Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (May 20, 2009): On an evening when board chair David Nacht rode his bicycle to the meeting, he acknowledged the board’s agenda was “rather sparse.” Still, the discussion by the board – and conversation elicited through public commentary – gave some insight into the future of transportation service into three areas.
First, a significant chunk of time was invested in discussing the relative lack of success of the A2Chelsea Express, a commuter express bus service between Chelsea and Ann Arbor, plus the intent to begin offering a similar service for Canton. Nacht concluded the discussion on the Ann Arbor-to-Chelsea express bus by saying that he continued to be a “faith-based believer in commuter bus service, but I hope at some point to have some data to support my theology.”
Secondly, Nacht gave his assurance a couple of different times during the meeting that it was not the intent of the AATA board to discontinue service to Ypsilanti. And finally, Dawn Gabay, interim director of the AATA, indicated that efforts were being made “behind the scenes” in conversations with the management of Arborland to preserve the AATA bus stops on that shopping center’s property – Arborland management has indicated a preference to have the bus stops removed.
Gabay might not have to serve in the capacity of interim director much longer, as the board got an update that negotiations were proceeding apace with Michael Ford, the one final candidate for the CEO position.
Ann Arbor to Chelsea Commuter Express Bus
Board chair Nacht focused attention on the Ann Arbor-to-Chelsea express bus in an extended exchange with Chris White, who is AATA’s manager of service development. The one-year milestone report on that operation was included in the board’s packet. The service has now been offered for a year on a “demonstration basis” funded by a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant, according to the report. It provides two trips each morning and evening (four trips) targeting Ann Arbor workers who live in Chelsea. There’s also one trip in the morning from Ann Arbor to Chelsea and one in the evening returning from Chelsea to Ann Arbor. [A2Chelsea Express schedule as a .pdf]
White explained to Nacht that the report reflected monthly totals and not daily numbers. The peak ridership in any given month was 1,364 rides in October 2008. It was currently averaging a little less than 1,200 rides per month, White said. In doing the rough math on the fly, Nacht noted that this sounded like it was around 55-60 passengers a day. [Dividing that across the six possible trips per day puts the average number of passengers on a bus at around 10, or about 20% of the Indian Trails motor coach capacity.]
White characterized the ridership as “quite low.” White reported that they are selling more tickets than are actually used – something that had not been expected on the scale that they were seeing it. White said the major hurdle to the service was the limited number of commuters who fit the two trips per day made by the service – it was thus operating within a severely constrained market. The service to Canton that is currently being planned, White said, would involve a much bigger market.
White reported that there had been some “consumer pushback” about the price – people who didn’t want to use the service for all the days that they were required to purchase tickets. [Pricing for the service is as follows: $125 for a calendar month; $62.50 for a half calendar month; $40 for a ten-ride ticket; $5 exact cash for a one-way ride without a ticket or subscription.]
Nacht asked White if he had ever ridden the express service. White’s answer: Yes. White said that he and AATA staffer Tom Cornillie had talked to the regular passengers. Nacht suggested that there were two categories of people they needed to talk to: (i) those who could be riding with the service but who won’t try it, and (ii) those who ride it but who don’t love it. White contended that the people who do ride the service are, in fact, very satisfied with it.
In terms of what current riders of the A2Chelsea express enjoy, White said they don’t put value on the WiFi service or other amenities associated with the motorcoach – overhead luggage bins, reading lights, full reclining seats. [The AATA website indicates that WiFi is not provided, but White told The Chronicle at the board meeting that this amenity was available.]
Nacht asked where the data came from on the idea that people wanted the fancier coaches. He said that he recalled that former director of the AATA, Greg Cook, had always talked about the fact that people wanted the fancier coaches. White said this preference simply wasn’t true of the people who were actually riding the express bus – seat comfort was important, he allowed, but not the other amenities.
And White said that this lack of value placed on extra amenities factored into the AATA’s thinking about how to provide the service more cheaply. He said that the AATA could do the service at two-thirds the cost in-house (instead of contracting with Indian Trails) by using cheaper buses that were outfitted with highway seats.
