County Board Briefed on Transit Tax

Voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to weigh in on May 6 ballot proposal for new 0.7 mill property tax to pay for expanded public transportation services

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (March 6, 2014): Two months before voters will weigh in on a public transit millage proposal, staff with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority briefed county commissioners about the initiative, and answered a wide range of questions.

Michael Benham, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning at the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. (Photos by the writer.)

The proposal – for an 0.7 mill tax to pay for expanded transit services – was placed on the May 6 ballot by the AAATA board on Feb. 20, 2014. The tax would be levied by the AAATA only if it wins a majority of support among voters across its three member jurisdictions: the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), an Ann Arbor commissioner who chairs the working sessions, pointed out that those three jurisdictions touch seven of the nine districts represented by the Washtenaw County board.

The three commissioners representing Ann Arbor – LaBarre, Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) and Conan Smith (D-District 9) – attended the March 6 working session. The two commissioners representing Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) and Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) – were absent. A small portion of Ann Arbor is in District 2, represented by Republican Dan Smith. District 4, represented by Democrat Felicia Brabec, includes a small portion of Ypsilanti Township.

Questions during the March 6 session included clarification that the millage revenues would not support rail service, and a query about why the tax proposal was being put forward in May rather than November, when turnout would be higher for the general election. Another issue raised was whether a property tax for this type of activity is fair, considering that residents of apartments don’t see the impact of a property tax as directly as a homeowner does.

Michael Benham, AAATA’s special assistant for strategic planning, noted that the possibility of rail service is part of the authority’s 30-year plan, but it’s not in the current five-year plan for expanded services that would be funded by the new millage. He told commissioners that a May election will focus attention on transit, while there would be many other issues in November competing for attention. Benham also stressed the urgency of moving ahead on more services, which will include increased service hours, greater frequency of buses along some routes, and expanded Dial-a-Ride services.

As for the fairness of a property tax, Benham pointed out that the AAATA has few available options for raising revenue, and that revenues from the new millage will leverage additional state and federal funding.

Most commissioners were supportive of the millage and expanded services, citing reasons of environmental sustainability, social equity and economic development. Rabhi said he wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports using public transit to divide the community based on socioeconomic levels. People should be able to live in downtown Ann Arbor even if they don’t earn above the area median income, he said. The concept of “segregating our community along economic boundaries is one that sickens me,” he said, adding that he didn’t think AAATA’s five-year plan buys into a segregated vision for this area.

At the end of working session, six commissioners – including the three who represent Ann Arbor districts – announced their official support for the millage in a press release.

For additional background on this issue, see Chronicle coverage: “Tax Question Focus of Transit Board Meeting“; “5-Year Transit Plan: Possible Tax Vote Soon“; “Survey: Majority Favorable on Transit Tax“; “Transit Vote for A2 and Ypsi: May 6, 2014“; “Committee to Oppose AAATA Millage“; and “Column: Let Data Steer Local Transit Policy.”

May 6 Transit Millage: Presentation

Michael Benham, special assistant for strategic planning at the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, and Mary Stasiak, AAATA’s manager of community relations, reviewed the transit millage proposal that’s on the May 6 ballot.

In introducing the presentation, Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) – who chairs the board’s working sessions – noted that seven of the nine county board districts will be participating in the vote. “Some just have little parts,” he said, but the vote touches seven districts. Jurisdictions in the other two districts have the option of purchase-of-service agreements with AAATA, he added. [Only District 1 and District 3 – representing western and southwestern parts of the county – do not have any portion of the district within Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Ypsilanti Township.]

Benham began by describing the AAATA’s five-year transit plan, which was approved by the AAATA board at its Jan. 16, 2014 meeting. [.pdf of AAATA staff memo and 5-year transit plan cost analysis]

Mary Stasiak, Conan Smith, Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Conan Smith (D-District 9) of Ann Arbor talks with Mary Stasiak, AAATA’s manager of community relations.

The plan represents a 44% increase in the number of service hours that would be provided compared to the existing system – or about 90,000 additional service hours per year. That includes service running 60-90 minutes later on weekdays, and much later – from 3-6 hours, potentially – on weekends. It would allow people to go to a restaurant or entertainment venue and then “also get home from that venue,” Benham said.

The plan also includes more frequency of buses, especially along main routes, Benham said. Some routes – particularly on the west side of Ann Arbor, and the east side of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township – are being totally redesigned. For many years, several of these routes have been designed as loops that result in a “pretty circuitous ride for a lot of folks,” Benham said. So some routes will be split into two or three routes, he explained, and will be an “out-and-back” design instead.

Dial-a-Ride services would be greatly expanded under the five-year plan, Benham said. It provides trips for senior citizens and people with disabilities. The new feature will be called Dial-a-Ride Plus. If there’s extra capacity after the needs of senior citizens and people with disabilities are met, anyone in the service area could use it to be taken to the nearest fix-route bus stop.

Benham said there’s some misinformation in the community about the five-year plan. He stressed that there is no rail service in the five-year plan. The AAATA’s long-range plan for a 30-year period does include rail services, which Benham described as an R&D project at this point that’s funded with federal dollars.

Over 50% of residents have used the AAATA bus service, he continued, although only a fraction of the population uses it on any given day. So he addressed the question of why someone should support the service if they don’t use it. For the business community, employees depend on the bus service to get to work, Benham said. Customers use it, as do residents, he said. Visitors to town also use the bus system, if they don’t have a car and don’t want to use a taxi. Transit promotes a vital economy in the region, Benham said, and it promotes investment in the region.

Benham pointed to a 2009 economic impact study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association and prepared by Glen Weisbrod of the Economic Development Research Group Inc. in Boston and Arlee Reno of Cambridge Systematics Inc. of Bethesda, Maryland. The analysis indicates that for every dollar spent on transit, “you’re getting multiple dollars in return,” Benham said, in business sales, labor income and value added to the regional GDP.

