Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Feb. 1, 2010) Part I: Transportation was a major theme woven throughout Monday’s city council meeting – in part due to a presentation the council heard from SEMCOG’s Carmine Polombo about the Detroit-Ann Arbor commuter rail project. Trains are supposed to begin rolling toward the end of 2010, but Polombo’s presentation made clear that early service would be very limited – day trips and special events – and there are a huge number of unknowns.
But trains weren’t the only transit-related thread. The city’s bicycle ordinances were updated after having been postponed for a couple of meetings, and a revision to the city’s bicycle registration procedure was tabled and now appears to be on indefinite hold.
The council also approved on first reading a revision to its taxicab ordinance, designed to enforce expectations of larger cab companies.
Also related to transportation was discussion of an item in the capital improvements plan (CIP) for a runway extension at the Ann Arbor municipal airport. After Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) got his colleagues’ support to amend the CIP to delete the item, the council then voted, with some grumbles of dissent, to postpone consideration of the CIP.
Times and dates for upcoming meetings on the budget were also reviewed, with city administrator Roger Fraser telling councilmembers that the list of possible areas for cuts that city staff had generated were not the only items that could be considered. He challenged councilmembers to come up with their own ideas as well. The council received specific recommendations for budget strategies for the senior center and Mack Pool.
In Part I of the report, we restrict our focus to transportation and budget issues. In Part II, we’ll cover land use issues – including the resolution on 415 W. Washington, which we previewed in our report on the Sunday night caucus, plus a postponement on a greenbelt acquisition.
We begin this portion of the report with some public commentary on Ann Arbor’s bus system.
Jim Mogensen: During public commentary reserved time at the beginning of the meeting, Jim Mogensen asked why we keep encouraging sprawl.
He alluded to a photo of Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber in the newspaper, standing in Depot Town next to the rail station. Mogensen contended that when the 21-month purchase-of-service agreement between the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and Ypsilanti runs out, Ypsilanti would lose its bus service, despite the planned east-west commuter rail service. [See Chronicle coverage: "Buses for Ypsi and a budget for AATA"] Why? Because Ypsilanti is not a part of anybody’s plan, Mogensen contended. “Not even a lunch-counter moment would change it,” he said.
Mogensen noted that since the new park-and-ride lot at Plymouth Road and US-23 had opened, bus service on the Green-Baxter bus line had been reduced to once an hour. Further, he said there was an asterisk (*) indicating that it was only available when the University of Michigan was in session. What other urban service would need to be reallocated, Mogensen wondered, in order to make the Fuller Road transit station service work? The city is encouraging people to live in the suburbs, Mogensen said, and our community continues to chip away at the benefits that exist in urban areas. It’s going to cause us trouble, he concluded, and it’s wrong.
Tim Hull: During the time for public commentary at the end of the meeting, Tim Hull, a masters student at the University of Michigan, spoke on the issue of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Hull said he hoped to stay in Ann Arbor after graduating, and described the AATA’s service as “pretty good, but falls short on weekends and at night.” He criticized service changes for the bus system as being made largely by bureaucrats. He asked that in future appointments to the AATA board, consideration be given to people who actually ride the bus. Currently AATA board members did not ride the bus – he compared it to executives at Ford Motor Co. driving Toyotas instead.
A substantial revision to the city’s bicycling ordinances had been postponed from the previous meeting amid concerns expressed by Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) that the relevant laws that would now apply from the Michigan Vehicle Code were not explicitly referenced in Ann Arbor’s city code. [See previous Chronicle coverage of the Jan. 19, 2010 city council meeting, and the Jan. 4, 2010 city council meeting.]
At Monday’s meeting, city attorney Stephen Postema clarified that the best way to present the information was to link to the Michigan Vehicle Code, and in that way there would be no lag time between the updating of the city’s code, if the state statute were to be changed.
Also postponed from a previous meeting had been a revision to the city’s procedure for registering bicycles.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) reported that some additional data called the actual value of the registration program into some question, and he convinced his colleagues to table the measure. The additional information was this: From September of 2007 to the present, 39 stolen bikes had been recovered and returned to their owners – but in none of those cases had the bicycle registration program been instrumental. The return of those bicycles had been the result, Hohnke reported, of regular police work. There was also some question in the bicycling community, Hohnke said, of the perceived value of registering one’s bicycle. He wondered if it was not simply a holdover from years gone by.
Outcome: The revision to the bicycle ordinances (which repealed city ordinances in favor of allowing the prevailing Michigan Vehicle Code to apply) was approved on second reading. Bicycle registration procedures were tabled.
