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Posted on Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

Washtenaw County voters could be asked to pay new tax for regional transit authority

By Ryan J. Stanton

Updated at 6:01 p.m.: This story has been updated with additional information showing a regional vehicle registration tax could raise $75 million annually to fund the RTA.

Ann Arbor officials pledge to fight to get Washtenaw County removed from the new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority that Gov. Rick Snyder is ready to sign into law.

But if the city's pleas for removal fall on deaf ears in Lansing, local residents — along with residents in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties — could be asked to pay into the RTA.

After passing enabling legislation to create the RTA on Thursday, the Republican-controlled state House also gave its blessing to Senate Bill 911, which gives the four-county authority the power to impose higher vehicle registration fees in the region to pay for regional transit services.


Washtenaw County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, chats with Detroit Mayor Dave Bing earlier this year. The two have been in talks about regional transit.

Ryan J. Stanton |

A vote of the people throughout the four-county region is required for any new regional tax to take effect, whether that's a property millage or new vehicle registration fees — both of which are possible under the package of bills likely headed to Snyder's desk soon.

If a tax of any kind is approved by a majority of voters region-wide, it still would be imposed on individual communities that vote against it, and there is no local opt-out provision.

More simply put, if Washtenaw County voters say they don't want any part in funding an RTA, but the tax still wins approval throughout the region, Washtenaw County stays in and pays along with everyone else.

"Once we're put into this, it's extremely difficult to get out," said Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, who doesn't want to see the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority roped into the RTA for a number of reasons, including concerns about losing control of funding and political implications.

State Rep. Rick Olson, R-York Township, said getting the 56 votes needed for SB 911 was not easy with the Democrats missing in action on Thursday.

"Nonetheless, it was an essential piece of the RTA package, and ultimately we convinced enough people to support the enabling legislation, knowing full well that for any vehicle registration fee to be imposed in the region would require a vote of the people," he said.

Olson said much work among the many regional players will be necessary to even develop a plan that will be considered by the people of the region.

"The legislation does not create the transit system, merely permits it," he said. "If history is any guide, this will be an uphill battle at best."

Las Vegas probably would put the odds against success, Olson said, but the approved legislation at least makes it possible for an RTA to help the region become more competitive in creating an environment that will attract young professionals and entrepreneurs.

SB 911 enables the RTA to levy a new vehicle registration fee of no more than $1.20 per $1,000 of vehicle value, which is estimated to be about $25 a year on the average vehicle.

Washtenaw County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, has been closely involved in RTA talks with regional officials this past year. He said the registration fee is likely going to be what funds the RTA, at least initially, and he considers that an innovative approach.

Smith is at odds with other local officials on the RTA issue. The mayor plans to call to order a special meeting of the Ann Arbor City Council on Monday to vote on a resolution opposing Washtenaw County's inclusion in the RTA. Hieftje said he's hopeful the governor and state lawmakers will respond in early 2013 and approve measures to remove Washtenaw County.

Initial plans spelled out in the RTA legislation call for high-speed buses to run in dedicated lanes on four regional routes: The Woodward corridor from Detroit to Pontiac, the Gratiot corridor from Detroit to Mt. Clemens, a northern cross-county line from Pontiac to Mt. Clemens and a western cross-county line from Detroit to Ann Arbor's downtown Blake Transit Center.

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, fought passage of the RTA legislation because he doesn't think it provides enough protections for the AATA's funding streams, nor does it allow for regional rail unless unanimously approved by the RTA's board, which many believe is an insurmountable hurdle.

But after passage of the enabling legislation on Thursday, Irwin said it only made sense to also pass the companion legislation to give the RTA a fighting chance of success.

"The potential new tax on car registrations at least gives local governments and citizens an additional option to pay for transit service," Irwin said. "Without it, the RTA would be doomed to failure."

One companion bill still outstanding would allow the RTA to ignore local zoning.

The state estimates it will cost $1.3 million to implement the provisions of SB 911, including a one-time cost of programming and staffing. In addition, there would be an annual cost estimated at $100,000 for the Department of State to distribute the revenue directly to the RTA.

Based on fiscal year 2009-10 data, the average cost of a passenger vehicle registration is $103, which equates to an average vehicle value of $21,000. In the four counties, there were 3 million vehicle registrations in 2009-10. If an additional fee of $1.20 per $1,000 of vehicle value is added, that would result in an average cost increase of $25 per vehicle.

Based on the 3 million transactions in the year studied, that could equate to an estimated $75 million in annual registration fee revenues that could go to the RTA.

Smith said he believes the added vehicle registration fees could generate as much as $7 million to $9 million from Washtenaw County.

"This isn't immediate," he added. "I don't think the bills were given immediate effect, so they don't even take effect until March."

