Transit Millages Front and Center as Bus Service Discussion Heats Up

Public transit conversations have picked up recently surrounding two proposed funding increases in Southeast Michigan. On May 6, residents in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township will vote on a transit improvement millage of 0.7 mills over five years. To the east in Metro Detroit, SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transit) is seeking a transit millage increase from the current 0.59 mills to 1 mill on the August  ballot.

The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority’s (AAATA) recommendation for a new 0.7-mill property tax comes from its 5-Year Transit Improvement Plan, where working groups determined the millage was the only viable way to raise funds for transit improvements. For example, a house worth $100,000 would pay about $35 per year, while a home worth $200,000 would pay about $70 per year. The millage would raise approximately $4.3 million for improvements, primarily from Ann Arbor ($3.3 million), followed by Ypsilanti Township ($800,000) and the city of Ypsilanti ($200,000). Ridership on AAATA services is strong, and has steadily increased from 4.5 million trips in 2000 to 6.6 million in 2013. The authority touts the transit improvements as a way to promote economic development, increase livability and accessibility in the region, and decrease the region’s traffic congestion and environmental footprint. Service improvements would include:

  • Fixed-route services would see a 44% increase in service hours, with buses running more frequently and expanded hours for both weekday and weekend service.
  • Paratransit services (Dial-a-Ride) would be expanded to more locations and would run for more hours. Seniors, individuals with disabilities, and individuals not close to fixed-route service would see extended hours on both weekdays and weekends.
  • New Buses to accommodate expansions in services

Not included in the plan are improvements in rail services.

AATA Bus Front

AAATA’s service would offer expanded routes, hours. Photo:

The millage is gaining support, partly due to outreach efforts by Partners for Transit’s More Buses Campaign. All four Ann Arbor mayoral candidates support the millage, and six of nine Washtenaw County Commissioners support it.  In a recent survey, residents of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township support a tax increase 2-1 for expanded transit service.

Several Trans4M member groups support the millage, including the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, Programs to Educate All Cyclists (PEAC), Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and the Ecology Center. “Many individuals with disabilities are dependent on buses. More buses, more places, more often will increase access to individuals with disabilities in our community,” John Waterman, executive director of PEAC told us.

The AAATA has taken deliberate steps to inform the public of the millage, including data on increasing ridership and specific information on what routes will see increases in service frequency and hours. Having this information allows residents to know what they will receive in exchange for slightly higher taxes, and is a major strength of the AAATA’s campaign. With this information in hand, groups like the League of Women Voters are better able to present the issue to community members.

In the Metro Detroit area, SMART is seeking its own transit millage under different circumstances. General Manager John Hertel and others in SMART administration have proposed a property tax millage increase from .59 mills to 1 mill to cover the costs of maintaining current transit services. Hertel has emphasized in presentations to county officials in SMART’s three operating counties (Macomb, Wayne, and Oakland) that without the millage increase, SMART may not be able to provide service beyond 2015. The millage would raise approximately $140 million over five years, and would be used to maintain services and upgrade an aging bus fleet. Each county must vote to include the millage on the August ballot by April 28th to get the millage to the voters. SMART service is essential to many residents in the Detroit area, and the 1 mill rate would provide the necessary funds to keep SMART buses moving and service routes running.

SMART Bus Front

SMART’s millage would allow the provider to upgrade its fleet and services. Photo: Detroit News

While the 1 mill rate would be enough to maintain services and keep the bus fleet operational, several groups supporting the 1 mill increase are asking SMART to consider a higher millage, to expand SMART service hours and routes and overhaul its aging fleet. Transportation Riders United  (TRU) has recommended increasing the millage to 1.8 mills, citing the need for expanded hours to accommodate workers who work outside of the traditional 9-5 and provide more frequent and reliable service. TRU points out that the increased millage would enable SMART to restore essential service cut in 2011 and pursue Arterial Rapid Transit along major corridors.

“Metro Detroit’s elected leaders have shortchanged public transit for too long,” said Joel Batterman, Policy Coordinator for MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength). “The people of the region consistently support the SMART millage renewal with overwhelming majorities. It’s time we are allowed to vote on a higher millage rate, more than 1 mill that provides the level of bus service our communities need and deserve.”

SMART has not yet put out a detailed plan of how the increased millage revenue would be spent, beyond general statements. While the SMART millage is at an earlier stage than AAATA’s, the authority needs to let the public know precisely what services it would provide. This is essential to gain the support of the public and utilize support that many transit advocacy groups are willing to put forth.

If the AAATA and SMART millages pass, Southeast Michigan would benefit from an expanded public transportation system. As we have noted before, public transportation is a driver of economic growth and essential for social equity. At the end of the day, though, residents want to know what they will be getting for the money they pay. SMART should look to the AAATA’s transit plan as an example of getting this information out to residents in an attractive, easy to follow plan. With a similar plan, SMART will be able to better leverage the support of transit groups and convince the public of the need for additional revenue.

Follow Trans4M on Facebook and Twitter to receive updates on both millages and all things transit-related.

Written by: Jeff Prygoski, Fellow, Transportation for Michigan

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