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P.D. Lesko

P.D. Lesko

Political Train Wreck


November 2, 2012

Transit gets riders from Point A to Point B with relative speed and ease at a cost that encourages wide participation. Playing politics with transit, however, frequently means getting from Point A to Point B down convoluted paths. In fact, playing politics with transit can be downright dangerous.

Governor Rick Snyder believes that a regional transit authority (RTA) is an important tool in his plan to reinvent Michigan. Mr. Snyder recently sent out an email in which he writes, “…Business owners, community members, and government leaders from both sides of the aisle gathered at the State Capitol with one clear message: It’s time to accelerate Michigan’s reinvention with a regional transit authority (RTA) in southeast Michigan. The RTA would coordinate public transportation across suburban Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and Washtenaw counties, helping to set the groundwork for a system that would help move Michigan’s economy into the future.”

Governor Snyder, who lives in Superior Township, outside of Ann Arbor, is driven back and forth to Lansing daily. Fourteen days after he sent out the message above, the township in which he lives withdrew from Washtenaw County’s regional transit plan. Superior Township wanted nothing to do with a county-wide $500,000,000 tax-funded plan to provide bus service and (perhaps) commuter train service throughout Michigan’s 6th largest county (population 344,791). That Governor Snyder was unable to convince his own Superior Township neighbors to get behind regional transit might have been a minor political embarrassment. However, Superior Township wasn’t the only municipality in Washtenaw County to refuse to get on board.

Between October 2, 2012 and October 23, 2012, virtually every township and municipality in Washtenaw County voted to withdraw their participation in the proposed regional transit plan.

Of the county’s 26 municipalities, to date only three are committed to participating and funding the proposed $500,000,000 plan. In theory this means residents of the three participating Washtenaw County municipalities will be asked to pay over $8,000 per year in new taxes to fund “regional” transit.

The withdrawal of the municipalities has left the proposed transit plan’s financing scheme $33 million dollars short. In reality, regional transit is on life support in Washtenaw County, and politicos are already rushing to distance themselves from the political train wreck.

Governor Snyder’s office did not respond to emails for a comment on the withdrawal of the majority of Washtenaw County municipalities from that county’s regional transit plan. The mayors of Ann Arbor and Saline, similarly, refused to comment. Saline’s mayor, running for the 52nd District seat in the Michigan House, lists her support of regional transit as a reason for voters to support her over the Republican incumbent.

That the majority of Washtenaw county’s municipalities withdrew support could be interpreted as a stunning rebuke of both Governor Snyder’s vision, as well as a rebuke of state, county and local politicos who have pushed, shoved and crammed through resolutions supporting the political fairy tale that southeastern Michigan taxpayers need, want and will pay for a regional transportation system. The Washtenaw County political fiasco is, perhaps, another example of Michigan’s politicians doing what they often do: refusing to listen to their constituents’ concerns. In November 2011, the Huffington Post published a piece about a study that revealed Michigan ranks among the top 10 states in which state and local politicians ignore public opinion.

Washtenaw County was included in Governor Snyder’s RTA for southeastern Michigan because the county is controlled by a small group of Democratic officials who have been hawking regional transit county-wide for the past several years, primarily as a way to fund rail and public-private development projects. The pols, including Representative John D. Dingell, Jr., Ann Arbor’s Democratic State Senator Rebekah Warren, and her husband Conan Smith, a Democratic County Commissioner who heads the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, along with Ann Arbor State Representative Jeff Irwin, have invested significant political capital in county transit. The Democratic mayors of the three municipalities that are signed on to participate have invested political capital – and tax dollars– in a hard sell aimed at Washtenaw county officials and taxpayers.

The regional transit plan backed by Ann Arbor’s mayor John Hieftje has cost Ann Arbor’s taxpayers over $3 million dollars in fees to consultants, advertising, staff time and the investment in never-used equipment for a commuter train project called The WALLY. The WALLY was supposed to run between Howell and Ann Arbor. That project failed when Livingston County officials refused to participate, scared off by sketchy financial planning associated with the project.

The failure of The WALLY was, it turns out, an overture to the latest tragic transit opera starring Washtenaw County Democrats. This time, however, the reversal reaches all the way to the Governor’s mansion, in Superior Township.

In June 2011, Democratic Senator Rebekah Warren announced that she was planning to co-sponsor a three part bill to create a regional transit authority (RTA) in Southeastern Michigan; the RTA is a Snyder initiative. Warren wrote in her press release about the package of bills: “We’re very pleased that the Republican chair of the Transportation Committee is the lead sponsor of one of the bills in the package and a co-sponsor of all the other bills.”

Four months after Senator Warren co-sponsored the RTA legislation, her husband Conan Smith was “appointed to the planning committee for the authority along with the governor, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and other officials from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties,” according to an October 2011 piece posted to AnnArbor.com.

In October 2011, Washtenaw County Commissioner Smith presented the Board of Commissioners with a resolution that declared the “county’s support” of regional transit. The resolution passed unanimously.

Twelve months later, the stunning refusal of the majority of Washtenaw County municipalities (including most all of the municipalities represented by the members of the Washtenaw BOC who voted in favor Smith’s October 2011 resolution) to support regional transit or to tax their constituents hundreds of million of dollars to move “Michigan’s economy into the future,” could have a chilling effect on Governor Snyder’s transit plans for southeastern Michigan. The willingness of taxpayers in neighboring Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties to fund any regional transit plan proposed by the Snyder administration and political allies in those counties has suffered what one Washtenaw County politico described as a “crippling political blow.”

