What Price Transit?
The AAATA seeks a millage to expand its service. Its former treasurer is among those who oppose it.
by James Leonard
If Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township voters approve the transit millage on the May 6 ballot, property taxes in the three communities will go up $70 a year for every $100,000 in taxable value. That would increase local taxpayers' contribution to the recently expanded Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority by 34 percent, or $4.4 million a year. What would they do with the money?
"It would be a game changer," says Michael Ford, the authority's CEO. "It will allow us to have more buses on existing routes, more direct routes, more night service and weekend service, and more service to more communities."
"People really need to know how widely demanded a better transit system is out there," says Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center and a leading millage advocate. "National ridership is the highest it's been since the late fifties, and ridership on the AAATA is up too."
Mayor John Hieftje considers the millage "vital to the community. It's the single best thing we can do to improve the economy and quality of life in this region."
Though Hieftje is retiring this year, three of the four candidates to succeed him support the millage (Sally Hart Petersen says she's undecided). So do Ypsilanti's mayor and city council, Ypsilanti Township's supervisor and board, and the six county commissioners representing the three municipalities. It's also backed by the presidents of the U-M, EMU, and WCC; the Ann Arbor / Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce; the Michigan Suburban Alliance; the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living; and the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice; and many local businesses.
But it also has experienced and capable opponents, including former AAATA treasurer Ted Annis, political activists Libby Hunter and Don Salberg, and former board of education member Kathy Griswold. Griswold and Annis helped block a schools millage in 2009, and Griswold played a key role in the 2012 defeat of a millage to replace the downtown library. With others, they've formed a group called
Better Transit Now to oppose the transit millage.
"I'm in support of more transit hours," says Annis, a retired computer entrepreneur. "But we believe the AAATA should do more with its existing millage. They don't need a 34 percent tax increase to do it. They could fund it with greater efficiencies and less expenses."
Despite what seems like wide support for the millage, the opponents could very well stop it. "Millages are not hard to defeat," says Hieftje. "They're asking people to do something extra, which is hard enough, and it's very easy to come up with a story to create doubt."
And the mayor says money can be an even bigger factor in millage votes than other elections: "Campaign finance reporting is not nearly as transparent as in a city council race, and much higher levels of contributions are allowed by law. Look at the campaign to defeat the library millage. Just a few individuals put a lot of money into it, and it was defeated."
Most of the millage's advocates take public transportation at least occasionally. Michael Ford says he rides the bus "as often as I can," though for him it's frequently professional: "I'll be out tomorrow riding the routes. I often ride with the union president."
In Ford's opinion, "Ann Arbor's got a really good public transit system"--but it could be even better with longer hours and more frequent service. "Ypsilanti has challenges. There's not enough service and not enough hours of service." It's even tougher in Ypsilanti Township. "South of I-94, there are people who can't get to the malls or the library or the doctor's by other means, so they need public transit--and we hear constantly that they need more."
Riders in all three communities would get more buses if the millage passes. "We have a comprehensive plan," says Ford. "We're looking to increase the level of service overall, to have more late night service, more early morning service, more weekends, and more bus stops and shelters."
"Night service and weekend service are critical," adds Mary Stasiak, the AAATA's manager of community relations. "We see people offered jobs who can't take them because they can't get to them."
Ford says the AAATA will support the millage "through education--and going to a lot of meetings: city councils, community centers, social services, neighborhood associations, and businesses."
Menlo Innovations CEO Rich Sheridan says he's donating to the pro-millage effort and lobbying other software companies to support it, because "the talent we have expects it. The folks who work here could work anywhere in the country, and they generally vote with their feet. Boomers couldn't wait to get a car, but millennials, not so much. They want it to be a choice and not a requirement. They value public transit and use it." At Menlo, he says, "We polled forty employees, and twelve use the AAATA ... and another six said they'd use it if it had more buses more places more often."
Carolyn Grawi and Lloyd Shelton of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living say they're getting something from the AAATA right now: freedom of movement. Grawi, the nonprofit's VP and chief program officer, is legally blind and says she uses public transit "constantly." She says the center is supporting the millage by letting "our volunteers volunteer with the campaign and do phone banking or putting flyers out and going door-to-door."
Shelton, a U-M grad student in sociology and AACIL intern who gets around in a wheelchair, says that public transit is the key reason he moved here from Pontiac: "I can move freely about the city, and moving freely shapes you and your future." The millage, he says, is "a matter of priorities. Ann Arbor is growing whether people want it or not, but public transit is not expanding. Unless we want more congestion, it's irresponsible to vote against it."
