DDA Transportation Committee (Dec. 18, 2008) The Downtown Development Authority‘s transportation committee addressed the north-south connector study and had a “big picture” discussion about transportation issues before hearing from getDowntown director Nancy Shore, who gave an overview of that program. The context of her presentation was $100,000 of funding for alternative transportation authorized by the DDA in September 2008, part or all of which could be allocated to getDowntown.
The meeting ran a course that did not result in the committee hearing from two members of the public, Ed Vielmetti and Jude Yew, who had hoped to sketch out some problems and solutions related to AATA bus information. Unlike meetings of the full board, committee meetings do not include a time for public commentary.
North-South Connector Study
First up as a conversational topic was the north-south connector study. By way of background, the DDA is one of four partners on the project to study the Plymouth Road and State Street corridors as a possibility for high-capacity transit within the city of Ann Arbor. The initial funding arrangement for the study called for the DDA, the University of Michigan, and the city of Ann Arbor to contribute $50,000 each, with the AATA contributing $100,000. When cost estimates came back far in excess of the $250,000 total budget, a revised funding arrangement was proposed with each partner contributing $160,000. The full DDA board did not authorize the increased funding level, sending it instead back to its transportation committee. DDA board member Roger Hewitt had been representing the DDA on the project. Hewitt had hinted at the previous meeting of the transportation committee that he was open to someone else taking over that role.
John Mouat, chair of the transportation committee, indicated that going forward, DDA board chair Jennifer S. Hall and DDA executive director Susan Pollay will represent the DDA on the north-south connector study. He said that the mayor of the city of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, had met with Jim Kosteva, community relations director for UM, to talk about considering the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA as a single entity for the purposes of funding the north-south connector study.
In light of the emerging issue of appropriate funding levels from each of the four partners, Hewitt expressed his concern that there be a method for figuring out who pays for what, noting that he didn’t feel it was necessarily the DDA’s job to figure it out, but that they should perhaps “figure out who should figure it out,” saying that he was concerned that “it’s just going to sit there,” and that he wanted to make sure that somebody “picked up the ball.”
Responding to Hewitt, Pollay said that she, along with Sue Gott (planner for UM), Eli Cooper (transportation program manager for the city of Ann Arbor), and Chris White (AATA manager of service development) would hash it out, and return to their respective bodies and say, “This is what we think the new deal is.”
Hewitt indicated that for funding the system itself it was fair to consider the percentage of usage of the system by each entity that had partnered on the study. He said that this relative usage should be modeled as a part of the study. If the system was projected to have two-thirds UM ridership, then their share of the funding should be commensurate with that.
Mouat echoed Hewitt’s concern, saying the DDA should bear in mind a process for the north-south connector study that would establish the right precedents and expectations from other entities with respect to other projects. Among the other projects Mouat cited were the North University Avenue bus station improvements, for which UM has asked the city of Ann Arbor and the DDA for assistance in funding.
Big Picture Discussion
Mouat led the group into a discussion of the overall purpose of the DDA’s transportation committee, beginning by considering the difference between public and personal transportation. Mouat noted that personal transportation choices had implications for the parking system and that while it’s easy to get on a public transportation bandwagon, “Americans are still Americans,” meaning that many of them will drive. Board member Sandi Smith said she thought is was really useful to look at the issue from a personal-public point of view.
Picking up on the personal-public distinction, Pollay added, “Everyone at some point is a pedestrian. At some point you get off the bus and walk to your destination. Your movement becomes personal.” With respect to pedestrians, Mouat noted that here in Michigan the weather has an impact – so shelters and sidewalks are worth talking about, along with the difficulty people have in climbing over huge piles of snow.
Hewitt said that he saw the goal of the DDA’s transportation committee as making all the options as easy as possible. Pollay encouraged the assembled board members to think in terms of how much control they had over particular issues. For example, she said, DDA controls rates for parking, but depends on AATA for transit service, and that no single entity is in charge of the north-south connector study. So, she concluded, it’s important to consider what can be done alone, and what projects require partners.
Mouat raised the topic of which downtown users they want to focus on – workers, customers, residents? They’re distinct, he suggested. Hewitt countered that there was overlap between groups, a point Mouat acknowledged, while noting it was still useful to identify possibly distinct needs among the groups. Students are huge users of downtown, said Hewitt. Mouat agreed, saying that students will increase their numbers in the immediate downtown area with the opening of North Quad (a dormitory currently under construction at the site of the old Frieze Building, at State Street between Huron and Washington).
Mouat noted that often the focus is on commuters, but he wanted to hear from retailers about what the DDA could do to help customers. Board member Rene Greff (co-owner with her husband, Matt, of the Arbor Brewing Company on East Washington) said that the worst thing is when she tries to pull into the 4th and Washington parking structure and it says “Full.” Hewitt said that the Maynard Street parking structure is so frequently full that people don’t come down for lunch, because there’s no guarantee there’ll be space.
