Meeting Watch: AATA (15 Oct 2008)

Regional millage on the ballot possible by August 2009

At the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting on Wednesday night, more support was heard from many different quarters for the formation of an authority that would run WALLY – the proposed north-south commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor – and for AATA to take the lead in forming that authority.

A new authority, millage for expanded service

Board chair David Nacht led off the meeting by reporting receipt of a letter from Steven Manor, city councilmember in Howell, and Peter Von Drak, city manager of Howell, which expressed support for AATA to take a leadership role in forming an authority to run WALLY. He also reported receipt of a letter from Gretchen Driskell, Saline mayor and chair of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study’s (WATS) policy committee, echoing the same sentiments. These two letters of support for AATA’s leadership role in forming an authority to run WALLY add to those reported last month from city of Ann Arbor mayor, John Hieftje, and chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Jeff Irwin. Additional support for the idea of forming an authority came from Clark Charnetski during public commentary, who said at a recent meeting of the Michigan Association for Railroad Passengers the advice they’d heard from a representative of the Great Lakes Central Railroad was: “Get somebody to be an authority.”

Speaking on behalf of herself and Jeff Irwin (who could not attend the AATA board meeting because of a conflict with the county commission meeting), Terri Blackmore, executive director of WATS, outlined the result of their work together, which included articulating a timeline that would put the formation of the new authority sometime in March 2009, with a millage to be put on the ballot possibly by August 2009, with a fallback position to re-do the vote in November 2009 if the millage were to fail on the first try.

One part of the rationale for the aggressive timeline, said Blackmore, is that there’s $500,000 in existing federal funding available under Act 51 that could be lost if not used by February 2009. Further rationale for swift action is that service for Ypsilanti is paid for through September 2009, and if a regional millage could be passed by August, it would put the eastern anchor of the system on solid footing. In response to questions from board member Ted Annis, Blackmore said that she had shopped the proposal around to various planning entities throughout the county and had found a positive reception.

Board member Jesse Bernstein asked whether it would likely be the AATA that initiated the millage or the county. The consensus seemed to be that the county did not have recent history of success in passing millages and that the AATA would likely need to play that role. Blackmore stressed that as a part of the education campaign surrounding the millage, two points needed to be emphasized: (i) it’s safe to ride the AATA (ii) the AATA uses advanced technology, like RideTrak.

With testing envisioned for fall 2009, Blackmore suggested service could be possible by January 2010.

Reporting out from the AATA board’s planning and development committee, Annis continued with the theme of making the vision of an authority to run WALLY a concrete reality. He made the following committee recommendations to the board. The AATA should:

  • re-form itself as an entity under the Public Transportation Authority Act 196
  • take on the WALLY project as it blends in with the 196 authority
  • allocate staff resources for this additional work
  • specify a service plan for an expanded transportation system that includes WALLY

On this last point, board chair David Nacht stressed its importance to a millage on the ballot: “What are we selling that new taxes would buy?” Board member Sue McCormick echoed this sentiment, stressing the need to describe what would be delivered and at what price.

Community Relations Department Overview

Mary Stasiak gave an overview to the board of the three-person department she manages. Stasiak ticked through the activities for which they’re responsible: identity and branding, program development and support, passenger information, customer service, promotional efforts, and market research.

One example Stasiak cited of the challenge of branding and identity is that when someone uses the Night Ride service (contracted through Blue Cab), it’s not apparent to an observer that this is an AATA service that’s being provided.

Stasiak eplained that although there is a route planning tool available on the AATA website, in many instances customers preferred to be led through a route plan in person, or at least be led through the use of the web-based tool. “Selling bus service is a one-on-one kind of deal,” she said.

The charts provided in the Power Point slide presentation indicate that the annual budget for the community relations department has fallen from around $650,000 in 2003, to around $250,000 for 2009.

In response to a query from Nacht, Stasiak said that her best ballpark guess of the division of time and resources between existing customers and future customers was 70-30.

City of Ann Arbor Transportation Plan

Eli Cooper, transportation program manager at the city of Ann Arbor, gave the board a quick overview of the draft Transportation Plan, which had been presented back on Sept. 23 to the general public. One slide, – which displayed side-by-side pie charts of the daily trips made within the city of Ann Arbor and into the city of Ann Arbor – drew attention first from Ted Annis, who was surprised by the number of trips (600,000) and later during the public commentary time from Jim Mogensen.

Mogensen noted that there’s an intersection between these two kinds of trips (within and into the city) that could be found in the park-and-ride lots. He noted that there is a park-and-ride lot established near his home, and since the implementation of MRide (a program that allows UM affiliates to ride AATA buses at no cost to them) he finds it impossible to ride the bus in the mornings because the buses are too full to accommodate his walker.

Park and Ride

Chris White, AATA manager of service development, said he hoped that a new park-and-ride lot planned near US-23 and Washtenaw Avenue would be constructed during summer 2009 with service available by August.

White’s update came in response to Nacht’s statement: “A year from now, I want to say, ‘Look what we did with these new park-and-ride lots!’ instead of just talking about it.” To that sentiment, Annis added: “Park and ride has frustrated me for quite a while.”

Public Commentary

In addition to Jim Mogensen and Clark Charnetski, whose comments are noted above, Carolyn Grawi spoke. She said she thought that “The Ride” and the existing AATA logo was a very strongly identified brand and that it should be used as the AATA looked to expanding its service.

In addition, Grawi called the board’s attention to the Oct. 24 presentation of the James T. Neubacher Award to UM regent Julia Darlow at 9:30 a.m. in the Michigan League’s Vandenberg Room located at 911 N. University. The award presentation is part of a series of events in connection with Investing in Ability Week.

Present: David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Charles Griffith, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben, Ted Annis

Absent: Paul Ajegba

Next meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave.