Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Dec. 16, 2009): At its regular meeting Wednesday night, the AATA board gave authorization to staff to solicit bids for the demolition, design and construction of a replacement for the Blake Transit Center, located in downtown Ann Arbor on Fourth Avenue.
The conceptual design calls for the new center to be constructed on the same footprint as the old center, with flexibility to expand, if abutting property were to become available.
The hope for flexibility on the Blake Transit Center design had also surfaced earlier in the day, at the Downtown Development Authority‘s transportation committee meeting. There, the concept of Fourth Avenue as a transit corridor had been floated by DDA executive director Susan Pollay.
In other business, the board kept the discussion going on the question of how to proceed in expanding its service to include more of Washtenaw County. But they did not consider any resolutions related to formation of a new, expanded public transit authority. As part of the effort to expand, a general board consensus emerged that the public needed to be educated about what public transit is, and how the AATA worked.
Related to the need to educate the public about what the AATA does was the treasurer’s report, submitted by Ted Annis, which recommended greater financial transparency through posting various financial data on the AATA website. The specific suggestion to post employee salaries was not embraced by all on the board, but the suggestions were remanded to the performance monitoring and external relations committee (PMER).
And a response by staff to the November treasurer’s report highlighted a potential point of contention in estimating revenues available for funding an expanded service. Specifically, how much revenue could be expected from fares in an expanded service?
CEO Michael Ford’s report to the board contained a bright bit of news: AATA’s employees had raised $4,500 through its adopt-a-family program, enough to sponsor two families. Board member Jesse Bernstein made a motion to acknowledge AATA staff for those efforts, which was unanimously approved.
Blake Transit Center Replacement
At its previous regular meeting on Nov. 18, the board had discussed the Blake Transit Center and the need to address its current dilapidated condition. In board discussion on Wednesday evening, it was the poor condition of the structure, plus a narrow window of opportunity for use of available funds, that led the board to pull the trigger on the initial authorization to solicit bids for the demolition, design and construction of a new transit facility on the building’s existing footprint.
That required some alteration of the original resolution, which had authorized the demolition, design and construction activity without explicitly building in what board member Sue McCormick called “a need for the board to pull the trigger a second time on this” – namely, the approval of the contracts.
The narrow window of the funding opportunity was laid out by Chris White, AATA manager of service development. AATA has a $1.6 million approved federal grant, which is matched at 25% by the state. The federal grant has no expiration date, but at the AATA’s most recent triennial review by the Federal Transit Administration in 2009, the lack of activity on the grant was noted. Further, the state grant is due to expire in September of 2010, after already having been extended two years at the AATA’s request.
There is an additional earmark to the AATA for $735,000 in the previously authorized federal transportation bill, with $183,750 in state matching funds. But on reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, those earmarked funds would be lost. The timing on that reauthorization is uncertain.
[The reauthorization of the federal transportation bill is being followed closely by city of Ann Arbor staff, because it is hoped that the influence of Congressman John Dingell, among others, can achieve an earmark that would help pay for the Stadium bridge reconstruction.]
Board treasurer Ted Annis asked whether Fuller Station – the proposed new structure to be built near the University of Michigan hospital campus in a city-university partnership – was factored into the decision about Blake, given that 50% of all passengers to Blake are transfer passengers. [Chronicle coverage of Fuller Station: "Council OKs Transit, Recycling, Shelter"]
Board member David Nacht replied to Annis that the question had been raised. However, Nacht said, there was not a comparative analysis done considering all the various options. Rather, the planning and development committee had considered the ADA compliance and deterioration issues, Nacht said, and considered the open variables of other transit initiatives to be not yet answerable. They had therefore concluded that their fiduciary duty was “to take care of business now.”
