Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why County-wide Transit for Washtenaw County?

First, a little background...

You probably know by now that Wake Up Washtenaw is all about sustainable, transit-oriented development. We believe transit is a big part of sustainability because it enables us to dial-down our vast use of fossil fuel for transportation, but also because it encourages compact, walkable development, which is more sustainable independent of how we move around. (Illustration: Manhattan Island is the most densely populated piece of land in the United States. It has also been shown that the carbon footprint of residents of Manhattan Island is the lowest in the United States. (See "To learn more" at the end of this post for details and references.) That's why Wake Up Washtenaw focuses so much on transit rather than other aspects of sustainability - it addresses two challenges at once.
You may also know that Ann Arbor Transportation Authority (AATA) is working to become a county-wide transit authority. Right now, it's chartered in, by, and for the City of Ann Arbor, and local support comes primarily through property taxes paid by Ann Arbor residents and businesses. (It also gets substantial income from fares, the Federal and State governments, and the University of Michigan.)

But AATA currently serves areas well beyond the city limits, including the City of Ypsilanti and the townships of Pittsfield and Ypsilanti. That has been done through "Purchase of Service Agreements" (POSAs), by which transit service is paid for in fixed amounts from the general funds of the other jurisdictions. In effect, AATA sends a bill to each municipality outside Ann Arbor where it runs buses.

The POSA system has been a problem for several years. The AATA Board (composed entirely of people appointed by the Mayor of Ann Arbor) became increasingly concerned that the other municipalities were not paying as much for their service as the citizens of Ann Arbor were for theirs. So they raised the POSA bills. This caused extreme heartburn in the POSA areas, especially Ypsilanti city and township, which were struggling to balance their budgets already. AATA said it would have to cut back service in those areas that couldn't pay their transit bills.

Ypsilanti residents stormed their City Council with protests against service cut, and Council responded by putting the issue back in the residents' court by including a dedicated transit millage on the ballot in November, 2010. Now, the City Ypsilanti was already the most heavily taxed jurisdiction in the county: 32.6942 mills compared to Ann Arbor's 16.4660 and Ypsilanti Township's 11.9. But Ypsi residents overwhelmingly (72% in favor) voted to add another mil (actually 0.9789) to their taxes so they could continue their transit service at the current level.

That brings us pretty much to the present.

So how would a county-wide authority help?

It would help in three major ways: politically, systemically, and economically.

Politically it's much easier to get the required funding (most likely a millage) if everyone shares the pain. Well, not everyone. The Michigan law under which the new transit authority would be incorporated (Public Act 196) allows jurisdictions within a proposed transit region to "opt out" of the deal beforehand. This is done by the elected officials of the jurisdictions by passing a resolution in Council or Board. Some of Washtenaw County's more rural townships have already indicated that they don't intend to participate. That's OK. Many others are interested in improved (or any!) transit. But if you're an elected official anywhere, it's politically tough to stand up and say, "We think you should pay more taxes!". But it's a lot easier if a transit authority presents a plan to the entire county and says, "Here's what you'll get if you pay X. Want it?" Under Act 196, the entire county - except those parts whose leaders opted out - gets to vote as a whole. (We'll call that the "service area".) Because the city of Ann Arbor "owns" AATA and has the largest tax base, they have effective veto power over county-wide transit, and they are the only jurisdiction with that power. So except for Ann Arbor, if the total service area vote says "Yes" to transit, the entire service area gets it, even if individual municipalities in the service area voted "No". That's how Act 196 is written, and it's that way because, in order for transit to work, it has to be a system...which brings us to the next advantage...

SMART system map
The systemic advantage of county-wide (or wide service area) transit is illustrated by the Detroit area's SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) system. But it's a negative example. SMART serves the Detroit suburbs (sort-of). Under SMART, every jurisdiction got to decide whether they wanted to be part of the system or not. As a result, the service is a patch-work quilt of areas where SMART buses stop and where they don't. For example, they don't serve Livonia, which voted itself out - they serve areas all around Livonia. And because they aren't supported by the City of Detroit, which has its own transit system (and problems), it doesn't pick people up in Detroit on the way in, or drop them off in Detroit on the way out. It can be very confusing, especially for any visitors who are daring enough to try to take public transit in the Detroit area. Having holes in the system is confusing, makes planning difficult, and makes service more expensive for surrounding areas. When transit planners can work out routes for an entire region, the results will be seamless, easier to understand, and more efficient.

The economic advantage is really three advantages: for transit, for the municipalities, and for the community.
The new transit agency won't have to spend time negotiating separately with each municipality about POSAs, whether they're fair or affordable. There will be a dedicated funding source that won't require a yearly tussle with several local governments.
And the local governments won't have to sweat over a transit portion of their yearly budget. The money will go straight from the citizens to the transit agency.
Finally, the community as a whole benefits in many ways by having regional transit. It's worth spending more time on each of the benefits, but not in this post. Later. In brief: "Life doesn't stop at the city line" as someone said. Citizens work in one jurisdiction and live in another, and they can save significant amounts of money by using transit rather than buying extra family vehicles. People who can't afford to drive or who have health issues that prevent them from driving are not trapped in their houses. Young people can take transit to get to after-school activities rather than making their parent's be their live-in chauffeurs. People who choose not to take transit find the roads less crowded and the air less polluted. And, as I said at the beginning, transit encourages more sustainable forms of development. More on these later...

Bottom line: county-wide transit is a "win" for everyone.
To learn more:

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