Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (April 7, 2011): At their working session, county commissioners heard – most of them for the first time – a proposal on structuring the board for a possible new countywide transit authority. It was not universally well-received.
The tentative proposal includes allocating Ann Arbor seven seats on a 15-member board. While most of the other seats are based on population, Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would be given special consideration because both cities have millages dedicated to pay for public transit. [Ypsilanti – with a population of 19,435 compared to Ann Arbor's 113,934 – would be allocated one seat.] The assumption of the proposal is that those millages would remain in place, on top of another transportation millage levied on all county taxpayers. A countywide millage would require voter approval.
Commissioner Kristin Judge, whose district covers Pittsfield Township, protested the way board seats were assigned, saying it gave an unfair advantage to Ann Arbor. Commissioner Wes Prater, who represents southeast portions of the county, said he was “flabbergasted” that the governance plan had been developed so fully without consulting the county board, which under the current proposal would be asked to ratify the new transit authority’s board members. However, some individual commissioners were previously aware of the proposal, including board chair Conan Smith and Yousef Rabhi, chair of the board’s working session. Both Smith and Rabhi represent Ann Arbor districts.
Ronnie Peterson – a commissioner representing Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township – expressed strong support for a countywide system, saying details of the proposal could be worked out. It’s important to have a board that allows for all parts of the county to take part in policy-making decisions, he said, noting that’s not the case with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board. Both Judge and Prater said they supported public transit, but were concerned about how the system might be structured.
The proposal for governance has been developed separately from a 30-year transit master plan, which the AATA has been working on for more than a year – a process that has included dozens of public meetings to solicit feedback. If the current proposal stands, a countywide transit authority would be formed to operate a system that could expand bus service throughout the county, as well as bring commuter rail to the area. Capital costs for the system are an estimated $465 million over the 30-year period, with roughly $100 million in annual operating expenses. AATA would be dissolved, and its staff and assets would be transferred to the new entity.
Thursday’s working session was attended by six of the 11 commissioners. Three of the four commissioners representing Ann Arbor – Barbara Bergman, Leah Gunn and Conan Smith – were not present.
Countywide Transit System
Michael Benham, project coordinator for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s transit master plan, and Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), gave the board an update on a proposed 30-year master plan for a countywide public transportation system. Many of the commissioners had seen the proposal at other venues – and some had participated in the planning process – but this was the first time that most of them had seen the tentative proposal for a governance structure that might operate the system.
Benham began by giving an overview of AATA’s current services, as well as projects aside from the transit master plan – efforts like improving service to the University of Michigan’s east medical campus and the Washtenaw Avenue corridor.
But the focus of his talk was on planning for a countywide transit system, a process that began more than a year ago. His presentation was similar to others given over the past few months – for details, see Chronicle coverage: “Transit Planning Forum: Saline Edition” and “‘Smart Growth’ to Fuel Countywide Transit.”
He related the rationale for a countywide system, the public process that went into getting feedback on three possible scenarios – or levels of service – and why the “smart growth” scenario was chosen as the one to move forward. The smart growth approach would provide the highest level of service – including commuter rail – for an estimated capital cost of $465 million over 30 years, and roughly $100 million in annual operating expenses. It goes beyond mere public transportation, Benham said, by establishing transit as part of the region’s infrastructure.
Benham stressed that the costs would not be borne entirely by the residents of Washtenaw County, and outlined various funding sources. Much of the funding – an estimated 48.5% – is anticipated to come in the form of state and federal grants. Benham said that AATA and its consultants are currently analyzing how to cover the system’s costs. It’s anticipated that a countywide millage would be required.
Benham also outlined expected benefits from a countywide system. By 2040, those are anticipated to include:
- 5.4 million annual car trips taken off the road during peak periods.
- 1,830 additional new jobs created, at a value of $58.5 million.
- An annual reduction of 111 serious road accidents.
- An increase to 94% (from the current 66%) of the county’s senior population living within a 10-minute walk of fixed-route transit.
- A 701-ton annual reduction in emissions.
- $96 million in accessibility and livability benefits to existing and new riders, people with disabilities, rural communities, students and seniors.
In total, Benham said the county would see an estimated $275 million in community benefits over a 30-year period. For every $1 invested in the system, he said, the community would see $3.20 worth of benefits generated.
Countywide Transit System: Commissioner Discussion
The description of community benefits prompted the first question from commissioner Wes Prater. How were those benefits calculated? Unless there’s an underlying model to support those assumptions, he said, it’s a subjective number.
Benham said there’s a 150-page report that documents the techniques used to arrive at these figures. Among others, they used the travel demand model developed by WATS, he said.
If that’s the case, Prater replied, and the forecast is based on data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), then that’s a problem. Historically, SEMCOG forecasts have been frequently off base, he said. If the 30-year transit plan relies on SEMCOG data, “I don’t think it’s reliable information, quite frankly,” Prater said.
