Sunday, September 20, 2009

Courage in Government

We don't normally think about "courage" in our local government leaders and "bureaucrats". A few US presidents (not many!) have earned respect as courageous leaders, but it does take courage to make decisions that may be unpopular even at the local level. I saw a movie (Amazing Grace, 2006) about William Wilberforce a couple of weeks ago. He was the English Member of Parliament who almost single-handedly led his country to abolish the slave trade in 1807, half a century before we did in the US. It took Wilberforce several decades of frustration, ridicule, and threats to overcome the resistance of powerful merchants who had made their fortunes on the suffering of Africans. the argument then, as now, is that it was bound to hurt business and cause unemployment. England was the first country in the world to outlaw slavery, and I highly recommend seeing Amazing Grace to learn what it took.

A couple of examples of courageous government decision-makers have come to light recently. Nothing as earth-shaking as the abolition of the slave trade, but little decisions that can have long-term consequences for all of us.

Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber

Last Tuesday evening, September 15, Ypsilanti City Council was faced with the tough decision of what to do about AATA service. You may recall that residents of the City of Ann Arbor pay their full share of AATA service, but residents of the other jurisdictions where AATA runs pay only part of their share. The rest is picked up by federal grants, organizations like U of M that subsidize their staff and students' transit use, and ...residents of the City of Ann Arbor. Having encountered objections to this arrangement from Ann Arbor, the AATA Board of Directors decided to ask the other jurisdictions to pay more, gradually increasing over a 3 year period until they are paying their share. Then the recession hit.

The outcome (so far) for Ypsilanti is a Council resolution asking AATA to reduce service to a level the city can pay. The resolution asks AATA to eliminate the Ypsilanti portion of Route 5, Packard Road, and cut back the last night run on Route 10, Northeast, and Route 11, Southeast.

At first glance, the impact might seem minimal. After all, by the time Route 5 enters the city of Ypsilanti on Cross Street, it is running only two blocks from Washtenaw Avenue, where Route 4 runs every half hour, and six blocks from S. Congress Street, where Route 6 runs every hour. Why can't transit-users walk the extra two blocks to Washtenaw, or perhaps a little further to Congress? Maybe they could, but eliminating Route 5 makes it much harder for Ypsi residents to reach the parts of Ann Arbor served by Route 5, but not by Routes 4 or 6. I believe the issue is much the same as with the elimination of access to Arborland: at a time when more transit service is needed for economic and environmental reasons, it is being eroded.

The same is true of eliminating the last runs of Routes 10 and 11. The east side of Ypsilanti is already underserved by these two routes, which run only once every hour and only in one direction, using circular routes that discourage and confuse potential riders. I've already mentioned in this blog the need for much better service to the East Michigan Avenue corridor, and here we are cutting it back. East Michigan is a place where there is considerable night-life, so cutting the last bus of the night has the potential to hurt business there. (OK, so maybe the business there is not the most upstanding. But cutting bus service certainly won't help that.)

Ypsilanti City Council's resolution also called for use of Federal (stimulus) funds to cover the remaining shortfall. A one-year solution at best. It's always easier to ask someone else to pay for what you want, isn't it?

And what of Mayor Schreiber? He cast the lone vote against the resolution, saying bus service is a high priority for many reasons (according to WEMU and Now, that took moral courage. Ypsilanti would have to come up with funds to pay for the service, and very few people in public office are willing to stand up for anything that will cost more money, even if it will save them money in the long run, as transit does. I'll come back to this shortly.

WATS Executive Director Terri Blackmore

The second courageous action was a decision made by the WATS Policy Committee, specifically the WATS Executive Director and the staff. If you've followed this blog for a while, you may recall reading about the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, the county-level authority for allocating transportation funding. One of the big tasks WATS faces is the revision every five years of a 25-year transportation plan for the county. It's the result of analyzing all the county's transportation needs and dividing up available and anticipated funds for different types of projects. The new 25-year plan was finalized at Wednesday's WATS Policy Committee meeting (September 16).

To understand the situation, here is a look at the planned allocations. These two pie charts show the percentages recommended for different types of projects five years ago (in the 2030 plan) and now (the 2035 plan):

Here's a table comparing the allocations.

Improvement Type
Cost (000’s)
Capacity and New Road
Studies and Miscellaneous
Transit Capital

It's the Transit Capital that I'd like to draw your attention to, of course. Such a massive leap in percentage allocation! Naturally, Wake Up Washtenaw is in favor of this increase because we believe if shows an understanding of the true needs of the future, and it takes courage to put that into numbers. To make that increase, it was necessary to reduce the percentages recommended for bridges, capacity, new roads, intersections, traffic studies, non-motorized transportation, safety, and signals. There are a lot of people likely to be dismayed by each of those reductions - I'll come back to that in a moment.

First, a couple of notes: most important, the cost estimates don't represent existing money. They represent needs, and a reasonable estimate of what we should expect to pay. Coming up with real money is another challenge. Also, the Safety category wasn't listed in the 2030 plan, but the total in that plan added up to only 98.9%. It's just my guess that the missing 1.1% (in gray) was allocated to that category.

The Courage of their Convictions

Both Blackmore and Schreiber are to be commended for standing up and allowing themselves to be counted in potentially unpopular decisions. If you're a transit supporter, or an environmentalist, or a "smart growth" advocate, you may wonder why anyone would question these two decisions. Well, there are plenty of people who would:

  • Small-government people, whose position was well articulated by a friend of mine: the role of government is to legislate and regulate, not to provide services - that should be left to private business. They're not necessarily even the "tea party" shouters. The problem is, there are services that are necessary to community well-being which can't necessarily make money on their own; transportation is a prime example. These people usually insist that government does everything inefficiently, holding up one or two examples and ignoring the many recent cases where private business has cost us more money than anything else.
  • The folks who want to let somebody else pay. These are the people who want all the benefits of civilization without paying for it. They're the ones who vote against any and all taxes, and then complain loudly when their cul-de-sac isn't plowed by the County immediately after each snowfall.
  • Car-worshippers: "You'll have to pry my cold, dead hands off my steering wheel before I'll give up driving, so why should I subsidize someone else's public transit ride?"
  • The complacent: whether because they're comfortable now, or because they don't believe there's a storm over the horizon, they just think things will continue indefinitely the way they are now.
  • Those who believe public transit is the wrong answer: many people believe transit is simply too expensive and underutilized because of the spread-out nature of our cities and suburbs. They're right as far as that goes, but don't see one step further: that we're spread out because of publicly-funded roads that made it cheap to spread out - for a while.
  • Most elected officials: unwilling to risk voting for anything that might jeopardize their re-election or campaign contributions, no matter how necessary the measure may be.
  • The highway/developer/real estate lobby: the many businesses that make (or made) a good living from the automobile-based economy, and you may be sure that even now they have enough money to mount a powerful campaign against anything they believe will threaten them.

With all these groups opposing spending more for public transit, it takes courage to stand up and insist that we find the money for it. According to the September, 2009, calculations, riding public transit saves individuals $9,147 annually, but even a fraction of that to pay for transit would be opposed by most of the groups I just mentioned. In the future, citizens looking back will wonder why doing the right thing was so hard, just as we do when we look back at William Wilberforce's effort to abolish the slave trade. (If you're not sure why transit is "the right thing", take a look at the June 9 blog, which recaps the advantages.)

And of course, a hearty Thanks! and Well Done! to Paul Schreiber, Terri Blackmore, and the staff at WATS: Ryan Buck, Eric Bombery, and Nick Sapkiewicz!