AATA on County Transit: READY, Aim, Fire

Bernstein: Goal is not to convince, but to listen

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Jan. 20, 2010): Board member Jesse Bernstein outlined a process Wednesday night for moving towards an expanded countywide transit service, which he characterized as “ready, aim, fire” – with a heavy emphasis on “ready.” A resolution passed by the board on Wednesday establishes a timeframe that would not begin the implementation phase of a plan until the beginning of 2011.

Jesse Bernstein

Jesse Bernstein, who chairs the AATA board's performance monitoring and external relations committee, outlined a plan for expanding service that sees the next six months devoted to making the organization more transparent and gathering information from the community. (Photos by the writer.)

The emphasis on community engagement and listening to the needs and wants of the people who might use an expanded service – before trying to design the specifics of the service – would not be something confined to this particular initiative. Said Bernstein: “This is not a one-shot campaign; this is how we’re going to behave going forward.”

The board adopted a resolution to advance their plan for the future of public transportation in the county.

The board also heard a presentation on the results of a survey of voter attitudes towards a possible transit millage in Washtenaw County. The survey measured support of a millage at 51% – with 17% and 34% of voters saying they’d definitely or probably vote yes, respectively.

In other business, the board adopted its capital and categorical grant program, approved a contract to replace some doors and windows at AATA headquarters, authorized an application to the Michigan Department of Transportation and approved a 21-month purchase-of-service agreement with the city of Ypsilanti.

Countywide Millage Survey of Voter Attitudes

The AATA has been actively exploring the issue of expanding its service countywide for 18 months or more. [See Chronicle coverage: "AATA Plans for Countywide System," "AATA Adopts Vision: Countywide Service," "AATA Gets Advice on Countywide Transit"]

Hugh Clark of CJI Research and Bob Dykes of TRIAD Research Group gave the board a presentation on the survey they’d conducted for the AATA to explore the likelihood that a countywide transit millage would be approved by voters.

The survey also explored attitudes of voters towards the county where they live, their awareness and satisfaction with AATA, and the impact on voter attitudes of additional information about the millage (arguments for and against).

Survey Sample

The 1,100-person sample was drawn from registered voters in Washtenaw County, with interviews conducted by telephone. For each of four separate geographic regions, 275 interviews were administered: Ann Arbor, non-Ann Arbor urban areas, eastern Washtenaw, and western Washtenaw.

The populations of each of those areas is different; however, survey results were weighted accordingly.

Survey Questions

Q: Overall, how satisfied are you with Washtenaw County as a place to live?

61% very satisfied
35% somewhat satisfied
 3% somewhat dissatisfied
 1% very dissatisfied
 1% not sure


Q: In your opinion, is Washtenaw County a better place to live than it was five years ago or is it a worse place to live?

39% same
25% worse
24% better
12% not sure


Q: Have you or has anyone in your household ridden any of AATA’s buses in the past year?

40% yes
59% no
 1% not sure


Q: Overall, would you say you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, or very unfavorable opinion of Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, AATA?

26% very favorable
39% somewhat favorable
 4% somewhat unfavorable
 1% very unfavorable
 2% mixed (volunteered)
23% not sure
 5% have not heard of AATA


Q: How would you rate the job AATA currently does of providing public transit services?

15% excellent
44% good
11% only fair
 1% poor
28% not sure


Q: How important do you think it is to provide public transit services in Washtenaw County?

35% extremely important
37% very important
19% somewhat important
 7% not very important
 2% not sure


Hugh Clark, of CJI, said the most important result of the survey was measurement of how important voters thought providing transit services was: 72% of those surveyed thought it was either extremely or very important.

Q: [BEFORE information was presented] Sometime next year, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, AATA, may have a tax issue on the ballot for the purpose of providing and expanding public transportation throughout all of Washtenaw County. Assuming that it would increase property taxes by one mill …

17% definitely yes
34% probably yes
21% probably no
20% definitely no
 7% not sure


Q: [AFTER information was presented] Sometime next year, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, AATA, may have a tax issue on the ballot for the purpose of providing and expanding public transportation throughout all of Washtenaw County. Assuming that it would increase property taxes by one mill …

24% definitely yes
34% probably yes
17% probably no
20% definitely no
 6% not sure


The support of the millage was characterized as soft – because most of those who say they’d support the millage would only “probably” do so, as opposed to “definitely.”

