On May 6, the citizens of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township are going to have an opportunity to go to their local polling places and weigh in on whether or not they want to enact a milage that would allow the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA) to plan to dramatically expand services. The millage, if it passes, will generate a total of $4.3 million for new and expanded services annually through 2019, increasing AAATA services by an estimated 44%, beginning in August of this year. (This would add approximately 90,000 hours of additional transit services per year.) Today we’re joined by three proponents of the millage increase; Alexis Blizman, the Manager of the More Buses campaign, Martha Valadez, More Buses Field Organizer, and Richard Murphy, the Co-Chair of Keep Ypsi Rollin’.
MARK: As of a day or two ago, the More Buses campaign has a formal opposition group, calling itself Better Transit Now. From what I can tell, their primary objection is that they don’t want to pay for services that they aren’t themselves using. Lou Glorie, one of the people behind the campaign, told the Ann Arbor News that, while she has nothing against mass transportation, she’d like to see it better tailored to the needs of those taxpayers, like her, who who don’t currently use it. “Ann Arbor citizens and taxpayers have been paying a millage for decades and still have a lot of trouble getting from point A to point B to point C,” she said. “This particular millage, if you read the language, there’s no guarantee that services for the people who are paying for it will improve or change in any meaningful way.” I’m trying to keep an open mind, but it sounds to me as though she’s saying that she, and others, are tired of subsidizing transportation for the poor, and that they won’t be happy until such time that the AAATA offers shuttle buses directly from their doorsteps to, say, Whole Foods… Sorry if that sounds catty, but…
MARTHA: The small but loud opposition relies on this argument to fire people up. “We don’t benefit, so we’ll vote no.” They present it as black and white, and ignore the general benefits, which are numerous. They don’t acknowledge the fact that mass transit alleviates road congestion, improves safety, makes parking spaces easier to come by, etc. If they don’t have a bus stop right outside their house, and routes that take them directly from their first appointment of the day to their last, and back home again, they’re completely against it. They’re demanding something of a bus service that’s just not realistic. The truth is, our local transit service has been continually improving (AirRide service to Detroit Metro Airport, expanded NightRide service, increased frequency of service on routes 4 and 5, etc.), and there will be even more options for people if this millage is passed.
MURPH: I haven’t looked at the opposition’s material enough yet to render an opinion on the specifics. In the Ann Arbor News article that you reference, people behind the anti-millage campaign mention that they don’t like the hub-and-spoke system that the AAATA currently utilizes, as it forces people to come into downtown Ann Arbor in order to change buses. They, it would seem, would prefer more neighborhood-to-neighborhood services, without requiring downtown connections. To this, I’d say…
(a) the math (and the money) of operating a transit system means that a primarily radial (hub-and-spoke) system is actually the most effective way to provide everybody the fastest possible trip; if you try to run a lot of routes connecting all possible non-downtown destinations, you spread your resources so thinly that everybody gets worse service, and,
(b) the proposed service plan actually would make more of these non-downtown connections possible in Ann Arbor: the robust hub-and-spoke network is already in place, and this proposed millage would allow the AAATA start building onto it, making more of a “spider web” network. (You can check out the proposed service map for Ann Arbor here.)
So, given that, I would say that the Better Transit Now folks are opposing a plan that would give them more of what they want, while demanding system changes that would actually make Ann Arbor transit service worse overall, because they don’t have a comprehensive understanding of how system planning works. (For anybody who wants a good overview of these topics, the book Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives is very accessible and highly regarded.)
MARK: And I guess we just have to take them at their word that they actually do care about mass transit, and want a system that works better for everyone, right? I mean, it is possible, isn’t it, that their “We’d love to fund it, and use it, but it just doesn’t work” criticism is completely disingenuous… that they’re happy with their cars, don’t intend to ever take the bus, and are just raising these issues because they don’t want to pay a penny more in taxes than they already do?
ALEXIS: I don’t want to speculate as to their motivation, as we’ve not yet heard all of their arguments… I would say, however, that while it’s true that not everyone uses public transportation, everyone needs it. Public transportation provides benefits to the whole community by allowing people to get to the goods and services they need. It allows more people to contribute to the workforce and brings money into the local economy. It attracts and keeps young talent in the community. It allows those who either don’t drive or can’t drive to maintain their independence. It reduces congestion on the streets and in the parking lots. It reduces pollution and it improves the overall quality of life in the community.
