The disingenuous irony of the ‘Better Transit Now’ group

Last week a new group formed in opposition to the AAATA transit millage that will be on the May 2014 ballot.1  They are called “Better Transit Now”, but the name is used ironically since the mission of the group is the exact opposite of better transit.  Lets review to point out why this is.

AAATA Millage
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On the May 6th ballot there will be a request to increase property taxes by 0.7-mills to pay for new and improved public transit services.2  On February 20, 2014, THE RIDE (AAATA) put out a press release announcing that their board approved the millage for the May 6th ballot. The press release describes the reasoning for why it is needed, what will be improved if the millage is passed, and the  reason why they chose the May ballot.  Here is a small excerpt from the press release (complete press release linked above):

If approved, the millage for AAATA’s public transportation improvement plan would generate a total of $4.3 million for new and expanded services annually through 2019. The owner of a typical home with a market value of $100,000 in the millage area of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township would pay $35 per year; the owner of a typical home with a market value of $200,000 would pay approximately $70 annually under the proposal, according to AAATA estimates.

Nearly 65 percent of voters in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township say they are likely to support a less than 1-mill property tax increase in 2014 that would pay for new and improved public transit services if the extra funding is tailored to meet the diverse and growing transportation needs of residents in the three communities, according to a survey released on February 7 that was conducted by CJI Research on behalf of the AAATA.

The AAATA, also known as TheRide, will use the additional funding to increase service by 44 percent per year, including about 57,000 more service hours for Ann Arbor, nearly 8,500 more hours of service for Ypsilanti, and at least 9,400 hours of new service for Ypsilanti Township citizens. 

The proposal would fulfill residents’ requests for enhanced services in the three communities, including:

-Expanded Dial-A-Ride services for seniors and people with disabilities.
-More direct service through redesigned routes
-Extended hours on weekdays and nights.
-Extended weekend service on fixed routes (earlier start times, much later end times).
-Improved bus stops.
-Increased service frequency on many routes.

Basically this millage is requested to fund the new 5-Year Transit Improvement Plan(Click the link to see the actual plan document)
Michael Ford , CEO, The Ride, describes the plan like this:

“The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (TheRide) is pleased to present the Five-Year Transit Improvement Program, which includes proposed service improvements for Washtenaw County’s Urban Core communities.  These improvements are based on community feedback from over three years of engaging riders, the public, community leaders and organizations, and elected officials; most recently during a 13-meeting series of public outreach sessions throughout Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township in October and November, 2013.  TheRide’s Urban Core service area currently includes the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Saline, and the townships of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield, and Superior.”

Transit Good

signSounds good right?  I’m for it.  Better transit can lead to not only more options for residents who rely on the bus system for transportation but also less congested roads for drivers if more commuters from neighboring communities start to take the bus.  Every step to increase transit in the future is a good thing.  Small steps are necessary because big changes (such as the county wide transit plan that fell apart in 2012) are too big a change for some people to envision.  Baby steps, we need to take baby steps….

So why has some local activists formed a group to oppose this transit improvement?  And why have they named themselves “Better Transit Now” when they are obviously against ‘improved transit’ overall?

The Answer:  Transit Bad

The answer is that they are trying to fool you into thinking that they are ‘for’ better transit, but in reality are against it.  It is the same sort of thing the Teapublicans and even mainstream Republicans did during the creation and implementation of Obamacare.  They convinced many elderly people that the government was going to take over their medicare.  Do you remember seeing news reports about protests with people holding up signs saying “Keep the government out of my Medicare”.   They convinced these people that the if Obamacare was passed that the government was now going to run the medicare program.  Government healthcare (Obamacare) bad, Medicare good.  Huh?  Go figure?

irony

You can’t make this stuff up.  If someone wrote a screenplay with that sort of scenario, it would have been filed  in the trashcan due to it being unrealistic.  But it actually happened. This really blows my mind.

