Council kills the county transit plan
by Natalie Burg
The proposed countywide transit authority made its final stop in November.
The public vote on the Ann Arbor District Library bond drew more heat, but financially the stakes on the transit plan were far higher: as much as $465 million to build "multimodal" bus and rail systems plus $52 million a year to run them.
In March, Ann Arbor City Council voted seven to four to move forward with the plan. In November, it voted unanimously to back out. Why the abrupt reversal?
"Everybody else opted out," explains councilmember and transit supporter Sabra Briere. With twenty-three of twenty-eight Washtenaw County municipalities choosing not to take part, council felt it had little choice but to follow suit.
So why the chilly reception elsewhere? "I suspect," says Briere, "the townships felt really pressured to make a decision quickly. There were some missteps here and there about communication."
Briere refers to two sets of letters sent to the county's townships in October, one from the AATA and the other from the county, each setting a different opt-out deadline. Additionally, the AATA, which had long planned to move its current board members to the new countywide authority, had recently learned that, legally, new board members would need to be appointed--leaving current AATA members without a position.
The plan's sharpest critic, councilmember Stephen Kunselman, thinks "misstep" is too polite a word for the demise of a project that's consumed three years and $700,000 in federal planning grants. "It's called incompetence," Kunselman says. "This shows how mismanaged and incompetent the AATA administration was in trying to promote countywide transit. They didn't know what they were doing."
Whatever they're called, though, the confusing communications don't appear to be responsible for the plan's sudden death. Out-county leaders say they rejected the plan because they didn't see enough value in the five-year, $281-million first phase to justify the cost.
"When it came down to it, the amount of service it provided to Ann Arbor Township did not justify the millage request," says township
supervisor Michael Moran. Though the plan envisioned tapping federal and state grants for capital costs, residents would have been asked to approve a half-mill property tax to underwrite the system's operation.
Scio Township supervisor Spaulding Clark says he had reservations about the transition from the AATA to a new authority, but the question of value was also key in his community's decision to opt out.
With so many municipalities unwilling to pay for the carefully crafted plan, the question now is, "Was it all a waste?"
Kunselman certainly thinks so, calling for a change in the leadership of the AATA board, and referring to the ordeal as "a huge political failure on Mayor Hieftje's part."
But others see more of a silver lining.
"We're looking at this as an opportunity," says Jim Carson, trustee for the village of Dexter and president of the WAVE bus system. "The WAVE is going to take that knowledge [gathered from meetings on the countywide plan], and we know what steps we need to take. We are looking at a way to double our Community Connector" service between Chelsea, Dexter, and Ann Arbor.
Though the planned authority is no more, council's resolution to opt out also asked AATA to continue pursuing regional transit. Along with Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Dexter, and Saline are still thought to be supportive of some kind of regional mass transit. But what a new plan might look like, says Carson, is up in the air.
"Ideally, I think it should look exactly like the plan they already came up with, but we have to figure out how we would fund that. It's all dollars," he says. "That is going to be the challenge. I don't know if anybody can tell you the best way to do that."
Not yet, anyway, but it's at the top of AATA's to-do list.
Going forward, all planning and funding options are open, says AATA's Michael Benham. "Given all of the materials we have, we should not have to reinvent the wheel."
[Originally published in December, 2012.]