At the Downtown Development Authority’s transportation committee meeting earlier in the day, executive director Susan Pollay had focused on the 50% of those passengers who did not transfer, but rather had downtown Ann Arbor as a destination point. The DDA, she said, needed to make sure that for those passengers, the area around the Blake Transit Center was a welcoming place. DDA board member Newcombe Clark concurred with Pollay’s suggestion of putting “everything on the table” – including Fourth Avenue as a transit hub, possibly integrating the Fourth and William parking structure, with getDowntown offices constructed in that structure.
During Wednesday’s AATA meeting, board member Jesse Bernstein referred to Nacht’s “open variables” in subsequent deliberations, citing his own “other jokers in the deck”: The WALLY north-south commuter rail, development on the Fifth Avenue lot next to the library, and development on the old YMCA site at Fifth and William, which is now a surface parking lot. Annis described what the board was doing as “making a decision in an imperfect world.”
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living lamented the fact that up to now the CIL had not been included as a stakeholder in conceptual design work for the replacement transit center. During the meeting, board member Sue McCormick suggested that the AATA’s local advisory council should be included as a member on the project team itself.
McCormick also suggested that someone from Ann Arbor’s city staff needed to be a part of the project advisory committee – there would be right-of-way issues to deal with.
The conceptual design, done by the architectural and engineering firm DLZ, includes two levels on the existing 3,675 sq. ft. footprint of BTC. There would be a canopy covering the entire area, which would ultimately reduce maintenance costs – there’d be less need to shovel and spread ice-melter in the winter, for example.
Annis expressed his hope that the new design would also eliminate the need to staff the facility with a security guard.
In the future, after the replacement had been built on the existing footprint, there would be room for expansion outwards towards Fifth Avenue, as well as upwards to three stories, according to architects from DLZ. Based on Ann Arbor’s zoning allowance for floor area ratios, they said, it would be possible to build 50,000 sq. ft.
The conceptual design also shows the possibility of a boardroom in the new Blake Transit Center. Board member Jesse Bernstein expressed some reservations about the need for a boardroom in the new facility, saying he was hard-pressed to justify that.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution to solicit bids for design and construction of a new Blake Transit Center.
Treasurer’s Report: Video, Website
The adequacy of the existing boardroom was one of two main points in the one-page treasurer’s report for December [searchable PDF scan of December treasurer's report]. In that report, Ted Annis cites several aspects of the current boardroom that are inadequate:
The current meeting room is too small and it has no CTN broadcast capability. Frequently, there is not sufficient room to seat all attendees. There is not sufficient room to seat the CEO and his staff together and in proximity to the Board table. The CEO is forced to sit at the Board table and his staff are forced to sit in the audience and participate from there. There is no timer to measure the speaking limit of public speakers and there is no early warning signal for the speaker. There is no built-in projection capability. There is no microphone capability. There is no video record capability.
The Board meeting room needs to be enlarged (by about twice) and equipped to eliminate the above noted shortcomings. An inspection of the meeting room at the AADL Main Library (fourth floor) would seem to be useful.
Expressing support for the idea of video recording, board member Jesse Bernstein suggested that the video could be digitized and made available on the AATA website.
In board discussion of video recording their meetings, board member David Nacht said that he was personally in favor of video recording meetings, but noted that the board had recently voted down a proposal to video record meetings, and that lacking new information, out of respect for previous board decisions he was disinclined to support it. Responding to Nacht, Annis said that the “new information” could be that the AATA had a new CEO and was exploring an extension of its service to more areas of the county.
Thomas Partridge, who appears frequently for public commentary at AATA board meetings, has in the past often suggested that the board change its venue to the CTN studios located across the street from AATA headquarters, which would provide video recording capability as well as additional space.
In an effort to accommodate more people, the board on Wednesday met in the AATA headquarters lunch room, which afforded space for 12 additional chairs. The narrow configuration, however, resulted in a considerable distance – probably longer than an AATA bus – between the far side of the board table and the rearmost audience seat. Audience members periodically asked board members to speak up so they could be heard. On the plus side, The Chronicle was able to sit at a table, which was more conducive to notetaking.