Based on a model used for a Michigan Dept. of Transportation study – “Economic and Community Benefits of Local Bus Transit Service” – the AAATA estimates a total $96 million in annual economic impact, Benham said, describing it as a conservative estimate.

Benham also highlighted the environmental impact of bus services. The fleet includes hybrid-electric buses that save energy and reduce pollution, he said. The AAATA estimates that the fleet saves 3,594 metric tons of CO2 each year.

The National Association of Realtors, which Benham described as a fairly conservative organization, is increasingly embracing transit because it raises property values and helps attract people to a community, he said. He cited a 2012 NAR transportation “toolkit” for Realtors, which explored the issue of transit and real estate.

Benham ticked through a series of quotes from community leaders, property managers and others who support public transit. He mentioned comments made by Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., who spoke to the Ann Arbor city council at a working session on Jan. 13, 2014 about the importance of transit.

Millennials – defined as people under 39 years old – are driving less than previous generations, Benham said. According to data from the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, Millennials drive 23% fewer miles and use public transit 40% more than did their counterparts in 2004.

Benham also reviewed the recent expansion in membership of the AAATA. The city of Ypsilanti joined the authority in August of 2013, followed by Ypsilanti Township in December. There’d been a lot of discussion about the addition of these two jurisdictions, he noted, but ultimately all approvals – by the governing entities of Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, Ann Arbor, and the AAATA – had been unanimous.

Andy LaBarre, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) of Ann Arbor, chair of the county board’s working sessions.

The AAATA also has relationships with other local communities, Benham said, through purchase-of-service agreements (POSAs). Current agreements are with Superior Township and Pittsfield Township, but talks are underway for possible POSAs with Saline, Scio Township, Dexter and others, he said. “We’re hearing a lot from other folks in the county who are interested in talking to us.”

Benham stressed that each community “pays its own way.” It’s another thing that there’s been some misinformation about, he said. The AAATA runs a balanced budget, he added, with existing millages paying for existing services. In the case of POSAs, the contracts involve direct payments based on service hours, he explained. Service-hour costs include administrative and planning expenses.

But in order to provide additional services, he said, the AAATA needs additional funding. The AAATA board voted on Feb. 20, 2014 to put a millage referendum on the May 6, 2014 ballot. That’s the final element of the plan, Benham said. “It basically is now up to the voters.”

The request – on a 0.7 mill tax that would be levied to pay for additional services over the next five years – would need a majority of votes across the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township to be approved.

Benham described the increased service levels for a range of AAATA programs, including VanRide, NightRide, AirRide (the shuttle to Detroit Metro airport) and ExpressRide. He also reported on survey results of 842 registered voters in the three-member jurisdictions of AAATA, conducted in late 2013 by CJI Research. Over 90% had a favorable impression of The Ride, Benham said, noting that Fortune 500 companies would be jealous of that result.

Regarding support for a transit millage, the survey found more than 60% of respondents would support it, he said.  [For Chronicle coverage of those survey results, see: "Survey: Majority Favorable on Transit Tax."]

The AAATA isn’t taking any of this for granted, Benham said. In a comparison with peer institutions, the AAATA found that its costs per service hour were 18% higher than the peer median. That might be shocking, he said, until you consider that the AAATA’s “ridership productivity” (the passenger trip per service hour) is 50% higher than the peer median. The result, he said, is that AAATA’s operating cost per rider is 17% lower than the peer median. The comparison is with 20 transit organizations nationwide, he said, that were picked by a research group – not by AAATA.

Benham wrapped up by saying that the five-year plan would offer trips to riders to more places, more often, with more hours – and that for the community in general, more benefits. He said AAATA would appreciate the support of commissioners in this effort.

May 6 Transit Millage: Board Discussion

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4), whose district primarily covers Pittsfield Township, said she supported the expansion, for the economic and environmental reasons that Benham had cited. There are also reasons to support it that relate to human services, she said, to get people where they need to go. She noted that her small business is on Route 4, and she and her partner always makes sure that their office is located on a bus line so that clients can get to them easily. [Brabec is a psychologist, with a practice located on Washtenaw Avenue.] She was excited to see increased services planned for Route 4.

Felicia Brabec, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Felicia Brabec (D-District 4) of Pittsfield Township.

Brabec asked Benham to elaborate on the return on investment for this millage. He replied that there would be an estimated $32 million in total from individual savings – in large part from people who would otherwise be using a different mode of transportation. Also included in that figure are some of the social service costs that would otherwise be incurred by social services agencies providing transportation.

The estimated $96 million in annual economic impact is based on a multiplier effect of AAATA’s expenditures on the economy, Benham said, by creating indirect and induced expenditures.

Brabec also asked for more details about the peer comparisons. Benham said that if you look at AAATA’s cost on a per-service-hour basis, the costs are higher. But on a per-passenger basis, AAATA’s costs are significantly lower, he said. AAATA invests more on a per-hour basis, he added, “but it pays off, because our ridership is 50% higher on a per-hour basis.” Brabec thought the comparison is more credible because it was done by an outside entity that picked the 20 peer institutions.

Brabec also supported the expanded Dial-a-Ride service, saying it’s important especially for residents in the county’s rural areas.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) said he knew that the millage came about as a way to fund the five-year plan. He wondered how closely those two items were linked. Is the millage solely to be used for the plan? “It’s going to be used for the plan – that’s the reason we’re doing it,” Benham replied. The millage would be supplemented by purchase-of-service agreements with jurisdictions outside of the three-member AAATA, he added.

Rabhi wondered what the AAATA would say to someone who supports expanded transit and who supports spending more money on transit, but who doesn’t support certain aspects of the five-year plan. Benham said he’d start by asking what aspects of the plan the person doesn’t support. He said the AAATA has spent years talking to public officials and holding public forums, and has done a thorough job of uncovering the transit needs in the county. “Ultimately, I think we came up with something that really represents the consensus of the community,” Benham said. He was sure anyone could find something that they’d like to see in the plan in addition to what’s already there, but in general “we did our best to find a consensus point.”

Yousef Rabhi, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8) of Ann Arbor. To the left is county administrator Verna McDaniel.

