OPINION: Ann Arbor City Council should postpone vote on 4-party transit agreement indefinitely
The Ann Arbor City Council is scheduled to take up the 4-party agreement again on Monday. This will commit Ann Arbor to turning over control of AATA’s assets to a new transit authority (NTA), operating under a new set of rules. It will also commit Ann Arbor’s transportation millage (about $9 million currently) to the NTA.
Although there are a number of conditions that must be satisfied before this happens, the agreement is a real legal document, not a “framework” as it has sometimes been described.
The council should postpone this action indefinitely. Here’s why.
2. We don’t know where the rest of the money is coming from. A Financial Task Force meeting has been postponed but their packet shows that $6.5 million new local tax per year (average) will be needed after Federal and State support. The figures suggest that an additional 0.5 mill tax countywide will pay for this. A fare increase across the board of $.50 per ride is included in this plan. See localannarbor.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/following-the-money-for-washtenaw-county-wide-transit/ for details. The Financial Task Force needs to be given time to complete its work so that we understand the real cost to our bus riders, as well as our taxpayers.
3. We don’t know what other Washtenaw County communities will join us in the “countywide” NTA. Some communities have already declined, and most others have only agreed to join the discussion, not to commit to a tax liability. (Mysteriously, the AATA has not released the results of a survey done last fall.) Though the u196 board was supposed to be based on signed agreements (Act 7), most communities have not actually formalized these agreements. See localannarbor.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/how-much-county-in-washtenaw-county-wide-transit/ for a full explanation. The AATA leadership claimed that the agreements were in place, which brings into question how many other procedural irregularities exist. But more importantly, we need full participation across the county both to collect new revenue and to offer the comprehensive service that has been promised.
4. We won’t know the shape of the NTA until the Articles of Incorporation (AOI) are finalized. The AOI, which must be passed by the county Board of Commissioners, needs a broader discussion. It will actually define the operation and powers of the NTA, so the 4-party agreement implicitly binds us to it. Once formed, under Act 196 the NTA will have many powers, including borrowing money for capital projects, entering into private investment agreements, and any legal form of taxation. (These are actually proposed in the financial plan for the TMP.) Council wisely inserted a provision that they must separately approve the AOI, but this should be done in parallel with the 4-party agreement, not after we are committed.
5. Most of all, we need to find out how the new package of transportation bills that were introduced in the state Legislature last week affect the entire public transit picture for Washtenaw County. Will our county’s transit system simply be a contractor to a new Regional Transit Authority? Will we still be able to obtain Federal and State funding with an independent authority? Will there be new revenue (a vehicle registration fee)? There is much speculation and guesswork involved, and it is foolhardy to begin a separate independent process now without this crucial piece of the picture.
We have been promised many wonderful things with the new transit plan, including much improved service for Ann Arbor and its immediate surroundings. But we need to understand how those assurances can be guaranteed before Council launches us on this major transformation of our transit system. Even assuming that the NTA wishes to put a millage on the November ballot, there are months before a decision is necessary. (August is the deadline.)