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.
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.]