Smith said there's a long process that follows after that, putting it into possibly September before the RTA even has a director in place. Then the work to adopt a regional plan begins.

"They've got a lot of work to do," he said. "So the likelihood that this is going to show up on the ballot in 2013 is slim. I would guess if they work fast, it will be in 2014."

Smith said he has high hopes, though.

"I think people are chomping at the bit to do good regional transit work," he said. "And the way this bill is structured, the board ends up being apolitical folks whose first priority is providing transit service.

"I actually have very high hopes for this board and expectations that we'll see professional management of the region's transit."

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 2:56 p.m.

Sounds just like someone elses spreading the wealth doesn't it?


Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 2:50 p.m.

Just how many cars are registered in all 4 counties by county. Not by the population. That figure would be interesting to see. Also it was my understanding that after a certain number of years registration went back to weight for the registration fees.


Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 1:40 p.m.

Cold day in hell........


Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 5:52 a.m.

I don't like this bill as is, but I most detest bus rapid transit. I want rail, not traffic clogging buses(I stated my objections day before and that has NOT changed nor will it). Also AATA's autonomy will be jeopardized by this legislation. Then again virtually everything coming out of Lansing during the Snyder administration has been pathetic and this bill is no different.

Tom Whitaker

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 4:24 a.m.

Just for fun, could have a "write your own caption" contest for that photo of Smith and Bing? I've got about 5 ready to go...


Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 1:08 p.m.

"Dad, Dad, did I do good? Did I do good?"

Peter Eckstein

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 1:51 a.m.

"Initial plans spelled out in the RTA legislation call for high-speed buses to run in dedicated lanes on four regional route" including "a western cross-county line from Detroit to Ann Arbor's downtown Blake Transit Center." So, we are going to eliminate one lane in each direction from Detroit to downtown Ann Arbor and dedicate it entirely to bus traffic! Will someone please tell us which highways and streets are going to be pared down this way. Does no one pushing this plan give a rat's behind about already serious traffic problems on many of these roads? When is reality finally going to impinge on this incessant urge for ideologues who don't live here to plan, plan, plan for things we don't need or want?


Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 6:03 a.m.

So Ann Arbor is compared to much larger cities when some try to make a case for rail transportation, yet ignore those much larger cities when it comes to favoring dedicated lanes on freeways or other roads. The several large metropolitan areas I'm familiar with don't have dedicated bus lanes. This includes cities where there are bus routes that share the lanes with all the autos and trucks.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 12:15 a.m.

The other bills were moved to immediate effect, but not 911, that has the fees in it.

Jeffersonian Liberal

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 11:17 p.m.

No matter how many times the Progressives are presented with the long list of failed government mass transit (Amtrack, People Mover, local bus systems) they stick their heads in the sand and double down. Sooner than later they'll run out of other peoples money.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 10:55 p.m.

If people voted for President Obama, they will surly vote for higher taxes and less service, like the RTA!


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:58 p.m.

I think it is time for a SYNDER and Conan Smith recall petition.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:48 p.m.

Another lie from the Snyder corporation: "Ann Arbor officials said they met with representatives of Gov. Rick Snyder's office months ago and were assured Washtenaw County would be taken out of the RTA legislation." Thanks for lower wages across the state and tying us to Detroit mass transit.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:29 p.m.

I wonder which 1% friends of the Rickster and his merry band of 1%ers wanted this to happen? I can hear the Republican no new tax mantra fading out with the sunset. The Republicans seem to be offending their base constituency with this one, the 2014 election ought to be interesting.

Tom Todd

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:44 p.m.

Rick is only for the 1%, everyone else is to be taxed and payed peanuts until slavery.

Top Cat

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:17 p.m.

The RTA could be called "The Rotten" because that is the kind of deal it sounds like.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:09 p.m.

The funding model suggested - taxing per $1,000 of a car's "value" - is inequitable anyway. The assessment is not based on a car's value, but rather on what it cost when new. So a 15 y.o. Mercedes or Caddy that had a MSRP 15 years ago of $49,000 is far more expensive to plate than a new, $17,000 Chevy or Hyundai, even if the luxury car is only worth a few thousand dollars today. But that's a whole different conversation....


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 10:35 p.m.

I drive a 2003 vehicle. The registration fee is exactly the same as the fee was for the 1994 vehicle of the same make and model that I traded in. My current vehicle is worth nearly ten times that of my last, but the registration fee is the same.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 10 p.m.

The registration fee decreases nominally for the first four years, and then "flatlines" from there. The Caddy or Mercedes that someone buys very used for, say $5,000, is still assessed as a four-year-old $49,000 car.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:26 p.m.