Rabhi asked who someone could talk to if they wanted to advocate for something to be included in the plan. “When you start talking about the price tag for something, people start paying a little bit attention,” Rabhi said, so the AAATA might start hearing from more people who hadn’t participated in the process of developing the plan. He knew the AAATA had done a great job of outreach, and he thought they’d done their homework. So how can people get involved now?

Mary Stasiak, AAATA’s manager of community relations, replied that there are lots of ways to provide input. She pointed to The Ride’s website, which includes a contact page that allows people to submit specific requests in detail. People can also call AAATA at 734-996-0400, she said.

The AAATA isn’t just going to stop taking suggestions, Stasiak stressed. All services are reviewed on an annual basis, she said, because circumstances change. As an example, she noted that Ypsilanti Community Schools has started a program of dual enrollment between YCS high schools and Washtenaw Community College. Right now, the AAATA routes require that students take a bus to the Ypsilanti transit center, then transfer to a bus that goes to WCC. The AAATA will look at how it can adjust to accommodate things like this, Stasiak said.

When the AAATA adjusts its services, she added, they seek public input as part of the process. Benham said it was important for the AAATA to establish the five-year plan “as our promise to the community. … but we don’t mean to imply that we’re inflexible,” he said. If conditions change, the AAATA needs to respond.

Rabhi asked if the millage ballot language refers to the five-year plan.

The wording of the ballot language is as follows:

To improve public bus, van, and paratransit services – including expanded service hours, routes, destinations, and services for seniors and people who have disabilities – shall the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority levy a new annual tax of 0.7 mills ($0.70 per $1000 of taxable value) on all taxable property within the City of Ann Arbor, the City of Ypsilanti, and the Charter Township of Ypsilanti for the years 2014-2018 inclusive? The estimate of revenue if this millage is approved is $4,368,847.00 for 2014. This revenue will be disbursed to the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and, as required by law, a portion may be subject to capture by the downtown development authorities of the Cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, the Washtenaw County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and the local development finance authority of the Charter Township of Ypsilanti.

Benham noted that the ballot doesn’t get into a lot of detail, so the AAATA is relying on the published five-year plan to make people aware of that level of detail. Rabhi noted that the ballot doesn’t mention the five-year plan specifically, and he was just trying to clarify that.

Rabhi then said that he’d heard back from some people who weren’t happy with the way that the AAATA had framed the discussion at the Jan. 13, 2014 Ann Arbor city council working session. Increasingly, he hears a tendency for people to think about downtown Ann Arbor as a place for high-end economic development, and that people who can’t afford to live there should live on the eastern part of the county. That’s something that he’s heard from people, Rabhi said. “I want to take this opportunity to say that I cannot disagree with that concept of things more.”

Some people are tying the AAATA’s expansion on the county’s east side with that concept, Rabhi added. He wanted to make it clear that his support for the transit millage does not mean he supports the concept of how this community should be developed. People should be able to live in downtown Ann Arbor even if they don’t make above the area median income, he said. “The idea of kind of segregating our community along economic boundaries is one that sickens me,” he said. He didn’t want anyone to think that AAATA’s five-year plan is buying into that segregated vision of the community.

Dan Smith, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Dan Smith (R-District 2) of Whitmore Lake.

Rabhi said he believed in a bus system because of the sustainability it brings. It’s an economic justice issue too, he said. If someone can’t afford to buy a car, they should be able to get around via public transit.

The expansion of public transit is necessary in order to have positive economic growth, economic justice and environmental sustainability, Rabhi said. A strong, robust public transit system helps build a more resilient community, and to enable a diversity of transportation beyond just cars. Options should be available for people who ride out of convenience or out of necessity, or out of a belief in building a more sustainable environment.

Rabhi was glad to see expansion into Ypsilanti Township, saying it will result in an interconnected community. He said he was proud of AAATA’s work and happy to support the millage.

Dan Smith (R-District 2) asked Benham to comment on the fairness of a property tax for this type of activity, considering that residents of apartments don’t see the impact of a property tax as directly as a homeowner does. He also noted that in different jurisdictions, property taxes are dramatically different. Smith said he realized that there were very few options for funding transit services.

Benham replied that AAATA was working with the options it has. The issue of fairness related to property taxes is a broader discussion, he added. Many jurisdictions rely on property taxes “for the same reason we do,” he said. “It’s what they have available to them.” Theoretically, there are other options like gas taxes, but right now those options aren’t available to AAATA, Benham said.

Dan Smith noted that this would be a new millage for residents – not a renewal of an existing millage. The AAATA is choosing to ask voters to approve it at a special election in May that AAATA will fund, he said, rather than wait until at least August, when there is a primary election scheduled, or the November general election, when there’s likely to be a much larger turnout. By waiting until November, the AAATA would be likely to get a much better voice of the residents, Smith said, rather than the much lower turnout in May or August. “It’s really hard to draw much of any type of conclusion beyond it passed or it failed with regards to community support, when you have such low voter turnout.”

Dan Smith said he understood the reasons why AAATA wanted to go for the millage in May, including the desire to start levying the tax and increasing services as soon as possible. But it seemed to him that since it’s a brand new millage, not a renewal, “you’d really want to get the largest number of voters to weigh in on this as you possibly could,” he said.

Benham noted that the AAATA has been working on this proposal for a long time, and “the need is so great that we want to get moving on this.” The AAATA gets emails and phone calls regularly from people who can’t get to Point A from Point B, he said. “In some cases those are just annoyances for people. In some cases the stories are really heartbreaking.” It’s time to get the service on the street, Benham said.

Dan Smith asked if Benham was concerned about potential negative ramifications on the AAATA if the millage fails in May with a low turnout, compared to getting a strong sense of how the community feels if the proposal were on the November ballot, with a better turnout.

Alicia Ping, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) of Saline.

Benham replied that one of the advantages of a May election is that the proposal will get focused attention. So the community debate and discussion will be very focused on transit, he noted, whereas in August or November there would be a lot of other issues competing for attention.