The activist groups that formed against the library millage for a new downtown library last year also did this same sort of thing.  They were against a new tax for a new library building but called their groups “Save our Library” and “Protect our Library”.  The names of the groups suggest that the new millage will somehow hurt our library system or dismantle it.  Of course the millage was not about that, but was actually for a tax increase to fund a new building for the main branch.  Some may have been tricked into thinking otherwise by the group’s name and their soundbites about “protection” and “saving”, but that was the point of such a name.  Nevertheless, the millage did not pass, but not because of these groups.  Many of us did not vote for the millage for other reasons.  For my reasons why I voted no, see my post “I confess…I voted against the Library Millage”.

Lou Glorie and Libby Hunter who appear to be the leaders of this “Better Transit Now” group are using this same tactic.  They want everyone to believe that they WANT better transit, just not THAT transit.  What they really mean is not any improved transit.

Why?

Lou Glorie and Better Transit Now claims that they want better transit within the city of Ann Arbor, that they don’t like the spoke and hub system, and that funds will be used to investigate rail.

Really?

If they are for better transit within the city and not outside the city then why have they not formed a group before this millage was introduced?  These activist are not strangers to politics.  If their real mission was to increase bus service for residents, they would have formed a group to push for that.  Most PACs, ballot action committees or non-profits that have honest missions usually form to push an agenda in a positive way.  They want to push a change that they feel is necessary.  PACs  Ballot question committees or activist groups that form against someone else’s proposals are “anti” not “pro” whatever the subject is.  By naming their group “Better transit now” they want you to think that they are “pro” transit and that somehow the 5 year transit improvement is not “pro” transit.  It is completely backwards.

(correction:  A reader wrote me and corrected my use of the word PAC.  I guess the “Better Transit Now” group is actually registered as a ballot question committee.  In Michigan a group that supports or opposes a ballot proposal can register as an independent committee (PAC) or a ballot question committee.  Reference link)

Lou Glorie also states in Ryan Stanton’s Mlive article1 that she does not like the spoke and hub system. It takes too long for residents to get across town.  Honestly, I don’t like it either.  Having to change buses downtown prevents many people from using the bus to commute to work, including me.  The increase in time required is too great and too large an inconvenience for me to not drive.

busBut I am still in favor of the millage.  Just because I prefer one specific transit change does not mean I am against all other changes until I get my way.  If I wanted a playground installed in my neighborhood park would I vote down every park millage until I got the kind of park  I wanted? Since I think that something different should be done with the revenue losing city owned Huron Hills Golf Course instead of letting a bunch of rich people use it for a backyard, should I vote against every park capital improvement millage?  If I wanted my street repaved, would I vote down every street millage renewal until I got my street repaved?  It is counter intuitive. You don’t refuse to fund a tax that the city needs to pay for what you want.

If they want to fix the spoke and hub system you don’t vote against all other transit improvements. Instead they would have formed a group to promote this change, to work with the AAATA to design a new system and to show why it is better.  But they have not done that.  They have not done that because their complaint about the spoke and hub system is only a red herring to divert your attention from their real motive.  They know that some of us don’t like the spoke and hub system and they are trying to use it to convince you that the new plan is bad.  It may not be perfect, but it is a small step, a small improvement.  Remember what I said about attempts at big improvements earlier in the post.  Folks, we need baby steps….baby steps .

Personally, unless they change the spoke and hub system, I will never use the bus for commuting to work.  I will just use it for art fair, other events around town when there is little parking or maybe when my car is in the shop.  I view expanded transit as a way to get more cars off the local roads, commuter cars, so I can have less congested roads to travel on.  The transit millage is not a tax I am paying for my personal use of a bus system; that is what a fare is for.  It is a tax I am paying to have a less congested public roadway.

Lou Glorie and Better Transit Now also inferred that the AAATA might use the funds for other purposes other than the 5-year transit plan; possibly to fund rail.  They are using this as a scare tactic when there is absolutely nothing to point to this. It is a wild accusation.

But to that I say so what?  Rail is transit too.  Anything that can transport people around town or in and out of town without the use of personal cars is an improvement in my mind. It is an improvement for the area as a whole, not just for my personal benefit.  Rail will need to be subsidized now and for the future, but it is worth it.  A main role of government at all levels (federal, state, local) is to provide services and needs to society.  They provide things on a large scale without the consideration for a monetary return on every dollar.  The return on governmental expenditures is in the worth or betterment that the service or need brings to society.  You cannot equate this to dollars because many of the benefits are intangible.  What is the monetary value of clean air, less congested roads or time commuting? See my post “Will High-speed Rail Cause Ann Arborites to Die of Asphyxia?”  for more of my views on commuter rail.