The city revised its taxicab ordinance with an eye towards making sure that basic taxi service would continue to be provided. The city’s CFO, Tom Crawford, explained that the ordinance revision was meant to guard against the possibility that a large company could come in and provide service only on the most profitable routes – for example, from the city to the airport – and put smaller companies out of business that provided a full range of services within the city.
What the ordinance does, Crawford explained, was require that large companies – operating more than 10 cabs – be full-service. Here, “full service” means that service needs to be provided 24 hours round-the-clock, that a lost-and-found be available, and that it be possible to file a complaint with someone other than the driver during regular business hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Crawford said that the new ordinance would affect three or four companies.
Outcome: The taxicab ordinance was unanimously approved on its first reading.
East-West Commuter Rail
A presentation to the council at the start of the meeting on the east-west commuter rail project was followed up by discussion by councilmembers
East-West Commuter Rail: Presentation
Carmine Polombo, transportation planner with the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), gave the council a presentation on proposed commuter rail service between Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Polombo pointed the council to SEMCOG’s website, where monthly updates on the east-west Detroit-to-Ann Arbor commuter rail project could be found. He described the project as a partnership among various government entities including SEMCOG, the Michigan Department of Transportation and the governor’s office. Certain elements of the project had started to become concrete, he reported, which include the leasing of locomotives and the award of a contract to refurbish nine train cars for the east-west project, plus an additional six cars for WALLY – a separate north-south commuter rail project. Refurbished cars, Polombo said, would start rolling off the line by June of this year: “That’s a go,” he said.
Two additional stations, he reported, would need to be constructed – one in Depot Town in Ypsilanti, and the other in Westland. Of the six environmental documents required by the Federal Railroad Administration, Polombo reported that four had been completed. He described how computer simulations that had been run – in order to minimize potential conflicts between the commuter service and other existing service – had shown that even a five-minute window adjusted in one direction or another could mean the difference between needing to add more track and not.
He stressed the importance of the need to coordinate with other transit agencies so that passengers could get access to the stations, and from the stations to their final destination. He described it as needing to make sure that we can “feed this beast.” The linchpin to the system, he said, is in Detroit – there is a section of track that goes from two tracks down to one track, and back to two tracks again – that would need around $12 million worth of improvements, he said.
As far as next steps, he said, finding more money to fund the project was crucial. The Federal Railroad Administration had awarded through the stimulus package some money to construct two new stations. But Polombo said that they were “sort of hoping for a few more dollars.” They would, therefore, be exploring plans B, C, D, and F. He alluded to the federal TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) that involved the awarding of $1.5 billion nationally – announcement of those grants is expected by Feb. 14. In addition, he said they were preparing for the possibility of yet another stimulus package being offered by the federal government.
They have secured a request for proposals to select an operator for the service – the contract cannot just be given to Amtrak, he said. Because of the federal dollars being used, a bidding process for the service was necessary. Later, in response to questions from council members, Polombo said that the Detroit railroads might have issues if anyone other than Amtrak were awarded the contract to operate the service.
East-West Commuter Rail: Deliberations
Mayor John Hieftje led off conversation among councilmembers by stating that he had been receiving regular updates from SEMCOG. Hieftje then prodded Polombo to express some confidence that the service would actually begin this year. Polombo confirmed that something would be rolling, but seemed interested in lowering expectations of what the early service might look like.
Polombo described it as involving individual day trips – University of Michigan football games, events like Restaurant Week in Ann Arbor, Thanksgiving day, or trips to the Henry Ford Museum. Polombo also stressed that the Norfolk Southern part of the route needs track work. What is really important, Polombo said, is reliable, safe, on-time service.
Hieftje then stated that he had been part of those conversations for a long time, whereas some people have not. Hieftje said he appreciated the idea that the strategy would be to grow into the service, not start it all at once.
Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked about a $3.5 million federal earmark for the project, which required a 20% match. She asked where the match would come from. Polombo explained that one possibility would be that the Michigan Department of Transportation would provide cash for the match – that would be the best possible situation. However, another strategy would be to use a “soft match” – the construction of stations in Westland and Ypsilanti, which would not be done with federal funds, could be used as soft match money.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) asked about some preliminary awards for high-speed rail links that had recently gone to other parts of the country – were we now excluded? Polombo said no, there was still a possibility for that.