Nacht briefly contemplated the idea of coming up with a different category to put drivers in for the commuter service – perhaps using minivans. Nacht wondered if there could be cost savings not just for the vehicles, but also for the drivers, if commuter service drivers were not paid according to the regular driver contract. White cautioned that there would be certain economies of scale sacrificed if they went with smaller vehicles. He noted that van pools are the primary forms of competition to the service. Board member Charles Griffith confirmed with White that the expansion of service to Canton was going to be provided under the same Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant that was funding the Chelsea service. Canton had been identified as a good area to target, White said, because of its high density of University of Michigan employees.
Nacht asked if there was money for a survey of riders who live within the Chelsea “catchment area” who could ride it in order to check for awareness of the service. White said that announcements had been sent out to all Chelsea area residents with their water bills. Board member Jesse Bernstein wanted to know to what extent the service was subsidized. Charles Griffith explained it was a 1:3 ratio – one third of the cost is covered by riders.
Nacht asked if anyone had been hired to consult, someone who’s done successful commuter buses elsewhere. White replied that the people with such expertise have usually dealt with situations where it’s a 40-50 mile commute to major urban areas [Chelsea is about 16 miles to the west of Ann Arbor]. Nacht wanted to know if the AATA was really ready to offer service to Canton. “Have we learned enough?” he asked. White responded by saying that the grant was getting old [it's now starting the second of two years]. Board member Charles Griffith suggested that Canton represented an opportunity to try lower cost alternatives, allowing that it would not permit a direct comparison between the Chelsea situation.
Nacht expressed the sentiments behind his questioning: “I have concerns that we are experimenting without sufficient analysis or expertise, using too much guesswork … I’m a huge commuter service supporter, but I have no sense we have a direction about how to improve.” Nacht said that after three months and at the six-month mark he had heard, “It’s early,” but after a year, he felt like he was not comfortable that the AATA was ready to actually “go into this business.”
Bernstein, for his part, was somewhat more sanguine. “We’ve got data,” he said, “and the biggest problem is people’s schedules, which we can’t change.” Charles Griffith said that the AATA could not go into business with the service as it was offered to Chelsea, because it won’t pay for itself. On that basis, he argued for the idea that lower-cost options for providing the service need to be explored.
Nacht suggested that White and Cornillie conduct a very informal focus group study by heading out to Chelsea on a Saturday afternoon and talking to people. White said that they have data on 30-40 people who have considered the service and have tried it, but who don’t use the service. This data comes from the two-week free trial. The idea was discussed of adding one later trip in the evening to provide the psychological assurance that there would be a bus coming later in case someone needed to stay longer at work, so they wouldn’t feel stranded.
Speaking to the idea of an additional evening trip, board member Sue McCormick said that based on her own experience, leaving home for work is fairly predictable, but that leaving work is always unpredictable. There would be the same challenge, she said, when commuter rail was implemented with relatively few options.
Rich Robben said he felt that the price of gasoline had a lot to do with it. Although the price per gallon right now stands around $2.50 a gallon, it was projected to be around $3.50 this time next year, he said.
Nacht wanted to know what the marketing efforts had been like for the Chelsea service. White said that the most successful approaches had been employer contacts [University of Michigan] and word-of-mouth – referrals can earn riders a discount.
Why the long discussion on the topic of the Ann Arbor-to-Chelsea express bus service? Nacht said that commuter bus service was crucially important, because it had been pointed to as one of the key components of expanded countywide service for the AATA.
The AATA operates buses on three routes (numbers 4, 7, 22) using stops inside Arborland shopping center. Over the course of at least the last year, conversations have taken place between the management of the shopping center and the AATA, concerning the use of property inside the shopping center for bus stops. Although the AATA’s website does not list Arborland among its “park and ride” locations, some riders apparently use the lot for that purpose. Previously, an officially designated Park and Ride lot at Maple Village on the west side of Ann Arbor was “evicted” when no agreement could be reached between that shopping center’s management and the AATA.
The recent trajectory of Arborland-AATA communications is reflected in minutes from the the AATA’s performance monitoring and external relations committee.
From the draft minutes of the Feb. 13, 2009 performance monitoring and external relations committee:
Develop plans for park and ride lot near Washtenaw and US-23 to replace Arborland. Timing/Target completion date: April 1, 2009.
