Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (April 21, 2010): On Wednesday, Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, gave the AATA board an update on Phase One of Fuller Road Station – a city-university collaboration to build a combined parking structure, bus station and bicycle amenity south of Fuller Road, abutting the University of Michigan medical campus. The project envisions eventual integration of a train station for east-west commuter rail, if service along the Detroit-Ann Arbor corridor can be established.
Confronted with skepticism from board member David Nacht, who expressed his doubts that the rail service would ever become a reality, Cooper urged a “glass as half full” view of the project. Cooper was buoyed in part by a recent phone call he’d received from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation about another round of funding that the Federal Railroad Administration will be making available.
AATA board member Sue McCormick also gave some shape to the city’s funding strategy for its share of the Fuller Road Station project: Once the environmental impact study is completed, that will make it possible for the local transit agency – in this case, the AATA – to apply for federal funds for the project. That’s consistent with the message thus far from city officials, who have said that whatever the funding strategy will be, it won’t involve city general fund money.
In its main business items of the meeting, the board approved a contract worth $399,805.32 with a consultant, Steer Davies Gleave, to head up the formulation of a transportation master plan (TMP), which will underpin the AATA’s effort to expand its service countywide. The board also approved an allocation of $350,000 for a period ending March 31, 2012, that will allow the AATA to task one of three public relations firms for work, depending on the nature of the project: The Rossman Group, Ilium Associates, and re:group.
Both resolutions passed, with dissent from the board’s treasurer, Ted Annis.
The board made a decision at its March board meeting to change its meeting time and location to Thursdays at the downtown Ann Arbor District Library. Although it was discussed then that the new time and location would begin in two months, board discussion on Wednesday suggested that the target for changing the new time is now August 2010.
Fuller Road Station
Eli Cooper, the city of Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager, gave a presentation to the board on Fuller Road Station. He thanked the board for the opportunity to present the transportation program project.
Fuller Road Station: Some History
By way of background, the presentation that Cooper gave is one he has made on numerous occasions, at some stage or other of development, over the course of more than a year. He first introduced a sketch of the project at a meeting of neighbors at the Northside Grill in January of 2009. [Chronicle coverage: "City Staffers Brief Wall Street Neighbors"] That meeting had been held to address concerns of Wall Street residents about a University of Michigan plan to build two parking structures along Wall Street.
One of the neighbors who had been present at that Northside Grill meeting, Kittie Morelock, addressed the AATA board during public commentary at the end of Wednesday’s meeting. She told them she had lived in Ann Arbor for 55 years, and was now retired from the University of Michigan Health System. She had chosen to live along Wall Street, she said, so that she could walk to work. She said that the neighborhood had been living with the idea of further development and UM expansion. It was already a dense neighborhood, she told the board, with around 2,500 people living in the Wall Street-Maiden Lane corridor.
Morelock said the Fuller Road Station location for the university’s parking structure is better for the Wall Street neighborhood, but noted that there would still be some impact to the neighborhood from increased traffic during the station’s construction.
The Fuller Road Station – which in its first phase in large part consists of a parking deck – will forestall the university’s need to construct parking structures at the Wall Street location. From the memorandum of understanding between the city and the university:
10. University Parking Structure on Wall Street. Given the progress on developing the Fuller Road Station, which includes parking for University use equivalent to that planned in the Wall Street East Parking Structure, the University is willing to suspend, at this time, its pursuit of structured parking on Wall Street as presently authorized and programmed.
Fuller Road Station: Model for Mobility, North-South Connector
In his presentation, Cooper described the Fuller Road Station as a “new gateway for Ann Arbor,” which would bring various transportation modalities together. He presented the station against the backdrop of the city’s model for mobility, which features three main components: east-west commuter rail from Ann Arbor to Detroit; north-south commuter rail from Ann Arbor to Howell; and a connector system allowing transfer from the east-west to the north-south system.
