Ann Arbor city council special meeting (Dec. 10, 2012): On a unanimous vote, the council passed a resolution objecting to the inclusion of Washtenaw County in a regional transit authority (RTA), created with a bill passed by the state legislature on Dec. 6.
The language of the resolution was changed at the meeting to eliminate a request that Gov. Rick Snyder veto the legislation. Instead, the council substituted a request that the RTA legislation be amended to exclude Washtenaw County, where Ann Arbor is located.
However, the resolution retained other parts of its strong wording, including a reference to a provision about rail transportation – which calls the bill’s requirements for implementation of rail-based transportation “onerous and offensive.” It’s a clause in the legislation that requires a unanimous vote of the 9-member RTA board to “acquire, construct, operate, or maintain any form of rail passenger service within a public transit region.”
The RTA legislation specifically mentions “rolling rapid transit” – a system based on buses, not trains – as a possibility for four major new regional corridors: along Woodward, along Gratiot, from Pontiac to Mt. Clemens, and from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Supporters of the RTA with Washtenaw County’s current inclusion have claimed that a rail-based east-west commuter line between Ann Arbor and Detroit is still achievable, or even likely, despite the requirement of unanimous board support.
The council’s resolution reflected the fact that an east-west rail connection has been an aspiration of Ann Arbor mayor John Hieftje and other local officials for several years – demonstrated in a current study being done with federal funds to determine a locally preferred alternative for the location of a new Amtrak station. But the “onerous and offensive” clause in the resolution was subjected to debate, as some councilmembers supported its removal for completely different reasons.
Councilmembers who’ve opposed Ann Arbor’s continued study of a new rail station seemed to perceive the clause to be an implicit endorsement of continued investments in that direction. But Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5), who could reasonably be described as the council’s strongest advocate for transit, argued also against the “onerous and offensive” clause. His argument was based on a belief that the legislation had a mechanism to allow the newly created RTA to implement rail-based services by creating yet another transit authority – thus circumventing the unanimous voting requirement. Ultimately, there were not sufficient votes on council to remove that clause.
Besides concern about the future of commuter rail, the council’s 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.
In the days leading up to the meeting, staffers with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance lobbied the council not to pass its resolution, in an effort that included a claim that the Ann Arbor city council’s resolution reflected a desire to determine unilaterally the county’s transportation future. In fact, the council’s action echoes the sentiments of a recent resolution approved by the Washtenaw County board. And a resolution of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board, approved in February 2012, supported the concept of an RTA, but conditioned that support on the coordination of new funding so that existing levels of transportation services provided by the AATA are maintained.
As of noon on Dec. 12, Snyder had not yet signed the legislation – it had not yet been presented to him for his signature, according to the governor’s office.
In this report, the council deliberations at its Dec. 10 special meeting are presented in detail.
Amending Out the Request for Veto
The single item on the agenda was moved by Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and seconded by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3).
Briere and Kunselman had co-sponsored the resolution with Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) and mayor John Hieftje.
Briere led things off by indicating that there was an amendment to be offered, and she deferred to Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) to offer it.
The first of the changes seemed to be essentially in the interest of semantic coherence. The original language in the first “resolved” clause, taken literally, portrayed the RTA bill as having a particular geographic configuration, when the intent was to refer to the configuration of the RTA described in the bill.
So the first change was to strike the word “bill” from the first resolved clause.
Resolved, The City of Ann Arbor opposes the RTA bill in its current configuration that includes Washtenaw County;
He also proposed a change to a key “resolved” clause that requested the governor’s veto.
Resolved, the city requests the Governor veto the bill and return it to the Legislature with an objection to the inclusion of Washtenaw County that the legislature and governor amend the RTA in the next legislative session to remove Washtenaw County as a defined qualified region in the RTA.
Warpehoski also described a change to the title of the resolution reflecting the change to the resolved clause.
Warpehoski then explained the rationale for removing the specific call for a veto of the legislation: He believed the RTA is important for the tri-county area of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. After seeing the “arm-twisting” it took to get a bill through the legislature at all, he was not willing to jeopardize the benefit of the RTA to those counties.
Warpehoski’s set of amendments was accepted as “friendly,” and did not require a council vote.