Are you serious? You mean to tell me that the registration fee that we pay never goes down, even though the value of the car does? That is lunacy. Using your example, the Mercedes might be worth $15k in todays market, yet the owner will still be paying a fee that reflects a 49k value?


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:06 p.m.

For a gorup that fears and detests government overeach, more taxes and adding layers of government, the republican legislature takes the hypocrisy crown. The combined group is obviously a candidate for the Darwin awards. Why should Washenaw, especially Western Washtenaw County, help fund the devleopment of the Woodward corridor and other improvemens in Wayne County. I am not concerned about improving or helping pay for mass transit to Detroit. I am certian for every tax dollar torn from out wallets by the Wayne and Oakland County dominated authority, we will recieve less then one penny of service and that probably not for 10 years. I want to thank the western andn northern legislators for this great honor and only hope we can reciprocate with a great pox of equal vlaue on their districts, perhaps their constituents should be forced to shoulder part of the tax burden. It will help them as much as it will help us in Western Washtenaw County.

average joe

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 10:28 p.m.

FYI- Both Senate bills, the first to establish the RTA, & the second to fund it, were sponsored by Democrats. Rebecca Warren was a co-sponsor on the bill to establish the RTA.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:05 p.m.

The RTA is a bad idea, and a giant money-suck. In that respect it is just like the Mayor's own monorail and Fuller Park/grand central train station plans, except that this one isn't his own pet project.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:58 p.m.

No one I've spoken with could tell me how much the maximum permitted registration fee could raise in annual revenue for an RTA from each of the four counties. It may be on some fiscal analysis, Olson said, but he doesn't recall ever seeing that. Has anyone out there following this issue seen anything like that? If so, email me at Here's what the fiscal analysis I've seen tells us: The Authority could use the additional regional fee only for comprehensive transportation purposes as defined by Article IX, Section 9 of the State Constitution. A regional fee proposal could not be placed on the ballot unless it were adopted by a resolution of the Authority's board of directors and certified by the board at least 70 days before the election to the clerk of each county within the public transit region for inclusion on the ballot. If a majority of voters in the public transit region approved the fee, within one year after voter approval, the Secretary of State would have to collect it on all vehicles registered to residents of the region, except historic vehicles, and credit it to the Authority, minus necessary collection expenses as provided in Article IX, Section 9 of the State Constitution. Necessary collection expenses would have to be based upon an established cost allocation methodology.

Vivienne Armentrout

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 1:26 a.m.

Thanks for all the thorough work, Ryan.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 11:17 p.m.

I don't have county-by-county vehicle registration data but you could make some educated guesses if you consider these population counts: 1,210,000 Oakland (28.8%) 1,802,000 Wayne (42.9%) 348,000 Washtenaw (8.2%) 842,000 Macomb (20%) 4,202,000 total four-county population But you'll have to factor in some wiggle room for variables like whether Washtenaw residents own more or less cars than people in other counties, or whether Washtenaw residents' cars are more or less expensive than people in other counties.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 11:11 p.m.

Just got a state fiscal report and added this to the story ... Based on fiscal year 2009-10 data, the average cost of a passenger vehicle registration is $103, which equates to an average vehicle value of $21,000. In the four counties, there were 3 million vehicle registrations in 2009-10. If an additional fee of $1.20 per $1,000 of vehicle value is added, that would result in an average cost increase of $25 per vehicle. Based on the 3 million transactions in the year studied, that could equate to an estimated $75 million in annual registration fee revenues that could go to the RTA.

Vivienne Armentrout

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 11:01 p.m.

Calculating the vehicle license fee would require tapping into a database that lists vehicles and values by county. I don't know if that exists, though some fairly basic research should establish it if so. Washtenaw County has the least population of the 4 counties, so could be expected to provide a relatively small proportion of the tax, at least as compared to Macomb and Oakland Counties. We will also have a much smaller proportion of votes, so the votes in the other three counties will determine whether the license fee passes. (Detroit has lost population, so the idea that wastrels in Detroit will determine this is off-base.) (If wastrels vote, anyway.)


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:16 p.m.

Good analysis! What makes NO sense to me is the fact that Washtenaw County is NOT considered metro Detroit, yet Lansing is trying to pull Washtenaw into that arena. This is nothing but a money grab as Lansing sees the County as fairly well off versus most of Wayne and Macomb. Lansing is simply following the money trail, and we have to make sure that if it ever comes to a vote, it gets defeated.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:55 p.m.

That pic above is from Chuck Stoke's show on channel. In that episode L. Brooks took it to Mr. Smith about having a dog in the fight. It was rather amusing to watch. I might have missed it, but any idea on the composure of the Board?


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:53 p.m.