Looking at the impact on voter attitudes of information on both sides, more people moved from outside the “definitely/probably yes” category into that category than people who moved into the “definitely/probably no” category:

48% consistent positive
11% moved positive
 3% undecided
 5% moved negative
33% consistent negative


Q: If Livingston and Washtenaw counties decide to develop the WALLY line, what if some of the money from this tax increase would be used to provide the Washtenaw County share of money to operate the WALLY line?

26% more likely
26% less likely
43% no difference
 5% not sure


Q: There has also been some discussion about operating a commuter rail between Ann Arbor and Detroit. What if some of the money from the tax were used to provide the Washtenaw County share of money to operate the commuter rail service?

42% more likely
22% less likely
31% no difference
 4% not sure


So offering north-south commuter rail (WALLY) as part of expanded service would have little impact either way on voters’ attitude. Offering east-west rail as part of the service had a somewhat positive effect on voters’ likelihood of supporting a millage.

The survey tried to explore what kinds of arguments might be effective against a millage. The survey did not find great support for the ideas that there’s enough public transit already and we don’t need to expand it, or that AATA spends a lot of money on things that aren’t important. On the other hand, the ideas that they couldn’t personally afford it or that the economy is too uncertain tended to resonate quite strongly.

Hugh Clark

Hugh Clark, of CJI Research, presents survey results to the AATA board.

The survey also tried to determine what ideas would generate support among voters. It found that providing door-to-door transportation for seniors and those with disabilities was an idea that resonated with voters: 59% said it was very important and 30% said it was somewhat important.

Survey respondents also reacted favorably to the idea that county service might be more coordinated between AATA, the WAVE (Washtenaw Area Value Express) and People’s Express: 46% said they’d be more likely to support a millage with some kind of coordination, with 41% saying it made no difference.

Among the perceived benefits of transit, the survey found, 80% agree (strongly or somewhat) that public transit is important in attracting jobs, 78% agree (strongly or somewhat) that it’s important for seniors or disabled people to be able to get around, and 76% agree that they or someone in their family might need public transit services.

Board Deliberations on Survey Results

Board chair Paul Ajegba focused on the poor job performance rating reflected in the survey, which was only 1%, and told CEO Michael Ford that congratulations should be passed along to the AATA staff.

Board member Charles Griffith wanted to know to what extent it made sense to sculpt a message to target specific audiences. Bob Dykes, of TRIAD, allowed that there might be some advantage to highlighting different issues with different groups, but advised that obviously you don’t want to say something that’s 180-degrees opposite to different groups.

Board member Rich Robben wanted to know what the margin of error was for the survey – it was 3.8%. But Dykes said that more importantly, the survey had been done rigorously by people with experience. He also pointed out that on a typical poll reported on TV, the sample is taken from 1,500 people from across the U.S., and this survey was based on 1,100 respondents across Washtenaw County.

Dykes also advised that in a publicity campaign for transit, you can’t make a case to most people by telling them they should spend money on it because they’re going to use it – they’re still not going to use it, he said. A question on that came from the audience – which board chair Paul Ajegba allowed, as Dykes was already mid-sentence in responding: Did that mean that the 40% of households with a member who’d ridden an AATA bus would not increase?

Dykes allowed that he was exaggerating – he gave an example of an Ohio transit system that had increased that percentage of households from 7% to 24%. His point, though, was that the majority of people will still not be using mass transit after expansion. So it’s not a compelling case in putting together a campaign.

What might lead people to support a millage, Dykes suggested, was the idea that they should pay to help disabled and seniors get around: “It’s hard to run against seniors,” he said.

Paul Ajegba

Paul Ajegba chairs the AATA board. Before the meeting he was getting his paperwork in order.

In his public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Jim Mogensen would point out that the survey was conducted by telephone – it was 1,100 people who’d agreed to participate in a very long survey by phone.

But speaking to the issue of possible negative arguments, he noted that while the information presented in the survey was negative, it was still reasonable. A negative campaign, he cautioned, didn’t have to be reasonable.