As far as concerns over what might happen if the millage proposal fails, Benham said the AAATA staff and board have had many conversation with people in the community, and they’re told that the need for more transit services is there. If the millage doesn’t pass, the consequences aren’t so much about the organization, he said. Rather, it’s about the unmet needs in the community. The AAATA would continue to operate using the resources that it already has, he said.

Alicia Ping (R-District 3) clarified with Benham that pass or fail, the AAATA would still be able to contract with other jurisdictions for transit service. Yes, Benham said, but just not at the level that would be possible with the new millage. Even with the expanded services that a new millage would provide, he added, there will still be unmet needs. But the service level would take a great leap with resources from a millage.

Andy LaBarre (D-District 7) said he’s a city of Ann Arbor resident and plans to support the millage. “To me, it’s a relatively straightforward question of am I willing to pay the increased taxes with the increase of services,” he said.

LaBarre said he’s heard some people express concerns that the millage revenue would be used for rail service. He asked Benham to address that issue.

Benham replied that the AAATA has made the commitment “frequently and continuously” not to use millage funds for rail services. The mention of rail is in the 30-year plan, he noted, not the five-year plan. The AAATA hasn’t abandoned rail or other options for the future, he added, but they’ve been very clear that it’s not in the five-year plan or in the ballot language. The ballot mentions bus, van and paratransit, he said. “I don’t know how we can be much more clear than that.”

LaBarre then asked whether this millage proposal would in any way change the relationship between AAATA and Washtenaw County government. No, Benham said.

LaBarre wondered whether the millage, if approved, would improve AAATA’s ability or Washtenaw County’s ability – working with AAATA – to seek federal or state grants. Benham said the millage revenues will attract new state and federal funds. It’s calculated by a formula, so for every local dollar that’s spent on transit service, “we’re getting $2 or $3 of additional money from federal formula programs and from the state.” So the millage will leverage additional funds, he said.

May 6 Transit Millage: Board Discussion – Coda

Immediately after the end of the March 6 working session, a press release was emailed to The Chronicle from The Ecology Center, announcing that six out of the nine Washtenaw County commissioners are endorsing the transit millage. Those commissioners are: Felicia Brabec of Pittsfield Township (D-District 4), Rolland Sizemore Jr. of Ypsilanti Township (D-District 5), Ronnie Peterson of Ypsilanti (D-District 6), Andy LaBarre of Ann Arbor (D-District 7), Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor (D-District 8), and Conan Smith of Ann Arbor (D-District 9). [.pdf of press release]

The districts represented by these six commissioners cover most of the three member jurisdictions of the AAATA – Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.

Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge advocated for a countywide public transportation system, and for the elimination of homelessness. The county needs to expand its affordable housing base, and to address the need for adequate health care. There are several things that county commissioners need to take the lead on, he said. Regarding the May 6 vote on the transit millage, Partridge said it’s very important for the public to support it.

Yousef’ Rabhi (D-District 8) thanked Partridge for his advocacy and his continued presence at the county board meetings.

Present: Felicia Brabec, Andy LaBarre, Kent Martinez-Kratz, Alicia Ping, Yousef Rabhi, Conan Smith, Dan Smith.

Absent: Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr.

Next regular board meeting: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the county administration building, 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. The ways & means committee meets first, followed immediately by the regular board meeting. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date.] (Though the agenda states that the regular board meeting begins at 6:45 p.m., it usually starts much later – times vary depending on what’s on the agenda.) Public commentary is held at the beginning of each meeting, and no advance sign-up is required.

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  1. March 18, 2014 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    I’m really pleased that Yousef Rabhi delineated the issue of Ann Arbor’s affordability in this context. One of the arguments for the millage is that it allows low-wage employees to come into Ann Arbor to serve in establishments here. It has the de facto effect of making the Ypsilanti communities be our affordable housing.

    I’ve actually heard from at least one person with a long involvement in labor issues that the millage is intended to subsidize those employers who do not wish to pay their employees a decent wage. It also means that Ann Arbor residents in the lower income strata are contributing to this economic development goal, which will of course make their own housing less affordable.

    It is refreshing to see that the BOC had such a meaningful discussion of the transit millage, since they have no direct responsibility for it.

  2. March 18, 2014 at 9:14 pm | permalink

    (RE 1) Please note that low-wage employees are using existing AAATA services to get from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor and back. The expansion of bus routes will provide convenience for some patrons. The millage will not change the cost of riding an AAATA bus which will remain $1.50 per ride. However, those living in Ypsilanti and work in downtown Ann Arbor are likely already using go!pass cards which cost them nothing and allows them to ride any bus FREE to anywhere within the AAATA service area (and not just use from home to work and back), Of course, getdowntown subsidizes the AAATA for each go!pass use by paying about $1 per ride, or $610,662 tax payer dollars for FY2014. These are tax dollars separate from, and in addition to, millage tax dollars.

    I am not surprised by the involvement of the BOC as the AAATA is contacting every government agency, foundation and organization in order to drum up support. Nor is it unreasonable for the BOC to try and protect its constituents from wasteful government spending and unjustified taxation. However, in regards to the AAATA proposed millage I believe that those BOC members supporting the millage are missing the mark, likely because they have checked out all the details themselves and with a “What can be wrong with this?” approach.

  3. March 18, 2014 at 9:20 pm | permalink

    (RE2) ERRATA: The last sentence should read “have not checked out all the details” rather than “have checked out all the details.” My apologies.

  4. March 18, 2014 at 9:46 pm | permalink

    Re: [3] “Of course, getdowntown subsidizes the AAATA for each go!pass use by paying about $1 per ride, or $610,662 tax payer dollars for FY2014. These are tax dollars separate from, and in addition to, millage tax dollars.”

    Donald, that is correct except for “tax dollars.” But if you swapped in “public dollars” and I think that would square things up. That’s because getDowntown (whose staff are employees of the AAATA) receives the funding you’ve identified from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. And the Ann Arbor DDA uses public parking revenue to fund the getDowntown/go!pass program. Funding for the FY 2015 go!pass will be almost certainly be a voting item on the April 2, 2014 DDA board meeting agenda.

