Issues of the Environment: TheRide has big plans after voters approve millage issue
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and thank you for stopping by on a post primary election Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this special primary election edition of Issues of the Environment is focused on one of the ballot issues decided yesterday. It was a major public transportation measure put forth by the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority. It asked voters to allow for putting together the proposal that the AAATA estimated the first year of collection would result in over $22 million. And with a nearly 61% approval margin, voters on Tuesday agreed to that deal. Joining us today is the CEO of TheRide, Matt Carpenter. And thank you so much for making time after what I imagine was a rather long night for you.
Matt Carpenter: Good morning, David. Thanks for having me. And, yeah, you know, we've stayed up and watched the returns come in. We're very pleased with the result.
David Fair: Well, it was a measure that certainly came with its fair share of detractors. There was a lot of concern expressed in Ypsilanti Township and others on the east side of U.S. 23 that this is going to be unaffordable for many that you seek to serve. Now, the measure has been approved. What do you say to those folks?
Matt Carpenter: So, we're very grateful to to all of the voters who supported the measure--the ballot measure--yesterday. We want to thank them, as well as everyone who supported, endorsed, or worked on the millage effort. It's really going to help us to advance a lot of the priorities that I think are very important to residents throughout our region, whether it's social equity, environmental sustainability, or just getting workers to jobs. So, you know, with 61%, you know, the voters have spoken. The issue is, I think, settled. However, we certainly want to continue to work with all the constituents, stakeholders, and residents throughout the region to make sure that we're doing the right job of sort of communicating the value of some of these projects. I think reasonable people can, you know, reasonably, you know, disagree sometimes about taxes and priorities, and that's fine. So, we want to work with everyone throughout the region over the next year before the revenue arrives to work out the details of a lot of the new services that we're going to implement. We have a lot of time, I think, to build those bridges and help everyone understand how these new services are going to benefit folks throughout the region. The revenue won't arrive until July of 2024. We plan to start the new services in the next month in August. So, we're going to be working hard over the next ten months to make sure everyone sort of understands the value that these things are going to provide.
David Fair: In the lead-up to the election, and you just made mention of some of this, TheRide discussed the need to increase transit options between Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Ypsilanti Township. So, as that cash begins to flow in and you start to implement, what exactly is that expansion going to look like?
Matt Carpenter: Excellent question. So, what we're very proud of, I think, from the ballot measure we had, was the degree of transparency. We were very specific about the services that were being suggested and offered. So, let me run those down for you. We're proposing and will be implementing, I guess, today, a new express bus route from downtown to downtown--Ann Arbor to Ypsilanti. That's going to cut travel time by about a third, which is a really meaningful improvement for everyone who is commuting or perhaps going to school. When you crunched the numbers on that, that saves, I think it was, 10 hours a week on just commuting. So, it's a huge amount of time given back to people for the rest of their daily work, studying, whatever it is they need to do. So, that express service, I think, is a really important one because it's going to help bring Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti closer together by reducing that travel time. And that deals with the social integration, the economic integration, and really sort of if we're stronger together. That service is really going to help prove that out. And there's other services...Oh, go ahead.
David Fair: I was just going to say there's an environmental component to that as well. The push for the entirety of the county to become carbon neutral by 2035, certainly using utilizing more public transportation will help cut greenhouse gas emissions. How much emission do you anticipate being able to take out of the atmosphere as a result of voters supported this millage?
Matt Carpenter: So, one of the elements of this millage, obviously, was the express route. We also are going to be extending the hours of operation later into the evening, increasing the frequency of weekend service. But another element of this millage that was very important is something of a capital set aside. And this helps us to to put some money aside for major equipment upgrades and possibly that will include zero emissions and bus transitions. So, when we look at the environmental and the climate impact, which I thank you for pointing out. It's a very important part of our mission. It comes from obviously running attracted services that bring people out of their cars. It also comes from reducing our own footprint. We're targeting overall a reduction of at least 9000 tons of, I think, annual emissions from our own fleet over the transitionary period. But then also, everyone we can get out of their car and onto a bus is a net benefit for the climate.