One point that Dykes made during his presentation on the survey was that if someone says they can’t afford it, you can’t argue with them.

At that, Jesse Bernstein was animated: “That’s not what we’re going to do,” he said. “What we have to do is say: ‘What do you want?’ We tell them what they could have. The campaign is not to convince, it’s to come up with a plan.”

A large portion of the agenda separated these comments of Bernstein’s from the discussion of the board’s resolution on advancement of a plan for shaping the future of public transit. But at that time, he picked up where he’d left off.

Resolution on the Future of Washtenaw Public Transit

When the board came to the last item on its agenda, after quickly dispatching all of its other business, board chair Paul Ajegba declared: “Now for the big one!”

Bernstein said that in his one and a half years serving on the AATA board, this was the most important thing he’d ever seen the board do. The old days, he said, of trying to convince the public were gone and instead they would take a “ready, aim, fire” approach where they would spend the next six months talking to stakeholders – including all the agencies that already have transportation plans.

In mentioning other agencies with transportation plans, Bernstein was alluding to remarks made by Jim Mogensen during public commentary at the start of the meeting. Mogensen cautioned the board to consider the fact that all the agencies that have begun participating in the needs assessment process have transportation plans of their own – the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), the city of Ann Arbor, University of Michigan and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

Mogensen said he saw the role of the consultant the AATA expected to hire as playing a similar role of a conference committee to hash out a healthcare bill from the version proposed by the House, Senate, and pharmaceutical companies. He wondered, though, whether there’d be a “public option” for the transportation plan.

Carolyn Grawi, in her public commentary turn at the conclusion of the meeting, stressed that it was important for the AATA to be at the table for the master planning efforts in surrounding townships, like Pittsfield. She’d attended a Pittsfield Township meeting on master planning for the township, but the AATA was not there, she said.

In his deliberations, Bernstein said that after they had an idea of what people needed and wanted, and people had an idea of what was possible, they could embark on implementing not a 2-3 year plan, but a 25-30 year plan.  There’d be a series of 3-5 year plans on how to get to the 30-year point, said Bernstein.

At the end of the meeting during public commentary, Ann Arbor resident Nancy Kaplan would ask Bernstein about the 25-30 year horizon the board was considering and the use of census data in planning: “Do you expect the population to increase?” she asked.

Bernstein pointed out that transportation interacts with growth and land use. “Think about Washtenaw Avenue,” Bernstein said, “it’s single-story buildings, because there’s no incentive to build anything else.” He then offered the possibility of a different pattern of land use if, at the intersections of Hewitt and Washtenaw or Golfside and Washtenaw, there were a transit center – there’d be the possibility of a town center developing. It would send the message to developers: Here’s a resource you can use permanently.

Bernstein went on to describe how in Denver and in Charlotte, development had followed fixed rail when it went in. However, Bernstein cautioned that “If people don’t want it, let’s not do it.” He said the system should be one where people who ride it say, ‘Great – that’s what I need,’ and people who don’t ride it still support it, because they think it’s important.

That was the same kind of sentiment that Bernstein summarized before the board voted. The Chronicle’s paraphrase: “We need to get together and find out what people want and what they need and once we do figure out what that is, we can fund it and build it.”

That’s the paraphrase The Chronicle read to Alan Haber on Thursday night, at the meeting of the RFP review committee that’s considering proposals for the Library Lot. Haber is one of the proposers of the Community Commons, which was set aside by the committee for further consideration on Thursday. One of the proposals that was retained for further consideration was a conference center and hotel that is supported by Bernstein.

Against that background, The Chronicle asked Haber if that quote sounded like him, and Haber allowed that yes, it did. Told that it was not him, but rather Jesse Bernstein talking about countywide transportation the previous evening, a smile lit Haber’s face.

Outcome: The “ready, aim, fire” plan was unanimously approved by the board.

Reports from Committees and the CEO

The committees in large part reported their activities by referring interested people to the board packet with the committee meeting minutes.


Jesse Bernstein did note one highlight for the performance monitoring and external relations committee: There’s interest from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority in resurrecting the downtown circulator called The LINK.

