Survey shows Washtenaw County voters support countywide transit expansion
A majority of Washtenaw County voters think public transit is important and say they'd likely support a 1-mill property tax increase to pay for a countywide service expansion.
The AATA commissioned CJI Research to conduct a random survey of 1,356 registered Washtenaw County voters between Oct. 25 and Dec. 1.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
At the onset of the survey, 54 percent of respondents said they're inclined to support a 1-mill property tax increase to fund a countywide public transit agency. That includes people who responded both 'definitely yes' and 'probably yes.'
Once respondents were given a list of possible reasons to support or oppose the milage, and then asked again how they would vote, support climbed to 59 percent.
"Going forward with transit development, you have a relatively optimistic community," said Hugh Clark of CJI Research, delivering the survey results to the AATA's governing board Thursday night. "There's really a consensus that public transit is a very important public service to provide."
The survey allowed respondents to answer 'definitely yes,' 'probably yes,' 'probably no' and 'definitely no' on the millage question.
According to Clark, the number of those who said 'definitely yes' — 18 percent — was tied with the number who said 'definitely no,' suggesting many voters are on the fence.
"If you leave it to the definites, you're at a draw," he said. "The largest group is 'probably yes' — they want to support it, but only probably, and so this is the key element of the population that will decide the outcome."
The latest survey findings show the AATA has made only minor progress in swaying voters since the last survey by CJI Research in 2009.
The survey two years ago found 51 percent of Washtenaw County voters — compared to 54 percent now — said initially they probably or definitely would support a countywide transit millage. After hearing arguments for and against the millage, support climbed to 58 percent in the 2009 survey, compared to 59 percent in the most recent survey.
AATA officials concluded from the findings two years ago that there wasn't yet enough community support to pass a 1-mill county transportation levy. At least one member of the agency's board expressed frustration Thursday night that the gains in public support are so minimal, considering all of the outreach efforts the AATA has done.
AATA officials are awaiting approval from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti city councils, as well as the county board, to move forward on creating a countywide transit authority. Funding recommendations and five-year service plan are expected to be released soon.
If it's determined a countywide millage is the way to go, it could appear on the ballot as early as November of this year, though AATA officials say that may be overly ambitious. Recent comments by AATA CEO Michael Ford suggest 2013 is a more likely scenario.
The recent survey found 69 percent of respondents said it's very or extremely important to provide public transit in Washtenaw County, while virtually no one said it's not important.
"Normally in most communities we would find it's more like 25 to 30 percent, so you're very high in this area," he said.
"It's very valuable data," AATA Board Chairman Jesse Bernstein said of the survey results. "We will keep looking at it and it will guide us into the future."
Clark said there are four main takeaways from the survey: The AATA is highly regarded by the public, the pubic remains supportive of transit service expansion even if it means a new 1-mill tax, the single most compelling reason to support a transit expansion is countywide door-to-door service for seniors and the disabled, and the single most compelling reason to oppose a transit expansion is concern about tax increases, not concerns about the AATA.
The survey found the service improvements proposed in AATA's 30-year transit master plan are important to county residents. More than 80 percent of respondents listed the following service improvements as either very important or somewhat important:
- Door-to-door service for seniors and the disabled
- A new service using small buses and vans in areas where there are not enough people for regular bus service
- Express bus service between park-and-ride lots and employment centers
About 75 percent of respondents listed the following service improvements as either very important or somewhat important:
- More direct and frequent routes and increased weekend service
- Hourly express bus service to Detroit Metro Airport
- Allowing riders to find information on when the next bus is expected to arrive via their cell phones
The survey found 69 percent of respondents were not aware the AATA had a 30-year transit master plan.
Clark offered a quick glance at how voters in different geographic areas of the county feel about a countywide transit millage, showing the strongest support is in Ann Arbor.
Compared to the 18 percent throughout the county who said 'definitely yes' for a new 1-mill transit tax, in Ann Arbor that percentage climbs to 24 percent. But in Chelsea and the western townships in the county, only 12 percent said 'definitely yes.'
"Between the 'definitely yes' and 'probably yes' in Ann Arbor, you have 68 percent — a very commanding lead in Ann Arbor," Clark said, adding that support diminishes in rural areas.
"But notice that the 'definitely yes' and 'probably yes' in the city of Chelsea and western townships still adds up to 42 percent," Clark said. "That's pretty substantial. I find that very interesting. Also, the city of Saline and the eastern townships, a similar number."
Clark noted that among those who said 'definitely no' to a millage increase, 26 percent still said public transit services are very important or extremely important.
He went over reasons why some voters stand in opposition to a countywide transit millage, citing general opposition to new taxes and concerns about the economy.
Some argue it's unfair for everyone in the county to pay for transit services that mostly benefit Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. On the flip side, some argue it's unfair for people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to pay more than others for transit benefiting everyone in the county.
The margin of error for the survey is said to be no more than 2.95 percent with a 95 percent confidence level, according to documents handed out at Thursday's meeting.
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.