The expansion of transit services throughout Washtenaw County appears to be taking turn away from some specific approaches that have been intensively discussed for the last couple of years.
At its Nov. 8 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council is now scheduled to vote on the question of opting out of a newly incorporated countywide transit authority – an initiative that the city of Ann Arbor had been expected to help lead. With Ann Arbor’s withdrawal, this particular approach to expanding transportation services would be effectively ended.
Update: The Ann Arbor city council did decide to opt out of the transit authority, on a 10-0 vote taken at the Nov. 8 meeting.
And the topic of transit has already been raised at the post-election Nov. 7 meeting of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. Dan Smith, a Republican who represents District 2 covering northern parts of the county, had been prepared to introduce two transit-related resolutions at the meeting, but wound up placing only one of them on the agenda. The one he brought forward was a proposal to rescind support for a metro Detroit regional transit authority (RTA) – which the board had given in September of 2011. Although board chair Conan Smith has been a champion of legislation to enable an RTA, Dan Smith’s resolution passed on a 6-4 vote.
More significantly, Smith had also considered bringing forward a resolution to dissolve The Washtenaw Ride, a new countywide transit authority created under Act 196 of 1986 when the county filed articles of incorporation last month with the state. [.pdf of resolution to dissolve The Washtenaw Ride]
The Oct. 3 filing was undertaken as part of a four-party transit agreement between the county, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which is leading this initiative. Since then, all but five of the 28 municipalities in the county have voted to opt out of the new authority. However, those that are still participating include several of the county’s largest population centers: Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and Saline.
Dan Smith’s resolution indicated that because so few municipalities are participating, the Act 196 authority should be dissolved. He held off introducing it, however, in part because of pending action by the Ann Arbor city council the next day. As The Chronicle reported in mid-October, Ann Arbor city councilmember Stephen Kunselman had said he planned to pursue the possibility of Ann Arbor opting out – because he felt he’d have the required six-vote majority after the new city councilmembers are sworn in on Nov. 19.
But now the city council will take up the issue of withdrawing from the new transit authority at its Nov. 8 meeting. And that withdrawal will be accomplished with the support of at least some of those on the council who previously advocated to expand the AATA’s governance and service area through incorporation of the new authority. A resolution on withdrawal of Ann Arbor from the Act 196 authority was added to the Nov. 8, 2012 agenda the day before the meeting – sponsored by not just Kunselman, but also mayor John Hieftje, and councilmembers Sabra Briere, Christopher Taylor and Marcia Higgins. That indicates the city council’s resolution on withdrawal is almost certain to pass.
Under the terms of the four-party agreement, once the city of Ann Arbor withdraws from the Act 196 authority, the city can terminate the entire agreement. The council’s resolution indicates encouragement to the AATA to continue to work towards regional transportation, but not with the mechanism of this Act 196 authority.
Dissolving The Washtenaw Ride
The county board has never been unified in its support of the current approach to a broader public transit entity, an effort that the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been working on for more than two years.
The county’s role in creating the transit entity was laid out in a four-party agreement with Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and the AATA, which commissioners approved on Aug. 1, 2012 in a 6-4 vote. Subsequent revisions involving the other entities resulted in the need for a re-vote. That second vote occurred on Sept. 5, 2012, and it also drew just six supporting votes on the 11-member board. Alicia Ping, Wes Prater and Dan Smith voted against it, and two commissioners were absent.
Commissioners had understood that the county’s only role in connection to the new authority would be to file articles of incorporation with the state under Act 196, which occurred on Oct. 3. But during their Oct. 17 meeting, commissioners learned that the county would be sending out additional notification letters to local jurisdictions about the new transit authority, called The Washtenaw Ride. That had come as a result of some disagreement between legal counsel for the various parties about when the 30-day opt-out period actually began – upon incorporation, or at some later time. For the county to send letters prompted concern among some commissioners, including from those who had opposed the county’s participation.
Since the incorporation of the new authority on Oct. 3, 2012, the second wave of letters has not been the only glitch. Another challenge was the composition of the new authority’s board. The initial expectation had been that the seven current members of the AATA board would also serve on the 15-member board of the new transit authority. But when views of legal counsel to various parties diverged on the ability to render simultaneous service on the two boards, the city of Ann Arbor elected to pursue a strategy of appointing different board members to the new authority. That appointment process is already partly underway. [See Chronicle coverage: "Positions Open: New Transit Authority Board" and "Ann Arbor Mayor: Need Transit Board Members"]
Also since incorporation, the majority of jurisdictions have already opted out of the new authority, even if a majority of the county’s population would remain. The resolution that Dan Smith had considered bringing forward at the Nov. 7 board meeting cited complications arising from the number of municipalities that have opted out of the authority, stating that it will require a change to the articles of incorporation. The resolution also pointed to the availability of other options to provide public transit:
WHEREAS, municipalities throughout the county continue to provide transit services utilizing W.A.V.E., People’s Express, and Purchase of Service Agreements with AATA; and
WHEREAS, as an Act 55 of 1963 entity, AATA may form an Act 196 Authority on its own and without any involvement of the board; and
WHEREAS, the five remaining political subdivisions may form an Act 196 Authority on their own and without any involvement of the board;
The idea of continued service echoes the language of the city council’s upcoming Nov. 8 resolution, encouraging the continued effort to expand service, which reads in part:
Resolved, That AATA is encouraged to continue to discuss regional transportation options among Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti township, Ann Arbor township and Pittsfield township, leading to a better understanding and process for improving local transit options;
The language about continued provision of service in the resolution of both bodies implicitly addresses a condition of termination in four-party agreement, which states: “No such termination or dissolution shall be effective unless and until provision for continued transportation services to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti is in place, operational and all liabilities on the New TA have been satisfied.”
