TheRide has a 2.38 mill tax request on the August 2 ballot, up from the current 0.7 mills. If voters approve it, they’ll pay an extra $168 per year for every $100,000 of taxable value in exchange for greatly expanded services, including a new express route connecting downtown Ann Arbor to downtown Ypsilanti, plus longer hours of service with increased frequency on evenings, nights, and weekends. Part of the millage would also be dedicated to building reserves for major long-range capital projects like upgraded Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti bus stations.
“We understand the magnitude of this ask,” AAATA CEO Matt Carpenter says. That’s why the authority’s board decided to go to voters this year, even though the current millage runs till 2024.
“By law we can only go for five-year millages, and we’re only allowed to go to the voters once per calendar year,” explains Carpenter. “If we were to run a millage in 2023, and it didn’t pass, we would be in a lot of trouble. We would have a cash flow problem. I don’t know frankly how we would pay everybody, and services might have to be temporarily curtailed.”
By going to the voters this year, “if for some reason they said no, then we could retool, revamp, ask them what they could support, and come back in 2023 and get a decision before the deadline—so that whatever the decision was, there was no interruption to cash flow in 2024, and none of our riders would be affected.”
The AAATA was formed in 2013 by Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsi Township. Plans for a countywide transit system had just collapsed, but the core communities still wanted closer connections, and their voters approved the .7 mill tax to fund it. It’s the only transit tax in Ypsi Township; Ann Arbor property owners pay another 1.9452 mills (Headlee’d down from 2.5) and Ypsi city .9088 mills (down from 1) for local service.
While current Ann Arbor councilmembers Linh Song and Erica Briggs support the increase to 2.38 mills, others are undecided. “I am still looking into what it’s paying for,” says Ward 4’s Elizabeth Nelson. “I’ve had conversations with people who are alarmed at how high it is.” Mayor Christopher Taylor says he’s “still reviewing” the millage, and Anne Bannister, his opponent in the August primary, says she’s “still making my final decision.”
Ypsilanti Township already made its decision. “Our entire board requested AAATA to NOT have this large millage on the August ballot,” emails township supervisor Brenda Stumbo. “The large increase doesn’t bring increased service value for bus service compared to the cost of the increase.”
Stumbo says her township joined AAATA because they “are pro regional transportation.” But “increasing taxes that increase bus frequency makes no sense to me especially with bus ridership down substantially since COVID.” In the fiscal year ending in September 2019, AAATA logged 6.3 million trips. That fell to 3.5 million in 2020 and to 1.7 million in 2021. This year, Carpenter says, it’s been running about half of pre-pandemic levels.
“I expect things to slow down this summer primarily because we’re a college town, and everything slows down in the summer,” Carpenter says. “Our ridership in the Ann Arbor–Ypsilanti area is very dependent on the academic calendar.” But school-year riders always return in September, he says, and “if that happens consistently—two or three, maybe four times—we’ll get back to our pre-pandemic ridership levels fairly quick.”
Carpenter stresses that the authority’s mission—“luring people out of their cars by providing an attractive transit service”—is an important component of the city’s A2Zero carbon-emissions goal. Stumbo, however, doubts that many of her constituents will be lured, since she notes that “many parts of our township will not see any increase in services,” and those that do will see frequency increase only from every thirty minutes to every fifteen minutes. Is “15 minute frequency worth a 350% increase in costs to taxpayers?” she asks.
In hindsight, Stumbo wishes the township had insisted that millages had to pass in every municipality. Instead, she says, “AAATA is counting on Ann Arbor voters to approve it.” Despite the high price and Ypsilanti Township’s objections, Carpenter figures the chances the millage will pass are “pretty good. We’ve seen strong, consistent support for public transit over many years.” The current millage was approved in 2014 with 71 percent of the vote, and its 2018 renewal got 83 percent.
Taxpayers keep TheRide on the road. “There is no question that public transit is a heavily subsidized public service,” Carpenter says. “Before the pandemic, on the fixed route bus service, it cost us just about four bucks to provide every trip. And the average fare was about 75 cents.”
Fortunately, local taxpayers aren’t covering the deficit alone: for every dollar AAATA gets from the millage, Carpenter points out, they get another $1.40 from state and federal sources.
This article has been edited since it was published in the July 2022 Ann Arbor Observer. The date of the election and the City of Ypsilanti’s local transit millage have been corrected, and Headlee inflation reductions added.