MARK: What are the other criticisms that you’re hearing concerning this newly proposed AAATA expansion plan?
MURPH: You hear from some that the AAATA has become too focused on “outside commuters, downtown business interests, and the University of Michigan.” According to these folks, the A2-Detroit and WALLY commuter rail projects, park-and-ride type service, and the go!pass program are seen as not serving Ann Arbor “residents”. I mostly disagree with this. I think the A2-Detroit line would be a benefit to a lot of Ann Arbor residents working in Dearborn and Detroit (or open up job options in those areas). Furthermore, a survey about the go!pass from last year showed a majority of downtown Ann Arbor commuters live within 4 miles of work (meaning they are Ann Arbor residents). And things like park-n-ride service help keep commuters off city streets, both mitigating traffic and reducing the need for downtown parking. (Based on survey responses, the go!pass is estimated at keeping an estimated 1,000 cars out of downtown on a daily basis, or enough to fill about two more library lot parking structures.)
I think a lot of the criticism of downtown/commuter-oriented transit services has to do with the desire to stop further downtown development and/or expansions by the University of Michigan. I personally don’t think this “starve the beast” tactic has much hope of blunting UM’s expansion, or cooling the development interest in downtown, though.
MARK: The other thing that I’ve heard is that these folks don’t trust the AATA to actually spend the money on what they say they’ll spend the money on… They seem to think that, if the millage goes forward, it’s possible that the funding could be diverted toward rail, for instance. Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, who, like all of you, is active in the More Buses campaign, has countered by saying that the proposed five year AAATA plan has “absolutely no (allocation for) rail.” In spite of this, though, Glorie has said that there are “no guarantees,” and that the AAATA has spent money on rail in the past.
MURPH: AAATA has gone out of their way to keep the various rail and commuter express services separate and outside of the millage-funded activities. The ballot language even says the funding will be used, “To improve public bus, van, and paratransit services”. It seems like the opposition is not only accusing them of lying, but of having the intent to illegally spend the funding on things other than what they put on the ballot. I think that’s extremely unlikely. (AAATA has received Federal grants to spend on studies for the rail projects, which I expect they’ll continue to use for that purpose, and I hope they’ll keep cooperating with SEMCOG and MDOT and RTA efforts to get the A2-Detroit commuter up and running, but that work would only happen as they can find those outside funds, not with this millage.)
MARTHA: The members of this opposition have been in dialogue forever about the services provided, the millage, the five-year plan, and so on. They just refuse the truth and, instead, produce false information, stirring up fear. Public meetings on the five-year plan were held all across the community, and information has been shared openly concerning the millage.
MARK: How much money are we talking about? I’ve heard that the owner of a $200,000 house (with a $100,000 taxable value), would be $70 a year. Is that correct? And would I be right to assume that this would be the case whether or not someone lived in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti or Ypsilanti Township?
MURPH: Yes. The ask is 0.7 mills, which is $70 per $100,000 of taxable value. And it’s the same rate across the AAATA area of City of Ann Arbor, City of Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township, though, of course, property values vary. (In the City of Ypsi, the average home sale price in the last six months is about $125,000, which would be about $44 / year.)
MARK: And how is the money allocated between communities? To what degree, if any, are Ann Arbor taxpayers shouldering the burden for the rest of the Washtenaw County?
MARTHA: People involved in this anti-millage campaign complain that Ann Arbor is subsidizing services for Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township. This just isn’t true. Each individual community would, under this newly proposed plan, be paying for the services they would receive in the five-year plan.
MURPH: Each community is generally paying for “its own” transit service: for example, Ann Arbor has the majority of the population and the majority of the tax base, and about 75% of the service increases will be in Ann Arbor. Outside of the three communities on the ballot, communities like Superior Township and Pittsfield Township will still have to pay for their own service with annual contracts – none of us voting for the millage will be paying for that service.
MARK: I would imagine that a group calling itself Better Transit Now might be prepared to offer a plan as to how better transit options might be achieved. To my knowledge, though, this is not the case… Is that correct?
