Election 2016: Are we on the bus or off the bus?
By Margaret A. Leary
Here’s the most significant local proposal on the Nov. 8 ballot: The Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan proposes a 1.2 mill tax for 20 years to build coordinated express bus, local bus, light and heavy rail, and Americans with Disabilities Act paratransit service to the 4.2 million residents of Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
Basically, this would provide all Ann Arborites with commuter express services to Canton and Livonia in 2018; a Plymouth Road cross-county connector in 2021; Ann Arbor-Detroit regional rail in 2022; and bus rapid transit on both Washtenaw and Michigan avenues in 2026. BRT passengers get on and off faster because fares are prepaid. The buses can direct traffic lights, use a dedicated lane and function more like light rail than a traditional bus.
Southeast Michigan has never had such coordinated and collaborative public transit, which according to the RTA puts the area out of competition for the new generation of workers who don’t want to rely on cars and who do want affordable public transportation. Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Minnesota’s Twin Cities and most European cities already provide public transit.
It should be noted that the enabling legislation requires the RTA to return at least 85 percent of the money collected from each county to that county, and the remaining 15 percent to connectivity that benefits all four counties. That legislation also requires that a majority of the collective four-county voters vote “yes.” A county cannot opt out.
How much would it cost?
First, a primer on mills: Governmental agencies can ask voters to approve a tax, whose size is described in “mills.” Each mill results in a $1 tax for every $1,000 in taxable value; 50 mills creates a tax of $50 for every $1,000 of taxable value of a piece of property. In Michigan, real property taxes are levied on the “taxable value” of the property, defined as 50 percent of the “market value” determined annually by the tax assessor. The taxable value can only increase at the rate of inflation established for the year, or 5 percent, whichever is lower. If there has been a change of ownership in the past year the taxable value will reset and become “uncapped” and will be the same as the assessed value. However, the next year, the cap will go back on and the taxable value can only increase as described above.
Now, back to the RTA proposal: Assuming a “homestead” — occupied by the owner — with an assessed value of $300,000 and a taxable value of half that or $150,000, a 1.2 mill tax would be $180 a year, or $15 per month, or 49 cents per day.
The back of my tax bill enabled me to compare the RTA to the annual cost of other property-tax-supported functions, using the $300,000 hypothetical house. Ann Arbor homeowners pay a total of 46.8325 mills, or $7,024.48 a year for that hypothetical house. The RTA would bump the mills to 48.0325, and the annual cost to $7,204.48.
Local support of the RTA is broad, according to the Ecology Center’s website. Endorsers include: Ann Arbor City Council, Washtenaw County Commission, Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce, Huron Valley Area Labor Federation, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority, and Ypsilanti District Library Board.
More than 400 regional groups formed A Coalition for Transit, which lists six reasons to support the plan: connecting people to jobs; boosting economic development; independence for seniors; independence for people with disabilities; attracting and retaining talent; and improving the quality of life. These benefits will flow to all, whether homeowners or not.
Affordable housing is not on the list, but with reliable public transit, one can live in an affordable city and work where one cannot afford to live, without buying a car. Also missing was the environmental argument: Better public transit means fewer cars and thus cleaner air and water. And better public transit also decreases the need for new parking.
The only organized opposition seems to be the No Massive Transit Tax group, whose website (nomassivetransittax.org) lists no names and did not respond to my questions. The leader of the group appears to be former state representative Leon Drolet.
The website lists the following five reasons to vote against the tax. Below each one, we’ve listed a response by RTA Executive Director Michael Ford (former head of the AAATA):
“Five and a half cents of every gallon you buy at the pump, and 10 percent of your car’s annual registration and plate fees, are spent on mass transit.”
Ford: “There is no state gas tax or registration fee dedicated to transit.” The money goes into the Michigan Transportation Fund, he said, and a maximum of 10 percent of gas tax dollars go to the Comprehensive Transportation Fund, which provides funding for “airports, seaports, public transportation and roads.”
“Mass transit taxes you already pay could lease every regular user of mass transit in metro Detroit a brand new Chevrolet Trax SUV every two years — and still have $150 million left over. … The $4.6 billion proposal spends enough to provide every regular user of mass transit a brand new leased Cadillac every three years and have hundreds of millions left over.”
Ford: That’s false, because those calculations don’t include costs for insurance, registration, gas, maintenance and collision repairs. And the RTA plan is for four counties, not just metro Detroit. He adds, “Dramatically increasing single occupancy vehicles would increase congestion and diminish air quality.”
“The new mass transit authority is authorized to initiate an additional 25 percent increase in your existing annual vehicle registration fee.”
Ford: “The RTA is not seeking a vehicle registration fee increase … and is not authorized to initiate any tax without voter approval.”
“Major roads will have lanes closed to create ‘bus only’ lanes — congesting traffic. Cities with bus only lanes also implement priority traffic signal policies that turn … stoplights green for approaching traffic and red for cross traffic — further delaying motorists.”
Ford: Bus rapid transit … will not reduce roadway capacity or result in more severe congestion. After all, the point is to get people out of cars and onto buses, which then move faster than cars.
“The proposal spends billions on old transit tech like buses and rail while other cities are contracting out transit services to Uber … and others that provide door-to-door service. … Advances in self-driving vehicles may provide breakthroughs in personalized, cost-effective transit service that cannot be realized if our region is financially locked for decades into a dinosaur mass transit system.”
Ford: “These innovative services and conventional mass transit are not mutually exclusive.” Ride-sharing providers can offer “first mile last mile” services to connect transit riders from home to transit stations and back. Partnerships, not exclusivity, is the goal.
The experts weigh in