House Calls: Representative Jeff Irwin Still Behind County-Wide Transit
Representative Jeff Irwin, a Democrat, served for a decade as a Washtenaw County Commissioner. In January 2013, he will began his second term in the Michigan House of Representatives. In his regular column, House Calls, A2Politico will pose a single question to Representative Irwin and he will answer it. The questions will focus on his work in Lansing and, of course, his efforts to bring the “progressive agenda” to state government that he told voters in Ann Arbor he intended to work on during his time in office.
A2Politico asks: Ann Arbor recently withdrew from the 4-Party transit agreement, following the lead of out-county pols—almost all of whom found little value for the money in the regional transit plan as proposed. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Washtenaw BOC recently passing a resolution withdrawing support of Governor Snyder’s Regional Transit Authority (RTA). If your constituents (and county residents) don’t want to participate in regional transit, and residents won’t tax themselves to pay for it, was the several year, several million dollar push to get Washtenaw County involved in the regional transit game afoot in southeastern lower Michigan a political miscalculation?
Representative Jeff Irwin answers:
I think there is quite a bit of confusion or conflation out there regarding the separate plans to create a SE MI Regional Transit Authority and the plan to increase transit service in Ann Arbor and throughout the county with the countywide transit enhancement plan put forward by AATA through act 196. These are separate ideas that are related, but not dependent on one another.
Regarding the RTA bills floating in the legislature, I have been publicly vocal about my concerns. I don’t want to subject AATA and our federal funding to a new layer of regional governance. Although there are some protections in the legislation and in federal law for our transit revenue, I can not support legislation that will endanger AATA funding and AATA operational autonomy. In short, I want decisions about routes and service levels made close to home. So, while I support additional investments in regional transit — especially more functional train service along the I-94 corridor — I don’t support the RTA bill in its current form. Accordingly, I support the similar sentiments coming from locally elected leaders in our city and county.
Hopefully, the legislature will remove Washtenaw from the current RTA composition and create a method for Washtenaw, Livingston, Monroe or other neighboring counties to join the RTA once Wayne, Oakland and Macomb get their act together. Also, it’s important to mention that the RTA bill does not offer new options for local revenue generation.
The bills that allow counties to offer gas tax or registration fees to their citizens as a revenue source for local transportation needs are not moving. Without new revenue options on the table, the RTA discussion is really a negotiation regarding where the deck chairs should be stored while we attend to the sinking ship.
With respect to the efforts to organize additional transit in Ann Arbor and more meaningful connections with surrounding jurisdictions, I am disappointed that the locally elected leaders have decided not to move forward at this time. As you know, I believe that increasing evening and weekend service would be a benefit to our city. I also would have liked to continue some of the service enhancements that AATA deployed successfully in anticipation of increasing investment from the public. Specifically, increasing service along Washtenaw and Packard — I believe — is good for Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Twp., Ypsilanti Twp. and Ypsilanti. Perhaps AATA will find a way to continue these service enhancements, but without a consistent source of revenue to support these services I have a hard time seeing how that will be possible.
In any event, you know I am a transit supporter and you can expect me to continue to support public transit. I still think we have a good bus program in Ann Arbor that needs some modest improvements, and I’ve noticed that many opponents of the transit enhancement plan make the same observation. Hopefully, we can bring those two groups together. More complete hours and better service will allow more people to count on bus service to meet their transportation needs. For some families, this means shaving enough off of their expenses to keep their job and their home. In addition to reducing the need for downtown parking and ever widening roads, this economic benefit for lower income families helps all of us maintain a successful, diverse and vibrant community.
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