Regional Transit Authority sparks dissent in Ann Arbor

From The Michigan Daily:


Only months after the failure of the Washtenaw Initiative, a county-wide transit authority championed by the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, Ann Arbor City Council members are resisting involvement in the Southeastern Michigan Regional Transit Authority.

In the last week of 2012, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder passed legislation for the creation of the RTA, which mandates expanded public transportation methods throughout the southeast Michigan area — Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne counties. The southeast RTA board is composed of two representatives from each county and two additional representatives — one from Detroit and one chosen by Snyder.

Within a week, Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, announced his Washtenaw County appointments to the RTA: Elisabeth Gerber, a University professor at the Ford School of Public Policy, and Richard Murphy, the program director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.

“Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor in particular have a real gem with the AATA,” Gerber said. “One of my top priorities is to be sure not only to do no harm to AATA … certainly being sure that it is not compromised by the dynamics of the RTA.”

However, Gerber also stated that the RTA needs commitment from all counties.

“I feel very strongly that regional collaboration and regional governance only works when everybody wants it,” Gerber said.

Murphy, who has a background in transportation and land-use planning, said he will use his position on the board to introduce rail to the area.

“The big transit need for us in Washtenaw County is the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail line,” Murphy said. “We’ve been laying the groundwork for that for a decade, and the RTA should be the way we finally bring that project to life, but the legislation has some weird provisions discouraging rail-based transit that we’ll have to navigate.”

Murphy added that taking in factors such as cost and ridership, rail is the right option.

Upon the announcement of the RTA, many Ann Arbor City Council members were vocal about their disinterest in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County’s participation. Councilmember Christopher Taylor (D-Ward 3) was among the opposed camp.

“The short of it is, I have a tremendous amount of respect for both appointed board members, and I believe the RTA has a great deal of promise for Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties,” Taylor said. “I also believe that it has no benefit for Washtenaw County and that Washtenaw County should be excluded from it.”

Taylor continued to argue that the RTA is a “poison pill” for Ann Arbor and the county. One of the RTA’s current proposals is a bus route from Detroit to Ann Arbor.

“Public transportation in Washtenaw County serves Washtenaw County’s needs very well,” Taylor said. “Any new RTA would focus the lion’s share of its resources and attention to areas that are most in need … I believe that Washtenaw County would not receive its proportionate due.”

Councilmember Sabra Briere (D-Ward 1) agreed that the benefits of the RTA would apply only to other counties, and that most of the proposed services would be inefficient for residents.

“My own feeling for the RTA is I have a whole bunch of questions of the effect of the RTA on the existing (AATA) bus system,” Briere said. She questioned “how many people would take a bus that is going to take an hour and a half to come into Ann Arbor for whatever purpose?”

AATA spokeswoman Mary Stasiak did not elaborate on the AATA’s position on the RTA but endorsed the selected Board representatives.

Stasiak said: “Both of the RTA Board representatives chosen have qualifications and experience that are important in leading the formation of this new regional authority.”