Ann Arbor Council Protests RTA

On an 11-0 vote taken during a special session, the Ann Arbor city council approved a resolution protesting the Michigan state legislature’s enactment of a bill last week establishing a regional transit authority (RTA) that includes Washtenaw County – where Ann Arbor is located. The RTA also includes the city of Detroit, and the counties of Wayne, Macomb and Oakland. [.pdf of state Senate Bill 909] The council vote took place on Dec. 10, 2012.

The original resolution approved by the city council called on Gov. Rick Snyder to “veto the bill and return it to the Legislature with an objection to the inclusion of Washtenaw County as a defined Qualified region in the RTA.” That language was softened to ask the governor and legislature to amend the legislation. And a “whereas” clause in the resolution indicates the council’s support for a provision in the legislation that allows for adjacent counties of the RTA region voluntarily to join the RTA at a later date. [.pdf of the original draft of the council resolution]

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 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 RTA legislation specifically mentions “rolling rapid transit” – a technology 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 contended 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. However, if the RTA were to implement a rail-based east-west service, that service would elude a provision in the RTA legislation designed to give assurance to other transit providers statewide – that the major costs of the RTA’s rolling rapid transit systems would not be eligible to tap the state’s comprehensive transportation fund.

The transit services offered by the RTA are imagined to be funded by a tax or a vehicle registration fee, either of which would require approval by a majority of voters in the four-county region. The proceeds of the kind of vehicle registration fee that additional legislation would allow the RTA to place on the ballot could potentially generate an estimated $75 million per year in the four-county region, and would cost the owner of an average vehicle about $25 per year.

The city council’s action echoes sentiments expressed by a Washtenaw County board resolution, passed on Nov. 7, 2012, which opposes the RTA unless it included the ability of county entities to manage designated transportation funding and the right of county entities to independently manage a transit system – which the RTA legislation doesn’t do. The county board’s resolution also indicated the view that it should be Washtenaw County residents who elect to join such an RTA. [.pdf of Washtenaw County board resolution] The board’s recent 6-4 vote came after an earlier expression of support for an RTA approved on Sept. 21, 2011.

Current county board chair Conan Smith has been a prominent supporter of the RTA legislation both in his role as county commissioner and as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. It’s the chair of the county board that would make Washtenaw County’s two appointments to the 9-member RTA board – and that’s a role to which Yousef Rabhi is expected to be elected in January 2013. In a message sent just an hour and a half before the council’s 4 p.m. meeting on Dec. 10, Smith pled with councilmembers to back off the position expressed in the resolution. The 13-pages worth of documents that Smith sent included detailed technical background on the RTA.

It’s possible that an attempt might be made in 2013 to bring back to the county board a resolution of support for the RTA. That’s because the decennial redistricting of the county resulted in just nine seats instead of the current 11, and among the nine commissioners there might be sufficient support for such a resolution. Enacting a resolution like that would at this point have no material effect on Washtenaw County’s actual participation in the RTA – but it might sway legislators against altering the legislation to accommodate the numerous concerns listed out in the Ann Arbor city council’s resolution. Councilmembers did not appear to harbor any realistic hope that Snyder would heed the call for a veto, even when that language was included in their resolution, but they did hope to provide a basis on which legislators might themselves elect to alter the legislation.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron where the city council held its special session. A more detailed report will follow: [link]