Garfield, who rides the bus to the Ecology Center's downtown office several times a month, says the advocacy group has "some staff devoting time to publicizing it, and volunteers are putting time in as well. We've opened the office to telephone support. We also hope to raise enough to print educational materials."
Mayor Hieftje says he usually walks or bikes to City Hall from his Burns Park home, but "I have been known to put my bike on the rack on the front of the bus." He argues that expanded transit "will help the economy and be good for business. Employees can get to work without cars, which means no cost for parking and also means less parking structures. And it will help people with affordable housing, because a family could live with one car instead of two. That puts $500 a month back in their pocket."
"For some people [even one] car is not an option because of income or disability," adds city councilmember Chuck Warpehoski. "And to give them better service means an Ann Arbor that works for everybody ... I know someone living in Ypsilanti who lost her job, went to WCC to get retrained for medical work, and was offered a couple of jobs at the University Hospital. But she couldn't take them because the shifts she was offered were at night and she couldn't get public transportation."
Warpehoski directs the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice and says the group is supporting the millage through "canvassing and phone banking, and we're also working through our ties to the religious community to get the word out."
"There are human service needs that can be met by increased transit," agrees county commissioner Andy LaBarre. "This is a modest, common sense plan that pays for specified services, and for me the benefits are enough to trade tax dollars for services."
The folks from Better Transit Now say they're all for improving bus service. Of the four interviewed, three take the bus at least occasionally. Ted Annis says he would but "it doesn't come close to where I live."
Annis allows that "for what the AAATA does primarily, it gets good marks." And he agrees that more service would be better. In fact, he says, "we want more than what they want."
But the former AAATA treasurer insists "they don't need a 34 percent tax increase to do it. They could fund everything they want in Ann Arbor and all over by doing three or four things. I'm a successful businessman, and I didn't run my business this way."
Annis says that he sent the board a letter proposing spending cuts in 2009, but got no response. "I went through the list of fifty-two management people," he says, "and I've determined more than half are nonessential." In a follow-up email, he explains that their jobs are "not related to or needed for the operation of the fixed-route and on-demand bus services."
Though he'll "name no names," Annis says that "two of the three highest paid [AAATA employees] should have been retired years ago, and the marketing and community relations people could all be eliminated because they're superfluous."
Kathy Griswold agrees that management staff should be cut. "I've worked in the corporate world, and I'd get put in charge of departments and reduce them by 50 percent. That led to some nice promotions. These people work hard, and they think they're important, but what is their role in a bus system?"
Community relations manager Stasiak responds in an email that "all of AAATA's positions, including those in marketing and community relations, are essential in providing safe, reliable, efficient, effective and convenient public transportation service." She adds that the "52 employees who are not in the labor union are not all administrators or managers: 11 work in operations (includes dispatchers, field supervisors, a paratransit coordinator, etc.); seven work in maintenance (includes supervisors, electronic technicians etc.); and 35 employees working in human resources, labor relations, security oversight, finance, purchasing, service development, planning, grant management, information technologies, legislative affairs, capital asset management, administration, and community relations."
Annis notes that in 2012, the authority "spent $200,000 on advertising and $377,000 on advertising and promotional media." In an email, he describes that as "the marketing campaign to convince the taxpayers to approve the proposed millage."
Not so, writes Stasiak. "First and foremost, community relations department employees provide real-time customer service to riders, potential riders, and the community [and] vital information about transit service changes and improvements, detours, delays." Beyond responding to phone calls and emails, she says they also "produce and distribute the route maps and schedules [plus] other routine and urgent service information found in buses, on the internet at bus stops and in shelters, oversee the development and informational content on its websites," and then cites eleven other tasks they perform. AAATA's spending specifically related to the May vote, she writes, totaled $15,625 at the end of March.
Better Transit Now's Don Salberg has a different objection to marketing. "I don't know how the AAATA justifies marketing costs if ridership hasn't increased in four years. Ridership increased from 2004 to 2009. It's flattened out since then." He calculates that it's grown "only 5 percent in the last four years."
Salberg adds that the marketing can't take much credit for the earlier increases, since they "were accompanied by the introduction of the go!pass and the U-M subsidized rides."
