxable valuation is needed to keep the cost to taxpayers across the authority near the estimated 0.58 mills.

SIXTH UPDATE: According to their City Clerk, the Chelsea City Council voted on October 23 to opt out of the transit authority.

Updated map showing Chelsea and Pittsfield with decisions to withdraw from county-wide authority (“Washtenaw Ride”).

SEVENTH UPDATE:  According to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, Pittsfield Township voted tonight (October 24) to opt out of the county transit authority.

EIGHTH UPDATE: The City of Milan voted to opt out on October 29, as reported by the commenter below.  According to the Dexter Leader, the Dexter Village Council voted on the 29th to postpone the decision until November. belatedly reported on the community opt-outs and on the Milan vote.

NINTH UPDATE:  In light of the City of Ann Arbor pulling out on November 8, (Ann Arbor Chronicle account) Dexter Village is regrouping, and voted on November 12 to purchase more service from WAVE.   According to the Dexter Leader, they also have meetings scheduled with AATA officials.

With other opt-outs, only the city of Ypsilanti remains.

With other opt-outs, only the city of Ypsilanti remains.

TENTH UPDATE: The Saline City Council voted unanimously on November 19 to rescind their earlier affirmative opt-in, and to withdraw from the Washtenaw Ride.  Dexter Village voted to opt out on November 26, as did Ypsilanti Township.

NOTE: Ongoing coverage of this subject has now been provided in a more recent post, Regional Transit in Ann Arbor and Beyond: A Matter of Governance II.

All posts on this subject can be found on the Transportation Page.

The Transit Picture in Ann Arbor and Environs: Still a Ball of Confusion

September 30, 2012

Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO

Michael Ford, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, has been heard on more than one occasion to refer to the transit picture in Ann Arbor as the “Ball of Confusion”.  He had a good point.  Trying to describe the very complex plan, its parts, and most of all the policy issues surrounding each one of those parts as well as the whole is perhaps just slightly easier than explaining the importance of the Higgs boson.

As we have been noting in posts over almost two years, (see the Transportation Page for a list of posts), the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been moving toward becoming a regional transit authority.  This has culminated in a very elaborate Transportation Master Plan (TMP) and has passed through many local government processes to the final acceptance by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners of the Articles of Incorporation for a new county-wide transit authority, to be called The Washtenaw Ride. (See the article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)  [Final text of 4-party agreement]— [Final text of Articles of Incorporation] As the Chronicle has noted, a millage vote is likely to be held in May 2013. The five-year plan has now been released ( story here).  As noted in the story, the millage rate has been determined based on the work of the Financial Task Force that met late last year; that rate was originally expected to be 0.5 mills.  However, with tweaking of the figures, a millage of 0.584 mills is now being contemplated countywide.  (See our post discussing possible opt-outs.)

Much of the discussion about the TMP, especially including the numerous public meetings held to explain the TMP (especially in the District Advisory Committees), has been about the expanded bus system that is being proposed.  But the TMP, and the implications of this new authority, go far beyond the bus system.  As noted earlier, there are many moving parts.  This post is intended to be a summary of the different projects and processes that are tied in to this plan.

First, let’s define the term.  What is transit?  It is a shortened form of the term “mass transit” and implies some means to move groups and populations of people by vehicles designed for that purpose.  So subways, buses, commuter trains, trolleys, monorails are all “mass transit”.  Bicycles and walkways are not, though they join transit in the category of “alternative transportation”.  Nor, in my opinion, are long-distance trains and buses.  (They are simply a mode of transportation, like cars and airplanes.)  Mass transit consists of systems to move large numbers of people without resort to the automobile.  It is most common, and effective, in heavily populated areas.  In fact, transit and residential density go hand in hand, since a certain population density is necessary to support transit systems, and transit systems make a high population density possible.

One of the consequences of current fashions in urban planning is that Transit has been enthroned as an absolute good, an abstract ideal akin to Truth and Beauty.  Thus, it has become a politically iconic term.  In the recent 5th ward council primary, the word came back to me that I was seen as Against Transit.  Nay, dear reader.  I am a long-term lover and user of transit.  My greatest experience was using the London Underground and I’ve been a bus and train commuter.  But we need to keep a couple of things in mind about Transit.

1. It is very expensive.  It usually needs a lot of infrastructure and has a high operating cost.  I think it can be proved that no transit system has ever broken even.  They all need subsidy, presumably by government.  In the recent past, 40% of AATA services have been paid for by Michigan and Federal governments, and about 30% by Ann Arbor property taxes.  (See our post, Where the Money Is.)

2. There are a lot of important details around a successful transit system.  They begin and end with funding (how is it to be supported?) and then are filled out by engineering, safety, passenger acceptance, route management, fares, and business operation.  Details matter.
Another factor is that different governmental jurisdictions are often involved and considerable cooperation and coordination is needed. For example, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) owns many major highways and is a major funding source for transit. Regional systems obviously involve many units of government.

Thus, in discussing changes to Ann Arbor’s transit system, it is important to understand those details and how the moving parts affect one another.  This post is intended as an overview of key issues or projects that affect the success of our transit system.

Click on the cover to download the final 5-year plan.

1. The 5-year Plan.

This is the promise that AATA is making to those who vote for a new millage to support The Washtenaw Ride.  It involves primarily bus routes, both fixed-route and express.  There are also taxi- and van-type operations that help bring residents of more rural (less dense) areas into places where standard bus service (fixed-route) is available.  The changes in routes for the Ann Arbor area have only just now been released and are not included in that particular 202 pages.  (AATA has now inserted an official notice into the Ann Arbor Chronicle and presumably other publications with a summary of the 5-year plan.)

High-capacity routes from the TMP. Includes North-South connector and Washtenaw Connector.

