Green Light: North-South Connector Study

Plus: One-year extension for M-Ride program
Michael Ford AATA CEO sitting at table with Rich Robben

At right is Michael Ford on Day Two of his work as CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. At left is board member Rich Robben. (Photo by the writer.)

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board (July 21): The AATA board’s monthly meeting schedule usually skips the month of July. But there was some unfinished business from June’s meeting on the approval of funding for the north-south connector feasibility study. And a looming expiration date of July 31, 2009 on the M-Ride agreement with the University of Michigan had led to the suggestion from board chair David Nacht of a one-year extension to that agreement.

Mainly in order to address those two items, the board decided to call a special meeting for Tuesday, July 21. It was properly noticed and publicized as required by the Open Meetings Act.

In addition to approving the two items on the agenda that had prompted the board’s special meeting, it was also an occasion for the board to welcome the recently hired CEO, Michael Ford, who did not take up much time with his few remarks: “Day Two,” he declared, “And I look forward to many more!”

Welcoming and Thanking

Board chair David Nacht publicly thanked interim director Dawn Gabay for her services over the last two years, describing it as a “thankless job” with a tough board that she had to work with. He also welcomed the new CEO of the AATA, Michael Ford. Nacht described a previous transit organization with which Ford had worked – TriMet in Portland, Oregon – as an organization that was visionary and serious about transit, so he was looking forward to seeing Ford apply that vision and seriousness to Ann Arbor’s transportation needs. Nacht wished Ford “spirited adventures that will change our community for the better.”

Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study

During public comment at the start of the meeting, Thomas Partridge addressed both main agenda items, including the north-south connector study.

Thomas Partridge: With respect to the item on the agenda authorizing a study for a north-south connector along the Plymouth and State Street corridor out of downtown, Partridge asked that the board send it back for further evaluation, saying that the study does not consider the connections necessary to turn the AATA into a countywide authority. He described the study as too limited in scope.

Board chair David Nacht introduced the item on the north-south connector study by saying that at the last meeting he had objected to the authorization of funds because it had not been put through the board’s committee process. Now that the project had enjoyed the benefit of the board’s committee process, he said, he fully supported the project.

By way of background, it’s worth noting that the official name of the study is “Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study.”

What’s the Point of AACFS?

The concept is to assess the feasibility of constructing a high-capacity transit system (e.g., a street car, or bus rapid transit (BRT) system) in both directions from the downtown area of Ann Arbor: (i) northward to US-23, and (ii) southward to I-94.

How Long Has Such a Study Been Discussed?

The north-south connector feasibility study has been under discussion for over a year. A memo from Chris White, manager of service development for the AATA, traces the AACFS history from February 2008.

In broad strokes, the initial estimate for the cost of the study was $250,000. The four partnering agencies had agreed to share the cost as follows: AATA, $100,000; UM $50,000; Downtown Development Authority, $50,000; City of Ann Arbor, $50,000. When bids came back it became apparent that the estimate was dramatically low. This led to an initial decision to share the $640,000 cost evenly at $160,000 each. The DDA board and the city council of Ann Arbor, however, were resistant to having their contributions counted as coming from separate entities and pushed for a $160,000 share to be split between the two agencies at $80,000 apiece, leaving a shortfall of $160,000, which was to be made up by the AATA, bringing its total contribution to $320,000.

An incomplete timeline of approvals:

  • February 2008
    Total: $250,000
    Shares: AATA $100,000; UM $50,000; DDA $50,000; City of Ann Arbor $50,000
  • Nov. 17, 2008 $160,000 approved by AATA board
    Total: $640,000
    Shares: AATA $160,000; UM $160,000; DDA $160,000; City of Ann Arbor $160,000
  • June 3, 2009 $80,000 approved by DDA board
    Total: $640,000
    Shares: AATA $320,000; UM $160,000; DDA $80,000; City of Ann Arbor $80,000
  • June 15, 2009 $80,000 approved by Ann Arbor city council
    Total: $640,000
    Shares: AATA $320,000; UM $160,000; DDA $80,000; City of Ann Arbor $80,000
  • July 21, 2009 $320,000 approved by AATA board
    Total: $640,000
    Shares: AATA $320,000; UM $160,000; DDA $80,000; City of Ann Arbor $80,000

At the AATA board’s June meeting when the board was asked to approve the $320,000 expenditure, board chair Nacht questioned whether it had been reviewed appropriately through the board’s committee process. It was thus postponed from that meeting.

Outcome: The resolution to approve funding for the north-south connector study in the amount of $320,000 was approved unanimously.

M-Ride Agreement

M-Ride is a program that allows affiliates of the University of Michigan – students, faculty and staff, who are issued an M-Card – to ride AATA buses without paying a fare when they board. Although UM affiliates’ rides are free to the affiliates, the cost of their rides is subsidized through an agreement between the AATA and UM.

Negotiations between the AATA and the UM have not yet produced an understanding on which a longer-term agreement could be based. With the current agreement set to expire at the end of the month, the board was considering a one-year extension under basically the same terms as the existing arrangement – with a somewhat greater cash contribution from UM.

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Jim Mogensen spoke in part to the subject of the M-Ride agreement, as did Thomas Partridge and Carolyn Grawi.

Jim Mogensen: Mogensen spoke to the issue of the M-Ride contract extension. He stated that it was exciting that options were being explored like having the University of Michigan Medical Center participate in paying for M-Ride. He said that he hoped that the future negotiations will include public transit access to the UM East Medical Campus on Plymouth Road near Dixboro Road.