    The complete context of public parking revenue, however, includes the fact that the DDA’s tax increment finance capture revenue is being used to finance a portion of the bond payments for the parking system. So revenue to the parking system is supported to some extent by the DDA’s TIF capture.

    I point this this out, not to (merely) be pedantic, but rather because I think it’s possible someone’s attitude towards the go!pass funding might be different if they understood that to a large extent the go!pass funding taps parking fee revenue, not general property tax dollars. And I think some (certainly not all) motorists might be agreeable to paying a bit less than a nickel more an hour to park, if it means that their hunt for a parking space downtown is incrementally easier.

  5. March 19, 2014 at 12:00 am | permalink

    Re:[4] I believe that we may be nitpicking here since some people (myself included) consider fees as similar to taxes. Anyway the profit from parking revenue that Ryan Stanton repeatedly refers to is not truly a profit when parking revenue is applied to servicing the parking structure bonds. As a matter of fact, parking revenue is insufficient to pay for both maintenance and bond expenses so about $2 million of TIF is needed to complete payment of the latter. For this reason I feel justified in claiming that TIF dollars are used by the DDA to subsidize the go!pass program and the TIF dollars have a different origin from millage tax dollars.So in-actuality, the AAATA gets about $9 million from the millage and an additional $600,000 from the go!pass program resulting in total tax revenue of about $9.6 million.,

  6. March 19, 2014 at 2:47 am | permalink

    The only justifiable reason for having a transportation millage is to offer services which can not be provided with present funding. The AAATA has not provided hard data to support expanding routes, increasing bus frequency along existing routes and extending late night and weekend transportation hours. In fact, as Dave Askin reports in the above article a survey recently showed that “Over 90% had a favorable impression of The Ride, Benham said, noting that Fortune 500 companies would be jealous of that result.” Undoubtedly these results do not suggest that many Ann Arbor transit users are bothered by too crowded buses or prolonged waiting at bus stops or even insufficient availability of late night and weekend bus service.

    The size of the requested millage is interesting also. Selection of a 0.7 mill is based solely on the amount of millage revenue needed by Ypsilanti Township in order to essentially establish an extensive and new transportation system, including new buses, bus stops and drivers. Ypsilanti Township was making POSA payments of $329,229 yearly for its limited bus service. Apparently, to create the desired transportation system Ypsilanti Township required $707,969 annually for five years, which translates into a 0.7 millage.

    Since the millage had to be consistent with each AAATA component municipality, the City of Ypsilanti would obtain $189,785 additional dollars to expand its services, mostly to get more residents to the downtown transit center where buses will travel into Ann Arbor.

    For Ann Arbor, the additional 0.7 mill will add $3,230,007 to the $9,565,000 collected from the existing 2.o53 mills existing rate. This one third increase in millage money appears more than would be necessary to make the transportation changes planned if you compare Ypsilanti Townships’s map of alterations to Ann Arbor’s.

    So Ann Arbor’s millage will likely produce as much as $1 million to $2 million of excess funds that can be used for other purposes than the planned expansions. And this amount of money does not include the $6 million to $9 million addition state and federal money that results from the new millage collections.As a result, the AAATA may hae as much as $12 million annually to work with rather than “just” the $3,230,007 collected from the new millage ANNUALLY, and as much as $60 million dollars over the five year life span of the millage.

    So what can the AAATA possibly do with so much uncommitted funds? Well, $1 million to $2 million could pay for the annual maintenance and operational cost of the WALLY that presently remain unfunded and prevent the WALLY’s completion. Additionally, further studies which will support a new Ann Arbor Station can be completed and any preparations paid for in advance of federal dollars. And, then, money can be used to complete studies for THE CONNECTOR and even start development.

    All these projects can use millage and government matching funds if the ten member AAATA board decides by majority vote to spend the money this way. Without specific restrictions written into the millage proposal the AAATA board may decide to use uncommitted money for railroad purposes. And then the AAATA may not have to request additional millages to pay for railroad services which are unlikely to be approved by voters at this time.

    Voting “NO” for the transit millage will prevent waste and misuse of tax dollars without adversely effecting the transit services which users consider as being quite adequate..

  7. March 19, 2014 at 3:24 am | permalink

    Re:[6] ERRATA: I mistakenly attributed the above article to David Askin when that author is Mary Morgan. My apology.

  8. March 19, 2014 at 8:21 am | permalink

    The budget details are given in the Jan 9 Michael Ford memo. There is no excess. All of the millage money goes to providing the increased service.

  9. March 19, 2014 at 10:08 am | permalink


    Summarizing your theory:

    1. AAATA started by designing an improved transportation system for Ypsilanti Township and then checked to see what tax rate would be needed to support the transportation improvements for Ypsilanti Township;
    2. Then the AAATA applied that same tax rate to Ypsi City and Ann Arbor (as required by law) and checked to see how much money that tax rate would generate;
    3. The AAATA then drew some extra lines on a map for Ann Arbor, but based on your own assessment of those lines, those extra lines would not use up the extra revenue generated by the tax levy in Ann Arbor.
    4. The surplus from this over-taxation of Ann Arbor property owners could be used to fund rail services.

    Does your theory have any empirical evidence to support it? For example, you accept that the value of transportation improvements planned for Ypsilanti Township is commensurate with the claimed cost. At the same time you are skeptical that the claimed cost for Ann Arbor improvements is commensurate with the value of the actual improvements: “This one third increase in millage money appears more than would be necessary to make the transportation changes planned if you compare Ypsilanti Townships’s map of alterations to Ann Arbor’s.”