2.The Connector Study

This work in progress is a “high-capacity” route from Plymouth Road to South State Street. Preliminary reports available here.  The council has now postponed (until October 15) a discussion of a Memorandum of Understanding by which the city would join AATA and the University of Michigan in accepting a Federal grant (which requires a monetary donation for the matching fund) to continue the study (see report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle).  This is a first step for the “North-South Connector”, part of the 30-year plan for the TMP.  “High-capacity” implies an advanced technology like light rail, monorail, gondolas, or (lower tech) Bus Rapid Transit.  See our earlier post on a UM symposium that explains different modes.  A major purpose behind this connector is to carry high volumes of traffic between the various UM campuses.

3. Reimagine Washtenaw

This is a coalition of different governmental entities that has an ultimate aim in the formation of a Corridor Improvement Authority, which would permit the CIA to collect tax from parts of four jurisdictions (Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti City and Ypsilanti Township) on a tax-increment basis, similar to a DDA.  Currently the extent of this project is from the join of Washtenaw and Stadium in Ann Arbor to the water tower (EMU campus) in Ypsilanti, but the 30-year vision is from the intersection of Wagner and Jackson to Golfside.  The Washtenaw Connector would ultimately be another high-capacity line.  The group has been funded by part of a sustainability grant awarded to Washtenaw County (see our post) and recently awarded a contract to SmithGroup JJR (Concentrate story based on press release here).

4. Commuter Rail

Proposed commuter lines in TMP

A major complication to the vision of a countywide transit system has been  Mayor John Hieftje’s preoccupation with commuter rail.  As we have written, trains have a strong attraction to the psyche of most of us who grew up in the 20th century.   Two commuter rail systems have been grafted onto the TMP, though they are more about travel to other counties than within Washtenaw County.   One is the commuter train from Ann Arbor to Detroit, sometimes called the “East-West train”.  This appears to be dead in the water for the time being.  The other is the WALLY, a train proposed between Ann Arbor and Howell (with NO stops in Brighton).  There is no foreseeable funding for this line, though there was recently a grant award to design stations.

These two lines were specifically excluded from the funding picture by the FTF and are not included in the current calculations of cost.  But they have a zombie-like tendency to hang on, presumably because of the Mayor’s strong interest.  They could still prove to present a financial challenge to the new authority.

Note that the Amtrak line that uses the same tracks as the proposed East-West rail is in good shape.  There is a concerted effort to bring the tracks up to speed (literally).  An environmental impact statement for improvements to service is underway.  See the MDOT site for more information.

5. The Fuller Road Station

The Fuller Road Station was originally a joint project between the University of Michigan and the City of Ann Arbor whereby the UM would get a parking garage and Ann Arbor would get a “multi-modal station” that would eventually be a train station.  The idea was that the E-W commuter rail would stop there and let lots of UM hospital workers off.  It was controversial for several reasons, including the pre-emption of parkland (Fuller Park).  This was thought to be in contradiction of the spirit of a charter amendment prohibiting sale of parkland without a vote of the people. There were many glitches in funding and timing and the UM finally pulled out.  See the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s timeline for this long story.

But the Fuller Road Station has continued life as a site for a train station to substitute for the current Amtrak station.  Never mind that the commuter rail appears to be dead.  Now the idea is that Amtrak will expand service along the existing Detroit-Chicago (Wolverine) line.  Here is the City of Ann Arbor’s page (not recently updated).  It does not discuss the grant received as a distribution of funds from the HSPIR money refused by Florida.  (See our lengthy discussion of that grant here.) Once the UM pulled out, the city was left with a quandary.  Should it accept the grant?  That would obligate the city both to come up with matching funds and to complete the work described (design and preliminary engineering for a station). As City Administrator Steve Powers explained to council in a memo,

The grant is based on an 80% federal and 20% non-federal funding ratio. Matching funds are required in the amount is $701,600 per the overall planning project scope of $3.508M.

Ultimately, the decision was made to go ahead and, as reported in the Ann Arbor Chronicle, a little over $300,000 from the General Fund was allocated to the project.  (The city presented some prior work as payment in kind for part of the matching funds required.)  SmithGroupJJR is currently working on an Environmental Assessment, a necessary step in any Federal granting process.

6. State Legislation and the SE Michigan Regional Transit Authority

A year ago, the Finance Task Force (a blue-ribbon committee of finance experts appointed by the AATA to put together a financial plan for the TMP and the new authority) was reeling with the discovery that Governor Rick Snyder had proposed a wholly new organizational entity and funding proposal for mass transit in the SE Michigan metro area.  See our post with details of the bill package.  As of today, it appears that there is not much movement on this large package of bills.  But the AATA was told by transportation consultants last fall that Governor Snyder might wait for this year’s lame-duck session to push for their passage, so stay tuned.

7. Federal Funding

As we have discussed in the past, the level of service presented by the AATA is heavily dependent on Federal funding.  There are two basic sources of Federal transportation funding: the gas tax trust fund  (supported by the Federal fuel tax) and non-trust fund  (i.e., discretionary) allocations.  These have been administered for decades via a monster omnibus transportation bill.  The name of the bill has changed a number of times, as has its provisions.  Many provisions are favorite children of powerful interests, so debate on the bill is always very political.

The last transportation bill, SAFETEA-LU, was extended many times and was near expiration once again through the early part of this year, causing a great deal of uncertainty in transportation planning.  There were many tense moments, including the one in which a House committee took transit out of the trust fund.  But finally, in a (very rare) burst of bipartisan, bicameral cooperation, a new transportation bill was signed into law this summer.  It is MAP-21 (Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century), signed into law July 6, 2012.

The impact of the Federal law changes is already being felt in AATA budgets.  As reported by and the Ann Arbor Chronicle, AATA just passed its FY 2013 budget with a deficit.  This was caused partly by changes in the formula by which the State of Michigan provides operating funds to transit agencies (these operating funds are from a state gas tax fund as well as a pass-through of Federal funds) and partly by “advance implementation” of the TMP.  AATA has implemented several items, including the AirRide service to the airport, express commuter routes, and the additional service to Ypsilanti via Route #4, that are really regional service and part of the TMP.