Pollay said that the more the DDA has made alternative transportation the focus, the more usage of parking there is. “The more options you create, the stronger every part of the system gets,” she said.
Mouat asked the board members who had attended the 54th Annual International Downtown Association (IDA) Conference in early September of 2008 in Calgary if there were any lessons learned from that conference. Hewitt said he’d observed specialized mode streets that were not necessarily successful. For example, he said Calgary had a pedestrian mall that “would not hold a candle” to Ann Arbor’s State or Main streets. He noted a transit street for just light rail, with no vibrancy, just people waiting to get on and off. Sandi Smith said that in part there was amazing sprawl, even though it was transit-oriented development, with transit nodes extending out into the sprawl. She said that light rail was standing-room-only and appeared to be used a lot. Hewitt said it looked like the area had been spray-painted with houses.
Hewitt related how, at an IDA session a couple of years ago, he’d attended a presentation where a method was introduced for defining how vibrant a city is: take a 1-mile square in the center of the city and count the number of intersections. At the top end of the rankings was Florence, Italy, with 1,600, and at the bottom was Irvine, California, with 26. Boston and New York had around 800-900, Hewitt said. The lesson he drew from this was: don’t take out streets.
Picking up on the Italian connection introduced by Hewitt, Mouat noted that the Midwestern sensibility is different from the Italian: “We have to have order!” In that light, Mouat said that introducing new modes of transportation like rail will make things “messy,” saying that we’d already seen the reaction to “weird types of transportation” like scooters when people chain them to light poles, citing Greff’s experience. (This was an allusion to a situation where an employee of Greff’s had been ticketed for parking a scooter illegally on the sidewalk.) Mouat stressed that if they were going to encourage people to use scooters, then “we ought to figure out where to put those things.”
Responding to the need to blend new alternatives into the city, Pollay said that authentic cities are an evolution. She remarked that Adrian Iraola, who works for Washtenaw Engineering and manages many DDA projects, calls the downtown a “laboratory,” and said that much of the DDA’s work took the form of pilot programs.
As an example, she said, express buses could evolve into rail. She also cited the just-launched valet parking pilot program. (First four days of usage: 0, 1, 5, 11.) Later in the meeting, Pollay would cite the park-and-ride program as the first partnership with the AATA, undertaken as an “accidental pilot” back in 1998, when 1,200 parking spaces in structures were taken off-line for renovation and commuters had little choice except to use the park-and-ride lots. Pollay said that initially, the commuters took advantage of the lots only “kicking and screaming,” but by the end of the six-week period, they were clamoring for it to continue. (Rummaging through the Ann Arbor District Library’s clipping file turned up an Ann Arbor Observer article from that year describing the park-and-ride pilot, along with Pollay’s description of herself as the “goddess of concrete.”)
By way of background, the DDA transportation committee intends to invite various guests in the coming months to make presentations in order to increase its knowledge base. The first invitee was Nancy Shore of the getDowntown program. The specific background of her presentation includes the authorization by the DDA in September 2008 of a $56.4 million project budget for the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage. An amendment offered at that meeting by Sandi Smith authorized spending $100,000 to support alternative transportation.
RESOLVED, The DDA shall work to bolster its many current alternative transportation initiatives in the coming fiscal year by providing an additional $100,000 to pursue such goals as extending LINK hours to include evening and Saturday service, working in collaboration with AATA to improve services for commuters such as express buses and park and ride lots, and working in collaboration with the getDowntown office to more effectively market transportation options to downtown employees;
Although the DDA transportation committee agenda for Dec. 18 indicates that “DDA has also made a commitment of an additional $100,000 to getDowntown in 2008/09,” the getDowntown funding data Shore provided The Chronicle after the meeting includes her notation: “2008-2009 funding breakdown does not include $100,000 approved by the DDA for Alternative Transportation in the downtown. The exact amount allocated to getDowntown has not yet been determined.”
A specific question raised by Roger Hewitt at the previous meeting of the transportation committee was whether the go!pass program, which is administered by getDowntown, was causing people to ride the bus instead of driving, or if it subsidized bus trips of commuters who would ride the bus anyway.
Shore led committee members through the history of the getDowntown program, which dates back to 1999. She described how Woody Holman (then president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce), Wendy Rampson (city of Ann Arbor planner), Dave Konkel Konkle (then city of Ann Arbor energy coordinator) and Chris White (AATA manager of service development) created the four-way partnership that continues a decade later.