Attempted Amendments on Rail
Sumi Kailasapathy (Ward 1) then offered additional amendments. She wanted the “whereas” clauses struck from the resolution that referred to commuter rail [numbering added]:
(6) Whereas, SB 909 limits the transit options available to SE Michigan and does not acknowledge the readiness to further commuter rail service from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, Metro airport, Dearborn and Detroit based on a decade of effort invested in planning and preparations for this regional transportation system;
(7) Whereas, SB 909 contains onerous and offensive provisions related to consideration of rail based transportation;
Kailasapathy described the two clauses as having to do with commuter rail – and she didn’t want to attach commuter rail to a discussion about the RTA. She felt that apart from the current conversation, it would be appropriate to have a discussion about whether the community is ready for rail. But she did not feel comfortable attaching that to a discussion about the RTA. However, she was supportive of extricating Washtenaw County from the RTA.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) indicated that one of the problems with the RTA is the confusion about its effect on future rail transportation. She noted that the legislation allows a single person to veto any effort for rail transit. That creates a real problem, she said. If an RTA board member were inclined to do so, rail transportation could be vetoed, even if Ann Arbor wanted it. That’s a problem, she said. Mayor John Hieftje called commuter rail something that’s been a part of Ann Arbor’s approved transportation plan since 2009.
Jane Lumm (Ward 2) indicated she supported the resolution. She argued in support of Kailasapathy’s amendment in part by saying that “whereas” clauses don’t have an impact on the action specified in the resolution. She recalled a previous occasion when she’d brought forward a resolution and all of the “whereas” clauses were removed. Lumm indicated support for the resolution but wanted (6) and (7) removed. Lumm then made a point she makes frequently when it comes to transportation planning, which is that she feels the city should not pursue multiple initiatives simultaneously, but rather prioritize them and pursue them on a priority basis.
Lumm attributed the failure of a recent effort to expand transportation within Washtenaw County to a lack of priorities in its approach, which she contended had led to a waste of resources. She noted that the AATA’s accounting for the planning of the countywide initiative gave it a $1.4 million price tag [over the course of three years], and she lamented the fact that the city’s initial investments in the study of a preferred location for a new Amtrak station turned out not to qualify as the required match for a federal grant – resulting in the need to expend an additional $0.5 million. The “whereas” clauses perpetuate a “we want everything notion,” presupposing that commuter rail is a priority, Lumm said.
Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) took a different view of the clauses. He understood where Lumm and Kailasapathy were coming from, but he regarded the clauses as basically statements of fact. Community discussions did take place about rail, he said, and he found the “whereas” clauses to be descriptive of that effort. Whether or not someone agrees with the idea that commuter rail is something that’s important, Kunselman felt it’s important to let the state legislature know Ann Arbor has had these discussions – and that it has caused consternation in the community.
Kunselman indicated that he didn’t think bus rapid transit ["rolling rapid transit"] is the best option for the east-west corridor described in the RTA legislation, saying that he thought, for example, if a bus were sent down Michigan Avenue toward Detroit, it would take “forever” to get to Detroit. He didn’t think that bus rapid transit might actually meet some need. He felt that 10 or 15 years in the future, rail would be the best option, so he felt it’s important to include the clauses that addressed rail. “We’re not green and naive when it comes to transit services for our county,” Kunselman said.
Chuck Warpehoski (Ward 5) indicated he’d support the amendment, saying he’d take a different approach for that support than the one taken by Kailasapathy. Before the establishment of the RTA, there was no agency authorized to provide rail service in the east-west corridor. Because there’s now an authorized agency – in the form of the RTA – to provide that service, he didn’t see a unanimous vote by that agency’s board to be an “onerous and offensive” provision. And because the RTA was not necessarily the only agency that eventually could be authorized to provide rail services, he felt the unanimous vote didn’t impose too high a bar.
Warpehoski elaborated on other agencies that could be authorized to provide rail services by relying on a 13-page memo the council had been sent about an hour and a half before the meeting by Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, who also is a Washtenaw County commissioner representing one of the districts in Ann Arbor. Smith’s memo cites a provision of the RTA legislation that states:
Sec. 7. (1) Except as otherwise provided in this act, an authority may do all things necessary and convenient to implement the purposes, objectives, and provisions of this act and the purposes, objectives, and powers vested in the authority or the board by this act or other law, including, but not limited to, all of the following:
(v) Create separate operating entities.