But as a memo from Chris White, the Manager of Service Development, makes clear, there are Federal law changes that impact the way funds can be used by AATA.  One is the loss of discretionary funds.  These were funds for which grant applications and earmarks could be sought.  As White notes, “AATA has been quite successful in obtaining discretionary grants in the last few years for projects such as the Blake Transit Center, incremental cost of hybrid buses, and expansion buses.”  He also notes, “The loss of discretionary funds eliminates one possible source of funds for the 5-Year Plan.”

One apparent offset is that Section 5307 (the main source of transit funding), which was not available in the past for operating funds.  Note that transit funding comes in two very important categories, operating (daily operations) and capital (buying new buses, etc.).  There are often very strong firewalls between these two categories.  According to White, AATA will now be able to dip into Section 5307 funds (which have remained at approximately the same level) for operations.  In other words, AATA will be borrowing from its source of capital funds in order to implement the TMP.

For FY2013, staff is proposing to use $1,474,000 in Section 5307 funds for operating assistance. The purpose is to help fund the cost of the advance initiatives of the 5-Year Transit Plan of the TMP, including additional service on the #4 Washtenaw route, Night Ride expansion, and AirRide service. This use of 5307 funds would reduce the balance at the end of FY 2013 to $2,244,089.

But it appears that the initiatives are not the only thing advanced here.  The AATA is also (apparently) claiming the larger region as its area, not just the City of Ann Arbor.

Section 5307 funds can be used by AATA for operating assistance. Since 1992, AATA has not been eligible for operating assistance. MAP-21 permits transit agencies in cities over 200,000 population – such as AATA – to use up to 25% of Section 5307 funds for operating assistance.  (Emphasis added.)

Of course, the City of Ann Arbor is only just over 100,000 in population.  It is not clear how this expansion is justified.

A possible source of change and uncertainty in area transit is the sequestration of Federal funds beginning in January 2013, if Congress does not come to an agreement on the budget.  According to Transportation Issues Daily, non-trust fund programs are the ones to be cut.  It will require some study to see which local programs will be affected if the country really does fall off that “budget cliff”.

That is the overview.  In future posts, we’ll try to get down to some details.

UPDATE:  Today’s article in the Ann Arbor Chronicle includes some important discussions.  It explains at greater length the shortfall in the AATA’s budget due to MDOT formula changes.  It also reveals that there is some discussion of the DDA taking up the City of Ann Arbor’s contribution to the connector study.

SECOND UPDATE: Governor Snyder has published a new message regarding the Regional Transit Authority for Metro Detroit.   He is citing a public hearing at the House Transportation Committee held last week.

THIRD UPDATE: The AATA Board voted to file Articles of Incorporation to form an Act 196 authority at a special meeting on October 2, 2012.   See coverage by the Ann Arbor Chronicle and

Click on the image to download the white paper

FOURTH UPDATE:  A citizens’ group, ProtectA2Parks, has released a white paper detailing arguments against placing a rail station in Fuller Park.  (October 12, 2012)

FIFTH UPDATE: An article by Ryan Stanton on states that Council will consider a new resolution on Monday, October 15, 2012, that will place the future construction of a train station on Fuller Park before the voters.  But the resolution will also spend another half million of General Fund money on making whole the matching funds for the Federal grant.  Turns out the FRA didn’t accept the creative accounting offered by the the city, by which the city’s prior expenditures might get counted as matching.

SIXTH UPDATE: Some stunning reportage by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle indicates that the AATA board members currently serving will not be able to serve simultaneously on the Washtenaw Ride (name of new authority) board.  Other political implications are also in the report.

SEVENTH UPDATE:  An article today (November 26, 2012) in summarizes progress and status of ReImagine Washtenaw.

Note: A listing of related posts is on the Transportation Page.

Those State Transportation Bills and the Regional Transit Authority

April 2, 2012

The pending state action on a Regional Transit Authority will hold up resolution of a Washtenaw County transit system. Or it should.

As we have been documenting in a seemingly endless stream of posts, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (its board and staff) have been engaged in a prodigious effort over the last three years to put a new regional transit system into operation. (A catalog of these posts and links to other resources can be found on our Transportation Page.)  The idea was that a new “countywide” authority would be instituted that would then implement a Transit Master Plan (TMP) developed by the AATA with their London-based consultants. (See their website, Moving You Forward to see the full TMP.)   But just as their efforts seemed near fruition, the new governor introduced what is sometimes referred to as a “game changer”.    On October 26, 2011, Governor Snyder presented a broad, ambitious plan to remake the face of transportation – especially as its infrastructure is supported by state law and funding – in Michigan.  (Our post and a report by the Ann Arbor Chronicle are contemporary summaries of this proposal.)

The effect of Snyder’s plan was to throw off the schedule for the Financial Task Force, a blue-ribbon committee of local notables who were tasked with the job of coming up with a financial “white paper” to back up the regional (countywide) transit plan. (We’ll call this the  TMP, to distinguish it from Snyder’s proposed Regional Transit Authority or RTA).  The chair of the task force, McKinley Properties’ Albert Berriz, summarily changed the course of the FTF’s work so that a final report was delayed to January 27, 2012, then to February 29.  (The actual text of the legislation was not released until January 2012; see the report by the Chronicle.)  Here is a sheet showing a list of all bills in the transportation package and with links to the Michigan Legislature page that shows their progress through committee to passage.  Note that very useful legislative analyses and summaries are found on some of the linked pages.

Partly as a result of these delays, the calendar for completion of the TMP process has been considerably altered.  See our post, AATA: Moving Us Along for a discussion of steps in the process (the timeline has slid considerably since then).  While there were efforts earlier to have the 4-party agreement and the Articles of Incorporation all adopted by January (we complained about that in an earlier post), the RTA confusion (along with delays in approval both by Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti of the 4-party agreement) has introduced considerable uncertainty into the FTF’s conclusions.  (Note: a complete listing of the FTF’s reports is on the Transportation Page.)