Back in 2006, said Cooper, it was recognized that there was currently no transition point between the proposed east-west and north-south commuter rail systems. The Amtrak station was identified as being on the east-west corridor, but inadequate to meet the needs of a commuter rail station. Cooper said that the Fuller Road location, just south of Fuller Road next to the UM medical campus, was recognized as having two main advantages. First, the land is publicly owned. Second, it’s located next to the largest workplace in Washtenaw County – the University of Michigan. The Amtrak station, Cooper said, was not located well to accommodate buses meeting trains carrying hundreds of passengers. In that context, he said, it made sense to consider relocation of the Amtrak station.
When AATA board members got time to question Cooper, Charles Griffith asked about Amtrak’s cooperation with the project. He asked if there had been any discussions with Amtrak about the idea of co-location of their train station with the Fuller Road facility. Cooper said that as a national rail conveyor, Amtrak focuses on service. Train stations are thought of by Amtrak as “nuisances,” Cooper said. So Amtrak was excited about joining the city in the project, Cooper reported, and had supplied by way of assistance a 60-page design guide book for their stations.
Griffith noted that as a user of Amtrak’s trains, he doesn’t feel safe at the current station when returning from a trip at 11:30 at night – though he thought it was, in fact, safe. Cooper said that the idea was that Fuller Road Station would let people know that you “have arrived at a place.”
Cooper addressed the integration of the planning for the Fuller Road Station with the study currently being undertaken for a north-south connector. The north-south connector feasibility study is a different project from the north-south commuter rail initiative – that’s known as the the Washtenaw-Livingston Rail Line (WALLY). The connector study goes by the official name of the Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study. The point of the AACFS 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.
Asked during question time by Ted Annis at Wednesday’s AATA board meeting, Cooper confirmed that Fuller Road Station is imagined to have linkages to the north-south connector. But Cooper stressed that no specific alignment of the route had been determined and no particular technology had been selected. It could range from bus rapid transit to light rail, he said.
However, Cooper indicated that starting probably in June of this year, public meetings would be held to start sharing with the community-at-large some of the preliminary results of the AACFS.
Fuller Road Station: Master Concept Plan
Cooper’s presentation actually began with a description of the master concept plan – Fuller Road Station in its entirety. There would be a parking component with around 1,000 spaces. It would be an intermodal facility featuring 7-9 bus bays, where AATA and University of Michigan buses could meet trains. There would be a bicycle station – showers, lockers, and bicycle rentals. Fuller Road Station’s location would allow access to the Border-to-Border Trail, which would make it both a transportation and a recreational amenity for bicyclists, said Cooper.
The Fuller Road Station is designed to accommodate the growth of Amtrak service, commuter rail, and the possibility that Ann Arbor would be included in a high-speed rail corridor, Cooper stressed. The university’s medical campus, he said, included 20,000 employees and 2 million visitors per year. It’s one of the major travel demand generators in the county, he said. Cooper pointed out on the schematic drawing some skywalks designed for pedestrians to access the UM medical campus.
In her public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi, with the Center for Independent Living (CIL), responded to the description of the skywalks, saying that the CIL’s key issue is “accessibility, accessibility, accessibility.” She stressed, “We’ve got to be involved in it before it’s built.”
The full implementation would include a drop-off area and short-term parking. There would also be improvements made to the Fuller Road corridor. The parking in the Fuller Road Station would be a shared environment, Cooper said. Currently there are 75 long-term spaces at the existing Amtrak station, but with the growth of Amtrak’s service and the commuter rail service, Cooper said, it’s anticipated that around 200 spaces would be required, and that is reflected in the memorandum of understanding that UM has struck with the city of Ann Arbor on the joint project.
In terms of where the project stands, Cooper said the concept is complete and they are now working on the engineering design. He expects the submission of the site plan to come before the city’s planning commission sometime in the coming weeks.
