From The Ann Arbor News:
“More buses! More places! More often!”
That was the chant that echoed throughout Braun Court in downtown Ann Arbor Tuesday night, as dozens of transit advocates and members of the More Buses campaign celebrated the passage of a 0.7-mill tax increase to expand transit services in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township.
The proposal passed in every precinct in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and all but two precincts in Ypsilanti Township.
The final vote count was 13,949 to 5,783, a 71 percent showing of support for the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s proposal.
“The results are a vote of confidence by the community that we had the right plan,” said AAATA CEO Michael Ford, who said the winners are senior citizens, people with disabilities, workers, students and families who rely on public transit.
Mike Garfield, director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center and one of the leaders of the campaign, declared victory shortly after 10 p.m.
“I think tonight, all of us — Ann Arbor, Ypsi city, Ypsi Township — we are one community,” Garfield said, drawing applause from supporters.
AAATA officials said planning and outreach efforts will begin immediately to inform residents about the introduction of new and expanded services that are scheduled to start in August, coinciding with the start of fall semester classes for local K-12 and college students. The AAATA also will move forward with planning to get additional feedback on the next phases of implementation of the agency’s five-year plan.
“We’re going to continue to engage the public and make sure that we’re informing them of what we’re doing and getting their additional input on some of the fine-tuning that we’ll obviously still need to do,” said AAATA Board Chairman Charles Griffith. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but we’re up for the task.”
The AAATA’s plan calls for expanding hours of bus service on nights and weekends, putting more buses on the road, and implementing new and redesigned routes, along with more frequent trips, improved bus stops, and expanded dial-a-ride services.
The majority of improvements will be phased in over a few years, starting this August with later hours of operation on just about every route, and more frequent trips on some routes. There also will be a new route in the Ypsilanti area this year.
In May 2016, a major redesign of the service in Ypsilanti and on the west side of Ann Arbor, including new and redesigned routes, is to be implemented.
The new tax will cost the owner of a $200,000 home an extra $70 a year for five years and is expected to generate nearly $4.4 million in new annual revenue.
That comes on top of a 2-mill tax Ann Arbor residents already pay and a 1-mill tax Ypsilanti residents already pay for AAATA service.
The AAATA will use the additional funding to increase service by 44 percent, including about 57,000 more service hours for Ann Arbor, nearly 8,500 more service hours for Ypsilanti, and at least 9,400 hours of new service for Ypsilanti Township.
That’s expected to require hiring 60 additional bus drivers and purchasing about 20 new buses, which AAATA officials said could take 18 months to order.
“We have every intention to try to get these services to people as soon as possible,” Griffith said.
Tuesday’s election marked the first time in the AAATA’s history that voters were asked to approve extra funding for public transit services beyond the annual financial support provided through the city charters in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
An opposition group called Better Transit Now, which waged an aggressive campaign against the AAATA’s proposal, did not gather Tuesday night and could not be reached for comment. The opposition, which has characterized the AAATA as a bloated bureaucracy in need of right-sizing, had argued the AAATA could improve services by cutting staff and other costs and operating more efficiently.
But as Tuesday’s results showed, that message didn’t resonate with voters in the way the opposition had hoped.
Supporters of the More Buses campaign who spoke Tuesday night expressed hopes that the increased services would lead to greater connectivity between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township and form a more cohesive urban core.
“Today we decided to stand together,” said Ann Arbor City Council Member Chuck Warpehoski. “We are moving forward together.”
Garfield said voters have made an emphatic statement that “we are one community” and that “public transportation connects us together.”
Ypsilanti Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo said she looks forward to the increased transportation options for residents.
“I think it’s a game-changer,” she said, noting a lot of people commute from the Ypsilanti area to work in Ann Arbor, especially at the University of Michigan.
“It’s going to provide access,” she said of the service expansion. “And it’ll probably continue to grow and expand in the future.”
Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje, who did some door-to-door campaigning for the millage, called it a big victory for both transit and regionalism.
“This was probably the single most important action we could take to further the interests of our region,” he said. “I’m hoping the AAATA will continue to grow and Pittsfield Township would naturally be the next group to come in.”
In an email to supporters Tuesday night, Garfield said the plan is to continue to engage other communities such as Pittsfield, Saline and Scio townships. He noted they’re part of the urban core plan, but they still need to decide on their level of participation.
Garfield said Partners for Transit, the group behind the More Buses campaign, will stay engaged in other initiatives to enhance public transportation in the region, including the Ann Arbor Connector and the Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority.
The group also plans to monitor the AAATA’s implementation of the urban core expansion plan to make sure it best meets the community’s needs.
Garfield pointed out the millage campaign succeeded in the face of organized opposition and in a low-turnout election. He said the AAATA deserves credit for the extensive research and community input it conducted before placing the proposal on the ballot, and it also helped that dozens of groups and individuals throughout the three communities got behind the campaign, including business and religious leaders, elected officials, environmental organizations and civil rights groups.
Waleed Howrani, a 65-year-old Ann Arbor resident who says he’s proud to say he’s never owned a car in his life, was one of dozens of volunteers who went to work for the campaign. He said he distributed 120 brochures to targeted homes on his bicycle, and he informed many voters about the election while riding the bus.
“I was just making sure they were all aware of the vote. Some of them were not,” he said. “So when they would say, ‘No, I didn’t know about it,’ I would pull one of those fliers and I would give it to them and say think about it.”
Ypsilanti resident Ben Miller, another volunteer for the campaign, said he thinks there’s going to be a notable improvement in service, especially in the Ypsilanti area, and a lot more people choosing to ride the bus as a result.
“Not only is it increasing the frequency and how late the existing routes are running, but I feel like for Ypsi the most exciting part is the completely redesigned local routes, which are going way more places than before,” he said. “It just means a lot. It means Ypsi and Ypsi Township are now more integrated parts of the AAATA system.”