Dennis Schornack at the Finance Task Force meeting, February 29, 2012

There was discussion of the state legislation for the RTA at the February 29 meeting, with both Dennis Schornack (the Governor’s assistant and point man on this issue) and Conan Smith (one of whose hats is apparently to be bargaining on behalf of Washtenaw County on this matter) weighing in.  Berriz interjected a number of worried statements and questions about the effect of the RTA legislation on Federal funds that have been coming to AATA.  (One aspect of the proposed RTA is that it would become the recipient and manager of Federal operating funds for transit in the region.)

The reasons for the anxiety are better illustrated with a diagrammatic summary of changes in relationships among transit agencies that was released March 13 via  As the article says, the diagram was prepared by Richard Murphy (known around here as “Murph”), who now works for Conan Smith at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

Note that AATA currently receives funds directly from the Federal Transit Administration (the only agency in the region to do so).  AATA has been very effective at applying for Federal operating and capital funds.   Berriz fretted that that “foundation” of significant funding could be endangered.

Under the new legislation, AATA would become merely one of several regional transit agencies.  Federal funding would go directly to the RTA, to be forwarded to each regional transit agency.  This is the feature of the new legislation package that especially had the FTF worried.  Another feature that has left some of the process up in the air is the prospect of a new funding stream via a vehicle registration tax.

So how did we get here?  Some of the history is known, some has evidently come through private conversations among people with an interest in metro Detroit and in the future of transit in the region.  (Among other things, inadequate transit is seen as an impediment to economic activity.)  But clearly Conan Smith and his wife (State Senator) Rebekah Warren have been intensively involved.  Last year (June 2011) Warren introduced bills that would establish an RTA in the Detroit metro region.  (The story in makes it sound as though the intent is to support passenger rail funding;  it includes enthusiastic quotes to that effect from Ann Arbor’s Mayor John Hieftje.)  Smith, in his guise as the executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance,  has a clear interest in enhancing economic vitality of the Detroit metro region.  Warren’s bills would have created a transit authority that included only Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.  They were never taken up for action, or at least did not make it out of committee.

In September 2011, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (of which Smith is the chair) passed a resolution as follows (according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle):

Be It Therefore Resolved that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners supports the creation of a new Regional Transportation Authority to enhance interconnectivity among the communities of the southeast Michigan region and urges the participants in the 2011 Southeast Michigan Regional Summit to aggressively pursue work that meets the above outlined goals.

Conan Smith at the Financial Task Force meeting, February 29, 2012

Smith then subsequently became one of a group that also included the Mayor of Detroit and 3 elected county executives who pledged to promote a regional transit authority (MLive described the group).  In a little over one month later, Governor Snyder released his transportation plan.  And now, Washtenaw County is included in the Regional Transit Authority that was originally confined to metro Detroit.

Smith is now heavily involved in negotiation about the makeup of the bills.  Appearing before the state Senate’s transportation committee, he even indicated that one of Washtenaw County’s representatives to the RTA could be surrendered, if that would help (account from the Chronicle). His role at the Financial Task Force was to explain and predict the course of the bills.  (Jesse Bernstein, chair of the AATA board, said that he would be meeting with Smith separately to insert material into the legislation that would specifically protect AATA by making it the designated agency for the subregion (Washtenaw County) (to which Schornack responded that it already was in the legislation).

The recommendation from the FTF was, finally, very tentative.  It was clear from their statement that the pending RTA legislation left the TMP very much up in the air.

The analysis conducted by the sub-group was built on several assumptions about the level, type and timing of funding available from the State of Michigan. The recently-proposed legislation affecting transit funding and organization in SE Michigan, introduced since the last meeting of the sub-group, suggests that those assumptions may not be complete and should therefore be revisited.

The letter from Berriz to his committee makes it even more explicit that the committee is simply unable to make a final (funding) recommendation with the state legislation pending.

…we don’t know what the Governor’s plan will look like in its final form, and without that information it’s difficult to say that pursuing the track of a countywide millage is the right thing to do at this time. Therefore, in my opinion, it’s premature to pursue any millage option at this time until we have a clearer picture of what the efforts now underway at the state level will look like in their final form. Moving forward with a millage at this time is not prudent as there are too many parts of the current economic model that we have been asked to review that may and likely will change once the final legislation comes into play…I respectfully request that we table our work at this time, and I would ask that reconvene at some later point once we have a clearer picture of what the statewide efforts look like in their final form.

What the FTF’s recommendation actually consists of is a number of changes to services to be included, changes in fares, and a figure stating the likely amount of additional funding that must be found – whether by a millage or other type of funding.  But as Berriz’ letter states clearly, all of that is tentative.

Under questioning, Smith and Schornack expressed a belief that legislation might be through both houses by May, though they complained that a number of representatives had small local issues that they were concerned with.  At the same time, Schornack expressed a wish for even stronger legislation than is currently being proposed.  (He also confirmed that Washtenaw County has no opportunity to opt out of this plan.) Throughout the meeting, both Schornack and Smith clearly demonstrated that the real issue is the lack of coordination between the two metro Detroit bus systems (SMART and DDOT).  Alarmingly, many of the subsidiary measures appear to be aimed at enforcing some discipline upon those two agencies.  For example, there is punitive withholding of  funds for lack of coordination.

But what is not clear is how some of those measures might rebound on AATA and its ability to act in an autonomous manner to plan and provide services within Washtenaw County.  An issues analysis prepared by AATA staff in February states this conundrum clearly:

The uncertainty of the effect of the RTA Act on Washtenaw County is likely to undermine this effort, particularly any referendum for local funding. AATA will no longer be able to guarantee that it will implement the plan if the local funding is approved…The RTA is required to coordinate the operating and capital plans of the transit agencies…It could be as little as collecting and organizing the plans of the transit agencies and working eliminate overlap or duplication. It could also be as much as determining the local service to be operated throughout the region, including Washtenaw County. For example, will AATA have to get RTA approval for local service changes?