Fuller Road Station: Phase One and Beyond
Cooper then described Phase One of the plan, which is less ambitious than the complete master concept that led off his presentation. Compared to the master concept, Phase One features a more modest bus drop-off area. Cooper compared it in function to something like the Plymouth park-and-ride lot. In Phase One, Fuller Road Station would function as a “close-in intercept park-and-ride lot.” The bus waiting room and Phase One would, in the future, be joined with an Amtrak waiting room and be more commodious than in the first phase. Phase One would not feature a bicycle station with rentals, showers and lockers, but rather enclosed bicycle lockers and bicycle hoops. The idea in Phase One, said Cooper, is to establish a piece of ownership of the station for the bicycle community. He said he could imagine organized rides originating from the station, hoping to energize the space of that plaza.
During question time, Jesse Bernstein wanted to know when the notion of stages was introduced in the process. Cooper explained that this had happened early. By way of explaining the division of the project into two phases, Cooper focused on the capital requirements. Without the reserves needed to complete the entire project, it was felt that a certain basic investment could be made, with the rest to be added later.
Sue McCormick, who serves on the AATA board as well as serving the city as its public services area administrator, related the phasing decision not just to the capital planning but also to the conceptual planning. She pointed to a meeting that had been held among around 50 people from the city and the university, as well as various other stakeholders, including AATA staff, where there had been unanimity in the room to separate the rail station from the rest of the intermodal facility. That had been a reflection of the way this site operates functionally, she said. The division of the functional components of the facility, she said, was the major driver for allowing the project to be phased.
The meeting that McCormick referred to was reported to the Ann Arbor city council by Cooper at an October 2009 work session. ["Work Session: Trains, Trash and Taxes"]:
The major change in concept resulting from the design session with stakeholders, Cooper said, was that the single building had been split into the “intermodal facility” on the eastern part of the site and the train station to the west. He described the plan to divide the project into two phases: Phase One, which would include the parking deck, a bus waiting room, and bicycle hoops; Phase Two, which would include the train station and other amenities, possibly including retail wraps.
Bernstein confirmed with Cooper that if federal dollars became available, more could be done than just Phase One. Cooper pointed out that from the Federal Railroad Administration’s point of view, the location has been approved and the environment for clearance is being prepared. That environmental study is being funded by the city of Ann Arbor as part of the city’s share of the city-university project. That funding was approved at the city council’s Aug. 17, 2009 meeting.
Fuller Road Station: Funding a Glass-Half-Fuller Rail Scenario
During question time, David Nacht asked Cooper what the odds are that the city will have train service from Detroit – or even from somewhere in western Wayne County – in the next three years. Said Cooper, alluding to Amtrak’s service, “We have it today.” But Cooper allowed that Amtrak is not regularly scheduled for commuter service. He noted that SEMCOG had intended to start in the fall with a special-event service. Although he said he could not put a number on the probability, as Nacht had requested, Cooper said he would describe it more as a “higher percentage than a lower percentage.”
Nacht then drew a contrast between living in the world of reality and living in the world of press releases. Nacht ticked off a list of SEMCOG failures with respect to the east-west rail project, including a failure to build adequate public support, and a failure to secure federal funding, and a failure to enlist adequate support from Congressman John Dingell’s office. Nacht concluded his list by stating flatly: “I do not have any faith.”
Why, Nacht asked, are we spending public dollars for a train that might never come? Cooper characterized it as a glass-as-half-full or half-empty scenario. With respect to SEMCOG’s failures, Cooper noted that class-one railroads are rather “intractable entities.” Dealing with “behemoths” that have been around hundreds of years makes it not a fair fight.
Still, Cooper said, SEMCOG had actually made significant progress – rolling stock has been acquired, for example. What happens, Cooper said, is that someone announces a date, and you fail to make the date, and everything sours. Cooper contended that east-west rail is closer today than it was before. He told Nacht, “I don’t quarrel with you in terms of some of the work that needs to be done.” But he cautioned that running a rail service is not as simple as saying, “I’m going to run a rail service.”
