At its annual retreat held at the end of October, the DDA board agreed on a work plan for the coming year that included a new committee focused on transportation. That subset of the board met for the first time on Wednesday, Nov. 26 – the day before Thanksgiving.
The chair of the committee, John Mouat, had hoped to focus on sketching out a general strategy for how the committee would approach its work on this fairly broad topic – one that ranges from the ways that various transportation systems in southeast Michigan interconnect to the clearing of snow from a particular stretch of sidewalk. But that plan had to be balanced with the need to discuss two specific resolutions coming before the whole board at its next meeting on Dec. 3.
The first of these resolutions involves a $110,000 increase from $50,000 to $160,000 in the amount of money authorized for a north-south high-capacity connector study. The connector would run generally along the Plymouth Road and State Street corridors. The study is to be funded in a four-way partnership of the DDA with the AATA, the city of Ann Arbor, and UM. As The Chronicle reported, at its last board meeting the AATA had authorized an increase of its contribution from $100,000 to $160,000. And at the DDA transportation committee meeting, board member Roger Hewitt indicated that the city of Ann Arbor and UM had confirmed the same $50,000 to $160,000 increase that the DDA was being asked to consider.
Hewitt has been representing the DDA in discussions about the project with the other three partners. Some initial questions for Hewitt from fellow committee members about the funding increase included: (i) Why is AATA not maintaining its same proportionate share in the study’s new $640,000 budget as it had for the originally estimated $250,000? (ii) Why is there such a dramatic increase in the total budget for the study? (iii) What function does the study serve in the context of actually building something?
Hewitt explained that the AATA had been tapping federal dollars for its increased proportion of the funding. And the original estimate of $250,000 (which proved to represent a gross underfunding of the study based on the three different bids that were received) was too low, said Hewitt, in part because the number of such studies commissioned nationwide has increased, thus increasing demand for this type of consulting service. Despite its expense, this study is necessary in order to meet one of two main criteria for future federal grants – an alternatives analysis. The other criterion is an environmental impact study.
For the DDA’s part, their resolution for funding specifies a request that the following issues be addressed:
- What is the estimated number and type of downtown workers who will use this future Connector? What is the estimated percentage use by downtown workers/visitors, UM faculty/staff/students, other users?
- Why would a downtown worker use this Connector rather than a single-occupancy vehicle and/or the existing bus system?
- What is the optimal course through the downtown portion of its route to maximize its attractiveness to downtown users and transit connections? For instance, would Fifth Avenue or Fourth Avenue be the best route for the Connector to utilize?
- What are the various transportation modes the Connector could use in addition to a trolley?
Board member Sandi Smith expressed her reluctance to the DDA spending an additional $110,000 to determine if the ridership might involve people in the downtown area. Board member Rene Greff echoed the same kind of concerns. Mouat speculated that the study would go forward, even without the DDA’s additional contribution (with any shortfall made up by UM), but wondered about the political cost of failing to “be a good partner,” as well as the practical consequence of having an equitable share in the project if it is built. Smith ventured that “when you’re a good partner, it goes unnoticed, but if you’re a bad partner, then people definitely notice.”
Hewitt said he was enthusiastic about the possibility of streetcars, but not necessarily the study. He expressed his willingness to have paid DDA staff or additional board members supplement or substitute for his own participation in the discussions with the other partners.
Greff shifted attention away from the total price tag of the study to the DDA’s share by reflecting on whether she would be willing to pay $160,000 to find out why people drive into the downtown as opposed to using some other mode, where they’re coming from, what they’re doing downtown, where they go after leaving. That, she said, she might be willing to consider funding. Greff’s remarks provided an opportunity for Smith to shift gears and ask if it might be possible to contribute an extra amount of money in order for the study to address DDA-specific concerns. Hewitt said that should be possible, based on the example that UM was paying extra, above and beyond the basic study, for analysis of their faculty, staff and student movements between north campus and central campus.
The Chronicle was not able to stay until the end of the committee meeting, during which time it appeared that a second transportation-related resolution would be discussed, which is to come before the whole board at its Dec. 3 meeting. That resolution is for an additional $18,000 of funding for a Zipcar sponsorship that will increase the number of Zipcars stationed downtown from three to four, so that two pods of two Zipcars each can be established. The thought is that two stations will increase a sense of confidence among potential users that a car will be available when they need one. The $18,000 comes in addition to $64,000 approved in May for Zipcar sponsorship ($54,000 for guaranteed revenue to Zipcar up to $1,500 a month and $10,000 for marketing and promotion).
The marketing and promotion of Zipcars is being handled jointly by the DDA and the getDowntown program. The getDowntown program was a frequent topic of discussion during the transportation committee’s first meeting, often in the form of the desire of the committee to invite a guest from the transportation community every month to talk to the group as part of an ongoing learning exercise for the committee. The getDowntown program’s coordinater, Nancy Shore, was identified as the first of the guests to be invited, because of her primary connection to the go!pass program and her secondary connection (as a liaison to the AATA) for The Link. They intend to ask her: (i) What’s working? (ii) What isn’t working? (iii) What do you need to make the programs work?
Those two programs (a bus pass program for downtown workers and downtown circulator buses) had been identified at the DDA annual retreat as part of an outcomes analysis of current transportation investments that needed to be undertaken. At the committee meeting, Hewitt said he wanted to know what the DDA’s funding of the go!pass program was actually accomplishing: subsidizing people who would ride the bus anyway (something he said he was not necessarily against), or causing people to ride the bus instead of driving their cars.
With respect to The Link, there was general agreement that the DDA needed to take an active role in determining what it wanted The Link to accomplish, instead of just writing a check to the AATA. Smith stressed that historically it was the DDA that had requested that the AATA develop a downtown circulator bus service and that there needed to be follow-through by the DDA on making that service accomplish the DDA’s goals. Greff confirmed that what had happened historically was that the AATA had proposed routing that would essentially have run the The Link between Main and State Streets, but that input from various downtown constituencies had led to stretching the route to include Kerrytown, South University, all the way to Oxford Housing, which has had a negative impact on timeliness of service.
Board member Joan Lowenstein said that she rides The Link every day, and that “you might as well cover up those signs with the schedule,” because the buses are rarely on time. Lowenstein reported anecdotally that when she’s asked the drivers of The Link buses what they would change to help matters, they pointed out that most of the current vehicles have only one door – which results in loading and unloading times of 3-4 minutes a stop if there are 20 or more students on the bus.
In addition to Shore, the transportation committee plans to invite as guests to future meetings: Jonathan Levine (Academic Program Chair and Professor of Urban Planning), Norm Cox (Greenway Collaborative), Chris White (manager of service development for AATA), among others. With respect to the issues they discuss, each guest will be asked: What do you think the role of the DDA should be?
Present: Rene Greff, Roger Hewitt, Joan Lowenstein, John Mouat, Sandi Smith.
Not present: Jennifer Hall, Keith Orr.
Next meeting: The DDA transportation committee is tentatively scheduled to meet on Dec. 31 at 9 a.m. at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301.