The analysis notes that most funding for AATA comes from Ann Arbor, and then makes this point about another section of the RTA legislation:

The interpretation that RTA will have control over local service is increased by Section 8(4) on Coordination Directives. The section explicitly gives the RTA the power to issue directives to AATA affecting “routes, schedules, and fares,” but not limited to these areas. This would clearly permit the RTA to order AATA to add, revise, or delete service or change fares. There is no limitation on these coordination directives and the bill’s language specifies that the coordination directives pre-empt city, village, or township provisions or procedures. There is no mention of the relationship with funding. Theoretically, this provision would enable the RTA Board to order AATA to shift service from Ann Arbor, even if the local funding comes from Ann Arbor.  (emphasis added)

In the midst of all this flux, no one has thought to question what the effect of forming an entirely new regional agency (the Act 196 New Transit Authority that is the subject of the 4-party agreement and the draft Articles of Incorporation) might be as the metro Detroit RTA is being organized.  There would be two transit authorities/agencies in Washtenaw County, AATA and the NTA.  But the NTA is not (by the terms of the 4-party agreement) to become a “successor agency” with regard to Ann Arbor’s assets until there is a popular vote, presumably for a millage but possibly for a local vehicle registration fee.  That is unlikely to happen before 2014.  (There is not time this year to coordinate a millage vote, and no clear direction to have one.)  So what would be the status of the two parallel authorities?  To which would the RTA turn in its effort to coordinate regional transit over the entire area?  And which would receive Federal and state funding via the RTA?

Surely, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners should examine the Articles of Incorporation closely with these questions in mind.  I would think that the BOC might even prudently table the matter until the RTA legislation and all its facets are fully known.  I would like to think that the leadership of the  BOC would take all actions possible to protect our local bus service from being controlled through a multi-county agency that is really focused on metro Detroit.  But then, that would be Conan Smith (who is the chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners).

ADDENDUM: A coalition of local lawmakers was formed to promote the regional transit concept. R-PATH is represented in Washtenaw County by county commissioners Yousef Rabhi and Barbara Bergman.  Most of the posts on R-PATH’s website so far seem to emphasize the Bus Rapid Transit routes across metro Detroit rather than the transit agency revisions.

UPDATE: According to Michael Ford’s report to the AATA board in the April packet, the RTA bills have passed the Senate committee.  There is no information about amendments on the state website.

SECOND UPDATE: An editorial in the Detroit Free Press implies that the Senate is near action on the key RTA bills.

THIRD UPDATE:  At a so-called Ann Arbor District Advisory Committee meeting on May 14, AATA staff and chair Jesse Bernstein stated that they are working directly with the Governor’s office to set Washtenaw County aside from the RTA so that it is its own RTA.  The rewritten legislation has not yet been introduced into committee.  The comment was made that the draft legislation may pass the Senate first and then have to be reworked in the House.

Timing of the changes to legislation and of the legislation itself was discussed.  It was stated that if action does not take place before the end of the current session (said to be May, which is now half gone), it is likely to be enacted in the lame-duck session after the November elections.

At the meeting, a Partners for Transit worker identified herself as affiliated with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.  The Partners for Transit group has been producing newsletters (here is the May 2012 issue which contains some nice maps) and is supposedly a volunteer citizen group.   It has been more or less housed in the WATS office but evidently is now being supported by Conan Smith’s shop (he is the executive director of the MSA).


Fairness and Transit III

March 13, 2012

Is the proposed “countywide” transit funding scheme fair to Ann Arbor?

First, let’s review what the new plan will cost Ann Arbor taxpayers. The Financial Task Force appointed by the AATA to come up with a funding plan were able to reduce the likely millage needed to 0.5 mills (based on full countywide participation). Here are their budget spreadsheets for the first 5 years of the plan: the operating budget, the capital budget,and the summary.  (Their full report and service review subgroup report have some explanations of changes and assumptions.)  After excluding some capital-intensive projects and making some other adjustments, they were able to project that the plan could be done with a 5-year budget gap of $32,877,825; that is, nearly $33 million in new funding must be found to pay for the reduced plan.

An important assumption in the FTF’s budget is that the Transit Master Plan’s services will be extended to the entire county, and the new funding (we still assume that this is a property tax millage, though they took care to deny that this is their recommendation) could be paid by a 0.5 mill tax on the entire county tax base. This appears to be substantially correct. Using their assumptions (no change from 2011, no subtractions for DDAs and other TIF, no change in law to exclude personal property), the 5-year yield from a whole-county 0.5 mill tax would be $32,788,601.  (Here is a spreadsheet summarizing all the TV and millage yields.) (Note: the FTF calculations and all those here are based on the Washtenaw County taxable values table for 2011.  The taxable values for 2012 will not be available until assessments are fully reviewed and apportioned.  This should be any day now.  See our post on city income tax for a discussion of the assessment and tax schedule.)

Washtenaw County participating municipalities shown in green; five townships have declined. Click for larger image.

But as we already know, the full county will not be participating.  According to the response I obtained through a FOIA, 5 of 20 townships have already declined to participate.  If these low-population rural townships’ taxable value is subtracted, there is still a calculated 5-year tax yield of $30,968,566.

Terri Blackmore, the executive director of Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) has been somewhat the godmother of the countywide transit plan, including its governance structure.  At the FTF meeting, she rose to point out that as municipalities drop out, so will the service to those areas, reducing expenses.  However, on examination, it is clear that these townships would not receive much additional service in any event.  They may have been able to expect more demand services, and to make use of express services by traveling to a city or township nearby.  Eliminating those services to these few residents will not be likely to bring about $2 million in savings.

