On Tuesday, May 6, voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township will cast ballots on a 0.7 mill tax that could be levied by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority.
The transit taxes currently collected in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti are levied by the cities, and passed through to the AAATA.
This would be the first tax ever levied by the AAATA itself. The additional revenue is supposed to pay for a range of service improvements, including extended hours of operation on weekdays, additional service on weekends, and greater frequency of operation.
My guess is most people by now have made up their minds about the May 6 ballot referendum.
My purpose here is not to review the arguments pro and con and to weigh that balance in some sort of calculus that points to an unavoidable conclusion that the only possible rational vote is yes.
If you’re on the fence, though, this column is meant to give you a reason to vote yes. Any number of reasons might be given to vote yes, and surely there are also credible reasons for voting no.
But I am going to vote yes. And I’m going to tell you one of many reasons why.
If you don’t have the patience to wade through a bunch of words to find out that reason, here’s a one-sentence summary: I have noticed that my once-reliable body is getting old and creaky.
For Ann Arbor taxpayers, the 0.7 mill tax will translate into a total transportation tax of about 2.7 mills – after the city’s own roughly 2 mill charter millage is added in. (Many people have forgotten that Ann Arbor’s charter transportation millage is actually 2.5 mills, but has been reduced over the years to just over 2 mills by the Headlee Amendment.)
My house has a taxable value of $97,010 – which means that I’m currently paying about $194 a year in transportation taxes. The 0.7 mill tax would mean an additional $68 for me, or a total transportation tax burden of $262. For the five-year period of the millage, I’ll pay something like $1,300.
The existing charter millage is perpetual, which means that it’s not subject to regular voter approval like this new five-year millage would be. If the millage is approved, the AAATA would need to ask voters for approval again after five years.
In five years, I’ll be 54 years old. That’s pretty damn old. But that’s still 11 years away from eligibility for the AAATA’s Good as Gold senior ride program, which allows seniors (age 65 and up) to ride the regular fixed-route buses without paying a fare to board. If I were an Ann Arbor senior making just two round trips a week by bus, that would work out to
$0.26 $2.60 per round trip (my $262 tax burden divided by 100 trips).
That strikes me as a bargain. If I were 65, I would fill out the application form right now.
But critics of the AAATA’s route system will sometimes contend that the routes don’t go where they need to go, or that the trip into downtown to make a transfer makes the journey too long – so making that trip cost-free doesn’t help much. There’s some merit to that criticism. No doubt it is a challenge to get from Point A to Point B using fixed-route bus service for many As and Bs in Ann Arbor.
Shared-Ride Taxi Service: Compared to Standard Cab
But here’s an under-appreciated fact about the Good as Gold program: It allows seniors to call and order same-day shared-ride taxi service – for $4 one-way and $4 for the return trip. Think about that for just a second: If you’re a senior in Ann Arbor, you can make a phone call and get door-to-door transportation service – to your destination and back – for just $8. If you can plan things out a day in advance, you can save $1 for each leg of the trip for a total cost of $6.
It’s fair to point out that the Good as Gold service is different from a standard cab for hire: Your ride will often be shared with others; the vehicle cannot wait for you while you make a stop; and the assistance that the driver can provide is limited.
How does Good as Gold compare to calling a standard cab? Let’s consider an actual trip. Let’s say I wanted to travel from my house on the Old West Side to the University of Michigan School of Public Policy to attend a mayoral candidate forum.
At the maximum rate set by the city of Ann Arbor, which many taxi companies charge, that would be $3 to get in and $2.50 a mile, or $3 + $3.25 (for 1.3 miles) = $6.25. If I don’t want to pay for the waiting time – and I don’t, because it would be $24 per hour – that works out to $13 round trip. Compared to the $6 a senior could pay in the Good as Gold program (reserving one day in advance) that’s a $7 savings.
Shared-Ride Taxi Service: Compared to Car Ownership
But that’s a $7 savings compared to a cab ride, not compared to a personal car, the preferred mode of many seniors. So let’s assume a roughly $9,100 average cost to own and operate a car for 15,000 miles – a number that comes from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for 2012.
How much would it cost annually to take one round trip a day under the Good as Gold program – assuming none of those trips were planned a day in advance? It works out to $2,920 ($8 times 365 ) + $262 (my tax burden) = $3,182 a year. Otherwise put, the cost of taking those trips with the AAATA’s Good as Gold program is about one-third the cost of owning and operating an automobile.
Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison for senior couples, whose $9,100 annual cost of owning and operating a car covers both of their trips. But even if we double the cost under Good as Gold – to account for the trips of each member of the couple – that’s still just two-thirds the amount it takes to own and operate a car.
What More Could You Want?
The 0.7 mill tax is supposed to pay for a five-year transportation improvement plan. But the Good as Gold program exists now. Does the senior shared-ride taxi service get any better if the millage is approved? Yes.
The hours of operation for the shared-ride taxi service run parallel to the hours of operation for fixed-route service. So in every instance where the five-year improvement plan indicates hours of service being extended later into the evenings or on weekends, the shared-taxi service runs later into the evenings or on weekends. Wherever there is additional geographic area added in the service improvement plan, the shared-taxi service will follow.
But I Am Not a Senior
Readers who know me, or perhaps just know of me, might wonder why I am championing the cause of senior public transportation riders – and not just because I am not a senior. Some readers might know that I routinely haul loads upwards of 100 pounds on my bicycle cargo tailer, so I do not seem to suffer from mobility issues.
But every once in a while, life gives you a sneak preview of what it might be like to be older and less dynamic. Over the weekend three weeks ago, my lower back seized up into an angry block of tissue. I could not sit, stand or even roll over in bed without hitting a 10 on the pain scale. After 12 hours of pain-med therapy at the University of Michigan hospital’s observation unit, I was able to stand up and walk. But I still had to plan out every movement, slow and steady.
On my calendar that week was the first mayoral candidate forum – held at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. I was feeling feeble and unsteady, so walking and bicycling weren’t an option. So I took the bus – the #12 down Liberty to Blake Transit Center downtown. It turned out that I had narrowly missed the #6 bus connection I needed to continue to the Ford School.
Waiting the half hour for the next #6 bus wasn’t the end of the world – because I’d allowed some time for unplanned mishap and mayhem. I waited sitting on a bench outside on Fourth Avenue, soaking up the warmth of a sunny spring day. Eventually the #6 rolled up, I boarded, and I arrived on time for the mayoral forum.
The AAATA got me where I needed to go that day – but so what? What difference would the proposed 0.7 mill tax have made for that trip? The answer: 15 minutes. The proposed service improvements for Route #6 – to be paid for with the additional tax – include service every 15 minutes, not just every half hour. So for that specific trip, I would have reduced my waiting time by 15 minutes. A 15-minute difference can be important, especially if you have to make that trip every day – because not every day is sunny and warm.
Sunny warm days in Ann Arbor turn to gray, icy wind soon enough. And even though I am young and strong now, I will be older and decrepit soon enough. So I’m voting yes, for older people now – and for my future, decrepit self.
The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already on board The Chronicle bus, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!