    I think that a conversation about the millage deserves more careful reasoning than conclusions based on eyeballing a map. It’s worth considering that a route with a planned increase in frequency will not require drawing any new lines on the map. So based on a route map, an area where new services are planned will seem like it’s getting more value in improvements than an area where the nature of the improvements is mostly an increase in frequency or extension of hours. Here’s a table of route-by-route, service-hour-by-service-hour breakdown of the improvements, which might serve as a better starting point than eyeballing a map: [link]

    In addition, you have reasoned from the survey result – that 90% had a favorable impression of the AAATA – to the conclusion that AAATA riders are actually content enough to live with current service levels. In fact they’re so content that we should not consider adding service: “Undoubtedly these results do not suggest that many Ann Arbor transit users are bothered by too crowded buses or prolonged waiting at bus stops or even insufficient availability of late night and weekend bus service.” How “bothered” by a lack of service availability on late nights and weekends would someone need to be, to tip that person towards having an unfavorable opinion of the AAATA? Say a rider boards the bus and asks if it stops near Pierpoint Commons, and the driver replies yes, and then the rider says, I’ve never been there, and the driver replies, I’ll make sure and stop even if nobody pulls the cord, and then follows through on that. Chances are that rider might have an overall favorable impression of the AAATA, even if that same rider is bitter about the fact that their regular bus is crowed, or there’s not later evening hour service or extended weekend hours.

    If the survey had shown that just 50% of respondents had a favorable impression of the AAATA, would many people take that as evidence that AAATA riders are clearly dissatisfied with crowded buses and lack of later evening and weekend service, so that we need to fund the AAATA at higher levels so that such service could be provided? I’m guessing most people would not interpret it that way. Instead, a 50% favorable impression would (just like a 90% favorable impression) also be used as a talking point against the millage: Why would we give this organization, which is held is such low esteem, any more money?

  10. By Steve Bean
    March 19, 2014 at 11:51 am | permalink

    “Undoubtedly these results do not suggest that many Ann Arbor transit users are bothered by too crowded buses or prolonged waiting at bus stops or even insufficient availability of late night and weekend bus service.”

    I’ll go out on a limb and doubt it. I vaguely remember expressing a desire for later (and more frequently) running buses, particularly on weekends, just about every one of the past 30 years, which is how long I’ve been riding The Ride.

    “I think that a conversation about the millage deserves more careful reasoning than conclusions based on eyeballing a map.”

    Oh, you and all your words and so-called “logic”, Dave.

  11. March 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm | permalink

    I reviewed the Chronicle’s coverage of the survey and found this report [link] but was unable to find where the actual survey report was included. Has that been made public?

    The interpretation of survey results is rather subtle. One needs to look at the way questions were framed and the order in which they were asked. It is dangerous to draw broad conclusions.

    I would like to see the breakdown of “probably” and “certainly” in the “will you vote for the measure” question. Previous survey results and analysis separated those two figures. By lumping the “probably” with the “certainly”, I believe that the actual support for the measure may be overstated.

  12. March 19, 2014 at 4:06 pm | permalink

    In 1861 you could get to Ypsi in 23 minutes by public transit, at an average speed of 21 mph. Today it’s 37 minutes at 13 mph, just slightly better than a bicycle can do at 12 mph. I’m hoping with this millage we can approach the high speed service we had 150 years ago.

  13. By Donna Estabrook
    March 19, 2014 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    As a regular bus rider I am happy with the bus service when considering such aspects as competent and helpful drivers, clean and safe buses, buses running on time. That does not mean that I am happy with everything. I wish I could get home from a concert downtown without having to run to get the last bus. I’d like more frequent buses so that I don’t have to rush my grocery shopping or else wait half an hour for the next bus. Weekends some buses don’t run at all; others run only once an hour. As someone who depends on public transportation I hope that there will be improvements.

  14. March 20, 2014 at 1:25 am | permalink

    Re[9] David,

    The new millage rate will more than double Ypsilanti Townships’ annual transit payments. Starting with a skeleton transit system Ypsilanti may actually need all of the 0.7 mill revenue. However, needing the same 0.7 mill increased taxation to provide the stated 44% increase in Ann Arbor Transit services is too coincidental to believe.

    Looking at the charts which you graciously provided I can neither confirm the need for the changes nor verify that the associated costs are accurate. I would need to see the actual usage data that the AAATA has collected over time to confirm the former and change-by-change cost figures to verify the latter.

    Bothersome is the fact that the AAATA expects to get much less money from federal and state than the $2 to $3 for every $1 of new tax revenue, as Andy LaBarre told Mary Morgan for her story. Receiving full governmental subsidies would provide the AAATA with many millions of dollars of uncommitted revenue that the AAATA board could decide to use at its discretion.

    If you have access to the AAATA area maps that were provided during the informational meetings and reproduced in the AAATA literature you can compare the changes highlighted for both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Township. If your unconvinced that they appear very similar (and their scales are the same) then perhaps you will agree that the changes for Ann Arbor transportation does not appear to be twice or three times greater than for Ypsilanti Township. Therefore, the expansion of Ann Arbor’s transportation system should not cost more than two or three times that required for Ypsilanti Township, or between $1.4 million and $2.1 million and certainly not the $3.2 million that the 0.7 mill will provide for Ann Arbor’s transit expansion.

    Concerning the fact that 90% of surveyed Ann Arbor transit users indicating overwhelming satisfaction with the provided bus services I am sure that is the exact point that Mr. Benham wanted to make and actually bragged that “Fortune 500 companies would be jealous of that result.” Mr. Benham did not state that many transit users complain of slow service, or insufficient late night and weekend service, or inconvenient bus stops. You would expect him to mention these to support the need for expanded services. I hope that you agree that 90% is superlative. On the other hand 50% would be bothersome considering the large number of transit users. However, the statistic is 90% and not 50%.

    Thanks for allowing me to express myself; not everyone supports having our transit millage increased.

  15. March 20, 2014 at 1:44 am | permalink

    DEe11] Very amusing, Mr. Rees, but hardly serious. Do you expect readers to believe that an AAATA bus will not travel at more than13 mile per hour? I am also surprised that the time it took to travel from Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti (and where in Ypsilanti?) was measured and reported in 1861.. I would like to see the publication since that horse and cart may have set a record.