The “optimistic” scenario (click for larger)

In our earlier post, How Much “County” in Washtenaw County-wide Transit?, we presented a number of different scenarios for participation across the county, each with justification.  Let’s assume for the moment that the “optimistic” scenario is the correct one.  Note that this scenario retains all the cities (except Milan), the more urbanized townships, and several more distant townships that have reason to be more amenable to a regional plan.  They represent the greatest fraction (with the city of Ann Arbor) of the taxable value of the county.  Still, the 5-year total is still only $26,912,443 – a $5-6 million shortfall of the amount needed.  The townships who have dropped out are still not heavily served by the TMP, so again the savings are not likely to be high.

But Ann Arbor (and the city of Ypsilanti) are still contributing the full amount of their charter millages, so as other communities in the county drop out, the total tax contribution of those two cities rises in proportion to the rest of the county.  This effect is exacerbated by the drop in the new millage from 1 mill to 0.5 mills.  And since (under what is actually a set of very generous assumptions) there is already a “budget gap” again, the burden is likely to fall on the remaining communities disproportionately, since they will have to carry the truly regional aspects of the TMP with less support.  This will inevitably lead to more fare increases, loss of service, or perhaps additional tax demands.

Percent tax paid in a single year by Washtenaw County communities (the “optimistic” scenario), based on 2011 TV and 0.5 mill new millage. Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti millage rates based on FTF assumptions.

So taxpayers of the city of Ann Arbor (who make up almost exactly 1/3 of the population of the county: 113,934 vs 334,791; thanks to Steve Bean for challenging me to make this comparison) are expected to pay more than twice that relative percentage in property taxes in order to support a “county-wide” transit system.  If you own a house that has a TV of $100,000 (which means that it has a supposed market value of $200,000, depending on what year you bought it), you will be paying $250 each year to support the new transit system.

Is that fair?

In the next post we’ll explore what fairness, and its cousin, equity, mean in this context.

UPDATE:  For a full apples-to-apples comparison, here are the amounts and percentages of tax paid in one year by all currently participating communities.

Tax paid by all participating communities (including 15 townships and all cities and villages), assuming a 0.5 mill tax plus existing charter millages. (2011 valuations)

Assuming that all communities currently participating in the u196 process also remain in a new authority,  94.5% of the taxable value of the county will be included in the new tax.  However,  the City of Ann Arbor represents 35.7% of that TV, and because Ann Arbor will be paying tax at a rate Five Times that of all communities other than the City of Ypsilanti, its tax contribution to the new transit authority is still nearly three-quarters of the total.

UPDATE: Northfield Township has now withdrawn from the Act 7/u196 organization. This means that the “optimistic scenario” above was in indeed optimistic.  Six of the twenty townships in the county are now out of the picture – and the formal decision hasn’t even come to them yet.

Fairness and Transit II

March 10, 2012

Is the countywide transit plan fair? (The sequel)

In our previous post, we introduced the idea that a major underlying factor in discussion of the countywide plan (an umbrella term that includes the TMP and the proposal to incorporate a new transit authority: see this post for a discussion of the differences) is the concept of fairness.  So much of the back-and-forth has been about the question of who will pay vs. who benefits, and how fair that is.

Let’s review the proposition briefly.

  • The idea is that the current Act 55 Ann Arbor city transit authority (AATA) will eventually be disbanded and its assets (both hard capital assets like buses and shelters, and financial reserves) will be turned over to a new Act 196 authority (currently being called the New Transit Authority) that has a broader potential geographic reach.  See our post, AATA: Moving Us Along for some description of the process.
  •  But to give the new authority a solid revenue base, Ann Arbor’s perpetual millage (voted into the city charter by the citizens and thus sometimes called the “charter millage”) is proposed to be transferred to the new entity.
  • The City of Ypsilanti, which also has a charter millage, would do the same.
  • This transfer of charter millages to the NTA is the only purpose of the 4-party agreement, approved as amended (pdf of draft, as amended, that was approved) by the Ann Arbor City Council, March 5, 2012.  (See brief report from the Ann Arbor Chronicle here.)
  •  The NTA would also levy a millage across the entire county (or the parts that didn’t opt out of it) to support additional services.
  • Depending on the level of that millage (both 1 mill and 1/2 mill have been discussed), it has been acknowledged that taxpayers of Ann Arbor will pay the greatest share, perhaps about 2/3, of the entire local tax collected to support the Transit Master Plan, which is also referred to as the “county-wide plan”.

Some basic questions

  1. Is it fair if taxpayers in rural communities (the “countywide” in the table below) who will receive some, but not much, increased service, pay for an enhanced system with some strong urban biases?
  2. Is the proposed arrangement fair for the communities other than Ann Arbor who are part of the urban network?
  3. Is it fair if Ann Arbor taxpayers pay most of the cost of a county-wide system?

 The “countywide” rural communities

As we discussed in a couple of former posts about politics of a millage vote and the likelihood that various local units might drop out of a “countywide” organization (5 townships out of 20 have already declined to participate), the history and politics of the other communities in Washtenaw County is that they are very resistant to voting for increased taxation, since even half a mill is a substantial fraction of their current taxes.

  • The actual service improvements being offered to many of the more rural townships are minimal. In most cases, only a commuter express bus is being proposed for the outlying areas. Express buses do not serve the needs of individuals who are not mostly commuting to a job in Ann Arbor. Hours are restricted and “demand” service (for the disabled and elderly) does not automatically go along with express bus service. (With a fixed bus route, Federal rules require demand service at no more than twice the fare for a fixed route, but that requirement can be evaded with express buses.)

The Transit Master Plan overview, as prepared by consultants Steer Davies Gleave. Click for larger view.

  • Note in the table below that only about 10% of operating costs are proposed for bus service and demand service outside the urban area. (The “urban network” is roughly described by the green blob with yellow lines in it above.)
  • Also, a significant percentage of the long-term expense is for high-capital projects like commuter rail, which doesn’t directly benefit those more distant communities.  (Note that commuter rail, the airport service, and the long-distance express bus services could be said to enhance the economics of the entire area, so might be argued to have a diffuse but real benefit to rural communities.)