From this part of the legislation, Warpehoski concluded that it would be possible for the RTA to create an operating entity to implement rail service with a simple majority vote. And he counted two votes from Washtenaw County, two from Wayne County, and a vote from Detroit on the nine-member board that could be used to create a rail authority that would serve the east-west corridor. [Each of the four counties would get two seats on the board and the city of Detroit would get one.]
By way of background, a different reading of the legislation is that the language in the section “except as otherwise provided in this act” precludes the ability of the RTA to create such a rail authority – or at least would preclude the use of the RTA’s local revenues to fund the operations of such an authority. That’s because of the requirement that any determination to “acquire, construct, operate, or maintain any form of rail passenger service within a public transit region” be subjected to a unanimous vote of the board. At the city council planning session following the Dec. 10 special meeting, mayor John Hieftje indicated that was the understanding of the legislation that had been conveyed to him from the governor’s office.
Warpehoski agreed with Kunselman that bus rapid transit was not a preferred option for the east-west connection. But he did not think the language of the “whereas” clause was factually sound, so he would support the amendment.
Hieftje asked Warpehoski if it was (7) or (6) – or both – that he was in favor of eliminating. Warpehoski indicated that he had no factual disputes with (6).
So Warpehoski moved to amend Kailasapathy’s amendment to keep (6) but still remove (7). Kailasapathy appeared inclined to accept the amendment to her proposed amendment as friendly, but Jane Lumm (Ward 2) objected.
In deliberations on Warpehoski’s amendment, Sally Petersen (Ward 2) pointed to the ability of the RTA to create a separate operating entity, which could be in any mode – based on the contention in Conan Smith’s memo. So she felt that the legislation did acknowledge “the readiness to further commuter rail service from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti, Metro airport, Dearborn and Detroit,” which was counter to (6). Because of that, she was not inclined to support Warpehoski’s change, which was a proposal to leave (6) intact in the resolution – that is, to remove it as a candidate for deletion.
Outcome: Warpehoski’s change was approved. Voting yes were Warpehoski, Christopher Taylor, Stephen Kunselman, Margie Teall, John Hieftje, Sumi Kailasapathy and Sabra Briere. Voting no were Marcia Higgins, Mike Anglin, Sally Petersen and Jane Lumm.
That meant the amendment before the council was to eliminate “whereas” clause (7). There was no further discussion on the amendment.
Outcome: The council rejected the amendment. Voting no were Taylor, Kunselman, Teall, Higgins, Anglin, and Hieftje. Voting for it were Warpehoski, Kailasapathy, Briere, Lumm and Petersen.
Deliberations on the resolution commenced with only Chuck Warpehoski’s previous friendly amendments – which softened the request from a veto to having the legislation altered.
Main Resolution: Who Can Provide Rail Service?
Stephen Kunselman led things off by questioning Warpehoski’s contention that no transportation authority currently exists that could provide rail service. He wondered if it were not already provided in the state statute that an entity like the AATA could also provide rail service. So he questioned whether it was the RTA legislation that had created this ability. City attorney Stephen Postema told Kunselman he believed Kunselman was right, but couldn’t answer the question conclusively.
Just before the meeting concluded, the citation from Act 55 – under which the AATA is incorporated – was provided by the city attorney’s office, which Kunselman read aloud:
“Public transportation”, “public transportation services”, and “public transportation purposes” mean the movement of people and goods by publicly or privately owned water vehicle, bus, railroad car, rapid transit vehicle, taxicab, or other conveyance which provides general or special service to the public, but not including school buses or charter or sightseeing service.
So Kunselman concluded that the AATA already has the ability to provide rail service. He quickly added that it’s not an ability he wanted the AATA to exercise – because it’s very expensive. But he thought it’s not appropriate to think of the RTA as an entity that will provide commuter rail for Ann Arbor.
Warpehoski questioned whether Act 55 allowed for the AATA to extend operations into the geographic area of the entire corridor between Ann Arbor and Detroit. Kunselman observed that the AATA already runs express commuter bus service between Ann Arbor to Canton: “If they’re going to Canton, they might as well go to Detroit.”
Main Resolution: Federal Funds
Jane Lumm asked for some clarification about the status of the RTA as the future “designated recipient” of federal funds. Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor transportation manager, indicated that in a geographic area where there are multiple transportation operators, there’s just one designated recipient. He gave as an example the fact that the AATA is the designated recipient for federal funds granted to Western-Washtenaw Area Value Express (WAVE). The AATA receives the money directly from the federal government, and administers it by passing it on to WAVE.