Sandi Smith (Ward 1) asked if the proposed Fuller Road transit station would qualify as a soft match. Polombo’s answer was that the station had been submitted as part of a TIGER grant and that it would all depend on the timing. The point is, Polombo said, we have a station now [the Amtrak station], we can use it, and make it work. If the new station were to be built, he said, the service can be made to work there, too.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) asked Polombo about the challenge of getting people the last mile to their destination – Ann Arbor had a plan that involved construction of the Fuller Road station. What are other communities doing, wondered Hohnke. Polombo described how SMART, the metro Detroit transit agency, was mapping their services – in Dearborn for example.
Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked what discussions with Amtrak had been like. Polombo said that Amtrak had been a partner from the start of the project and that they would like to be a service provider for the project. But because the project was using a substantial number of federal dollars, the contract for operation of the service would need to be bid out. One potential problem, he said, was that the Detroit railroads say that if the service provider is not Amtrak, they might have a problem.
Airport Runway Extension and the CIP
Consideration of the city’s capital improvements plan (CIP) generated much discussion about one item in the plan – a project to extend the runway at the Ann Arbor municipal airport. Discussion of that project resulted in postponement of the plan, and elicited discussion among councilmembers about the role of the CIP.
Andrew McGill: During public commentary reserved time at the start of the meeting, Andrew McGill urged the council to act against the $37,250 item in the capital improvements plan (CIP), which represented the city’s portion for funding a runway extension at the Ann Arbor municipal airport. He told the council that they had previously said they had approved only an environmental assessment, and were not considering a runway extension.
McGill also reminded them that some of their recent election campaigns had relied on stated opposition to a runway extension. If they were neither considering such an extension and would oppose one if it were considered, McGill wondered why the money was included in the capital improvements plan to add 800 feet to the runway, making it 4,300 feet long.
Council Deliberations on CIP
The city’s capital improvements plan had been postponed from consideration at the council’s previous meeting. Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) led off deliberations on Monday by proposing an amendment that deleted the 800-foot runway extension project at the city’s municipal airport.
After Kunselman had made the proposal, mayor John Hieftje remarked that he had been planning to ask someone to move that amendment from the floor.
In response to a request from Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), Cresson Slotten, who’s a senior project manager with the city, described what had been approved and programmed with respect to the municipal airport runway.
In the last capital improvements plan, Slotten said, the environmental assessment had been included as part of an airport layout plan – which he described as similar to other master plans that the city used, like the central area plan. The environmental assessment, he reported, has begun. Part two of the program, he said, would be to move forward with the runway extension, if the environmental assessment indicated it would be appropriate. And that is why the project is in the 2011 CIP. Slotten clarified for Derezinski that the project was for implementation and not merely for a study.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) weighed in by saying that the capital improvements plan is a set of placeholders – it’s a needs analysis, and does not compel the city to follow through on anything in the plan. Slotten confirmed that Rapundalo’s understanding of the CIP was correct.
Mark Perry, chair of the airport advisory committee, was asked to explain what exactly had been approved to date. Perry said that in January of 2007, the city council adopted the airport layout plan. Perry described three problems that the airport layout plan was meant to correct: (i) problems with the “Obstacle Clearance Surface” [cf. FAA Part 77] associated with the possible widening of State Street, which runs north-south on the east side of the airport, (ii) line-of-sight issues between the control tower and one of the runways, and (iii) an abnormal number of runway overruns.
On the question of runway overruns, five had been identified in FAA records, Perry said, but further investigation had revealed that there had actually been 11. That compared with only one other such incident in all of the rest of Michigan. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) elicited the fact that the overrun incidents had happened over the period from 1998-2008.
Hieftje asked Slotten if there would be a problem to put the project back into the CIP after deleting it. Slotten said it be possible – it would depend on the proper needs assessment. Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) seemed somewhat surprised that the $37,000 would be able to address all three of the problems identified, saying “it seems like a bigger project.” It was clarified that this was only the city’s portion of the project, which amounted to 2.5% of the whole project. The rest would be funded by the state and the FAA.
In light of the complexity of the problem, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) suggested the possibility of postponing consideration of the CIP.
An Alternate View on Runway Overruns
Kunselman asked Sol Castell to the podium, who is a former member of airport advisory committee member of the citizens advisory committee to the environmental assessment process. Castell introduced himself as a pilot for a major airline and stated that none of the 11 incidents cited as runway overruns were in fact runway overruns. Instead, he said, they were simply pilot error. Four of the incidents, he said, were so blatantly pilot errors that they were not even reported to the FAA, because the pilots did not want the FAA to know about them. He said that there was plenty of runway for landing and taking off. He felt that the environmental assessment would pass as a rubber stamp, which was not a wise spending of $300,000. He said he was prepared to go through the incidents described as runway overruns one by one with the council.
