What's this RTA thing I'm suddenly hearing about, and what does it mean for Washtenaw?

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Edited to add, Jan 7, 2013: The original framing of this post was inflammatory -- unnecessarily so -- towards the Ann Arbor City Council. I saw them on the brink of taking an action that I perceived to be itself pretty inflammatory towards some of our regional partners, potentially hurting our (Washtenaw County transit supporters') interests, whether the action had its intended effect or not. City Council, to their great credit, did modify their stance to more clearly focus on their actual interest and ask, and I specifically thank Mayor Hieftje and Councilman Warpehoski for their leadership here.

In turn, I'd like to turn off my flamethrower, and acknowledge that we are all in fact on the same side here: we're champions of our transit system, AATA, and want to see it continue to grow its ability to serve our residents; we want to see better connections into the rest of metro Detroit, especially in the form of the proposed commuter rail connecting Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to Dearborn, DTW, and Detroit; and we want to make sure that the transit system meeting our train on the far end is adequate to get our riders to their ultimate destinations.

We have had some differences on the best ways to reach those goals, but I'm looking forward to finding agreement on our shared interests that we can work together on. Specifically, I have been named as one of Washtenaw County's appointees to the RTA Board since I originally wrote this post, and am committed to using my background and knowledge of the situation to ensure the RTA is advancing, rather than hindering, our interests. I've struck-through the original, hostile framing text below, but leave it readable for the historical record.

This past week, the Michigan legislature passed bills to create a Regional Transit Authority for metro Detroit—Oakland, Wayne, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties. This long-overdue legislation has been under discussion and in the news for over a year, and received statewide, bipartisan support. While it’s not perfect, it will address many of the thorny issues that have held back transit in metro Detroit for years and years—and the remaining issues are generally best addressed by the communities sitting down at the table together, not mandated from Lansing.

As somebody who’s been working on this legislation for the past year and talking to all of the players involved, I’m hoping I can answer a few questions:

Unfortunately, some members of Ann Arbor's City Council believe that (a) they don’t want to sit at a table with the rest of the region to talk transit, and (b) they should be allowed to make that decision unilaterally for all of Washtenaw County, and they plan to ask the Governor to veto his legislation.

This is causing some confusion locally -- why is Ann Arbor against regional transit? As somebody who’s been working on this legislation for the past year and talking to all of the players involved, I’m hoping I can answer a few questions:

WTF is this RTA thing, anyways?

The RTA is a new agency that would serve as an umbrella layer over the existing transit agencies in the 4-county area—most significantly DDOT, SMART, and AATA. It is tasked with three roles:

  • Coordinating the transit agencies at the points they overlap, whether that's geographic (why do you have to switch buses at 8 Mile to get from Royal Oak to Wayne State?) or operational (why do you need to carry three different bus passes to transfer among the three bus systems?)
  • Developing a network of regional rapid transit corridors. The legislation states this "may" include the Woodward and Gratiot Avenue corridors, and "a western cross-county line to operate between the downtown Detroit station and the Ann Arbor Blake transit center for a distance of approximately 47 miles. This corridor shall include, at a minimum, stations in the city of Ypsilanti, Detroit Wayne county metropolitan airport, and the city of Dearborn. The authority shall determine the exact route."
  • Ask the voters for a funding stream, either property tax or vehicle registration fee, to do those first two things.

The existing transit agencies would still exist, and, except for those coordination bits, would still handle their own operations.

What's in it for Washtenaw County?

Well, that cross-county transit system from A2 to Detroit, with stops at Ypsi, DTW, and Dearborn should sound pretty familiar, right? That's our commuter rail, which has been effectively stalled for the last 4 years for want of a clear responsible party and a clear funding stream. Ta-da! RTA is specifically tasked by the legislation to do those things.

There's also the vehicle registration fee generally: if you were following the county-wide transit planning process that Ann Arbor recently pulled the plug on, you probably heard a lot of the suburban Townships saying, "We want to be part of this, but the math on a property tax-based system just doesn't work for us. If only we could fund transit with vehicle registration fees, we'd be in." Well, now we have that option, with the caveat that we have to work with our neighbors to tap into it. ETA, 1/7/2013: To be clear, while the transition of AATA into a broader, county-wide authority under Public Act 196 effectively ended in November, I understand AATA, the City, and several of the other municipalities in the urban/suburban area of the county to continue work on other ways to move forward, and look forward to supporting those efforts.