I will be voting no, if we get a vote, and getting everyone I know to vote no. I will buy the website

Tom Todd

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:41 p.m.

That's the problem we don't get to vote anymore, and if we do, it means nothing with all these public acts that are LAWS! Everyone's vote is a joke now.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:51 p.m.

Can you hear it? Off in the distance? Getting nearer, now. Getting closer and closer? That giant sucking sound you hear is the sound of your tax dollars being flushed down the Detroit rat hole.

Basic Bob

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 3:10 a.m.

I hate to say it, it's been going on for years. Your federal tax dollars, your state tax dollars, your school taxes all collected and redistributed to Detroit. Relatively wealthy people and businesses send their taxes in and get very little in return. And most progressives think this is the way it should be, until it costs them an extra $100 a year for their SUV, 2 luxury cars, and a six-year-old BMW for Junior.

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

Has Smith paid back the money he improperly looted from his County expense account? That's yet another story that's off the radar here it appears.

Alan Goldsmith

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:48 p.m.

"Smith said there's a long process that follows after that, putting it into possibly September before the RTA even has a director in place. Then the work to adopt a regional plan begins" Why didn't you ask Smith if he's been lobbying for the job for the Director? Word around Lansing is that he is. His conflict and apparent goal of getting this job, his day job as a lobbyist and his slot on the Washtenaw County Board Of Commissioners are clear cut conflicts of interest and it's amazing he wasn't asked whether he's has discussions with the Governor about the job. Why didn't this happen?

Alan Goldsmith

Sun, Dec 9, 2012 : 12:21 p.m.

Thanks for the information Ryan. Not interested now, but didn't say if he tried to lobby for the job? A fine line I know but he's answering a different question. But that's what politicians do. Did he address his potential conflict of interest between his day job and his elected office duties?

Ryan J. Stanton

Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 7:42 p.m.

I asked him about that rumor the other day. He said he's not interested in the job and it would require someone with more qualifications than he has.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:46 p.m.

Kind of reminds me of Detroit water system and the "Super Sewer" project.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:43 p.m.

Note to Ann Arbor leadership...Ann Arbor is not as insulated from state issues as it has been in the past. More economically challenged municipalities are starting to figure out how to tap into the financial resources A2 has enjoyed. This is much like our own city councils goals of "finding new and creative revenue sources" for the general fund. I think a city income tax should be on the very next ballet to ensure continued revenue to replace funds drained off by future 'regional" mandates. I would also call on any council members with ties to the U of M to exclude themselves from the city income tax debate. The alternative to "double dip" Ann Arbor property owners by forcing them to pay both county and city taxes fo public transit should not be an option.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:38 p.m.

Do those folks who thought it was ironic that Mayor Hieftje was opposed to this still think it's funny? So this comes down to the population of Detroit, where it will pass, the inner suburbs, where it will be close, Ann Arbor where it will pass, Ypsilanti where it will pass, and everywhere else where it will fail. Look for the vote in the next few years. I think if they start small and wait until a year gas prices are high in the summer again, it will probably pass. You can thank County Board Chair Smith for this, since he seems to have worked behind the scenes in favor of his employer and against his constituents to get this in place.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:34 p.m.

Now that's the Holiday Spirit!!!!! We have two-way service to southwest Detroit and we get to pay extra for it!!!! Must be payback time.....

Macabre Sunset

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:34 p.m.

In other words, Hieftje won't play ball if he doesn't own the stadium. Practical mass transit plans have no place in Ann Arbor's future. What Hieftje wants is a cross between Birmingham, England and the Jetsons.


Sat, Dec 8, 2012 : 11:13 a.m.

LOL!!! Thumbs up to your comment dude.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:33 p.m.

What fool would vote to pay another 40 bucks to "register" his vehicle with the state each year - that fee is too high already. I will be voting NO! This boondoggle will never see the light of day.


Mon, Dec 10, 2012 : 12:45 a.m.

Sorry, Ryan - $20 or $40, it's still too much! Mine is about $100/year, which is already too much, IMHO.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 11:19 p.m.

I just updated the story with data from a state analysis showing it actually would cost the average vehicle owner $25 a year and raise $75 million.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 9:03 p.m.

Think of all the dead people in Detroit who won't pay the fee, but will vote for this. Also, if you don't register your car, you don't pay the fee, either. The vehicle registration rate in Detroit is pretty low. So, of course, those folks will vote for the increased fee. They won't be paying. So, it doesn't matter what you or I think. This will be approved by voters that will never pay the higher registration fee.


Fri, Dec 7, 2012 : 8:25 p.m.

#saline, please put a proposal forth to withdraw from the authority. We'll partner with AATA and Ann Arbor before we try to parter with Detroit.