Friday, October 28, 2011

Rick Snyder's New Way to Go

Wednesday, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder introduced a new transportation funding proposal. Little by little, details are coming out.
First, here are the main parts of the proposal as they were delivered Wednesday:
  • Changing the way motor fuel is taxed from per-gallon paid at the pump by motorists, to a percentage of the price paid by wholesalers; the shift is to be "revenue neutral" when it kicks in, but will change as the price of oil fluctuates;
  • Adding an additional registration fee for license plates;
  • Allowing regions to add a further fee to license plates for regional transportation projects;
  • Creating a regional transportation authority for Southeast Michigan that includes the City of Detroit, and the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, and Washtenaw.
Today (Friday, Oct. 28) Dennis Schornack, Special Advisor to Gov. Snyder, added a number of details at a meeting of the special financial advisory group of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. (This is the blue-ribbon pannel assembled to propose funding methods for the Transit Master Plan.)
Remember that these are still proposals, and must be approved by the House and Senate, which will certainly have a lot to say about it...but here are some of the highlights:
  • The state-wide registration fee is to be based on the value of the vehicle, as the current fee is; it is advertized as "$10 per month", but that obviously adds up to $120 per year; that's said to be a maximum, so presumably people whose cars are worth less money would pay less than $120 for their registration;
  • Any county or contiguous group of counties can propose a license fee of up to $40 per year; (that's $13.3333 per month); the amount would need to be approved by the majority of voters in the proposed region, with no "opt-out" provision for sub-regions that don't think they want to participate; in our case, that means the votes of everybody in Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties, including the City of Detroit, would be tallied together - not as individual counties, and if the majority of voters in one county voted against it while the majority of the region voted in favor, they would still be subject to the tax;
  • All the funds raised by either new fuel or new license fees would be subject to the Michigan constitutional requirement that 90% of all funds raised through vehicle and fuel taxes be allocated to roads and bridges, with a maximum of 10% going to transit;
  • Funds raised by a regional registration fee would be limited in where they can go: 95% would be directed to the county in which they are raised; in other words, for every $1,000,000 Washtenaw County raises, it would be guaranteed at least $950,000 for its internal use, but the other $50,000 could be spent in another part of the region at the discrition of the regional authority;
  • The Governor will recommend that the full 10% constitutionally allowable be used for transit, which is more than the amount currently allocated; using the example above, Washtenaw County would be able to use $100,000 for transit out of every $1,000,000 it raises through license fees;
  • The regional transit authority for Southeast Michigan would be responsible for four proposed transit routes: Gatiot Avenue, Woodward Avenue, M-59, and Michigan Avenue to Detroit Metro Airport and Ann Arbor;
  • Other public transit services in the area would be "contracted" to provide service, and would receive federal and state funds through the regional transit authority
  • The committee setting up the regional authority for Southeast Michigan is composed of Governor Snyder, Mayor Dave Bing, andx Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff; these would continue to serve as titular heads of the authority once it is set up, though of course others would carry out the day-to-day administration.
So that's a lot of information, but it's all tentative. Remember the second Detroit River Bridge? The Governor proposes, the Legislature disposes. (But the Governor hasn't given up on the bridge yet...)
The information we have raises a lot of questions as well. Mr. Schornack, when questioned about some of them, smiled and said the Governor preferred to start with the "10,000-ft. view" and work out the details later. What questions do you have? We may be able to get at least a few answers from the Governor at Monday's Michigan Rail Summit.
Meanwhile, I'm off the the Midwest Highspeed Rail Association's Fall meeting in Cleveland. I started this blog on the AATA bus coming home from the meeting, and I'm now on the Megabus en route from Toledo to Cleveland. (I had to try the Megabus service to see how public transportation that claim to make a profit actually feels to the consumer. More later...)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

If you don't offer walkable urbanism, you can write off your future development

"If you don't offer walkable urbanism, you can write off your future development." - Christopher Leinberger

That was his answer when I asked about need for healthy development in the face Southeast Michigan's declining population and environment.

Leinberger, a Professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman School of Architecture and Urban Planning, and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, was speaking at Concentrate's Speaker Series at The Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase. (No joke.)

After his talk, I pressed him further about Ypsilanti Township's situation - after all, that's where I live and where I'm a Planning Commissioner. He answered with a smile, "Ah, Ypsilanti! What a great town!" "But what about the Township," I insisted. "Focus, focus, focus on the downtown!"

Unable to monopolize the Great Man's attention further, I couldn't tell him that Ypsi Township doesn't have a downtown. But I can imagine his reply if I had. "Work with the City!" Can we actually work together, the City and the Township...?

I just read in today's Ypsilanti Courier that Paul Schreiber, the City of Ypsilanti's Mayor, addressed his City Council with a gloom-and-doom message last night. So bad is the financial outlook that not only could 65% of the City's general-fund employees be laid off, but those that remained would have their health insurance capped or cropped. The Township isn't much better off, with the work-week reduced to 30 hours and mandatory furlough days.
The City's Water Street project was to be a great example of what Leinberger praised tonight as a "near-downtown" center of walkable urbanism. Instead, it's a $1.3 million annual debt load on the City and it's citizens. We've got to find a way to turn it from a burden into a profitable, tax-paying development. The City and the Township need to work together for that, because without a financially healthy urban center, neither of the Ypsilantis will pull through this financial crisis. But we can't seem to work together, can we?

It was Ben Franklin who said, "If we don't all hang together, then surely, we shall all hang separately."

Looks like we're about to prove him right. The noose is tightening around Ypsilanti, both City and Township. Let's get together and at least plan our development strategy jointly, beginning with walkable urbanism, a focus on downtown, and and end to greenfield development in the Township.

More on this later...