Dan Smith’s resolution would have rescinded previously approved board resolutions authorizing the county’s involvement.
However, it does not appear that the county board actually has the ability to dissolve the Act 196 authority known as the Washtenaw Ride. One way the authority could be dissolved is a scenario where no funding is identified before the end of 2014. From the four party agreement:
12. Termination of Agreement.
b. Discretionary Dissolution or Withdrawal Conditions. The Washtenaw County Board will also be allowed to dissolve the New TA if there is no Authority-wide voter approved funding passed before December 31, 2014, or voter approval passes Authority-wide but the same is defeated in the City of Ann Arbor.
But because it’s still well before Dec. 31, 2014, the necessary time has not elapsed for the board of commissioners to dissolve the transit authority under 12 (b).
The authority could also be dissolved based on which political subdivisions opt out. From the articles of incorporation:
SECTION 10.02: DISSOLUTION OF THE AUTHORITY
The Authority may be dissolved in accordance with the provisions of Act 196 and as provided for in Section 12 of the Public Transportation Agreement referenced in section 3.01. If the City of Ann Arbor is the only political subdivision in the County remaining within the Authority after the expiration of the statutory 30-day withdrawal period, the Authority shall be dissolved.
However, the condition for dissolution in Section 10.02 isn’t met, because the city of Ann Arbor is not the only political subdivision in the county remaining in the authority after expiration of the 30-day withdrawal period – in part because the period isn’t over, and in part because the city of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and the city of Saline have not withdrawn.
The resolution that Dan Smith had considered bringing forward also stated: “… that pursuant to Attorney General Opinion #7003 (December 23, 1998) the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners requests the Michigan Legislature to dissolve ‘The Washtenaw Ride.’”
The Attorney General opinion cited in the resolution notes that an act of the legislature would be required to achieve the dissolution: “It is my opinion, therefore, in answer to your second question, that the dissolution of a transportation authority organized under the Public Transportation Authority Act requires an act of the Legislature and may not be accomplished by the unilateral action of the city in which it was established.” [.pdf of AG opinion 7003]
Ultimately, it’s not clear if any action by the board of commissioners would be necessary to end the approach to expanding transit – if the Ann Arbor city council approves the resolution that’s on its Nov. 8 agenda to opt out of The Washtenaw Ride.
It’s possible that the board of commissioners might pass a version of Smith’s resolution that calls upon the state legislature to dissolve the transit authority, once the Ann Arbor city council has acted. A member of the state legislature who’d be called upon to act is former Washtenaw County commissioner Jeff Irwin, who on Nov. 6 won re-election as representative of the 53rd District of the Michigan House. Irwin had been instrumental over the last few years in helping to shepherd the proposal to incorporate a new transit authority.
Rescinding Support for the RTA
At the county board’s Oct. 17, 2012 meeting, commissioner Wes Prater had asked for an update about proposed state legislation regarding creation of a regional transit authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan – the city of Detroit and the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. Conan Smith has been an advocate for that effort, both as chair of the county board and in his role as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
About a year ago, at its Sept. 21, 2011 meeting, the board unanimously passed a resolution of support for the RTA. From then until the Oct. 17 meeting, little discussion of the RTA has taken place a commission meetings, and several commissioners seemed unaware of the county’s level of involvement in that effort.
So on Nov. 7, Dan Smith brought forward a resolution to rescind the board’s previous support. [.pdf of resolution to rescind support of the RTA]
The resolution also stated that the board opposes any other legislation that would involve Washtenaw County in an RTA:
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners opposes legislation which would include Washtenaw County in a Regional Transportation Authority, which does not protect:
- The ability of county entities to manage designated transportation funding.
- The right of county entities to independently mange a transit system.
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners supports the concept of a Regional Transportation Authority to enhance interconnectivity among the communities of the southeast Michigan region, but feels that Washtenaw County and the voters thereof should determine when to join the Authority.
Smith’s original draft – which was distributed to commissioners – had included references to specific pending state legislation. After a sidebar discussion with Conan Smith, Dan Smith revised the language to eliminate the citations to HB 5309 and SB 909. During deliberations, Conan Smith and Yousef Rabhi both thanked Dan Smith for “softening” the resolution, though both said they couldn’t support it, despite that change.
Rabhi and Conan Smith were joined by Felicia Brabec and Rolland Sizemore Jr. in voting against the resolution. However, six commissioners supported it – Dan Smith, Leah Gunn, Barbara Bergman, Rob Turner, Alicia Ping and Wes Prater – which was sufficient to pass the measure. Ronnie Peterson was absent.
Discussion on the topic might continue at the board’s Nov. 8 working session. That meeting includes an update on the RTA from Gary Owen with Governmental Consultant Services Inc., the Lansing-based firm that serves as the county’s lobbyist on state issues.
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