Finally, there's just the general opportunity to help make the other transit systems work better. Taking Amtrak to Chicago wouldn't be an option if there weren't a good transit system in that city. Ditto visiting NYC or San Francisco without a car. With thousands of A2/Ypsi residents headed into Dearborn and Detroit every day for work, plus more for school, sports, and cultural events, we have a clear interest in seeing our core city build a functional transit system. I see this as one of the intents of including Washtenaw County in the system: using AATA, a great system for a small city, as a peer who can provide expert guidance to help rebuild DDOT and SMART, so that when we ride our commuter train into Detroit, we can actually get anywhere while we're there.

All that sounds great -- so what's the problem?

I understand Ann Arbor to have three major concerns:

  • Ensuring AATA's funding is protected: making sure it can't be raided or diminished by the RTA to support the other systems.
  • Protecting local operational control: we don't want Macomb County coming in and telling us that the #4 should be pulling out of Blake Transit Center at :28 after the hour instead of :32 after, because that would break all of our transfers.
  • The belief that the legislation contains a "poison pill" that would make it harder, not easier, to do the commuter rail.
  • ETA, 1/7/2013: One more: that as we continue to work on options for enhancing local service via AATA, that the prospect of an RTA taking potentially incompatible actions -- and asking for its own funding -- could cause significant uncertainty for local policymakers and citizens when they evaluate additional AATA service.

None of them are outright silly--they're all good questions to be asking, and parts of them simply can't be answered legislatively: we can only have the discussion if we're sitting down at the table together. From my perspective, the clear wins that the RTA brings us far outweigh the anticipated downsides, and we're in a good position to make sure those remaining questions are addressed to our comfort level. Here's the short (for real) explanation:

First, who runs this thing?

The RTA would have a 10 member board: 2 members appointed by each of Oakland, Macomb, Wayne, and Washtenaw Counties, 1 member appointed by the City of Detroit (1 of Wayne's appointees must be a Detroit resident, as well), and a non-voting member appointed by the Governor. Board members cannot hold elected office, or be paid staff of a city, county, transit agency, or the state.

The board would have to hire staff, adopt a regional transit plan (the initial plan is basically specified as the addition of Washtenaw County's current plan to the Comprehensive Regional Transit Service Plan prepared for the tri-county area in 2008), and develop a funding plan to put before the voters. (So our rail still isn't happening tomorrow -- but there's at least now a pathway.)

The Board would require a super-majority to set the rate of any funding ask and put it on the ballot; this is defined as 7/9, including at least one vote from each County and the City of Detroit. The funding ballot would cover the entire 4-county area, and would be all one up or down vote -- not done by individual community.

Additionally, a unanimous vote of the Board would be required to acquire or construct any form of rail passenger service or to absorb any existing transit provider.

Keep those 7/9 and unanimous votes in mind.

AATA rocks -- I don't want their funding sent to Detroit.

True facts: AATA totally rocks. Fortunately, their funding has some protections.

The top-level one is that Ann Arbor is a different "UZA", or urbanized area, under Federal law than Detroit, and there's a hard line between funds that come from the Feds to different UZAs. Conversation with multiple FTA staff over the last year has confirmed that this does provide strong protection of AATA's federal funds (and that this is an issue that several other regional systems have successfully navigated), even if those funds are passing through the hands of the RTA. Further, even changing the "designated recipient" of Federal funds from AATA to the RTA requires the written concurrence of public transit providers in the UZA. (If you really want details, check out FTA Circular 9030.D (2010), especially pages II-2 to II-3.)

State funding to AATA is primarily through the Comprehensive Transportation Fund (CTF) local bus operating subsidy line (see PA 51 of 1951, sec 10e for the full brain damage): that formula is calculated on a per-agency basis; the RTA would be a passthrough for AATA's CTF funds, and could withhold / escrow up to 5% of them to "enforce" its "coordination directives", but otherwise the harm to AATA would be limited to having another agency annoyingly asking why their funding requests look a certain way.

Washtenaw County's RTA appointees would have some leverage to enact further protections on top of these.

What about discretionary funding -- Federal grants and so forth?

Currently, AATA's applications for discretionary (non-formula) grant funding have to go through SEMCOG for approval. This means the 156 members of SEMCOG have to approve AATA's project lists and grant requests before they're eligible for Federal funding (every other transportation agency has to go through this same process for all Federal funding).

So when AATA seeks funding to buy hybrid buses, for example, or pilot expanded service on the #4, they're already stuck going through some layers of approvals by distant local governments -- this wouldn't be a new thing. Again, the RTA would be an extra layer, and could potentially harass and annoy AATA by changing their funding requests around (SEMCOG has some history of doing this to Washtenaw County projects already), and I would expect Washtenaw County's reps to the RTA Board to work to secure some extra breathing room for AATA to do its thing.