    De[12] Ms. Estabrook,
    I am sure that those requests that are reasonable could be implemented now and with existing funding, by eliminating waste and adding efficiencies. However, the changes would require other AAATA transit users to submit similar complaints. You can not expect that the large and very busy AAATA transit system can arrange for all your personal transportation wishes.

  16. By Fuzzbollah
    March 20, 2014 at 8:28 am | permalink

    And what about those of us who DO want a Connector, WALLY, and Fuller Road Amtrak/inter-modal Station? There are more people who live in Ann Arbor than you might think who support these transportation projects, and are willing to pay for it. The UM needs to step up to the plate too and pony up their own monetary obligations for any portions built which support UM. I would love to not have to drive anywhere locally. Many younger people are in favor of ditching automobiles for living closer to where they work, and by walking, biking, and taking mass transit. I agree with Jim Rees, we should be looking to the past for guidance on how to get around, such as a new “Interurban”. If you look at national statistics, public transit ridership is increasing.

  17. March 20, 2014 at 9:46 am | permalink

    Here’s an 1861 Michigan Central timetable


    showing 5 trains a day between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti and a typical time of 25 minutes or so for the 8 mile trip.

    I suspect, but am not certain, that the actual number of passengers who made that journey by train was small, especially compared to the number who went on the later interurbans.

  18. By Jack Eaton
    March 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm | permalink

    Re(16) “And what about those of us who DO want a Connector, WALLY, and Fuller Road Amtrak/inter-modal Station?” I recommend that you get your wallet out. Each of those projects will require substantial local funding in addition to the state and federal money that may be granted. The proposed AAATA millage includes nothing for any of those projects.

    The question of whether to have these services and facilities is less about whether we want them than it is about who should pay for them. For example, in planning, designing and implementing the WALLY commuter rail service for Brighton and other communities at the far reaches of urban sprawl, should Ann Arbor provide the funding or should the communities where the commuters actually live pay for the project?

    As for looking to the past for examples of workable transit solutions, I would note that the interurban rail systems of the past failed in part due to the economics of providing such service. If you are willing to read through the conspiracy claims, wikipedia has an interesting article on the demise of urban rail systems. [].

  19. By Fuzzbollah
    March 20, 2014 at 2:10 pm | permalink

    @18: Mr Eaton, we will all of us “pay for it” – transit – one way or another, through fares and taxation or aggravation. What is your plan – if you are successful in your endeavors of scuttling anything to do with rail transit – when Ann Arbor starts to experience ‘football Saturday’ type traffic and congestion more often?

    As far as I can observe, your anti-Hieftje cabal seems not to offer any solutions. That’s called ‘government inaction’, and was cited as one of the numerous reasons for the demise of urban rail in the Wikipedia article you provided a link to. I think the UM pulled out of the Fuller Rd Station project because they saw ‘inaction’ on the part of Council. That was a golden opportunity to get the U to pay for some infrastructure that could benefit the City and the University.

    Cincinnati Streetcar provides an overview of a project that is being built right now, that could be used as a model for revitalizing an urban core. Businesses are locating near the new line, and housing is being renovated as well. Economic activity is demonstrably on the upswing around this project, right now. Who is paying for it? We all are – [link] The project is not without it’s detractors, just like here. Yes, rail projects are expensive to build, implement, and maintain, but will the benefits outweigh the costs? I guess we will see in about 10-15 years, perhaps sooner.

    As to who should pay here? YES, Ann Arbor, Brighton, Ypsi, public-private partnerships, UM, Washtenaw County, Livingston County, SEMCOG (when that line gets built to the airport), the Feds, and anyone else who stands to benefit from better public transit options.

  20. By Donna Estabrook
    March 20, 2014 at 3:51 pm | permalink

    Mr Salberg@15
    Yes, these are my personal transportation wishes. I would venture that they are in line with the personal transportation wishes of most people who use the AAATA buses on a regular basis. The reason for the existence of a bus system is to be a public service.

  21. By Eric Boyd
    March 20, 2014 at 6:51 pm | permalink

    I agree with Fuzzbollah: There are a lot of folks who support things like the AA Connector, enhanced bus service, a new train station, and possibly WALLY.

    While some complain about the potential for increased costs, others might see the potential for increased savings. For example, we have children who are starting to approach high school years, with all the mobility challenges that will likely ensue. In the past, many parents with the means simply bought their kids a 3rd car, with all the expense that entails. With enhanced transit, the need for an additional car starts to decrease. I work in town and I am willing to bike to work most of the year. However, I draw the line when there is ice and snow in the bike lane (personal preference). With enhanced transit to supplement my bike riding, perhaps we could drop from 2 cars to 1.

    Likewise, there are plenty of studies showing that enhanced transit enhances property values. While my tax burden may be higher (both due to increased rates and increased property value), as an investment my house may increase in value enough to make it a net win, independent of convenience factors.

    Obviously, none of the aforementioned examples are guarantees and I’ll have to do the math before determining whether I think this particular millage is a good deal. However, my chosen field of employment (networking) has well taught me the truth of Metcalf’s Law [link], which applies just as well to the pervasiveness of mass transit as it does to telecommunications networks. I strong believe that a solid increase in service plus the other proposed changes (e.g. AA connector) will more than pay off for Ann Arbor for that reason alone.

  22. March 20, 2014 at 10:40 pm | permalink

    Re[16] I doubt that many Ann Arbor citizens will favor any of the three new transportation plans once they are familiar with the details.

    For instance, the WALLY is most desired by the U of M which would not need to spend $40 million to build another parking structure for the cars of 1000 employees commuting from Livingston County. In fact the UofM is willing to subsidize the ticket costs for employees who will use the WALLY in order to encourage its construction. However, the UofM is unwilling to pay the $1.5 million or $2 million needed to pay the annual maintenance and operational costs of the WALLY for which no other funding exists. In fact, the WALLY can not be completed until such funding is obtained.