In a follow-up phone conversation with The Chronicle, Andrew McGill said that with respect to the “runway overruns” it was worth distinguishing between significant incidents and insignificant events. As insignificant, he described a situation where a student pilot and an instructor were in a plane unequipped with a set of brake pedals for the instructor. After the plane landed and slowed, the student did not brake properly, and the resulting tangle of legs trying for the brake pedal had resulted in a runway light getting hit.
An incident described as significant by McGill was one where a student pilot with less than 200 hours of flying time had made his first touchdown halfway down the runway and wound up going 20 feet off the end of the runway – he should have gone around and tried again, said McGill.
Even with the “significant” events, said McGill, the primary cause of overshooting the runway was not the length of the runway.
Preliminary outcome: The roll call vote on Kunselman’s amendment deleting the runway extension project was opposed by Smith, Derezinski and Rapundalo, but still passed.
What’s the Role of the CIP?
After Kunselman’s amendment passed, Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) then suggested it might be time to look at each line in the CIP one by one if they were going to pull out the airport runway extension, and moved to postpone consideration of the CIP.
Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) supported Higgins’ motion, saying that he had voted no on Kunselman’s amendment, not as a matter of the commitment of dollars but rather on the point of process. The CIP items, he stressed, were meant simply to put items on the radar of the council. He echoed Higgins sentiment that if the council considered one item like the airport extension, then all items should be handled in the same way. He said he felt it set a bad precedent. He felt strongly enough about it, he said, that he would contemplate not voting for the entire CIP based on that principle.
Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) also objected to the idea of pulling out a single line item in the CIP. He used a similar analogy to the one he had adduced in describing his colleagues’ attempts to amend a recent major rezoning initiative: It’s like pulling strings off of a tightly wound ball, with the risk that it would all unravel.
Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) said he appreciated his colleagues’ concerns about process. He also said that based on his experience training and flying out of the Ann Arbor municipal airport, he felt that if pilots were going off the end of the runway, that truly meant they had simply been making bad decisions. He also pointed to the fact that the council had heard from significant parts of the community that there was a concern. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) then called the question on the vote of the postponement.
Outcome: The vote on the CIP was for postponement, with dissent from Derezinksi, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), and Margie Teall (Ward 4).
The looming budget was again front and center in council business on Monday. Councilmembers received an update from Colin Smith, the city’s parks and recreation manager, on two city task forces.
And city administrator Roger Fraser gave the council an update on the upcoming process.
Mack Pool and Ann Arbor Senior Center
The council heard presentations on the city’s park advisory commission recommendation about Mack Pool and the Ann Arbor Senior Center. The recommendations have grown out of work over the last six months by two task forces, one for each facility. The task forces had been established after the facilities closure had been called for in the fiscal year 2011 budget plan. Although budget plans are not the same as the adopted budget, it establishes a probability of what will likely happen, unless some other means of cost savings can be found. Hence, the establishment of the task forces. [See Chronicle coverage from the park advisory commission: "Also, proposals for Mack Pool, senior center approved"]
Roger Fraser made some extended remarks on the budget process for the year. He clarified a concept that he has introduced on a few occasions before – budget preparation would proceed along two tracks. The two tracks were: (i) consideration of big ideas, and (ii) the regular budget preparation.
Regular budget preparation was typically done, Fraser said, by specifying percentage targets to hit and simply trimming to hit those targets. The basic premise for that process is that the city would continue to do the same things but with less money. Considering the fact that the July 2012 budget was expected to be 30% less than the July 2009 budget, Fraser said that the typical process of trimming a few percent would not work.
The question the city needed to ask itself was this: “What services can we do without?” He told the council that he believed that voters valued everything that the city did, but that it was a matter of tolerance. He then challenged the council to do their part by saying that staff had come up with an extensive list of ideas, putting everything on the table. Now, he said, “We expect you to come up with other ideas.”
Fraser said he recognized that many of the decisions would be politically difficult and at that six councilmembers were up for reelection this year. However, he warned that the city could become so thin on certain services that they simply would not be able to do them well. He said he did not think they wanted the city to be an organization that provided half-baked services. Fraser warned that even with an anticipated recovery, there would be a 2-3 year lag before property values started to bounce back.
When he solicited questions, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) raised her hand, and Fraser indicated he’d expected a question from her. She wanted to know if budget impact sheets would be available before the Feb. 8 city council meeting on the budget. Fraser said they’d try to get them prepared as soon as possible.
Present: Stephen Rapundalo, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.
Next regular council meeting: Tues., Feb. 16 , 2010 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]