Michigan Regional Transit Bills Unveiled

Framework for regional transit authority includes Washtenaw

Following an early morning announcement on Jan. 26 from state representative Rick Olson (District 55) – that a transportation improvement package for Michigan would be introduced in both houses of the legislature today – the text of the 17 bills is now available.

Southeast Michigan Transit Authority

Four-county region the regional transit authority (RTA) counterclockwise from Washtenaw County (orange): Wayne, Macomb, Oakland. Pushpin A is the location of the Detroit Metro airport. Major corridors on which rolling rapid transit would be provided include Gratiot (red), M-59 (yellow), Woodward (purple) and Michigan Avenue (green). (Map is by The Ann Arbor Chronicle. Routes are approximate, intended to illustrate the concept. Image links to dynamic Google Map with .kml file)

Much of the package deals with road funding, but some of the bills establish a regional transit authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan and its funding. Here’s a brief initial glance at some of the possible legislation.

HB 5309 establishes the region of the RTA as Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. The counties are not mentioned by name, but rather are described in terms of their population – a move likely used to avoid the 2/3 majority vote required under Michigan’s constitution (Article IV Section 29) for the legislature to enact local or special acts.

The legislation specifically calls for rolling rapid transit (aka bus rapid transit) along four corridors: (1) a Woodward corridor, (2) a Gratiot corridor, (3) a northern cross-county line to operate between the city of Troy and the city of Mt. Clemens, and (4) a western cross-county 47-mile route between downtown Detroit and the downtown Ann Arbor Blake Transit Center. The Ann Arbor line is described as including stations in Ypsilanti, the Detroit Metro airport, and Dearborn.

The RTA would be governed by a 10-member board – one appointment by the governor, two each from the four counties, and one from the city of Detroit. Board members would serve 3-year terms. A county adjacent to the four-county area could be added to the region of the RTA by a vote of the governing body of that county and consent of the RTA board. The legislation also provides for the establishment of a citizens advisory committee.

A key to funding the transit service to be provided by the RTA is that it would become the designated recipient of federal and state funds for its region – supplanting the existing local authorities that are currently the designated recipients. The RTA would have the ability to designate currently operating local transit authorities – like the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority – as sub-recipients of federal and state funds.

While most votes of the RTA board would require a simple majority, placing certain ballot measures before voters in the region – including a vehicle registration fee – would require a 4/5 majority (eight of ten members) of the board. The vehicle registration fees are addressed in other bills in the package.

Two other bills in the package (HB 5012 5312 and HB 5011 5311) provide another possible mechanism for funding public transportation and the RTA. HB 5312 provides that counties can adopt a voter-approved additional vehicle registration fee of up to $1.80 per $1,000 of the list price of a vehicle as determined by the existing statute. This county-based vehicle registration fee is not restricted to just the four counties in the RTA. Any county could enact such a fee and use some of that revenue to fund public transportation – but 90% of the revenue would need to be spent on roads, under Article IX Section 9 of Michigan’s constitution. This local, county-based voter-approved vehicle registration fee adds a new section 801k to the Michigan Vehicle Code.

And HB 5311 allows the RTA to enact an additional vehicle registration fee of up to $1.20 per $1,000 of the list price of a vehicle as determined by the existing statute – if voters in the RTA region approve it. It’s possible that a county in the RTA region could enact an additional vehicle registration fee on its own (801k), and that the RTA could also enact one.

The rules for how an 801k-enacted vehicle registration fee (by a county) could interact with a fee that is approved by voters in the RTA region are also set forth in HB 5311. The first condition is that the county-based vehicle registration fee and the RTA-based fee can’t sum to more than $1.80 per $1,000 of list value.

The second condition is that the county-based fee would be adjusted downward, if necessary, to meet the first condition. Because the RTA can only enact a fee up to $1.20, but a county can enact one up to $1.80, it’s not possible for the RTA to take all of a county’s fee that the county had intended to invest locally. The limiting case would be that a county enacted a $1.80 fee, and the RTA enacted $1.20. That would result in a reduction of the county fee to $0.60 – leaving the RTA fee at $1.20.

It appears that an RTA region-wide referendum on a vehicle registration fee would pass or fail based purely on the region-wide vote. In the specific case of Washtenaw County, there’s no provision that the referendum would need to get support from a majority of voters inside Washtenaw County in order for the fee to be imposed in Washtenaw by the RTA. Such a provision would be somewhat unusual, but it’s the kind of safeguard that the Ann Arbor city council has built into a pending agreement that it may enact to establish a countywide transit governance structure in Washtenaw County.