The other main point of the treasurer’s report for this month was the recommendation to post various pieces of financial data on the AATA website – in the interest of increasing the transparency of the organization as it tried to make clear to the public what the AATA does and how it does it. Those data include:
- The complete AATA check register for the previous full year.
- The names, titles, and actual calendar year compensation of all personnel (without Social Security numbers) starting in January 2010 with 2009 payroll data.
- The aggregate overtime for the previous two full years.
- The travel and expense reports for the previous two years.
- The (newly developed) “Report to the Treasurer Financial Statements.”
- The union contract.
- The MRide contract. [MRide is a program that allows University of Michigan affiliates to ride AATA buses without paying a fare when they board.]
- The POSA charges. [POSA stands for "purchase of service agreements," and is the mechanism by which the AATA provides service to municipalities other than Ann Arbor, where service is funded by a city millage.]
- The cost/bus service hour for the last two years with the comparative data for Bay Metro, Mich.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Bakersfield, Calif.; and Reno, Nev.
- The monthly report by route showing ridership, including MRide.
Regarding items 2 and 3, board chair Paul Ajegba noted that as a Michigan Dept. of Transportation employee, he’d been on the receiving end of the publication of salary information, and reported that the practice was not good for morale. In lieu of posting that information, he said, it would be better to provide information on how to make a request under the Freedom of Information Act, so that people who wanted salary information could obtain it through the FOIA.
The recommendations from the treasurer’s report were remanded to the performance monitoring and external relations committee.
Response to Previous Treasurer’s Report
CEO Michael Ford’s report to the board included analysis of the treasurer’s report from the previous month. In that report was a sketch-up of a possible budget within which a consultant might be asked to design a countywide service system. The budget assumes that Ann Arbor’s city transportation tax would be eliminated, with all county residents – including Ann Arbor city property owners – paying a 1 mill county millage:
Just A2 Tax Countywide Tax Taxes $9,700,000 $15,000,000 POSAs 1,141,000 0 Fares 4,334,000 7,000,000 State 6,754,000 6,750,000 Federal 3,170,000 4,000,000 Other 361,000 500,000 Total $25,460,000 $33,250,000
There’s a fundamental disagreement between Annis and AATA staff, not reflected explicitly in the tables used for summarizing the respective scenarios, about whether the bus system can be operated at $84 per service hour, which Annis’ scenario assumes. In the most recent year-to-date performance report, the AATA is operating at $106.50 per service hour.
On the same assumption as Annis – eliminating Ann Arbor’s city tax, and levying a 1 mill tax countywide – staff analysis included two additional columns to split out city services and county services:
Just A2 Tax City Svcs. County Svcs. Countywide Tax Taxes $9,700,000 $4,700,000 $10,300,000 $15,000,000 POSAs 1,141,000 0 0 0 Fares 4,334,000 3,234,000 1,617,000 4,851,000 State 6,754,000 5,015,000 4,751,000 9,766,000 Federal 3,170,000 3,170,000 830,000 4,000,000 Other 361,000 361,000 0 361,000 Total $25,460,000 $16,480,000 $17,498,000 $33,978,000
Where the two tables differ most dramatically is in the assumed fare revenues and state operating assistance.
Staff analysis assumes that service within the city of Ann Arbor would necessarily drop, because of the decreased contribution (by half) by Ann Arbor taxpayers to the system, and that fare revenues would reflect that drop. From the staff report it’s not clear why there’s an assumed increase in state funding – it effectively balances out the assumed loss in fares. In any case, the budget for a countywide system on either the treasurer’s assumptions or AATA staff assumptions would be quite comparable: $33,250,000 versus $33,978,000.
It’s worth pointing out that if fares are taken as an indicator of the amount of service provided by the AATA, then on the Annis scenario, a 30% increase in revenues would result in a 62% increase in the amount of service systemwide. On the AATA staff scenario, a 33% increase in revenues would result in a 12% increase in the amount of service systemwide. Baked into the Annis scenario, however, is a roughly 20% improvement in operating efficiency, as measured by dollars per service hour.