Stasiak points to substantial growth over the last decade: a 53.4 percent increase from 2004 to 2013, when a record 6,693,171 rides were logged. Even after a recessionary dip in 2010, she calculates the rise in the last four years at 6.3 percent.
Annis says the AAATA could also reduce overtime pay. "I got along extremely well with the union, but the overtime is troublesome. It was $455,000 a year [in 2007-08.] That's excessive, and I asked management to cut it."
They did, says Stasiak. "Overtime in 2013 was $405,000." But, she adds, "some work shifts must include a certain amount of overtime to accommodate the location of a driver at the end of his or her 8-hour workday. The AAATA's use of overtime is standard practice for the public transit industry."
Former county administrator Bob Guenzel served on a task force that evaluated the AAATA's expansion plan. "We looked at a couple things," he says. "Were the projections good for increased services and ridership, and would the millage meet those needs? And we found their assumptions were reasonable and the millage would raise enough revenue."
Guenzel finds Annis's claim that the AAATA could pay for the expansion by cutting staff and overtime "not creditable, ... The figures we had showed they compared favorably to their peers. The observation I have is they're very well run."
Given all this, will the millage pass?
Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber expects "Ypsilanti voters to support it. Ypsilanti went for a millage to increase the current level of service in 2010, and it passed three to one."
Ypsilanti Township's supervisor Brenda Stumbo says that while she tries not to predict what voters will do, "I will say that we have not heard of opposition to the requested millage, and people in general believe the buses need to run more frequently."
But even if voters in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township overwhelmingly approve the millage, it needs a majority of all votes cast to pass--and Ann Arbor has a third more voters than its two eastern neighbors combined.
Michael Ford thinks it'll pass in Ann Arbor: "All the statistics have given us a high degree of confidence." Garfield is hopeful but admits that "millages are hard to pass. A huge cross-section of the community supports it, and only a vocal minority opposes it, but sometimes that's all it takes."
John Hieftje is likewise "hopeful" Ann Arbor voters will approve the millage. He notes that the original 2.5 mill transit tax was "allowed to decay. Now it's down to a bit under 2 so this [.7 increase] resets it plus a little bit but in return for a large expansion of service."
Chuck Warpehoski thinks it will come down to voter turnout. "I believe a majority of people understand the value of public transit," he says, "and if most people get out to the polls, it'll pass."
County commissioner Andy LaBarre also hopes the millage will pass, but admits "May elections are hard to tell. You could argue that the folks who come out for May elections may not support millage increase."
That's the hope of Better Transit Now's members--who acknowledge they don't actually have a plan for better transit right now. "We're not evaluating bus service in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township," says Annis. "We'll have that conversation after the millage is voted down. It's really a two-phase campaign. Phase one is to do what we can do to defeat the millage and so get the AAATA to cut the pork. Phase two is improved service."
"We know we're the underdogs," says Kathy Griswold, "so we're working as smart as we can." Griswold says the group is also looking past the millage vote to August's primary, when "we have an opportunity for major changes on the [AAATA] board with a new mayor and as many as five new councilmembers."
If the millage doesn't pass, however, there's a good chance it'll be back--though the campaign's leaders prefer, as Garfield says, "to cross that bridge when we come to it."
"They'll try again," Hieftje predicts. "That's what happened in Grand Rapids," where voters turned down a transit millage in 2009, only to approve it in 2011.
"A lot of transportation improvement millages succeed the first time around," says Ypsilanti Township resident and millage supporter Larry Krieg. "And with those that fail, you can tell why, and if you address those issues and put it on the ballot again, it will pass."
This article has been edited since it was published in the May 2014 Ann Arbor Observer. The annual tax increase per $100,000 in taxable value has been corrected.
[Originally published in May, 2014.]
On May 4, 2014, Pete Olin wrote:
It was startling to first read Mary Rexer-Bluhm's heart-warming story of the kindness of the patrons and employees at the Panera Bread on Washtenaw ("Life at Panera") and then turn to the "What Price Transit?" article and read Kathy Griswold gloat that "I've worked in the corporate world, and I'd get put in charge of departments and reduce them by 50 percent. That led to some nice promotions." A business person might be justified, if immodest, in bragging about having increased the size of their business and so been able to hire more people, but it displays selfishness and insensitivity to brag about striving for profitability by putting people on the street. At any rate, it makes clear the goals of at least some of the leadership at the so-called "Better Transit Now" organization.