Concern for the possibility that voter sentiment in Washtenaw is markedly different from attitudes in the other three counties is likely the reason the proposed legislation assigns two of 10 board seats on the RTA to Washtenaw County – the same number as the more populous Oakland and Macomb counties.

If the Washtenaw representatives to the board were against placing a vehicle registration fee on the ballot, the RTA would need all eight of the non-Washtenaw board representatives in order to place the measure before the RTA region voters – due to the 4/5 majority requirement. And given that one of the RTA board seats would be appointed directly by the governor, any Washtenaw County residents who were opposed to a fee might look first to that seat as the one that might prevent a ballot measure from coming forward. Gov. Rick Snyder is a resident of Washtenaw County, with a home in the Ann Arbor area. [Editor's note: See reader's observation below that the governor's appointment is ex officio, and thus non-voting.]


  1. By cosmonıcan
    January 27, 2012 at 12:53 am | permalink

    A fifth, obvious choice, for expansion on that plan should be a “Rapid Rolling Transit” line up US23, to connect those Orange and Green lines. I presume that would be from Fenton to Saline through Ann Arbor; maybe AATA should put their money on that, instead of some pokey old train.

  2. January 27, 2012 at 6:03 am | permalink

    To rephrase your somewhat convoluted statement, the fee could be imposed on Washtenaw County if it passes in the three more populous counties, even if Washtenaw votes it down. In other words, we’re captive.

    The county-based fee is interesting in that it is up to the county Board of Commissioners to place it on the ballot for approval by county voters. The money collected then goes to the county treasurer (NOT to either a transportation authority or to a road commission). This is consistent with Snyder’s other proposals to allow boards of commissioners to subsume road commissions. But presumably the BOC could then allocate the money collected (subject to constitutional limitations on use for transit) as it deemed fit.

  3. January 27, 2012 at 8:33 am | permalink

    Some quick math on the mix of rapid transit proposal and financing mechanisms proposed shows that Washtenaw would be a big winner, financially.

    Look back to the County-wide Transit Master Plan at the estimates for commuter-grade A2/Ypsi-DTW-Dearborn/Detroit service, and you see they’re heavily caveated to the effect that “Washtenaw can only make these happen if we have partners on the other side of the county line picking up their share of the cost.”

    The number of automobiles in each county is roughly proportional to the population — meaning that Washtenaw’s share of the revenue of the RTA will be relatively tiny. Some quick math on the per-county mileage of the proposed rapid transit network, as described in the legislation (the northern connector is only described as spanning Gratiot to Woodward, btw), gives Washtenaw only slightly fewer network miles than Oakland or Macomb.

    Assuming equal service levels on the entire network, Washtenaw’s piece actually ends up being the subsidized section of the network, with something like 1/3 to 1/2 of the cost of operating our piece paid for by the other counties. You’ll note elsewhere that the legislation calls for each county to receive service equal to a minimum of 85% of the funds generated in that county — you can see that as Oakland and Macomb protecting themselves from subsidizing Washtenaw too heavily, rather than the other way around.

  4. January 27, 2012 at 8:41 am | permalink

    As far as your voting math in the last paragraph, note that the Governor’s appointee is non-voting ex oficio, leaving 9 voting members. A “super-majority not to exceed 4/5″ therefore means “either 6 or 7 votes out of 9″, presumably to be determined by the Authority Board when it sets its bylaws.

    End result is the same: any single County’s appointees (except Wayne+Detroit) can’t block a funding measure from the ballot, but my guess is that Washtenaw wouldn’t be the first holdout.

  5. January 27, 2012 at 9:48 am | permalink

    The analysis in the last two paragraphs of this article strikes me as a little off.

    First, it’s doubtful that the legislation’s proponents see Washtenaw as a tough sell on transit. Of all the counties in metro Detroit, we’ve been the most active in pursuing regional transit, like the Ann Arbor-Detroit link outlined in the proposal. It’s more likely that Washtenaw is heavily weighted on the board to bolster the new authority’s overall enthusiasm for expanded transit, since the Oakland County administration has been less than supportive in the past.