Lumm asked if the RTA is created without Washtenaw County, would that mean “it’s just us versus something larger?” The question from Lumm related to Smith’s memo, which raised the specter of an RTA without Washtenaw County being less competitive for certain types of federal funding:
Particularly under the Obama administration which has indicated a clear preference for regional collaboration and metropolitan organizations, there is a reasonable risk that if AATA finds itself competing directly with an even better organized Detroit applicant, we may actually see a decrease in discretionary funding.
Cooper didn’t appear to respond directly to Lumm’s point, but described the general idea of a designated recipient as one that expedites the work of the Federal Transit Administration and makes it more efficient.
A bit later in the meeting, Sabra Briere said she got the impression that if Washtenaw County remains within the RTA, then when the AATA wishes to apply for a grant it goes through the RTA. And if AATA is applying for discretionary funds, then it would be applying in competition with other transit authorities, she ventured. Cooper allowed that she was correct, but today that kind of evaluation would be made either in Lansing by MDOT or else in Washington D.C. by the FTA. What the RTA does is bring things together at a sub-regional level, Cooper said.
Main Resolution: Disproportionate Shares?
Lumm asked about the resolution’s “whereas” clause that states:
Whereas, Washtenaw County funding will support transportation service outside of our county disproportionate to what it receives;
Cooper explained that for the local funding mechanisms that are available to the RTA, 85% of the revenue that’s generated must be invested in the county where it’s collected, which would leave 15% available for supporting other services the RTA wanted to offer outside of Washtenaw County. From the RTA legislation:
Sec. 10 (4) An authority shall ensure that not less than 85% of the money raised in each member jurisdiction through either an assessment under subsection (2) or a motor vehicle registration tax under subsection (3), or both, is expended on the public transportation service routes located in that member jurisdiction.
That provision, together with other parts of the legislation, led Cooper to conclude that an opportunity would be created for funds to be guided to other communities. Those other provisions involve the fact that the new RTA would be the designated recipient, as well as the body that reviews and approves federal and state funding. The set of criteria for evaluating how to allocate the region’s assets – all the state and federal funds that currently flow to the individual operating entities – says the RTA should consider efficient and effective service and ensure a state of good repair for the transportation system, Cooper said.
Cooper called the council’s attention to a possible comparison to the state of good repair of AATA assets and assets of other transit authorities – factors like the age of the fleet, and the number of miles driven between breakdowns. The AATA equipment is in a state of good repair, he said. [Cooper serves on the board of the AATA.]
Cooper allowed that he could not speak to the details of the condition of operating equipment for DDOT [Detroit Dept. of Transportation] or SMART [Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation]. But having seen broadcast media reports of buses that are not able to roll out of the garage and trips that are not made, he ventured that was an indication of an older fleet, not in a state of good repair. As the RTA tries to rationalize an effective and efficient transit service, Cooper felt that those criteria, together with the relative condition of AATA assets compared with those of SMART and DDOT, provide the opportunity for funds to be directed to other communities outside Washtenaw County, which clearly have a need.
By way of background, the set of criteria Cooper referenced in the RTA legislation includes the following:
Sec. 8 (5)
In preparing a consolidated application under this subsection and determining the proposed allocation to each public transportation provider, the board shall consider how the allocations will contribute to each of the following:
(a) The ability of each public transportation provider to maintain current services and infrastructure.
(b) The effectiveness and efficiency of public transportation service throughout the public transit region.
(c) Achieving and maintaining the public transit region’s transit infrastructure in a state of good repair.
(d) The matching federal aid for federal applications approved by the board.
(e) The coordination of public transportation services among public transportation providers in the public transit region.
(f) Strategic investment in a regional rolling rapid transit system.
(g) Other factors determined appropriate by the board and included in written board policies or procedures.
Proponents of the RTA for Washtenaw County contend that Sec. 8 (5)(a) offers assurance that the kind of re-direction of funds described by Cooper should not be a concern.