The perception I get from this group is that they are isolationist.  They don’t want THOSE people coming into Ann Arbor.  By THOSE people I am not referring to race, but to non-Ann Arborites.  They hate the tourists, they hate the students, and they hate the commuters.  However, the tourists, the students,  and the commuters are a part of what makes Ann Arbor…Ann Arbor.

We have never been , nor will never be a small town like Tecumseh, or Milan or Chelsea for that matter.  We are not a suburb where people drive away from the area to go to the centralized employment area for the area.  We ARE that centralized employment area for the area. Ann Arbor has many people who commute to Ann Arbor for work rather than away from it; about 70,000 people commute to Ann Arbor every day, which is a 60% increase in population size.To ignore this is simply ignorant.  To ignore this does nothing to solve the problem of congestion on our roads.  We need to manage the growth and the change for our area before we have entire gridlock on our roads within the city and roads entering the city.  We need to be proactive.

If we do nothing about commuter transit we will have worse traffic problems, and these traffic problems then funnel into our local roads and congest those.  I would much rather pay a tax to funnel all those commuters into trains or buses so that we have less traffic congestion  and less wear and tear on the roads.

Some of you might now be thinking , “why should I have to subsidize others to commute to their jobs?”  You are not subsidizing them personally.  You are subsidizing a direct cause of what makes Ann Arbor great.  You love the downtown and the atmosphere?  The vibrancy is a direct result of all the visitors, tourists, commuters and students that come to the area.  You are subsidizing transit that keeps your local roads clear for you to travel on while benefiting from a direct cause of our local vibrancy.

Don’t agree?  Then why hasn’t Saline or Chelsea, or Tecumseh have vibrant downtowns?  they have small, rural downtowns because they don’t have the visitors, tourists, commuters and students.  Ypsilanti also has a trendy, vibrant, yet smaller downtown area.  But guess what, Ypsi has a university which brings in many students and visitors.  Hhmm…maybe there is something to this?

So now some of  you may be thinking that ” But I want to live in a small town…that’s my point.”  Well guess what?  The university is not going anywhere.  It was here first, it is permanent, it can’t physically move.  But guess what!  You can move!  Move to Chelsea, Saline, Tecumseh, Milan and enjoy the quiet! When Ann Arbor was smaller, so were the other towns around here.  Ann Arbor has always been more populated than all the surrounding communities.  As Ann Arbor grew so did all other towns.  If you moved here in the 1960’s/1970’s and desire a town of that size instead of today’s Ann Arbor, you have other options now.

For you fiscally minded people out there who only think in dollars and never consider the intangible benefits, think about this.  Your home value is directly tied to the vibrancy of Ann Arbor and the desire for people to want to move here.  If most of your personal wealth is tied up in your home value, the vibrancy of Ann Arbor has paid off big time for you.  Don’t believe me?  Look up what an equivalent size home in Milan, Tecumseh, Saline or Chelsea is worth. The value of your home is directly linked to the city, it’s services, transit, and the city’s amenities.

And now others may be thinking, “workers in Ann Arbor should just live closer to where they work”.  Really?  Exactly where is that?  We don’t have vacancy problems here?  Where should all those people live?  Some in Ann Arbor are against sprawl, against building taller, and against increased transit.  This is a problem if you want to stay a vibrant city and are anti everything.  Hhmm.. maybe if all the “get off my lawn” types move out to Tecumseh, Milan and Chelsea we can open up some housing for the current commuters to Ann Arbor.

An additional thought

cityhallcomplexAnother thing that bugs me is the potential alliance that the “Better Transit Now” group has with some of the Ann Arbor  councilmembers.  Libby Hunter and Lou Glorie are political allies with Councilmembers Jack Eaton, Sumi Kailasapathy, and Mike Anglin.  Obviously, the councilmemebrs are denying any connection to the group, but I have to say that it smells fishy.