Summary of combined operating costs for different types of service, from Financial Task Force November 2011 distributions

The non-Ann Arbor communities that are part of the urban network

Some communities are currently paying for AATA (fixed route bus) services, under what is called POSA (Purchase of Service Agreement).  Those POSA would be revoked under the Act 196 NTA, since those communities would be part of the new transit regional authority.

The City of Ypsilanti has a dedicated millage for transit of approximately 1 mill.  Actually, that millage does not go directly to AATA as tax receipts.  Instead, it is used to pay the POSA for the service that Ypsilanti has had in the past. (See the route map.) Originally, there was no money to pay for this service in Ypsilanti’s increasingly stressed city budget.  For a while the cost was borne by Federal stimulus funds.  Then, the citizens of Ypsilanti voted in the charter millage (a really brave and forward-looking act on their parts).  Recently, because of changes in the AATA chargeback schedule, the millage amount fell short of the required amount to pay the POSA, causing consternation in Ypsilanti’s City Council.  But the service has not been curtailed, and even better, recently service on Route 4 has been increased at no additional cost to Ypsilanti (the amount not covered by Federal formula funds is paid by Ann Arbor taxpayers).  Still, the on-and-off-again bus funding has led Ypsilanti’s mayor Paul Schreiber to support the 4-party plan at a public hearing in Ann Arbor “to stabilize Ypsilanti’s bus service”.

Now that the City of Ann Arbor has (provisionally) approved the 4-party agreement, the baton passes to the City of Ypsilanti.  My information is that it (the agreement) is on the March 20 council agenda.

The City of Ypsilanti’s budget problems are simply staggering.  For an overview, see Mark Maynard’s discussion of the consequences of the nonapproval of a city income tax.  On May 8, Ypsilanti’s beleaguered taxpayers will be asked to approve both a 1% income tax (0.5% for workers in Ypsilanti who live elsewhere) and an additional millage to pay off debts.  Ypsilanti’s property tax millage is already the highest in the county (for 2011, it was 33.6731, over twice the City of Ann Arbor’s at 16.4660 and miles above any township).  In spite of this, the city has gone through round after round of service cuts.  One problem was an ill-advised attempt by the city to dabble in development.  The Water Street Development, a failed exercise in urban redevelopment, left the city with bond debt and unaffordable payments.  So on May 8, in addition to the income tax vote, residents are being asked to vote themselves an additional 4.7085 mills merely to retire these bonds.  (The Ypsilanti City Council is now expecting that they will not need to levy the full amount.)

To POSA or not to POSA?

Ypsilanti City and three other Washtenaw County municipalities currently pay POSA (purchase of service agreement) contractual amounts to AATA for specified services.  They are all within that urban network seen in the map above.  POSA charges are calculated yearly using a formula to pay actual “loaded” costs of the specified services.  In general, POSA amounts are part of a municipality’s general fund budget and are paid right off the top of their discretionary revenue.

Here are the amounts these communities currently pay in POSA charges, and the total tax that would be raised if the countywide millage were applied instead.  Note that the POSA charges would disappear.

*Amounts for Ypsilanti City are calculated differently. Its tax rate would include the current 1 mill plus the additional countywide millage.

As is quickly evident, the total tax dollars paid by each municipality would be considerably higher with the new transit plan.  The difference for all but Ypsilanti City is that the municipal budgets would save money and the costs would be transferred to their taxpayers.  Because Ypsilanti City would be a signatory to the 4-party plan, while the accounting method would change (a direct transfer of their millage to the NTA rather than a check), their taxpayers would continue to pay the current millage amount plus the additional millage.

This might not seem too bad a deal for Ypsilanti City, considering that they are already receiving enhanced service without paying for it and there are many of the other enhancements to the urban network will serve them directly.  But whether their anguished taxpayers will agree with this as they face two more impending tax measures is a different question.

For the other municipalities, it does not appear that they will immediately see markedly different service levels.  The current routes that are being supplied with fixed-route buses may see some hour and frequency enhancements, and more Park and Ride lots and transit hubs might be built.  But new fixed route lines look to be unlikely in the near future, based on the maps that have been provided.  Thus, whether taxpayers from Superior, Ypsilanti and Pittsfield townships view the change as “fair” probably depends in part on whether they view the general increase in connectivity over the county to be beneficial to the overall economic climate and thus to themselves.

Complications to the who pays, who benefits question

All the discussion so far as been based on the assumption that the voters of the county will vote in a new millage to support a new transit authority.  The talk for the last several years was that it would be 1 mill.  However, this has now been scaled back to 0.5 mill.The recommendations of the Financial Task Force, issued on February 29, are just that, recommendations.  The FTF has no actual authority and is not the final planning body for the new authority, which does not yet exist.  Thus, its projections are merely hypothetical.  Nevertheless, they were able to arrive at the 0.5 mill amount (which they style as a mere placeholder, not an actual recommendation for a millage) by stating that the capital-intensive commuter rail and connector programs should not be folded in to the 5-year plan (thus allowing a smaller budget gap to be addressed by a millage).

This recommendation is apparently being sidestepped by AATA.  As its CEO Michael Ford says in his executive summary for March 15,

Capital intensive portions of the original program were removed with the caveat that alternate sources of funding should be secured to support the service.However, the planning and development of the capital projects will continue, but will not be slated to utilize the new local funding source.

Now this is a puzzling statement.  Money is fungible and if an activity costs something, it comes out of the total budget.  So if the FTF considered the total budget and recommended the exclusion of activities that are being carried out anyway, the money has to come from somewhere.  AATA has, of course, had budgets for many years in which certain funds (like Federal formula funds) had to be allocated to specific services.  But it is dizzying to consider an accounting system that somehow segregates general tax funds in such a ways that one dollar goes to allowable uses and another is held back.  The sleight of hand is less impressive when the quarter falls out of the cuff.