David Fair: We're talking with AAATA CEO Matt Carpenter on WEMU's Post primary election edition of Issues of the Environment as its major public transportation measure secured voter approval on Tuesday. Social equity. You touched on it. It's an important part of why you were asking support for the millage. How were you looking to invest in that component of equity throughout the service area?
Matt Carpenter: That's an excellent question. So, one of the things where we've been very focused on is the social equity part. The Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority is one of the few institutions in our county that really operates, you know, across U.S. 23. Every day, moving thousands of people, really connecting people with opportunities into every community along the way, whether it's education, work, shopping, medical appointments, all of that. So, expanding those opportunities, like I said, with express routes which allow people to move faster, longer hours, better evening and weekend service. All of those things matter. But then there are also some very concrete examples where we want to bring everyone up, as you would might say. So, we have some services that, for example, we've provided in Ann Arbor for many years, particularly overnight services, what we call the Night Ride, that we have not provided in Ann Arbor--excuse me, Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township--completely. And that's sort of a historical artifact, and we want to correct that. So, part of this millage was specifically to harmonize our service levels across the entirety of our service area. So, we are going to be expanding our Night Ride service to cover all of the city of Ypsilanti and most of Ypsilanti Township north of Textile Road. So, that's going to make our services completely equal. We're also going to be putting customer service agents--real, in-person customer service agents--at our bus terminal in Ypsilanti. We've had those agents for years at our terminal in Ann Arbor, and we want to make sure that the folks who use the Ypsilanti terminal have access to all the same services and products that can be bought in Ann Arbor. So, staffing goes up to equal levels is another, I think, very concrete example of not just social equity but the equality of our services.
David Fair: And as we talk about services, part of that has to be facilities. So, how is this going to advance the ongoing desire to improve the transit centers?
Matt Carpenter: That's absolutely right. We now have a new long-range plan. Our board of directors approved that just a couple of weeks ago, and it provides sort of a 25-year vision for how public transit is going to evolve. This millage that was approved last night is really just the first five years of that 25-year plan. But it does lay out facilities and capital improvements that we want to work on. Some of those improvements do include upgrades to both passenger terminals, the Blake Transit Center in Ann Arbor. We're looking in cooperation with the City of Ann Arbor and the Housing Commission at upgrade possibilities there. Over in Ypsilanti, the Ypsilanti Transit Center. Good building, but simply too small. We're working with our federal representatives. Senator Gary Peters has already provided us that a $300,000 funding allocation to sort of jumpstart the planning for a new bus terminal in the city of Ypsilanti. I know Representative Debbie Dingell is also pursuing some funding, but the funding from this millage is also really going to help us to provide planning and construction funding. We're very lucky in the United States that the federal government often ships in for infrastructure funding, and we will be pursuing those options. But you always need to bring local money to the table. The feds will never pay the whole thing. So, this local millage will give us the wherewithal to be able to bring local money to the table, have some skin in the game, so to speak. And that will really help our chances of winning federal grants when we are in reality competing with every other transit industry agency in the country for those limited funds.
David Fair:We have about 45 seconds left together, but that long range plan you referred to called the Ride 2045. That is part of it. This is a five-year millage approved yesterday. At the end of that millage, will you be coming back for renewal or an increase to fund the rest of the Ride 2045 plan?
Matt Carpenter: Well, one of the most important things I think of the long-range plan is that it does have these built-in voter checks. Every five years, we will need to come back to the voters and ask if they're still satisfied, if they want more. This was, I think, the largest single act that we expect of voters. We may have smaller increases in the future, but those decisions, I think, are yet to be made. But it depends a lot on what the community thinks of the services we're going to provide in the next few years.
David Fair: Congratulations on passage of the millage and thank you for the time today. I appreciate it.
Matt Carpenter: Thank you so much. Have a great day.
David Fair: That is Matt Carpenter, CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority and our guest on this post-election Issues of the Environment. You are listening to your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. I'm David Fair.
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