From the draft minutes of the March 11, 2009 performance monitoring and external relations committee meeting:
Mr. White reported that AATA has reached an agreement with Arborland Management on parking at Arborland. In the past two weeks, AATA staff has been working with riders to make sure they park in the designated area. This effort is intended to permit continuing AATA operations in Arborland. For the long term, staff will be looking for an alternate site.
From the draft minutes of the May 13, 2009 performance monitoring and external relations committee meeting:
Mr. White said that the owner of Arborland informed AATA a year ago the owner wanted us to leave shopping center last year, with no reason given. AATA contacted the management company and worked with them to designate a parking area away from the stores. The management company acknowledged that our efforts were successful, but we recently received a notice to vacate Arborland by July 1. Discussion of the situation resulted in a plan under which Ms. McCormick would evaluate the city’s leverage with Arborland and notify Mr. Bernstein, Mr. White and Ms Stasiak. Mr. Bernstein would follow up with Border’s and Arborland management to see if something could be worked out. Mr. White noted that vacating the center in mid schedule would cause additional problems and AATA would like to stay at the least through August, when the new schedule would go into effect. He added that some reconstruction could be done in 2010 at the shopping strip across Washtenaw Avenue from Arborland to allow for buses to pull in and wait.
At the May 20, 2009 board meeting, board member Charles Griffith asked about the situation with Arborland. Dawn Gabay, interim director of the AATA, said there had been behind the scenes work with the city and board memberJesse Bernstein, who are trying to resolve the situation, but they could not yet make an announcement on that.
Ypsilanti Bus Service
Part of the news from last month’s April 2009 AATA board meeting was that the board voted to adopt fully-allocated costs for its “purchase of service” agreements (POSAs) with municipalities outside of Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor funds its bus service through a dedicated millage. That means that the AATA would specify the full cost of providing the service – not some fraction of it – in its POSAs. The increase to full allocation is scheduled to be put into place incrementally, with the fully-allocated costs not achieved until 2012. The $223,316 cost of Ypsilanti’s contract for fixed route service in 2009 would be increased by around $22,000 in 2010 to $245,888 and would increase further to $291,034 by 2012.
That prompted questions during public commentary both at the start and the end of the meeting from people concerned that service to Ypsilanti would be cut off. That concern came in light of recent reports from Ypsilanti, according to AATA interim director Dawn Gabay, that Ypsilanti was looking at around a $100,000 shortfall against the POSA put forward by the AATA.
One resident asked about Ypsilanti this way, “Does service just stop in October?” That’s when the AATA’s next fiscal year (2010) starts. The AATA has a schedule for arriving at its FY 2010 budget – which runs from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2010 – that calls for approval by the board at a mid-September 2009 board meeting.
On both occasions when the issue was brought up, board chair Nacht was emphatic that it was not the intent of the board to discontinue service to Ypsilanti. Terminating the bus service to Ypsilanti, Nacht said, was not a direction the AATA wanted to go.
Speaking to The Chronicle by phone a few days after the meeting as well as writing in an email, Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber clarified that it would not be a question of all service to Ypsilanti disappearing in October. The dialogue from now until October between Ypsilanti’s city manager, Edward Koryzno, Jr., and the AATA would center on how much service could be maintained for a given purchase of service contract, Schreiber said. Koryzno requested a budget of $158,967 in FY 2010 to fund AATA service and had gotten support from Ypsilanti city council for that amount. The difference between that request and the AATA-proposed POSA for fixed route service of $245,888 is the financial gap, if service routes were to remain unchanged.
In his budget message to council, Koryzno said about the proposed level of funding: “Adopting the proposed budget at this amount, allows the City time to negotiate price and service levels with AATA before the current contract expires in October 2009.”
Schreiber said he was disappointed that he was now in a 2-5 minority on Ypsilanti’s city council on the issue of funding bus service:
… funding the buses is a top priority. Ypsilanti residents depend on the buses to get to work and shop. Partially funding the POSA sends a message that Ypsilanti does not value bus service and mass transportation – regardless of a Depot Town rail stop. The city of Ypsilanti needs to prove to the rest of Washtenaw County that mass transportation is important by funding bus service.