It should be noted that county leaders and political officials in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties did not attempt to impose county-wide regional transit prior to Governor Snyder’s efforts to cobble together his RTA. Rather, those officials took a wait-and-see approach –a strategy that will, surely, be interpreted as politically circumspect.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of only three communities in Washtenaw County whose elected officials obligated the city to the transit plan in March 2012, recently saw powerful political opponents work to oust Democratic city council members (long-time incumbents) who had been staunch supporters of regional transit. In November, when two newly-elected Ann Arbor City Council members are seated, there are already plans afoot to present a resolution that will require Ann Arbor to withdraw from the county’s regional transit plan, as well. Ann Arbor’s Democratic mayor, John Hieftje, one of the main architects of the failed WALLY commuter train, and the county’s regional transit plan, may well be forced to watch as his own city withdraws from the county-wide regional transit plan he backed over the numerous objections of city residents who, when it comes to transit, have repeatedly urged city officials to Think Local First! and use local millage money for transit to improve bus service city-wide.

P.D. Lesko is founder of A2Politico.com and publisher of a national higher education publishing group. She also writes about Detroit for the HuffPost’s Detroit page and has written analysis and commentary for such publications as The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor, The Boston Globe, and Salon.

November 2, 2012 · Filed under Lesko

38 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lou Glorie // Nov 2, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Thanks for untangling this issue Pat. I would just like to clarify something for readers who are unfamiliar with Ann Arbor politics. Opponents of the Washtenaw Transit Authority are not opposed to public transit. Far from it. We oppose the dissolution of our own transit authority and the gifting or the Ann Arbor Transit Authority’s assets to a county authority without compensation. Our local transit has long had huge gaps in service. One could walk or bike much faster to get to some destinations than take the bus, which often involves multiple transfers because the authority has refused to modify its hub system.

    The people of Ann Arbor are being told that our service will improve–even though our transit dollars will be used to send buses to Brighton, Canton, Chelsea. Transit within the city will improve through the agency of the magic transit fairy, I guess.

    For a good run down on this issue, see Vivienne Armentrout’s “Local in Ann Arbor” blog.

  • 2 Bob Cowen // Nov 2, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Regional Transit Authorities have turned out to be bad ideas elsewhere; a better alternative exists. It’s easy to see a disastrous future if you search the Internet for RTA problems: huge cost overruns, long construction delays, broken promises about stops/stations, missed deadlines, service cut-backs of routes & hours, price increases, poor maintenance, overestimated ridership, underestimated operating costs, politicization and cronyism in-spite of the best intentions, due diligence, assurances and oversight. See what happened in Denver, Cleveland, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, Portland, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Do your own research! Does anyone in Michigan really believe that a Regional Transit Authority can avoid these types of problems and properly serve the public and the taxpayers?

    Years from now, don’t say that you were not warned or didn’t conduct your own due diligence. It’s your money they’re spending!

    A much better solution is to permit entrepreneurs to offer unrestricted transportation services (shuttle, van, taxi, jitney). Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, introduced a measure (HB 5724) that would prohibit cities from banning the establishment or use of jitneys as a means of public transportation. Social media will very quickly spread the word about who is good and who is not. Low income & seniors can be given vouchers or a BRIDGE type of card. It’s worked elsewhere and well worth a two year test. Put the brakes on a Regional Transit Authority before entwining three or four counties with their layers of politicians into an even bigger SMART type of mess. Unshackle the free market; you’ll be surprised at how quickly two good things happen: much better service for customers and much lower cost for taxpayers! Tell your Lansing Representative to endorse HB 5724.
    Bob Cowen
    Farmington Hills

  • 3 P.D. Lesko // Nov 2, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    @Bob, in Washtenaw County part of the problem is that the regional transit isn’t about transit, but rather about real estate development. If you are not familiar with the Detroit Region Aerotropolis boondoggle, read up on how “transit” will be used to fuel development in public-private partnerships that will skim money from public schools. It’s truly terrifying.

  • 4 BenC. // Nov 9, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Many times we fail to look into what the future my look like before we act, many studies hold that electronic commuting will drastically reduce the number of workers and students who will need to actually commute, thus reducing the demand for mass transit. Sporting events will continue to draw attendance, yet as the cost for attending a game continues continues to rise the appeal of mass transit to those who can afford this luxury is doubtful to produce a big demand.
    Our private sector is doing a pretty good job of getting people to Detroit airport from cites as far away as Lansing and at very reasonable rates, why not support more of these types pf services rather then bet on a potentially non-effective tax payer subsidize program.

  • 5 St.julian // Nov 21, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    As usual Lesko draws a conclusion based on a specious argument. Thr AATA authority is separate and apart from Snyders proposal. AATA faked because of their Ann Arbor centric view of the universe. Snyders plan is also likely to fail
    As well once his more or less base determines that it creates a super level of government taking authority away from local jurisdictions

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    Yawn.. More endless chatter from an inflated expert who has zero street cred or experience outside if her small hamlet if Ann Arbor.

    What a bore this woman is…

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