    When considering THE CONNECTOR, any other transportation source other thanBus Rapid Transit (BRT) is impractical and prohibitively expensive. Furthermore, the path of THE CONNECTOR follows roadway with adjacent properties that are fully developed. It will travel through mature neighborhood on the north through the UofM and downtown Ann Arbor in the middle and State Street to I94. Since adequate transportation is already provided to these areas, additional transportation is unlikely to stimulate further economic development. And with SEMCOG only predicting an 8% population growth for Ann Arbor during the next thirty years, demand for increased transportation will be muted.

    Lastly, those who believe that East-West commuter service between Detroit and Ann Arbor should be increased must realize that any future significant increase in demand would likely involve UofM employees which accounts for the interest in a Fuller Road railway station. Bur, as mentioned, SEMCOG predicts a modest increase in Ann Arbor’s population by 2040 and mostly declines in all counties East of Washtenaw. Furthermore, SEMCOG predicts a decline in population by 2040 for those 18 to 60 years old which includes most workers who will likely consider railroad commuting.Most of the population increase anticipated for Ann Arbor will involve senior citizens 60 years of age and older who will not want to commute. Committing local funds to support East-Weat commuter service is not justifiable.

    Proponents of the WALLY, THE CONNECTOR, and East-West commuter rail service realize that sizable local financial support is required to complete these projects and that local voters will not likely approve millages for the projects. So thees proponents are hopeful that the AAATA expansion millage will be approved on May 6th and that the expected excess funds, which will be in the millions of dollars, will be applied to completing the various railway plans. And that will be possible because only a majority of the ten member AAATA board can direct AAATA funds to support the WALLY, THE CONNECTOR and East-West commuter rail service.

    AAATA spokes persons have stated publicly that the AAATA has not included any of the rail projects in its “5 year capital plans.” HOWEVER, at the first meeting of the Citizen Working Group (CWG) for the Ann Arbor Station Environment Review which occurred at the downtown library last Tuesday evening, I asked Eli Cooper,the transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor and AAATA board member, whether any AAATA millage money could be used to pay for maintenance and operation expenses of the WALLY and he said, “Yes”.

    So there you have it! The AAATA can likely pay for all of the Ann Arbor transit expansion plans with just a 0.25 mill and does not need the 0.7 mills being requested. Very likely Ypsi Township needs the full 0.7 mills from its tax payers to essentially double its transit services. And the articles of incorporation for the AAATA states that the same millage rate must be requested from all three component municipalities. This requirement means that Ann Arbor may have millions of dollars that will not be needed for the planned transit expansions. The total amount of “flexible funds” will be magnified by the additional federal and state contributions that is usually $2 to $3 per millage dollar collected (according to statement included in the above Mary MOrgan article)
    Assuming that the millage passed, the AAATA will be asking for a new or renewal millage after 5 years at which time the 2014 millage will expire. Voter sill be hard pressed to defeat a new millage which will be deemed necessary to continue established service both bus and rail. A smaller millage,between 0,25 and 0.5 mills, may be offered to make the request more palatable and may be sufficient for its purpose.

    Defeating the millage on May 6th could prevent completion of the WALLY, THE CONNECTOR and East-Weat rail commuter services are unnecessary, expensive and wasteful. Meanwhile, the AAATA will still provide the same transportation services in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township that garnered a 90% satisfaction response from users in a recent survey. If Ypsilanti Township wishes to greatly expand its bus services it can add POSA’s to those it has been using.

  23. By Jack Eaton
    March 21, 2014 at 11:44 am | permalink

    Re (19) “What is your plan – if you are successful in your endeavors of scuttling anything to do with rail transit – when Ann Arbor starts to experience ‘football Saturday’ type traffic and congestion more often?”

    I am not opposed to rail transit. I am opposed to having Ann Arbor use its scarce local tax revenues to finance the planning and implementation of regional transit plans. The costs of planning and the capital costs of implementation should be shared by the communities that will be served by the regional transit services.

    This was well demonstrated in the failed county-wide transit plan that the AATA spent more than a million dollars on. None of the other communities were asked to contribute to the costs of that plan and thus, none of those communities indicated their lack of interest until it came time to commit to financing the plan.

    The WALLY would be a great commuter rail service for residents of Livingston County. I think it is fair to suggest that many residents in that county live there to avoid our taxes. Further, Livingston County has indicated that they have no interest in funding the WALLY, should it be built.

    WALLY is a regional system that lacks support in the communities that would benefit most from its services. Should we continue to spend Ann Arbor City general funds and AAATA local funds to plan services for communities that do not want to contribute to the cost of running those services? I don’t think that asking that question makes me anti-train.

  24. March 21, 2014 at 12:20 pm | permalink

    MDOT’s rail plan lists unfunded expenses for WALLY as $55.9 million. The plan indicates a total expense of $86.9 million, with the Federal Government and state picking up $19.5 million between them (mostly for fixing up and leasing the used rail cars). A local millage will not pay for this. Those who wish to have high-investment rail systems apparently expect someone else to pay for them, presumably the Federal Government.

    This source (a pro-rail organization) [link] lays out some of the obstacles that new rail funding, or even continuation of current service, faces in the present political situation.

  25. March 21, 2014 at 7:27 pm | permalink

    I’d feel better about the millage proposal if it were not so transparently a taxpayer subsidy of growth.

    Also, did the AAATA survey include a “screen” for likely voters in a special election?

  26. By John Floyd
    March 23, 2014 at 3:39 pm | permalink

    @19 and @23

    The cities with the best mass transit America (e.g. NYC, Chicago, LA, SF, etc) are the ones with the most congestion. Why would Ann Arbor be the one place in America where mass transit reduces congestion?

  27. By John Q.
    March 25, 2014 at 12:06 pm | permalink

    Congestion will always exist in any thriving urbanized area where cars are allowed to be the predominate mode of travel. If you don’t want congestion, live somewhere that is largely car free or move to Detroit or a similar struggling urban center where they are 7 lanes of pavement to move 2 lanes worth of traffic.