Other Public Commentary
Larry Krieg: Krieg spoke for the organization Wake up, Washtenaw. He said that it was distressing to hear that Arborland management continues to want the AATA to get out of the parking lot. In connection with the refurbishment of the Blake Transit Center, Krieg suggested the exploration of joint development strategies with businesses offering services within the center. Nacht responded by saying, “We’ve tried that before, you know.” [This was an allusion to the attempted development of the Fifth and William location by the AATA as a mixed-use facility before it was purchased by the city of Ann Arbor.] In connection with the Blake refurbishment, Krieg also suggested that consideration be given to a long-term strategy of unifying the transportation centers for the north/south rail, the east/west rail and the bus station. Krieg said that he was encouraged that board member Jesse Bernstein had contacted the board’s Toledo, Ohio counterparts in connection with the proposed north/south commuter rail.
Carolyn Grawi: Grawi gave an update from the Center for Independent Living perspective. She announced that there would be a picnic on June 6 at 3941 Research Park, to which everyone was invited. She also announced that the IRide would be taking place from Aug. 6-9, 2009 – it’s a bicycle tour from Holland, Mich. to Ann Arbor. Grawi said that she expected Nacht participate. [While her remark could fairly be described as lighthearted, it was prompted by the fact that Nacht had ridden his bike to the board meeting.]
Thomas Partridge: When Partridge began his public commentary at the conclusion of the board meeting, board chair Nacht took the opportunity to ask Partridge about the quality of the bus service he was getting. “How’s your bus service these days out in Scio?” Nacht asked, continuing with, “What’s it like? What do you have to do to get the service?” Partridge described how he made reservations using the paratransit ride service. As far as access to the regular service, he said there are problems on a daily basis. The People’s Express circulator, Partridge said, runs only in a limited area, and only from 7 a.m.to 6:30 p.m. He said he thought that the one-year grant being used to fund the service ended this summer. Asked what one thing the AATA could do to make his life better, Partridge spoke on a range of themes, including the need to subsidize transit outside the city of Ann Arbor. He also said that the AATA needs a legal appeal system, which he said was not clearly delineated anywhere. Nacht directed staff to mail Partridge a copy of the appeal system.
Rebecca Burke: In reporting from the local advisory council, which she chairs, Burke said that their agenda had consisted of numerous attempts to develop a code of conduct for LAC member behavior and how to address complaints.
Other Announcements: Bonds, CEO, Surveys
Nacht announced that he had had a conversation with a bond lawyer. The purpose of the conversation was to explore the question of whether it was possible for the AATA to raise money by issuing bonds. The answer, said Nacht, was “maybe.” A portion of the costs, he continued, would need to be backed by an income stream, possibly constituted by grants. Nacht stressed that it was the vaguest of conversations.
Board member Sue McCormick reported on the status of negotiations with Michael Ford regarding his hire as the CEO of the AATA. She said that two negotiation sessions had taken place but as yet no consensus agreement had been reached. There would be one more before an offer would be made. She said that Ford was out of the country this week and next so there would be no progress for the next 10 days. Nacht commented that it was good for Ford to get his foreign travel out of the way now. [This was an allusion to the friction that had developed between the board and the previous director of the AATA, Greg Cook, over travel expenses.]
Board member Rich Robben reported out on the planning and development committees activities, in the absence of Ted Annis, who usually delivers that report as the committee’s chair. Robben highlighted the 10%, 20%, and 40% revenue reduction scenarios that the organization was trying to plan for as contingencies. He said that they continued to explore how to reduce service hour costs. The committee was working on a timeline for budget preparations [see above]. They were looking at route structure analysis especially in the light of the north/south and east/west commuter rail plans.
Reporting from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, McCormick said that at their Wednesday, May 13 meeting there had been no major variances from expected performance. The committee had focused on market research for expanded services – it received 10 proposals, all of them very high quality. The timing of launching that research would depend on grant approval. She said that Jesse Bernstein was helping to assist in the design of that survey. She also reported that the onboard rider survey proposals they had received were under evaluation.
Present: Charles Griffith, Jesse Bernstein, David Nacht, Rich Robben, Sue McCormick.
Absent: Ted Annis, Paul Ajegba.
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave. [confirm date]