Benham replied that to secure federal grants, they had to rely on these forecasts. It’s not that the data is unreliable, he added, it’s just uncertain. These forecasting tools can’t give you certainty, but it’s the best they can do.
Prater then turned to the projections for federal funding of a possible transit system. Historical trends can’t predict future funding, he said – the economic situation has changed, as evidenced by billions of dollars in looming federal budget cuts.
In response, Benham likened the development of a 30-year plan to changing a tire while driving – they’ll need to be flexible, he said. But Prater cautioned that if local governments rely on this data and make a commitment to the countywide transit plan, they’ll be stuck with the bill, no matter what. The transit plan either needs more reliable data, he said, or needs to provide a mechanism so that communities aren’t locked in to a 30-year commitment. “I see some real pitfalls here,” he said, adding that he supports public transportation in general.
Kristin Judge commented on the choice of the smart growth scenario. If you put people in a room and ask whether they’d like a Cadillac or a Ford Fiesta, she said, everyone will pick the Cadillac. Benham had earlier talked about public transit in Chicago – but Washtenaw County isn’t Chicago, she said: “I don’t think we should plan something we’re not.” If they pick a system that’s too ambitious and they can’t deliver it, then residents will be left with the financial burden, Judge added, and not the benefits.
She also wondered why the University of Michigan wasn’t included as a funding source. They need to be at the table as a funder and partner, she said – they’re the reason why commuter rail is needed.
Benham noted that UM officials have been involved in the leadership group that’s met to give feedback on a countywide system. It’s an ongoing relationship, and in the future there will be more contact points, he said. They’ll be a big part of this plan, he added, but he couldn’t comment on how they might be involved in funding.
Judge also asked whether AATA would be going back out to local communities to get feedback after they’d identified the cost for a smart growth plan. Or is the smart growth scenario the one they’ve settled on, regardless of cost?
Benham replied that none of this can happen without community support. They’re trying to position the smart growth plan as the one for the county, he said, but there will be a lot of discussion and revisions – some of them possibly significant. The AATA is an entity for Ann Arbor’s public transit system, he noted, but a countywide system would need a broader organization to carry it forward.
Prater asked Benham to clarify media reports that the smart growth plan had been chosen by the AATA board above all other options. Benham said the board had given direction to move forward with the smart growth scenario as the basis for a countywide system. [See Chronicle coverage of the March 17, 2011 AATA board meeting: “'Smart Growth' to Fuel Countywide Transit"]
Yousef Rabhi asked if there were numbers to indicate how popular the smart growth plan had been. Based on community forums, a survey on the Moving You Forward website, and an AnnArbor.com poll, between 60-70% of people preferred the smart growth scenario, Benham said. He also pointed out that the smart growth option produced the most benefits for the community. This prompted Prater to again note that if those benefits weren’t based on solid data, you don’t really know what benefits you’ll get.
Countywide Transit System: Governance
Benham handed off the next part of the presentation to Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS). She began by addressing Judge’s question regarding UM. For the past five years, a representative from UM has served on the AATA board, she said. [She was referring to Rich Robben, UM's associate vice president for facilities and operations.]
In addition, she noted that last year AATA signed a five-year contract with UM to allow people affiliated with the university to ride AATA buses without paying a fare. UM is paying more than its previous contract, she said. [For details on that contract, see Chronicle coverage of the AATA's Sept. 16, 2010 board meeting: "AATA Approves Budget, UM Agreement"]
Blackmore’s part of the presentation focused on a proposal for governance of the entity that would oversee a countywide system. The AATA is an Act 55 transit authority, with a tax levied just in the city of Ann Arbor. It’s limited to providing service within the city and a 10-mile radius around it, through purchase-of-service agreements – like the one it has with Ypsilanti, which now supports that POS agreement with a millage.
Now, they’re looking at creating a transit authority organized around Act 196, she said. This would allow for countywide and regional service, covering multiple jurisdictions. “This is really going to be a metamorphosis,” she said. [For background on discussions regarding Act 196, see Chronicle coverage: "AATA Gets Advice on Countywide Transit," "AATA Plans for Countywide System" and "AATA Adopts Vision: Countywide Service"]
The process would begin with communities in the county agreeing to work together under Act 7 – the Urban Cooperation Act of 1967. Local governments would then recommend representatives to serve on a countywide Act 196 board, and those recommendations would be ratified by the county board of commissioners.
Under Act 7, local governments would draft a memorandum of understanding for creating the Act 196 board. The unincorporated Act 196 board would then define a service plan, develop articles of incorporation and bylaws, and explore funding options. After the Act 196 board is incorporated, it would adopt a strategy to implement a countywide transit system, pursue funding, and ultimately phase in operations. AATA staff and assets would transfer to this new “Washtenaw Transit” authority, and the Act 55 AATA entity would be dissolved.