    Second, given the fact that Governor Snyder is the one promoting this legislation, it’s unlikely that his (nonvoting) board representative would oppose a tax for transit. I don’t expect that Washtenaw’s representatives would, either. On the contrary, our county’s major complaint with the area’s existing regional bodies has been that they haven’t adequately funded transit: [link]

  6. January 27, 2012 at 10:00 am | permalink

    Once again, thanks are in order to tireless Chronicle staff for quickly reducing several complicated bills to an intelligible summary.

    One point to bear in mind: since any revenues derived from vehicle fees (including fuel and registration) must have 90% dedicated to roads, the effective maximum to transit is 18 cents per $1000 of vehicle value. I’m sure someone will pretty quickly estimate what that adds up to, but my guess is…not a huge windfall.

    Overall, I think the legislation (as summarized here) sounds reasonable. It addresses the major weakness of Southeast Michigan: fragmentation and lack of regional cooperation. We are captives – and always have been – of geography. Lou Glazer [link] has demonstrated conclusively that economic prosperity depends on metro-regions working well, not on smaller units. Attempts to isolate ourselves from the troubles of our neighbors only leads to dysfunction in the whole region. Southeast Michigan has demonstrated that to the nation; can we now demonstrate the fruits of regional cooperation?

  7. By Rod Johnson
    January 27, 2012 at 10:24 am | permalink

    Larry, do you have a clearer link to Glazer’s conclusive demonstration? I have been decidedly unimpressed with the work of his that I’ve encountered, but I’m willing to hear more.

  8. By State Rep. Rick Olson
    January 27, 2012 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    This is a very good synopsis of the proposed bill. We will be taking much testimony to fully vet the proposal. In particular, I will be looking to be sure that our Washtenaw County system is enhanced by the proposal, not harmed. I would appreciate feedback to rickolson@house.mi.gov.

  9. January 27, 2012 at 2:13 pm | permalink

    I find it odd that supporters are already counting on these dollars to support a commuter rail project that is essentially not funded otherwise (rail fixes aimed at Amtrak service don’t count), when the major aching need in SE Michigan is for fully networked bus service. Anyone following the sad story of SMART? And the Governor himself emphasized the Bus Rapid Transit corridors as shown in the excellent graphic with this story.

    Thank you for the emphasis on the potential for the RTA to become the first recipient of federal and state formula funds, with the AATA merely a contractor. As you note elsewhere [link], the long-awaited Financial Task Force meeting for today has been cancelled (most likely in order to assimilate the state bills information). The importance of the shift of federal and state formula funding to the RTA cannot be overemphasized. AATA has been very forceful and creative in obtaining Federal money and it would be much inhibited in this if merely allocated an amount to maintain contracted service. The “UM advantage”, in which UM bus ridership is allowed to count as riders for AATA in order to increase proportionate Federal formula funding, would also likely be lost.

    Quite frankly, I believe that the entire TMP process needs to be put on hold while the implications of this legislation get sorted out.

  10. January 27, 2012 at 4:17 pm | permalink

    Vivienne – it would be a major concern, yes, if the RTA received state and Federal funds in the place of AATA, and had discretionary power over those funds. However, the legislation specifically states that the federal and state funds must go to local providers as if they were the direct recipients of them, rather than subrecipients. (And FTA rules would prohibit the RTA from moving formula funds due to AATA or UM riders over to SMART or DDOT.)

    I think it is important the AATA retain the ability to apply directly to the State or FTA for discretionary grant opportunities, both for transparency and timeliness of these requests, but I don’t find the formula grants to be an area of concern in the legislation.

  11. January 27, 2012 at 5:02 pm | permalink

    That is reassuring, Murph.

  12. By Bob Cowen
    February 10, 2012 at 9:35 am | permalink

    How many millions of dollars and years of committee studies, task forces, presentations and promises will it take to learn our lesson? SMART isn’t smart. And if you thought that SMART was unresponsive, expensive and steeped in politics, wait until you see a Regional Transit Authority. A better solution is to allow entrepreneurs to offer unrestricted transportation services (shuttle, van, taxi, jitney). Social media will very quickly spread the word about who is good and who is not. Low income & seniors can be given vouchers or a BRIDGE type of card. It’s worked elsewhere and well worth a two year test. Put the brakes on a Regional Transit Authority before entwining three or four counties with their layers of politicians into an even bigger SMART type of mess. Tell Lansing and local government to unshackle the free market; you’ll be surprised at how quickly two good things happen: much better service for customers and much lower cost for taxpayers!

  13. By Steve Bean
    February 10, 2012 at 11:04 am | permalink

    Bob, can you point to a few places where it’s worked and has been in place for more than two years?