But is the RTA going to tax Washtenaw County to fund DDOT?

The RTA can only ask voters for funding on an everywhere-or-nowhere basis, and I think all of the suburban players brought the concern, a year ago, of having all the money disappear into Detroit. The legislation has a floor built in to address this: at least 85% of the funding raised in a given County must be spent on transit service in that County. So this is kind of the opposite of having all of our money go to Detroit: in order for the tri-County area to invest any new money at all into SMART, DDOT, or the Woodward or Gratior corridors, they also have to boost the amount of transit funding coming into Washtenaw County.

Besides which, if you consider that the funding under discussion is vehicle registration fees, and think that Oakland County and Wayne County will each have 2,000,000 people worth of vehicles paying into the system, while Washtenaw only has 320,000 people worth of vehicles paying in, the early math is that any subsidy would have to come from the large counties to Washtenaw to get the regional system built.

Metro Detroit has shown they can't manage transit well -- why should we let them touch AATA?

Yes, there is an opening for the RTA to crash about clumsily in AATA's planning, via "coordination directives" and the review step of funding requests. If we assume the purpose of this is to have more functional transit systems in the region, though, the RTA has every incentive to take a hands-off approach to AATA, using as a model and resource to learn from, rather than coming in and breaking it.

In order for there to be any real danger to AATA here, we have to assume the RTA is either malicious or just incompetent. I don't assume those things, but in a "trust, but verify" mentality, I'm going to say this is another place where Washtenaw's RTA reps need to nail down some security early.

Doesn't the new RTA make it impossible for us to have a commuter rail?

It does not. It does have an unfortunate technological bias, in that it encourages the use of bus rapid transit (BRT, or "rubber-tired rail"), and requires any passenger rail system to achieve a unanimous vote of the RTA board, but this is hardly insurmountable.

First, keep in mind that this wasn't written with our rail in mind. This was written because Macomb and Oakland wanted to have extra protection against the construction costs of new light rail systems in the City of Detroit: for the type of transit we're talking on Woodward, we probably can do Detroit to Pontiac in BRT for about the same construction cost as a Detroit-only light rail system. If Oakland is funding the system, they want some of the benefit.

A2-Detroit is a different story: we're talking about using existing rails here, pushing the costs way down. In fact, this question was already looked at -- check out the Ann Arbor-Downtown Detroit Transit Study Detailed Screening of Alternatives, July 2007 report, which specifically considered the costs of BRT vs. commuter rail for A2-Detroit.

BRT: $879-$969m to construct, $23-27m annually to operate.

Commuter rail: $95.5m to construct, $6.25m to operate, for 8 trains/day on the existing tracks.

The price tag for commuter rail is even cheaper 5 years later, now that most of the capital costs have already been paid for various high-speed rail projects: most of the capital needs of the commuter are for projects that Chicago-Detroit also needs, and which are already funded.

So when the RTA board starts looking at its mandate for the A2-Detroit corridor, yes, they need a unanimous vote to pick the rail option over the BRT option. But, put another way, the RTA board needs a unanimous vote to save 90% on construction. If we remember that Oakland County's beef with rail is all about the price tag, then this unanimous vote isn't quite the "onerous and offensive" condition on A2-Detroit that Ann Arbor is presenting it as.

And, again, Washtenaw County's reps on the board can do even more to secure this, but only once we have seats at the table.

Why do you keep talking as though Washtenaw has any power on the RTA Board?

Because of the money.

Until the RTA starts bringing in new funding, we're sitting at our baseline conditions: AATA is growing and expanding, setting ridership records and developing new services. SMART is declining at 10-20%/year. DDOT may or may not survive any given month. One of these operators would like more funding. Two of them can't survive without it.

Washtenaw County has legitimate interests to protect here, such as the security of our awesome transit providers' funding streams and operational control, and the commuter rail project that we've spent 15 years working on, and which is 90% cheaper than the alternative.

At this point, think back to that "7/9, including at least one vote from each County" requirement to put funding on the ballot. This effectively gives any County a veto over funding proposals.

I think we can find some solutions that meet everybody's interests here.

Dude, that was really long. Can you sum it up?

I'll try.

  • The RTA gives us a lot of the tools we need to get the A2-Detroit Commuter Rail finally up and running, and to make sure that there's a solid transit system at the other end.
  • It ain't perfect. Nothing is. There's still work to be done, and that work can only be done when we step up to the table with the other players. (Unless maybe you trust Governor Snyder and the legislature to go back into the bills and monkey with the specifics of AATA...? No? Didn't think so.)
  • Regardless of whether we like it or not, we're part of the RTA. Governor Snyder has repeatedly said the RTA is his highest transportation priority -- so important to him that he got 56 Republicans to vote for more transit funding last week, when Democrats decided they weren't going to help him out. Think he's going to tear all that up because one smallish community asks him to? Nope. So we'd better make the best of it.