Blackmore presented a proposal for board membership: A 15-member board, with seven seats from Ann Arbor, two seats from the southeast sector (Ypsilanti Township and Augusta Township), and one seat each for the city of Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township, and multi-jurisdicational districts in the northeast, north middle, west and south middle parts of the county.
The assumption is that there would be a countywide millage levied on all county taxpayers, and that Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would also pay their existing charter millages for transit. [Ann Arbor's transit millage does not require renewal and can only be eliminated by a vote of the people.] So for those two entities, board membership is calculated based on a combination of the millage paid and population. Other seats are assigned based on population only.
[According to 2010 census figures, the total county population is 344,791. Ann Arbor's population is 113,934, while Ypsilanti has a population of 19,435. By comparison, the proposal's southeast district – which covers Ypsilanti Township and Augusta Township – has a combined population of 60,107, and would get two votes.]
Countywide Transit System: Governance – Commissioner Discussion
Prater asked how the AATA had authority to form this countywide board. Blackmore clarified that this governance proposal was separate from the AATA’s work on a transit master plan. She and Brett Lenart, a staff member with the county’s economic development and energy department, have been working on the governance proposal and shopping it around to local communities, she said.
Prater was upset that the county board hadn’t heard about this proposal sooner – it’s far along in being developed, he said. Blackmore disagreed, saying that it’s still in the early stages and they’re seeking feedback.
It seems that AATA is trying to hand off its responsibility to the county, Prater said, and that Ann Arbor is trying to get out from their transit levy. “I don’t like that,” he added, saying the proposal had been kept under wraps.
Blackmore clarified that the proposal assumes that Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would keep their current millages. The county board of commissioners wouldn’t necessarily be organizing the new transit board, she said, nor would they be asked to put a new millage on the ballot. The new transit authority would likely do that.
Alicia Ping asked for more explanation about how the board membership would be determined. Aside from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the seats would be based on population, Blackmore replied. It works out to about one seat for every 30,000 in population.
What about communities that currently have purchase-of-service agreements? Ping asked. It’s assumed that those agreements would no longer be necessary, Blackmore explained.
Blackmore noted that although it might feel like a Cadillac plan, the system would be implemented in phases over a 30-year period. Because some of the longer-term plans – like commuter rail – require decisions about land use, she added, it’s important to get started now.
Ping wondered what would happen if other communities decided to add a transit millage, like Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti already have. In that case, the composition of the board likely would be reconfigured, Blackmore said.
It would take a vote of the residents to levy new millages in other communities, or to eliminate the existing transit millages in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Blackmore noted that the mayors of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are supportive of the proposed governance plan.
What assurances are there that the millages in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti will remain in place? Ping asked. If Ypsilanti decides to eliminate its millage 10 years from now, what happens to the countywide plan?
If any community opts out of the plan, they wouldn’t receive service, Blackmore said. She added that she couldn’t imagine Ypsilanti residents making that decision – they approved a charter millage increase just last year, with the additional revenue earmarked for public transit. They did that during the worst economy she’s seen in the past 30 years.
We can’t foresee the future, Blackmore added. This plan is predicated on current elected officials working together. Those officials would select the board members who in turn would decide on the transit plan, identify funding and ultimately decide whether to put a countywide millage on the ballot.
Ping asked what kind of communication they’d had with local communities about this governance plan. Blackmore reported that they’d held one-on-one meetings with 15 of the county’s 28 municipalities, but hadn’t met with everyone yet.
Judge clarified that the county board of commissioners would be required to approve the transit authority’s board members, under the proposed plan. Yes, Blackmore said. Then that’s a big deal, Judge said. She wasn’t comfortable with the apples-to-oranges way that the board membership is being determined – the seats all should be based either on the millages, or on population. The current approach, weighted heavily to Ann Arbor, she said, “wouldn’t fly with me.”
When Blackmore pointed out that none of the communities they’ve talked with have had a problem with the board composition, Judge replied that if the county board has a problem, it won’t move forward.
Prater said he was “flabbergasted” that the plan had been developed without bringing it to the county board for feedback. He asked whether Blackmore had discussed this with any of the commissioners. Yes, Blackmore said – with board chair Conan Smith, Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, and former commissioner Jeff Irwin, who now serves in the state House of Representatives. [All three are from Ann Arbor.]
Rabhi told his colleagues that Benham and Blackmore had hoped to attend an earlier working session, but he hadn’t been able to schedule them until this meeting.
Prater again expressed his dismay at the process. He said he didn’t understand why they weren’t looking at the model used in Grand Rapids, in which a smaller number of jurisdictions form the transit authority. If a community wants public transit, they should have help in getting it, he said. But Prater said he’s not going to rubber stamp anything. And unless he knows that local communities are buying into the proposal, he won’t support it.