He also said that he’d been looking at alternative sites for the board meeting room – the “ready” phase of the plan adopted by the board for the future of county transportation calls for the following [emphasis added]:

A) Assure that the entire community has access to clear and understandable information about AATA’s service delivery system and how to measure our performance using multiple communications methods, including traditional and existing as well as emerging technologies, such as improving the content and accessibility of our web site and providing video coverage of meetings, to promote transparency and accountability.

For video taping, one possibility being considered is the Ann Arbor District Library downtown location. Thomas Partridge, in his public commentary at the end of the meeting, called on the board to find a larger venue, with TV broadcast facilities, because it was vital that the board go public.

To try to accommodate more people, on Wednesday the board met in an alternate room instead of the board room. It was the second alternate location that’s been tried in the last two months. Last month, the long narrow room that was used put audience members at some distance from the board members, and combined with the sound of ventilation fans, this led to complaints about the ability of audience members to hear.

Reporting from the AATA’s local advisory council (LAC), Rebecca Burke passed around a letter to the board asking for language revisions to the LAC’s charge: words like “handicapped” needed to be replaced with “disabled,” for example.

Ted Annis, the board’s treasurer, did not attend Wednesday’s meeting. However, he did send along a one-page treasurer’s report that calls for the hiring of a chief financial officer for the AATA.

CEO’s Report

Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, reported that he’d been meeting with city of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti officials.

He said that a letter had been sent to the owners of the Arborland property – who last summer did not extend the long-time agreement they’d had allowing AATA buses to use a bus stop in the parking lot of the shopping center.  Owners – but not tenants – had objected to use of parking spaces by bus commuters as an informal park-and-ride lot. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA to Arborland: We Could Pay You Rent"] In the month and a half since sending the letter, Ford reported no response. AATA is working with the city of Ann Arbor and Michigan Department of Transportation on coming up with a solution to the difficulties caused by having a bus stop located on Washtenaw Avenue.

The Blake Transit Center RFP (request for proposals) will go out at the end of January 2010 for its reconstruction on the same footprint as the current station. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA Board: Get Bids to Rebuild Blake"] There’ll be a two-phase design and construction phase, said Ford.

Jesse Bernstein and Michael Ford

AATA board member Jesse Bernstein, left, and AATA CEO Michael Ford at the Library Lot RFP presentations held at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library on Jan. 20, 2010.

Ford reported that he’d attended the presentations at the downtown library by respondents to the city of Ann Arbor’s RFP for the library lot.

He also reported that AATA had met twice with University of Michigan officials to work towards a mutually beneficial arrangement on the M-Ride agreement.  By way of background, M-Ride is a program where UM affiliates – students, faculty and staff – can board buses by swiping their MCards, with their fares paid through a combination of UM payments to AATA, plus federal grants for which UM qualifies. The deal was extended for one year when UM and AATA could not reach a longer-term agreement.

Ford reported that UM and AATA would be meeting once a week to work through the deal.

Other Business

The board passed four additional resolutions. Of these, the most significant was the approval of a purchase-of-service agreement with the city of Ypsilanti for $312,330 from Oct. 1 2009 through June 30, 2011. [Chronicle coverage: "Buses for Ypsi and a Budget for AATA"]

The board also approved its capital and categorical grant program – which reflects some changes in light of federal stimulus money that AATA has received.

And the board authorized a contract with Ann Arbor-based JC Beal – which was selected from five bidders – for $169,950 to fix doors and windows at the AATA headquarters.

The annual submission of AATA’s application for funding to the Michigan Department of Transportation was also authorized.

Other Public Commentary

Carolyn Grawi, of the Center for Independent Living, in addition to calling on the board to involve itself and others in all relevant planning processes [included elsewhere in this report], announced that she was pleased that the AATA bus would now be stopping in front of CIL on Research Park Drive.

Thomas Partridge began his remarks at the end of the meeting by saying that he had not majored in engineering or transportation at Michigan State University – a remark that prompted Paul Ajegba to quip, “We’ll forgive you for that!” Partridge continued by saying that he’d attended a conference that was also attended by Ford Motor Co. and Boeing, which are companies planning advanced transportation systems – in other countries like South Africa and India. Why not in the U.S., Partridge wondered.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Paul Ajegba, Rich Robben

Absent: Ted Annis, Sue McCormick

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]