Thomas Partridge: With respect to the one-year extension to the contract with UM to provide services under the M-Ride program, Partridge asked that the agreement be sent back for further consideration and negotiation. Partridge pointed out that there are many UM students and staff who live outside the areas who are currently served by the purchase of service agreement areas (POSA) outside the city of Ann Arbor. He also pointed out that UM operated a countywide health system for which there was no corresponding countywide transportation service.

Carolyn Grawi: Grawi pointed out that if you take the train from Detroit to Ann Arbor, from the Ann Arbor station you cannot get to the UM East Medical Campus with public transportation. And in the context of two additional health units for diabetes and endocrinology being added to the Domino’s Farms complex, she suggested that the AATA needed to help influence the university to become a better partner in the discussions.

Deliberations on the M-Ride Extension

During deliberations, board member Sue McCormick described the negotiations with UM as “collegial and collaborative” discussions. She said that the one-year extension recognized ongoing issues about the adjustment to the university’s contribution. Compared to the previous terms, McCormick said, the university was stepping up their contribution a bit more.

Asked by board member Rich Robben what the numbers were, Chris White, who is the AATA’s service development manager, said the new agreement specified a total of $1,967,842 – of that, $1,073,043 was cash, with the remainder made up from federal Section 5307 funds through the UM. This compares to $700,000 in cash per year previously provided by the university.

Nacht noted that part of the discussion involved a possible interest on the university’s part to treat students differently from faculty and staff. [Note: The university is also contemplating options like a student fee with an opt-out provision. With the new fare boxes installed on AATA buses in early February of 2009, it's now possible to distinguish one M-Card from another in the way that the university is contemplating. M-Ride riders now swipe their M-Cards to board. The previous system simply required M-Card holders to flash their card to the driver.]

Nacht stated that he continued to believe that there was not adequate transportation coverage for the university’s medical facilities. He continued by saying he believed that AATA was an organization that provided revenue to the UM health system. He noted that patients in the health system were in many cases people who had limited means to get physically to a healthcare provider. He noted that the university’s health system had a great interest in making sure that their patients kept their appointments, and that patients appeared for their doctor appointments on time. The AATA, said Nacht, played an important role in providing excellent service, thereby minimizing the university health systems costs and at the same time generating revenue for the system.

Board member Ted Annis pointed out that the statistics on the M-Ride program showed that people connected with the University of Michigan make up 40% of the ridership for the entire AATA system. In light of that fact, Annis said that the university’s financial contribution is currently inadequate, which meant that the burden fell disproportionately on the taxpayers of Ann Arbor. This was an issue that needed to get dealt with, and not ignored, concluded Annis.

Given that the arrangements considered by the board is only for one year, McCormick indicated that it was incumbent on the AATA to maintain a good negotiation schedule. Board member Paul Ajegba asked that the board be given updates on the status of those negotiations.

Outcome: The resolution to extend the M-Ride agreement by one year was passed unanimously with abstention from Rich Robben.

Authorization of Contract Execution

The board considered an agenda item that authorized the AATA CEO to execute all contracts for less than $1 million with the Michigan Department of Transportation.

It was a mundane item except for a point made during public commentary by Jim Mogensen. He pointed out a technical problem in the language of the  resolution – which authorized the “interim director” to sign contracts with the Michigan Department of Transportation. In light of the fact that the AATA now has a full-time permanent CEO in Michael Ford, he suggested that language be changed to reflect that.

Outcome: The resolution passed unanimously with abstention from Ajegba.

Public Commentary

Tim Hull: Hull introduced himself as a graduate student at the University of Michigan and a regular rider of the AATA’s buses. He pointed out a couple of different problems that he’d noticed from his perspective as a bus rider since 2003. The first problem was that there seems to be some inconsistency among drivers about when they were willing to “hold” buses in order for riders to make connections. In a recent experience, a driver on the No. 2 route would not hold the No. 9 bus in order for him to make a successful connection, which lengthened the time of his trip to over half an hour. A second problem that he noted was that there seemed to be a limited ability to give input in a timely fashion on major decisions for route changes. He suggested that the public be more actively engaged on major service changes so that the agency could be responsive to the community at large.

Thomas Partridge: Partridge called Nacht’s attention to the importance of nonprofits like the Center for Independent Living. But he pointed out that if someone gets on the No. 6 bus to go to the Center for Independent Living, they would be “dumped” in an unpaved area without a bus shelter, needing to cross Ellsworth Road in order to get to the center.

Carolyn Grawi: Grawi took the opportunity to express her thanks to Dawn Gabay for her service as interim director. She said she appreciated Gabay’s commitment to service and her availability. She also welcomed the new CEO Michael Ford. She noted that it was still quite a challenge to move through the multi-county area of Washtenaw, Livingston and Monroe using public transportation. She said that there were areas in which the AATA excelled and also areas in which there needed to be improvement. She alerted board members to the I-Ride kickoff.

Grawi reported that the situation at Arborland had become a “fiasco.” She reported anecdotally a situation of someone who was grocery shopping at Hiller’s and then couldn’t get across Washtenaw Avenue where the new bus stop is located to make the return trip. She encouraged the AATA to continue to pressure the management company of Arborland on that matter.

Jim Mogensen: Mogensen highlighted the inherent tension in planning for transportation between employment transportation – exemplified by the north-south connector study, and the park-and-ride lot on Plymouth and US-23 – versus the utilization of transit within the urban area by its residents as a means to get around.

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

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. By Karen Sidney
    July 23, 2009 at 4:48 pm | permalink

    Can you get the RFP and bids for the study and post them? I understand estimates can be off but going from $250,000 to $640,000 is a big increase. It would be nice to have a better idea of what we are getting for the money.