Rabhi described that night’s working session as the first meeting in a long process. Blackmore and Benham will be returning to another working session in June, he said, along with AATA CEO Michael Ford. Meanwhile, they’ve been going out to meet with local communities, “which is what we want,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Prater asked. “Are you in on this?” Rabhi clarified that he meant “we” in the sense of the county board.
At this point Ronnie Peterson, whose district covers Ypsilanti and parts of Ypsilanti Township, spoke at length in support of a countywide transit system. This was the first time he’d seen the governance proposal, but he said he’d previously spoken to AATA staff, who’d been quite helpful in answering his questions. All commissioners should have their concerns addressed, he said, and he hoped that each one of them would meet one-on-one with AATA staff.
Peterson said he’s been an advocate for a countywide system for many years, and had lobbied for it with the AATA’s two previous directors. It’s unfortunate that you can’t travel around the county easily using public transit, he said. This current plan is the farthest they’ve come to realizing the vision of a countywide system, and he described it as a “miracle.” It’s the first time in his political career that such a progressive plan has been put together so swiftly. Communication could have been better with the board, he said, but now they’ve addressed that. While Prater raised valid concerns, Peterson said, it’s important to remember that this is a 30-year plan, and they can work out those issues.
Peterson said he’s always wanted Ypsilanti to have access to policy-making. As it stands, Ypsilanti can pay for service but doesn’t have a voice on the AATA board, because it’s an Ann Arbor transit authority. Contracting out for service leaves you out of the policy-making process, he noted. Under the proposed governance, smaller communities also have the chance to be part of the major metro authority. At this point in the process, they can still alter how that board is put together, he said – the horse hasn’t left the gate, and they can still change the saddle, the jockey or even the horse itself.
He too had concerns about Ann Arbor paying its share, but he noted that even if Ann Arbor got seven members on the board, the rest of the county communities had eight seats. Peterson said it’s fair for them to talk about these issues, but the overall goal of a countywide system is worthwhile.
Dan Smith told his colleagues that he’s enjoyed using public transportation, especially in Europe. But this is Washtenaw County, not a major European metro area. This country – and especially southeast Michigan – has built a society based on roads and cars, he said. There might be external factors that will change this situation, like rising gas prices. But in Europe, public transportation is integrated into society in a way that it’s not in America. He wasn’t sure a countywide system could work without major societal changes as well.
Smith then asked how many other communities operated under an Act 196 authority. Blackmore replied that only about a half-dozen authorities use it – the act is relatively new, she said. [The law was enacted in 1986.]
Smith noted that the state government is encouraging collaboration and cooperation – the board recently had a working session on that topic, he said. But he wanted to come at it from the opposite view: Why not use an existing entity to accomplish the goal, rather than create a new one? Maybe they can lobby for legislation that would allow an entity like the county board or AATA to operate a countywide transit system.
Blackmore pointed out that they’d be replacing one entity with another, not creating an additional authority. She also questioned how quickly they’d be able to get legislation passed – Smith countered that it didn’t have to happen tomorrow.
Prater said he supported public transportation, but only if local communities wanted it. There are less complicated ways to handle it, other than what’s being proposed, he contended. Blackmore noted that communities would have an opportunity to opt out of the system, if they chose.
Judge called the development of the transit master plan a “phenomenal” process, which she had participated in. But she hadn’t been involved in developing the governance plan – it seemed that only Ann Arbor commissioners were consulted, she observed. [Judge represents District 7, which covers Pittsfield Township.] To see the transit board weighted so heavily in favor of Ann Arbor, and knowing that other commissioners hadn’t been consulted – that was of concern to her.
Rabhi encouraged staff of AATA and WATS to meet with commissioners individually. He said he hadn’t been involved in the decision-making of the governance plan – he’d simply been given materials for the presentation earlier, in his role as chair of the working session.
Peterson said he was sorry that Blackmore and Benham “took it in the neck” that night, and he again commended AATA for taking on this project. He hoped they could return at least a couple of times before the summer, to provide additional information.
Peterson also pointed out that they already had an example of a successful countywide program – the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission. That group serves the entire county extremely well, he said, even though the commission members aren’t chosen from individual communities.
Rabhi thanked Blackmore and Benham for coming, and noted that they’d be returning on June 2 with Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO. He suggested that they also come back to a working session before then, to give perhaps a brief five-minute update on their progress.
Prater said he didn’t think five minutes would be long enough.
Present: Kristin Judge, Ronnie Peterson, Alicia Ping, Wes Prater, Yousef Rabhi, Dan Smith.
Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Leah Gunn, Rolland Sizemore Jr., Conan Smith, Rob Turner.