This four-way partnership is reflected in the membership of the getDowntown advisory committee: Susan Pollay (DDA); Chris White and Mary Stasiak (AATA); Eli Cooper and Wendy Rampson (city of Ann Arbor); and Jesse Bernstein (Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce). Part of the impetus for the creation of getDowntown was a city survey of its employees, which identified a need for information about alternatives to cars. (Related to city employees specifically is the Lead by Example project, which Shore has targeted as a priority for getDowntown in the coming year.)
Shore summarized the current mission of getDowntown as encouraging downtown commuters in the use of sustainable transportation options. She presented getDowntown in a national context where transportation demand management – for which getDowntown is a marketing arm – is an established strategy for increasing use of the range of transportation options available to commuters.
In response to a question from Mouat about whether that national context included UM, Shore said that UM did have someone who roughly corresponded to her function for the downtown area: Grant Winston, who works under David Miller with parking and transportation services.
Shore ticked through a list of accomplishments after a little over a year on the job at getDowntown (previously, the position was held by Erica Briggs). Those achievements included 1,400 commuters who had logged at least one sustainable commute during the month of May (Curb Your Car Month) as well as 5,700 go!passes sold for 2007-08 to 422 different downtown businesses.
By way of background, a go!pass is available to employees of downtown businesses that participate in the go!pass program. Participation costs $5 per full-time employee annually, and entitles all such employees to a pass. Otherwise put, it’s not possible for an employer to purchase passes for only those employees who are likely to ride the bus. However, the minimal cost per pass to the employer (the actual cost charged by AATA is $52.92 per year) is meant to facilitate employers’ participation in the program. The difference between the actual cost of $52.92 and the employer contribution of $5 is funded by the DDA. In each of the last three years, the DDA has allocated around $250,000 to fund go!passes.
After the committee meeting, Shore indicated to The Chronicle that getDowntown does not monitor whether the $5 for the go!pass comes from the employer or the employee, saying that in some isolated (and not ideal) instances, an interested employee had collected the money from colleagues, which was then conveyed by the employer to getDowntown.
[Editorial aside: For a 5-day a week bus commuter working at a 50-employee company with 49 others who resolutely refuse to ride the bus or to contribute $5 for participation in the go!pass program, the bus-commuting employee would come out $200 ahead by self-funding the whole company's participation for $250, when compared with the cost of $450 for 12 monthly Flexpasses at a cost of $37.50 per month. The 5,700 go!passes sold in the last year represents an increase of about 1,000 compared with the previous year, but the number of rides taken held steady at around 76 rides per pass per year.]
Currently, AATA bus drivers manually tally a go!pass ride when the pass is flashed by a passenger on boarding. However, Pollay indicated that as AATA transitions to more sophisticated fare boxes, the intent is to develop a swipe-able go!pass cards that would allow more detailed data collection on their usage.
Shore gave an overview of results from three different survey projects undertaken in 2000, 2001, and 2005 that explore a variety of issues, including where commuters to downtown come from (many come from Scio Township and Ypsilanti), why people don’t ride the bus (half say it doesn’t stop by their house), and suggestions for increasing frequency of walking to work (build more affordable housing closer to downtown).
Working with Survey Sciences Group, Shore indicated that she was working on a survey currently that would be completed by April of 2009, in order that the results not be colored by the commuter challenge during Curb Your Car Month in May. Compared to the previous survey efforts, the key addition to the current survey, said Shore, would be inclusion of the employer perspective. In response to a query from Mouat about what kind of data and tools she felt she needed, Shore said that the only additional data she needed was the employer side of the equation.
In describing generally the challenges she faced with getDowntown, Shore said that the lack of a centralized communication system (that is available to her counterpart at UM, for example, in the form of a umich.edu email blast) meant that she needed to cobble together the network by hand. She also indicated that to date no brochure had been developed to aid in marketing the getDowntown program, something that would take additional funding.
In response to a query from Hewitt about ideas for the go!pass, Shore said that she would like to see additional discounts enjoyed by holders of the go!pass – for example, discounts on the Chelsea bus express service, which is currently in pilot form.
Asked by Smith about where she would allocate additional money within the getDowntown program (as contrasted with additional ridership discounts), Shore said that primarily she would work on beefing up marketing for getDowntown and the Commuter Challenge. She also described the possibility of a commuter/transit station – which would provide a physical location as a resource for information about where to go and how to get there.
Smith said that she found herself somewhat surprised by the focus on commuters, even though she understood it, given the origins of the program. Smith said that in light of the big picture discussion they’d had on the variety of different downtown users, she’d like to see more dialog about other users of downtown.
Pollay suggested that she would work with Shore to shape a more specific proposal about how $100,000 might be used by getDowntown and would present the committee with something more concrete for feedback.
Present: Roger Hewitt, John Mouat, Susan Pollay, Sandi Smith, Rene Greff; Joan Lowenstein arrived during the meeting.
Next meeting: 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 28 at the DDA offices, 150 S. Fifth Ave., Suite 301. [confirm date]