How does Washtenaw County fit in the plans for a regional transportation authority?
Now that Gov. Rick Snyder has made it a top priority to create a regional transportation authority for Southeast Michigan, how does Washtenaw County fit in?
That question came up at Thursday's Ann Arbor Transportation Authority meeting as the agency's board heard an update on the latest transportation talks in Lansing.
Snyder used his State of the State address this week to stress the need to address regional transit in Southeast Michigan.
"We are working in partnership with the city of Detroit, with the four surrounding counties, and the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a new bus rapid transit system — a BRT — to service the entire region," Snyder said. "It's 40 years overdue."
They both shared what they know so far about the planned RTA that would include Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
"The regional authority will not replace the existing local systems," Harder said. "Also, it will not duplicate the work that the existing local systems are already doing. If you're doing it successfully, I think you will continue to do it successfully."
But if there are areas where transit is not working well, Harder said, that's where a new regional authority could come in with some innovative ideas along key corridors. He said that would complement existing services provided by local transit agencies like AATA.
"I cannot speak for the governor, obviously, but I would tell you that I have a strong suspicion that one reason the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and Washtenaw County are slated to be in this new regional authority is because of how well run your program is here, and what a really outstanding agency you have," Harder said.
"The way it's been explained to us, this is going to free up dollars," he said. "Nobody's quite sure. I think a ballpark guesstimate is $40 to $50 million, but that could be off. I wouldn't want to be held to that. But something on that order would be freed up by the new revenue that would support the regional. That would be a real shot in the arm to the existing transit systems."
Fancher cited a larger figure of $100 million.
"Of that $100 million, I think they're looking at putting maybe $40 million into bus capital, maybe $40 million into bus operating, and putting the rest of it into rail improvements," she said, stressing Snyder wants to have a mechanism to replace some of the funding that exists today and provide more transportation funding for the region.
"We don't know the details of that," she said. "That may be that we have to vote as a region for an additional tax. We're waiting for that to come out."
The AATA is seeking approval from the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to morph into a countywide transit authority this year. If proponents of the expansion are feeling ambitious, a countywide transit millage could appear on the ballot as early as November.
AATA board member Roger Kerson asked Thursday night what might happen if a funding request for the RTA goes before the region's voters at the same time Washtenaw County voters are considering a countywide millage to expand AATA services. He fears there could be a "collision" and voters would be asked to vote on two taxes at once.
"That would not be good," Harder agreed. "And of course, you don't want to see that, nor would I want you to see that, having worked on a lot of millage campaigns over the years."
Fancher, who previously worked in the governor's office under Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, sang the new Republican governor's praises Thursday night.
"What has been really fantastic about Gov. Snyder is the fact that he has been openly and publicly supportive of public transit in a way that we haven't seen in a governor in many years," she said. "And we are embracing that and we have sent him letters thanking him."
Harder made similar remarks.
"I hail from the other political party than the governor, and I will tell you that I have great respect for this governor for the stand he's taking on transportation," he said. "Because no governor has taken this strong a stand on public transportation since Gov. Milliken."
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Harder acknowledged Snyder is going to have to sway Republicans in the Legislature to push through his transportation agenda, and the votes aren't there yet.
"A lot of work is going to have to be done," he said. "We're going to get into some questions that are going to be very sticky issues."
Fancher said her group has worked with Snyder's policy advisors and talked to them extensively about the RTA legislation the governor called for this week.
"We do know from talking with the governor and his staff that the Ann Arbor area would have two voting board members," she said. "We do know that he wants to have major bus lines running in and out from Ann Arbor into the Detroit airport and into the city of Detroit."
Fancher said there are going to be a series of bills for the RTA and Sens. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, and Bert Johnson, D-Detroit, are leading the charge.
Harder said the AATA has a vital stake and an important role to play in whatever develops as far as the RTA.
Board member David Nacht asked the two speakers Thursday night to take the message back to Lansing that the AATA has led the way on controlling costs and operating efficiently.
He gave credit to former Treasurer Ted Annis for some of that.
"Ted was a very successful entrepreneur — still is — and he got us thinking about private sector techniques," Nacht said. "Even though we're a public agency in a union organized environment, we are constantly looking at how can we deliver the same level of service at a lower cost to the taxpayer, and that is now an endemic part of our culture."
Nacht said the AATA has now pilot tested and learned how to successfully do regional commuter bus service to Chelsea and Canton. He said the agency experimented with that for a while and is prepared to replicate those successes.
"We're interested in regional approaches," Nacht said, stressing that the AATA is not the "classic Mackinac Center image of a public entity" but rather "exactly the kind of public sector entity that we think a conservative Republican would be proud to have."
Nacht referenced the 30-year transit master plan the AATA put together. He said it looks at best practices in Europe, the Pacific Northwest, Canada, as well as the Midwest.
"We recognize that we're a medium-density area," he said. "We're not a major metropolitan area in Ann Arbor. But we're on the outskirts of one, and we understand exactly what we are and what we're not, what we're capable of doing or what we're not capable of doing.
"We've put a lot of effort into coming up with what we think is a reasonable approach given fiscal reality," he said, characterizing it as an environmentally sound plan with an eye toward economic development while making sure taxpayers get the best bang for their buck.
"I know that Ann Arbor Transportation Authority absolutely is a well-run organization," Fancher said following Nacht's comments.
"One of the things that we're going to be focusing on next week when we sit down and talk to the Republican-led House policy office," Fancher continued, "is focusing on how transit authorities like Ann Arbor have become more efficient over time and how we are developing those public-private relationships."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.