One of my commenters justifiably took me to task after my initial post on the Washtenaw County Commission meeting:
I find it pretty disappointing that you’re going to write off an extensive process just because of one rocky meeting…
We already have countywide transit – it’s just not very functional in most of the outlying areas. Nobody’s suggesting that transit in rural Sylvan Township will involve plunking bus stops on corners – but maybe senior citizens will be able to get to their doctors appointments with a little less difficulty…
(Y)ou misunderstand what’s proposed. Transit takes a lot of forms, including rural door-to-door paratransit, which a lot of people in those remote townships want to make sure they have access to.
Murph is absolutely right. I tend to be a pessimist, and that was reflected in my first reaction to the coverage of this particular meeting, which was disappointment. One of the joys of blogging is you sometimes say things that other people call you out on, and you then have to respond like a grown up and say, ‘Well, I might have been a little wrong…’
Murph cites the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of the meeting, which came out after I first posted, and as usual is far more detailed than AnnArbor.com’s story. It turns out Alicia Ping was actually there, and her comments seemed pretty neutral. Moreover, three out of the four commissioners representing Ann Arbor were absent as well, making this a tougher crowd than usual. Virtually all the theatrics came from Prater & Judge, who more than anything seemed miffed AATA hadn’t consulted them before this point:
When Blackmore pointed out that none of the communities they’ve talked with have had a problem with the board composition, Judge replied that if the county board has a problem, it won’t move forward.
Prater said he was “flabbergasted” that the plan had been developed without bringing it to the county board for feedback. He asked whether Blackmore had discussed this with any of the commissioners. Yes, Blackmore said – with board chair Conan Smith, Yousef Rabhi, who chairs the board’s working sessions, and former commissioner Jeff Irwin, who now serves in the state House of Representatives. [All three are from Ann Arbor.]
And the pièce de résistance of paranoia:
“What do you mean, ‘we’?” Prater asked. “Are you in on this?”
Clearly it’s a learning experience for AATA staffers, who are going to have to get used to dealing with an entirely new animal — the county commissioners from outside Ann Arbor & Ypsi, some of whom jealously guard their districts’ autonomy and distinct identities in true southeast Michigan fashion.
Having said that, I think the first thing that comes to mind for most residents, like me, is not senior paratransit but buses, bus shelters, bus drivers, and other infrastructure. If AATA is going to be able to sell this to voters in rural areas, it really needs to tailor its message accordingly. Take the remarks of Commissioner Dan Smith:
Dan Smith told his colleagues that he’s enjoyed using public transportation, especially in Europe. But this is Washtenaw County, not a major European metro area. This country – and especially southeast Michigan – has built a society based on roads and cars, he said. There might be external factors that will change this situation, like rising gas prices. But in Europe, public transportation is integrated into society in a way that it’s not in America.
Setting aside Smith’s problematic interpretation of public transit (buses use roads too, correct?), his comments illustrate how most people just are not making the connection between AATA and “getting seniors to their doctors’ appointments.”
AATA needs to assume it is facing an uphill battle, and it should prepare for some pretty close votes both before the county commission and countywide voters. The fact is that the majority of voters in the county do not reside in the core service areas of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.
AATA should be very careful about when the millage is put on the ballot. If possible, it needs to be put to a vote in November 2012, when turnout is higher among students and minorities who are more supportive of transit. Voters in February (or May? I’m not sure what time of year these things are scheduled in Washtenaw County) are going to be significantly older, whiter, richer, more rural, and more hostile to transit.
And I presume AATA learned its lesson about the local politics it is wading into. It absolutely can not afford to neglect to bring officials from the townships into the heart of the conversation, starting immediately. However excessive the histrionics of Commissioners Judge & Prater at this meeting, it can not allow the planning to be seen as occurring within a close-knit group of leaders from Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Creation of this authority will demand early, active, and consistent buy-in from leaders in outlying areas.
On a side note, a commenter (Jack Eaton) on the Chronicle’s coverage provides an interesting addendum to my comment about SMART:
Not mentioned in the article, Act 204 of 1967, MCL 124.401 to 124.425. Section five of Act 204 provided that “The southeastern Michigan transportation authority which shall include the counties of Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw, and Wayne is established, but a county choosing not to participate in the authority may withdraw by a resolution of withdrawal . . .” Washtenaw County elected to withdraw from that regional transit system.