Four Ann Arbor councilmembers are currently listed as sponsors of a resolution that calls on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to veto legislation that establishes a four-county regional transit authority (RTA) for southeast Michigan. The area of the authority includes the city of Detroit and the counties of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. [.pdf of state Senate Bill 909]
The council has called a special meeting for Monday, Dec. 10 to consider the resolution.
A basic reason for the council’s possible request that Snyder veto the legislation is the inclusion of Washtenaw County in the RTA. The resolution indicates concern that the inclusion of Washtenaw County in the RTA would potentially risk the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s ability to continue its role to serve effectively as a transportation provider for Ann Arbor.
Among other additional reasons given in the draft resolution for the council’s objection is the characterization of the bill as containing “onerous and offensive provisions related to consideration of rail based transportation.” That’s a reference to part of the legislation that requires unanimous approval from the 9-member board of the new RTA to “acquire, construct, operate, or maintain any form of rail passenger service within a public transit region.” An east-west rail connection has been an aspiration of Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje and other local officials for several years, and is reflected in a current study being done with federal funds to determine a locally preferred alternative for the location of a new Amtrak station.
The implications of the RTA legislation for federal and state funding of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority are not entirely clear. Both types of AATA funding appear to be impacted, although AATA staff were still sorting through the implications late Friday afternoon. AATA manager of community relations Mary Stasiak characterized the AATA’s position this way: “We support regional transportation but want to ensure that Washtenaw (Ann Arbor’s) interest and federal funding is not compromised in the process.”
The council’s Dec. 10 special meeting falls four days after the state House of Representatives gave approval to the same bill passed earlier by the senate – in a lame duck session of the legislature. The council’s meeting is scheduled to start at 4 p.m. in the jury room of the Justice Center, located at 301 E. Huron St. The council had already been scheduled to hold a budget planning session at that same time and location. Update: On the morning of Dec. 10, the city announced that the location for the special session has been changed to the second-floor council chambers at city hall, next to the Justice Center.
Currently listed as sponsors of the resolution are mayor John Hieftje, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), and Sabra Briere (Ward 1).
The state RTA legislation was opposed by District 53 state Rep. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat who represents most of the city of Ann Arbor. Irwin attempted to make two amendments to the bill during the Dec. 6 session of the House. One of the amendments would have simply removed the unanimous voting requirement for rail systems. The other amendment would have substituted the entire bill with one that excluded Washtenaw County from the region of the authority, but left in place the legislation’s provisions for adjacent counties to join the RTA at a later time. [.pdf of Irwin amendment 1] [.pdf of Irwin amendment 2]
However, Irwin’s amendments were gaveled down in the current custom of the Michigan House. In that process, the presiding officer announces that the voting board is open and that members of the House are free to vote at their desks, and in the same breath declares that the amendments are not adopted.
The ability of the RTA to fund transportation service will depend on the approval of voters in the four-county region. However, the legislation allocates $250,000 a year to the new RTA from state operating assistance. The governance of the 9-member RTA board is structured so that any vote to place a tax assessment or vehicle registration fee on the ballot for residents of the four-county region – in order to fund transportation services by the new RTA – could be vetoed by the representative from Detroit, or by a dissenting vote from both representatives of a single county.
Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, has been an advocate for the RTA effort, both as chair of the county board and in his role as executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
Assuming that Snyder does not heed the Ann Arbor city council’s call to veto the legislation, the chair of the Washtenaw County board will make the two Washtenaw County appointments to the RTA board. Following the custom of the county board, Smith will likely rotate off that position, which is elected by fellow board members in January. Yousef Rabhi, who has also been a strong supporter of the RTA concept, is most likely to be elected as the new county board chair starting in 2013.
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