Proponents also claim that Washtenaw County is more likely to receive more transit service than its proportionate share, based on the two local funding options available to the RTA – a vehicle registration fee or a property tax. Either of those options would have to be approved by a majority of voters in the entire four-county region. The AATA is estimating the vehicle registration fee would generate $7-8 million annually from Washtenaw County residents. That’s consistent with the estimated $25 for an average vehicle that the possible registration fee would generate, and the 277,388 vehicles registered in Washtenaw County in 2009, according to data from the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study. [.pdf of WATS profile]
A planning document from Anderson Consulting – which sketches out possible costs for rolling rapid transit – puts a price tag of $120 million in capital costs on the 47.3-mile corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Of those miles, 12 would be in Washtenaw County. Apportioning the capital costs on a per-mile basis would yield $30 million in capital costs for Washtenaw County.
The Anderson Consulting document also estimates an operating cost for all four rolling rapid transit corridors – totaling around 110 miles – of around $20 million per year. Apportioning that uniformly to Washtenaw County’s 12 miles would put operating costs in Washtenaw County at around $2 million. Conclusions about Washtenaw’s relative contribution to costs would depend significantly on how capital costs are paid for – as it’s common for significant portions to be shouldered by federal and state grants.
But the Anderson Consulting document does not appear to have enough detail about estimated costs to draw solid conclusions about whether the estimated $7-8 million per year generated through vehicle registration fees in Washtenaw County would be adequate to establish and operate rolling rapid transit in the corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Main Resolution: Rapidity of Rolling Rapid Transit?
Lumm continued with a question about dedicated lanes along the key routes. She asked Cooper what implications that would have for city streets.
Cooper indicated that the RTA has the right to “take over” particular lanes on particular streets and make them “transit only” facilities. He said it’s hard to envision that in downtown Ann Arbor in the vicinity of the AATA’s Blake Transit Center, where all the lanes are multipurpose. [BTC is located between South Fourth and South Fifth avenues, north of William.]
However, out on a multi-lane arterial roadway, Cooper added, it’s easier to imagine how an edge or center lane could be dedicated to transit. In Michigan currently, he said, there aren’t a lot of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) routes, but in other states that concept has been implemented. If it takes away a general purpose lane and allocates it to transit, that can lead to severe congestion on the other general purpose lanes. He gave Maryland and New Jersey as examples where that approach has been taken. A more standard practice is to construct new lanes alongside existing roadways, but that can’t be done in a downtown area.
Hieftje ventured that if the east-west corridor were to be equipped with a transit service that was “truly rapid” rolling rapid transit, then the lanes would need to be added on US-12 or I-94. Hieftje speculated that it would take millions of dollars and several years to do that. Cooper indicated that if independent roadways were to be developed, it would take millions of dollars and several years, but he noted that there are ways to implement it more quickly.
Hieftje then described the different stops that a rolling rapid transit system would need to make and how the vehicles would need at some points to mix in with regular traffic. Cooper described how the city’s own transportation plan also includes additional lanes at some points – for queue-jumping at intersections, for example – but not necessarily everywhere. Cooper described it as not a bad strategy, but the question is whether it’s a wise investment when there are other transportation tools that are available to meet the needs.
Hieftje recalled how Cooper had worked in transportation systems in other metro areas – Seattle and Minneapolis. So he asked Cooper what his estimate would be for a rolling rapid transit system to make the trip from Detroit to Ann Arbor.
The net operating speed of rolling rapid transit works out to somewhere between 15-30 m.p.h. – which factors in all the intermediate stops, Cooper said. And given that it’s a 45-mile trip, that’s an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours. As Cooper was delivering his remarks, Conan Smith – who attended the meeting as an observer – reacted to the time estimate with a skeptical snicker, saying, “Oh, my god, really?”
By way of background, Smith followed up the meeting with a written message to the city council acknowledging the reasonableness of Cooper’s estimate: “I scoffed during the meeting, but I probably owe him an apology for that. Thinking it through, that’s not a wholly unreasonable scenario.”
Hieftje then cited some statistics that the AATA had provided to the city. Between 2007 and 2011, AATA received $10.7 million in federal discretionary funding and is scheduled to receive $4.29 million for the Blake Transit Center in the coming year. That’s the type of funding that would come under the authority of the new RTA. Hieftje said that’s troublesome to him.
Outcome: The council voted unanimously to approve the resolution of protest. [.pdf of resolution as amended]
Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sumi Kailasapathy, Sally Petersen, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Chuck Warpehoski.
Next regular council meeting: Monday, Dec. 17, 2011 at 7 p.m. in the council chambers at 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]
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