The AATA held a special meeting on Dec. 8, to which they’d invited the heads of other transit agencies as well as their own legal consultants, to discuss extended service by the AATA to include more parts of the county. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA Gets Advice on Countywide Transit"]
Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee on Wednesday, Jesse Bernstein said that what they’d concluded from the board’s special meeting was that they need to do a better job educating the public about what public transit is and how to evaluate how the AATA delivers transit services compared to other communities. He said he felt they were poised to do that.
When the board came to focus explicitly on the countywide issue, board member David Nacht spoke of the importance of knowing what kind of service the AATA wanted to build before talking to the public. He thus suggested it would perhaps be in order to begin to develop concrete plans at the level of establishing priorities – service to Ypsilanti could be a greater priority than providing access to the far reaches of Washtenaw County.
In response to Nacht, Sue McCormick said that her thoughts were nearly 180-degrees to Nacht’s thinking. She said she’d been impressed with Bob Foy’s comments at the board’s special meeting a week prior – Foy is general manager of Flint’s Mass Transit Authority. And Foy, McCormick reminded her colleagues, had stressed the importance of engaging each community and asking what kind of service they wanted. CEO Michael Ford said that AATA staff was prepared to engage communities and had a list of focus groups.
That brought Bernstein back to his point that in terms of timing and staging, the AATA needed to help the whole county understand what public transit is.
Board member Charles Griffith reported that he was not entirely convinced, based on the special board meeting, that the AATA necessarily needed to convert to an Act 196 transit authority – AATA is currently an Act 55 authority.
Responding to Griffith, McCormick noted that one “toggle point” on the Act 55 versus Act 196 question would be if the Plymouth-State street connector study came back with a recommendation for a fixed-rail system, there’d be a distinct advantage to Act 196. Act 196 provides for the possibility of a 25-year millage if it supports a fixed-guideway system.
Nacht came around to saying that he agreed with what his colleagues had said, and that the AATA was in the best position to play an educational role. While he acknowledged that yes, the AATA needed to hear what the demand was, the public also needed to be educated about what is realistic.
Nacht raised the possibility of beefing up staff for the educational component in the same way that they’d hired someone to manage the WALLY project.
Board chair Paul Ajegba suggested remanding the question to the committees.
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Jim Mogensen spoke to the board’s perception that they could determine their own timeline for the countywide question. He noted that at the Dec. 5 Ann Arbor city council budget retreat, the topic of the city’s transit millage money had arisen, and that the city council was looking at the transit millage as a potential solution to budget issues. He suggested that the board needed a plan in the event that a countywide millage didn’t pass and that the Ann Arbor transit millage was cut in half. He noted that it was not just his own pessimism that led him to think of this scenario – the telephone survey of voter attitudes countywide showed just barely over half of voters were inclined favorably towards a millage.
CEO Michael Ford reported that in partnership with the union, Transit Workers Union Local #171, AATA staff had donated 179 hours of vacation time to raise $4,500 dollars to sponsor two families through SOS Community Services.
Board member Jesse Bernstein moved that the board express its appreciation to the staff for its efforts in that regard, which they did unanimously.
Other Public Commentary
Clark Charnetski: Filling in for the chair of the local advisory council (LAC), Rebecca Burke, who could not attend the board meeting, Charnetski apprised the board of changes in the terminology for bylaws, and on work the LAC was doing to develop a policy on no-shows for the A-Ride service.
Thomas Partridge: Partridge lamented the fact that there was no mention of the board’s special meeting on Dec. 8 on the agenda, and called on the board to begin planning a comprehensive north-south, east-west transportation system that included on-demand service in all areas of the county. He suggested that such a system could become an economic stimulator for the entire county. He also encouraged board members to ride the bus and imagine negotiating some of the more difficult turns the drivers have to make in the dark.
Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Ted Annis, Jesse Bernstein, Paul Ajegba, Sue McCormick
Absent: Rich Robben
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]