ETA, 1/7/2013: One more hostile rhetorical flourish to strike. Going forward, I know we've got work to do to make the new RTA work for those of us in Washtenaw County, and I'm looking forward to digging into that work and taking advantage of the opportunities it presents us. We've got the good, we've got the bad, and we've got ways to fix the bad. Let's focus on that, rather than trying to break everyone's toys.

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Murph, You write: " some


You write: " some members of Ann Arbor's City Council believe that... they should be allowed to make that decision unilaterally for all of Washtenaw County,"

How do you square up that rhetorical flourish with the fact that the elected body representing all of Washtenaw County (the Washtenaw County board of commissioners) withdrew its support for the RTA about a month ago at its Nov. 7, 2012 meeting?

From Ann Arbor Chronicle coverage: "Dan Smith, a Republican who represents District 2 covering northern parts of the county, had been prepared to introduce two transit-related resolutions at the meeting, but wound up placing only one of them on the agenda. The one he brought forward was a proposal to rescind support for a metro Detroit regional transit authority (RTA) – which the board had given in September of 2011. Although board chair Conan Smith has been a champion of legislation to enable an RTA, Dan Smith’s resolution passed on a 6-4 vote."

A more accurate description (though it doesn't serve your rhetorical purposes here) might be: Some Ann Arbor city councilmembers seem to believe that they should now echo similar sentiments to those already expressed by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners earlier this month, ...

rhetorical flourishes

Thanks for the comment. On the Facebook version of this, you also state, "As best I can tell, the [proposed Ann Arbor] resolution doesn't misrepresent any facts in its recitations in the 'whereas' clauses."

Not to deny my own "flourishes", but here's a few things I consider misrepresentations of fact in the resolution:

* The resolution states the RTA as having "no relationship with FTA officials". This is perhaps technically true, the legal entity having not yet convened, it can't have a formal relationship. We could say exactly the same about the 196 that was under discussion: it would have been a new entity with no track record and no relationship with the FTA. In that case as in this, though, the players are known--and especially well so to the FTA. The RTA has had close involvement from the FTA's director, planning, and funding staff throughout its development, and the specific, explicit, money-where-his-mouth-is championship of the US DOT Secretary himself. So no track record or relationship in a legal standpoint, but by no means an unknown face--perhaps even a tighter relationship with FTA than AATA itself has.

* "Whereas, Washtenaw County funding will support transportation service outside of our county disproportionate to what it receives" is unsupported speculation at best. My own math around the proposed regional rapid transit network estimates that Washtenaw County will need to be a donee in the RTA, receiving back probably 125% of the funding that the RTA raises here. (I'm estimating each mile of the proposed network at equal construction cost, except that suggested to run on freeway, and equal operating cost, to get a per-county share of cost, and comparing that to per-county share of total registered vehicles.) You can certainly hypothesize scenarios in which Washtenaw is a donor, but you can't state it as a known fact.

* "Whereas, SB 909 limits the transit options available to SE Michigan and does not acknowledge the readiness to further commuter rail service." Untrue. In fact, we still have at our disposal every single option we had before SB909 (and those have been doing such a good job of bringing us rail!), plus a new one in the form of the RTA. The RTA does not in any way prevent anyone from continuing to pursue other pathways to rail, and could even pass through funds to AATA (or another agency) that we could then use to develop the rail system. So 909 disctinctly and in reality broadens options for developing transit.


I'll add to Dave's observation that (a) as well as (b) is a questionable premise.

Wearing many hats

I'd also like to clarify where I'm arguing from on this. My day job is with the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, and I've been working on this legislation in that role for the past year and change.

If that were the interest I were representing here, though, the above would look much different: in that role, having Washtenaw in the RTA would be a much lower priority--not no priority, but I could consider it a pretty unqualified win even if Washtenaw were left out.

It's as an Ypsilanti resident, planning commissioner, and transit advocate that I think Washtenaw's exclusion is completely the wrong choice: every other avenue we have for creating the regional transit connections that Ypsilanti (and Ann Arbor) desperately need is busily failing us. (Else, "where's my train?" to quote every Ypsi real estate professional I talk to.) Considering this ongoing failure of our existing tools, I'd hate to see us throw away an admittedly imperfect opportunity to try a new approach.