Who decides AATA's future--and who pays?
"We are the Ann Arbor economic region-people who live in the city and the surrounding townships," Ann Arbor Transportation Authority chair David Nacht told city council in January. Nacht, an attorney by trade, was trying to persuade skeptical council members that AATA should expand into a countywide transit authority.
Under Nacht's leadership, the AATA board has been involving itself deeply in managing the authority since longtime executive director Greg Cook was forced out two years ago. Last summer board members took a straw vote (not an official action) to become a regional authority, and Nacht says that he wants "to expand transportation dollars to whatever will bring the greatest economic development to the region."
But council members seemed more interested in problems with the existing bus service within the city. And they were clearly unhappy with what they'd heard about a proposed one-mill countywide transit tax-on top of the two mills Ann Arbor residents already pay for AATA. If the additional tax were approved, a resident with a recently purchased $200,000 house would be paying $300 a year for transit-without necessarily any improvement in service within the city.
Besides Nacht, the other big backer of a regional authority is county commissioner Jeff Irwin-who jokingly refers to himself as "an overzealous transit advocate." Irwin and Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (miwats.org), are working to sell the idea.
So far, other commissioners' response is mixed. "I'm not saying I won't support it but won't say I will," says chair Rolland Sizemore Jr., who represents eastern Ypsilanti Township. "We came out of the meeting with a lot of questions." Kristin Judge, the new commissioner representing Pittsfield Township, agrees that "we need a regional countywide [transit] plan"-but then adds, "I don't know that people would be ready to put money into a millage with the way the economy is."
Unless AATA gets more money, though, any expansion outside the city will necessarily reduce service inside it. That's why
advocates for the disabled are already worried about the proposal-and why everyone wants to know who will control the new authority.
The current AATA board is appointed by the mayor with council's approval. While Nacht soothingly suggested that Ann Arbor would retain a majority of seats on a regional board, Irwin has talked about giving other jurisdictions a stronger voice-a prospect that troubles Ann Arbor commissioner Barbara Bergman. "A countywide transit authority makes sense," says Bergman, "but I don't like the idea of township representatives having a majority."
Council member Stephen Rapundalo told Nacht that if he expects to "raise the millage . . . on the backs of Ann Arbor taxpayers," he'd better "go back to your board and make it clear that you are on the wrong track." But the county and AATA have the power to create a countywide authority and float a millage, no matter what the city thinks about it.
Could AATA keep its existing millage if it goes countywide? Mayor John Hieftje argues it would need the city's permission, since the funds are "part of the budget approved by council." But former city attorney Bruce Laidlaw points to a 1974 lawsuit that forced the city to give back money it had taken from the AATA millage. That decision could be interpreted to mean that AATA controls the tax revenue-so long as it's spent on transit in Ann Arbor.
[Originally published in March, 2009.]