Thursday, June 6, 2013

What's Our Community?

What is "our community"? At its retreat on May 21 this year, Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board members spent a lot of time discussing how much territory AATA should cover. With the (temporary?) rejection of county-wide transit, AATA has decided to focus on "the urban core". Since the retreat, the City of Ypsilanti has been accepted as an integral part of the agency, but let's look at the concept of the "urban core" first, then turn to the larger question of what "the community" needs.

What Is the Urban Core?

Washtenaw County Land Use

Not all the Board members share the same idea of what the "urban core" actually is. And the whole discussion is confused by the fact that political subdivisions within the county don't correspond to anybody's definition of an "urban core". The legal boundaries of local governments are one thing; people's daily travel needs are quite another. But since local governments are responsible for paying transit subsidies, they obviously have to be taken into account as well.

Washtenaw County Population Density
A logical, efficient bus system is based on population densities, destinations, and the network of roads connecting them. As the Board and staff think about the urban core, their planning should be based primarily on those facts. Citizens and elected local officials should consider those facts exclusively when deciding on service for the area.

So who's going to pay for it? The answer will actually depend on how the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) organizes its financial structure, and what the voters of the four counties in the RTA district approve. In all likelihood, the RTA will depend on current methods of raising funds (local millages) for local transit, though transit agencies have recently been given the possibility of a regional vehicle registration fee.

Washtenaw County political subdivisions
Darker is higher population
(U.S. Census Bureau 2010)

Does that mean Washtenaw County's service will need to be paid for by millages in the local subdivisions that include this urban core? Or will the RTA impose a uniform funding system throughout the four-county area? I expect it will be a while before we find this out, since the RTA legislation requires a 7/9 majority (77.7%) vote, including at least one representative from each county, before a tax request can be put on the ballot.

Here's the problem. Elected officials - who appoint RTA Board members -  have been very reluctant to propose transit millages. The county-wide transit proposal in Washtenaw County was never put to a vote of the citizens. It was killed in the council chambers of the cities and townships. Many elected officials seem to believe they are politically vulnerable if they allow people to vote on a tax issue. But a critical part of democracy is to allow people to vote on things that are important to them. Nationally, seventy-eight percent of transit funding issues have passed during the last 10 years, and even more - 82% - in the last 3 years. In Michigan in 2012, according to the Center for Transportation Excellence, there were 35 ballot proposals either to renew, increase, or institute new transit funding. Of these, only one failed. That's over 97% success for transit millages. How much courage do elected leaders need to let their voters decide transit issues for themselves? When citizens have a say in what transit service they want, and when they trust the organization that delivers the service, they vote for it.

Serve Locally, Act Regionally

Of course, that's a take-off on "Think global, act local". A big factor in the defeat of the county-wide transit effort was people - especially local officials - thinking too narrowly about who their "community" consists of. Naturally, elected officials are responsible to their own citizens (often mis-named "taxpayers"). But the trap Southeast Michigan has fallen into is to act as if citizen welfare and prosperity is limited by the boundaries of the local jurisdiction within which they live. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to transportation.

Driving from east to west through Washtenaw County on I-94 is a distance of 32.9 miles, and in light traffic takes about 29 minutes from end to end. People think nothing of spending that amount of time driving across the county, yet some Washtenaw County citizens seem to believe we don't need county-wide transit. And transit to Southfield, Farmington Hills, or Detroit? "How ridiculous!"

Some short-sighted Ann Arbor people have voiced a concern that people who work in Ann Arbor but don't live in the city - and so don't pay the AATA millage - should not be served by AATA - at least, Ann Arbor "taxpayers" should not have to subsidize their transit-ride. But it's short-sighted because it costs the city more to have commuters drive in - and widen the roads so they can get through - than to bring them in buses. And I'm not talking about the cost in money alone, but also the deterioration of city quality all their automobiles cause.That includes congestion, wear-and-tear on the roads, the cost of building parking structures, and the extra space required for the parking structures and surface lots. Ann Arbor is a much better place to work and live if AATA can get people downtown without their autos, regardless of where they come from.

What is Our Area?

Southeast Michigan is struggling. Think for a moment about some of the successful U.S. cities: Seattle, Denver, Dallas, Chicago, Boston. Every one has extensive regional transit systems. Do we believe we can succeed without them? But Washtenaw County, one of the most successful in Michigan (choose your measure) can't even get it together to have county-wide transit.

In the age of "the global village," what fraction of the globe can we reasonably be held responsible for? Specifically, what is a reasonable area to expect a "transit system" to cover? Here's my suggestion: as far as you could drive, do a day's work, and get back in one day. It's a rough measure, but fairly practical. That embraces all of Southeast Michigan. Of course, an area that size is seldom served by a single transit agency, but all the transit agencies in this area need to be coordinated - woven into a single system that acts seamlessly for passengers.

And now we have a Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan to do just that. Washtenaw County is part of this fledgeling RTA, like it or not. Naturally, there are fears that our exemplary service provider, the AATA, will be dragged down to the level of the dysfunctional transit authorities east of us.

I think it's very unlikely for that to happen. I see the RTA is a bit like a family with three teenagers: one is promising, a good student, college-bound. The other two are struggling with addiction (debt), poor grades (on-time performance), absenteeism (opt-out jurisdictions), and in danger of dropping out of school (bankruptcy). There's no way the parents (RTA Board) are going to let their star kid's grades go down; anyway, their hands are full dealing with the problem kids. Benign neglect is the worst-case scenario for the "good kid".

OK, beyond that analogy, providing the transit service people need involves all of Southeast Michigan. AATA can only do that by participating actively in the RTA. AATA has sent people to both of the RTA meetings that have taken place so far. There was some question at the Retreat whether sending people should be a low priority to save staff time. No! It should be a very high priority!

Working with the RTA is a high priority for several reasons: it can solve some immediate problems, it can lead to future cost savings through economies of scale, and most important, it will lead to meeting more of the transportation needs of citizens in the AATA area.

One immediate problem that needs a solution is how to pay for the express service AATA operates between Canton and Ann Arbor. There was some desultory talk of negotiating with Canton Township officials to see if they could be persuaded to pay part of the cost. Highly unlikely! The solution is to receive funds from the RTA to cover the part of the route that isn't in AATA's funding district. (The problem is immediate, but the solution isn't: it will have to wait for the RTA to figure out how to raise funds.)

Another problem on the horizon, but not immediate, was discussed: transition to fare-payment cards and away from cash. Most cities now use them, but researching the best system and planning a transition are time-consuming and expensive projects. However, those are perfect things for an RTA to do: partly because the RTA can do it once for all the transit authorities in its jurisdiction, and more importantly because it would result in one system that can be used throughout all of Southeast Michigan. A region truly united by its public transportation system has one payment system that can be used everywhere. A single-payment system is one of the most important things an RTA can do to unify transportation in the region.

But sending people to RTA meetings is only half of the relationship. The other half is inviting Washtenaw County's RTA representatives to be part of the discussion of what AATA should become. Having them as part of the Board Retreat would have been an ideal way to help them understand where AATA's strengths lie and what issues need resolution. Yet neither Richard Murphy nor Elizabeth Gerber were at the AATA Board Retreat, where they could have added a lot of perspective to the discussions - and taken very helpful insights back to the RTA itself. Can we afford to think of AATA as "us" and the RTA as "them"? Not if we're going to succeed in the next few years.

Washtenaw's RTA Board members should be at every meeting of the AATA Board. In fact, serious consideration should be given to making one or both of them ex-officio members of the AATA Board of Directors.

Serve locally, act regionally.

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