MURPH: Aside from the general call for “more neighborhood-to-neighborhood service without going downtown” that we already discussed, no, I haven’t seen a plan or any specific recommendations.
MARK: I’m not sure how much overlap there is between the crew pushing Better Transit Now, and the crew that successfully fought the Ann Arbor Public Library millage last year, but it seems to me that the two battles may not be that dissimilar. And I’m curious to know, strategy-wise, how you think this campaign should be waged in light of what happened last year.
MURPH: AAATA has spent a lot of time working with the elected leaders of the communities involved to figure out what transit service is needed, wanted, and worth paying for, and all of this builds off of hundreds of community meetings over the past few years. As a result, they have a good five-year service plan, and the work of the “yes” campaign is pretty simple: make sure voters know about it and understand what’s in it. Later evening service, more weekend service, more frequent rush hour service, service to the Whittaker Road library, the township civic center and Kroger – these are all things that people have asked for, and now we have the chance to make them happen. From what I’ve seen of the “no” campaign, they’re working to spread uncertainty and distrust.
MARK: I don’t know. There’s not going to be much on the ballot on May 6 to bring out voters, is there? As that’s the case, I’m afraid that the anti-tax folks might have a bit of an advantage, regardless of how much ground work the AAATA and its supporters may have done… Sometimes being right and doing the groundwork isn’t enough, especially in today’s highly-politicized post-Tea Party world.
ALEXIS: The people in these communities want an improved transit system. A recent survey showed that 63% of the voters in the three communities either “probably would,” or “definitely would,” vote in favor of a new tax. Yes, turnout will be important; so it is the job of the More Buses “Yes” campaign to make sure that the voters are well informed, let them know what is in the transit improvement plan, how it will benefit the communities, and to diffuse any misinformation coming from the opposition.
MARK: If we could get Ypsi-centric for a moment, how will service here change, assuming that the millage is passed? You noted later hours, and increased routes to the library, etc, but are there other specifics that you can share?
MURPH: Some of the proposed changes involve taking things that TheRide was testing out and making them permanent: keeping the #4 Washtenaw Avenue route running at every 7-8 minutes during rush hour, instead of letting it go back to every 15 minutes – this change increased ridership on that route by over 40% in a single year – or the expansion of the NightRide shared-cab service to parts of Ypsi.
I mentioned the new route out to Whittaker Road, which will give people an option other than walking across the freeway interchange; the other big Ypsi route changes will happen in the eastern part of the township, splitting up the big looping routes that take an hour to go around into shorter, more direct spokes from the downtown Ypsi hub that get people where they’re going faster.
Otherwise, the changes are more frequent service and better hours on existing routes: making the #3 run until 11:15 PM instead of stopping at 6:00 PM, so that Ypsi residents can use it to get to evening classes at Washtenaw Community College, for example, and expanding Saturday service on many routes until 9:00 or 10:00 PM, making it a better option for people who work retail hours.
ALEXIS: I’d encourage everyone to read the proposed five-year plan, which includes specific details about the expanded services and new and redesigned routes for Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.
MARK: I wasn’t asked for my ideas, but, assuming there’s going to be an ad campaign of some kind, I have an idea TV spot that I’d like to share. Picture this… A woman in an SUV rolls into a four-way stop, where she’s approached by a multi-racial bunch of hoodlums who politely explain to her that they’re going to need to take her car, seeing as how the AAATA bus millage wasn’t passed. The next thing we know, her car is pulling away, revealing the woman staring straight into the camera, at which point she says, “And the worst part is, there’s not even a bus to take me home.” I’m still trying to figure out the ending. I’m thinking, however, that we might win some religious voters over if we have Jesus drive up in a bus, smile, wink, and offer to take her back in time so that she can recast her vote. (Jesus can time travel, right? It’s been a while since I’ve gone to church.) It may be a little long for an ad. Maybe it’s more of an after school special kind of a thing. You get the point though.
MURPH: I don’t think the More Buses campaign is going to use that idea.
THE AAATA’S PROPOSED YPSI AREA SERVICE MAP:
The routes shown in green are existing routes with proposed changes. The routes shown in blue are new proposed fixed routes. For the full key, as well as a larger version of the map, just click here.