It looks like these councilmembers are forming PACs to push their agendas through council and through the community.  They want you to think that there are residents up in arms over this when it is really just them up in arms over this.  There is something not right about Councilmemebrs orchestrating citizens to come and speak out on a topic that they may be pushing.  It is one thing for a councilmember to suggest to a resident to come and speak at council to voice their opinion.  That happens all the time.  Residents should be encouraged to come speak their minds.  But to have councilmembers orchestrating the opposition group for a tax just seems a little unethical.  I don’t know for sure if any of this is true, but it sure appears that way to me.

There is a not a fine line, but a clear line, between being an activist and an elected official.  The elected official is supposed to represent their entire district, not just the activist who agrees with them.  When a millage is put on the ballot, it is for the people to decide the outcome.  An elected official can state their opinion (endorse), but should not orchestrate a movement for or against the issue.  Just like the city staff can only give information about a millage and the pros and cons, but city staff cannot directly come out in favor or against an issue. Are some of our councilmembers engaging in some unethical behavior?  We shall see.

This is not the only time that this sort of unethical behavior has crossed my mind. Also, last week in the news there were articles about CM Eaton working with other activist to push for a park on the library lot.4   CM Eaton will be bringing this up as a resolution for a vote next week.  Although Councilmemebrs are supposed to be responsive to their constituents and give advice when needed, they should not be the organizer of activist movements that come before the council.  Yes, they can bring up any resolution they please, but should they organize the residents to come speak out on the resolution even before it is announced to the public? CM Eaton used to be a leader in this group.  Is he still?  Is he writing all the talking points that the Library Green conservancy will be saying at the public hearing?  I may cover that next week.

In conclusion

This government a la carte type of thinking has got to stop.  We can’t expect to only pay taxes for what we want personally.  Society won’t function if that is the case.We can’t only instill programs that break even or have a positive revenue impact.  We pay and pool our taxes for all government services, not each individual service.  Some  bring in higher revenue than others.  It does not mean that the revenue losing items are less important.  It is a balancing act to use our pool of taxes in a responsible way.

Although I would like to have a non-spoke and hub system for our bus system, I understand that there is a balancing act that AAATA must go through in order to supply Ann Arbor with an economical and efficient bus system for the city and surrounding area.  As ridership increases, my hope is that it will be more financially feasible to offer more direct routes.  I do hope that AATA does investigate whether direct routes are feasible in  areas on an ongoing basis rather than wait for a complete overhaul of the system, so that we can adjust the routes slowly as ridership increases.

cropped-irony-large.gif“Better Transit Now” is a group that is actually for ‘no’ transit.  They are a group of ‘No’, ‘my way or no way’, and ‘we will hold the budget (millage) hostage unless we get our way’ type of thinking.  Sounds a lot like the congressional Teapublicans, doesn’t it? They always threaten to repeal and replace Obamacare.  Problem is they never come up with a replacement plan because they don’t actually want to have a plan.  “Better Transit Now’ is not actually for increasing bus service within the city; after all they don’t have a plan.  ‘Better Transit “now is only for killing the millage at the polls so that we don’t increase transit at all.

The are entirely disingenuous with the mission of their group.  Advocating against a millage that in the short run and long run could get you exactly what you say you want (increased service within the city of Ann Arbor) is completely contrary to the phrase “Better Transit Now”.  Ann Arbor, don’t be fooled  in to thinking this group has your best interest in mind.  Vote for this millage based on your own opinion and don’t be influenced by these Teapublican tactics of deception.

Vote yes on the AAATA Transit Millage on May 6th.

contraria contrariis curantur 

-MOTL

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1Ryan Stanton, “Opposition group forms in response to AAATA proposal for expanded transit”,  Ann Arbor News, February 22, 2014.

2Ryan Stanton, “Tax for improved transit services in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti will go on May ballot”,  Ann Arbor News, February 21, 2014.

3  Amy Biochimi, Top 5 ways not driving to work can make a difference in Ann Arbor.  Ann Arbor News, May2, 2013.

Ben Freed, “New downtown park proposal to come before Ann Arbor City Council”, Ann Arbor News, February, 27, 2014.

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