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.
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]
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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