The inescapable conclusion is that the additional millage paid by former POSA communities will, in part, be used for commuter rail and connector projects.  (Though these might depend heavily on Federal and private funding, they will require some local funds.)

Another factor in the calculation of benefit vs. additional payment is that the FTF also recommended (in order to make this package fit into its tighter garment) that fares be raised an average 50 cents.  So while the former POSA communities are paying more in property taxes, their transit riders will also be paying more to ride.

Is that fair?

Next: the conclusion.  Is this plan fair to Ann Arbor?

UPDATE:  The final version of the 4-party agreement as passed by Council on March 5 is here.

SECOND UPDATE: Note the comment regarding the meaning of the 4-party agreement below.  There is additional justification for my statement that the 4-party agreement is necessary only because of the transfer of the two city millages.

THIRD UPDATE: A commenter also raised the issue of availability of demand (“paratransit”) services. Though the Financial Task Force recommendations themselves make no reference to lowered expectations for these services (apart from a fare increase), the report from the subcommittee signaled that they may be regarded as optional, depending on funding.  The quote is from their presentation on February 29, 2012.

“Adjustments to estimated Countywide Door-to-Door service costs – reduced estimated usage volume based on A-Ride’s experience with the proportion of eligible population that are active users.”

Fairness and Transit: Where AATA Is Moving Us

March 1, 2012

Is the countywide transit plan fair?

Underlying many of the debates about the “transit transition” – whether we should move to a new type of  “countywide” transit authority – is a question of fairness. For most government programs some people will always pay more than they receive in benefits and others will receive them while paying almost nothing. We have generally accepted that in order for society to work, we must pool our resources and distribute them on the basis of need.   But we hate it when that isn’t done fairly.

Because of the tax revolt that started in the 1970s and most recently with the rise of the Tea Party, this question of fairness in taxation vs. benefits is a constant source of friction among us.  Many people now think that they should receive a direct benefit from paying taxes, in a payment for services rendered model.  This has a lot of problems, including that it is sometimes hard to recognize the benefit.  A thought-provoking recent article in the New York Times revealed that some of the people (and the states) that have become most vehemently opposed to taxation and to government benefits are the ones who most benefit from those programs.  As the article says, “Many people say they are angry because the government is wasting money and giving money to people who do not deserve it.”, yet those who consider themselves middle class are increasingly dependent on government programs.  Paul Krugman reflected on this in an excellent column and pointed out another study that “points out that many beneficiaries of government programs seem confused about their own place in the system… that 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits, and 40 percent of those on Medicare say that they ‘have not used a government program.'”  He concludes, “Presumably, then, voters imagine that pledges to slash government spending mean cutting programs for the idle poor, not things they themselves count on.”

The need for fairness is apparently built into our very nature.  A great deal of research with both animals and humans indicates that we are “hard-wired” to a sense of fairness.  So while children can readily be socialized (and may not require much) to share their cookies, they will protest loudly if they are required to give them all away.   This is an example of distributive justice and we feel it on behalf of others as well as ourselves.  It is reflected in actual brain activity and some studies have shown that aggressive behavior can result if actions are perceived as unfair to the group.

One way this is often expressed is the concept of “social equity”.  Except for those serious tax-haters, most people still recognize that we should, in effect, redistribute resources (wonkspeak for “money”) from those who can afford to pay to those who have less but who still have human needs that we recognize as a societal responsibility.  I’ll share my cookies with you rather than see you go hungry.  But note that concept of the “deserving poor”.  If you eat my cookies and then pull a candy bar out of your back pocket which you eat in front of me without sharing, I’m going to be angry.  Many people are suspicious that others are in essence doing this, taking benefits and then using their own resources for private purposes rather than paying their own way.  “Paying your own way” can either mean that you put just a small contribution into the common pool, or that you carry out some obligation that you have accepted as a condition of receiving the benefit.  An example would be that you use a scholarship to obtain a degree and become a productive worker, rather than spending it all on beer and pizza.

Regions used for the survey (click for larger map)

AATA has endeavored over the last several years to start a broad public discussion about public transit, how it is used, what its importance is, how desirable it might be.   There have been endless public meetings, press releases, and educational materials about their Transit Master Plan.  (See Moving You Forward for history and the TMP reports.)  There have also been surveys to gauge public response, and the latest has finally been released.  The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s account is probably the most accessible way to review the results.  (The full set of presentation slides is here.)  It is clear that public acceptance of transit is very high.  Almost all the respondents (91%) said that transit was important, and the AATA itself got a positive rating from 89%.  But once the subject of how this will be paid for was raised,  approval became more fractured. The overall response to the question,  “would you be likely to vote for a 1-mill tax to support an expanded program?” was 59% (after some discussion of the issue); but this was strongly influenced by geography.

The survey was taken in four geographic regions (the full report that discusses actual distribution of samples has not yet been released), and the results differed by region.  While 68% of Ann Arbor residents said that they definitely or probably would vote for a millage, 56% of Ypsilanti and Pittsfield residents, 48% of Saline and eastern townships, and only 42% of the western townships, including the city of Chelsea, gave this positive answer. (Click to see a full-size chart.)

The telling reasons behind reluctance to vote for a millage even when approval of the idea of transit is so high are (quoting from the Chronicle):

They were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for everyone in the county to pay for a tax that mostly benefits Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And they were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to pay more than others for transit benefiting everyone. A roughly equal number of people agreed or strongly agreed with each of those sentiments (32% and 30%).

In other words, the underlying question in many minds is really a question of fairness.

Next: evaluating the question of fairness in the transit transition.

Note:  Other posts in this series are listed on the Transportation Page.

UPDATE: The final report on the survey is here.
Like any 97-page report, it will take time and study to analyze, but it gives an interesting insight into the difficulty of conducting a proper survey (sampling controlled, etc.) under the current conditions in which many people, especially younger ones, no longer have landline telephones that are listed in public directories.