Nacht then cited his fiduciary duty as an AATA board member who had to look at limited resources, only some of which could be used for rail transit. Spending money on rail, he said, meant that some of those funds would be unavailable to help move people around inside this community. There was a significant risk, Nacht said, that commuter rail never happens – he said he had a responsibility to weigh that risk. Nacht wanted to know what studies show that UM workers who live in Canton will ride a train to work. He asked if there is any data backing up what was proposed as the significant capital expense. The lack of data, he said, seemed at odds with the way the board had been told – by people who included Cooper – that transit “does business.”
Cooper allowed, “I’m not here to say I have the scientific data.” However, he did point to the 25,000 to 30,000 residents of Wayne County who come to work in Washtenaw County. There had been a survey done for the north-south commuter rail project (WALLY) showing that 1,200 people in Howell had affirmed that, yes, they would ride a north-south commuter train. The east-west corridor, Cooper said, had a greater potential for ridership than the north-south, and translating the 1,200 affirmative riders for the north-south corridor meant somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 east-west commuters.
The current lack of specific data, Cooper said, is part of the basis for the demonstration special-event service that SEMCOG is planning for the fall of 2010. The excursion service will introduce to people what it feels like to ride a train, said Cooper.
Ted Annis asked for a description of the funding. Sue McCormick gave the basic numbers as $43 million for Phase One, with 78% paid for by the university and the remainder by the city. Jesse Bernstein wanted to know what the whole project would cost if the master concept plan were to be built. Cooper said it would reflect about the same order of magnitude again, costing from $30-$40 million. Bernstein observed that Phase One “gets us a parking lot.” Cooper stressed that buses would be servicing the Phase One station.
Later in the board meeting, McCormick responded to a query from Annis about how the city of Ann Arbor was planning to contribute its roughly $10 million share to the project. McCormick indicated that the city would likely ask the AATA to step up, in the form of leveraging its ability to apply for federal funding. Specifically, she said, once the environmental impact study for the the project is completed, that will allow the local transit authority, which is the AATA in this case, to apply for federal funding. Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, added that he’d had conversations with Congressman Dingell, as well as Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, on the topic.
In the course of his presentation, Cooper said Fuller Road Station has a magnet attraction element for funding. By way of example, he said he received a call the previous day from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation – MDOT reported that the Federal Railroad Administration is looking to do another round of funding for passenger rail. MDOT wanted to know if Ann Arbor was still interested in pursuing that kind of funding. Said Cooper, “I’m optimistic we’re going to be able to answer in the affirmative.”
Even though Fuller Road station has been presented in Phase One as consisting of a parking deck with a bus stop plus some bicycle hoops – with a train station to be built later – Cooper said he felt like the city would be “seizing the rail component sooner rather than later.”
Fuller Road Station: Public Land and Its Use
Ted Annis brought up the question of the Fuller Road Station site, calling its status as city parkland a “sticky” issue. At that, Cooper stopped Annis, saying that there were two concepts that needed to be separated: (i) city-owned land, and (ii) designation as a park in the city’s Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan (PROS Plan). Cooper stressed that the land is zoned as public land (PL), which includes 10 different acceptable uses.
Cooper was referring to the land uses specified in the city code. Of the 10, three uses are park, or park-related:
5:10.13. PL public land district.
(1) Intent. This district is designed to classify publicly-owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.
(2) Permitted principal uses.
(a) Outdoor public recreational uses, such as: playgrounds, playfields, golf courses, boating areas, fishing sites, camping sites, parkways and parks. No structure shall be erected or maintained upon dedicated park land which is not customarily incidental to the principal use of the land.
(b) Natural open space, such as: conservation lands, wildlife sanctuaries, forest preserves.
(c) Developed open space, such as: arboreta, botanical and zoological gardens.
(d) Educational services, such as: public primary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education.
(e) Cultural services, such as: museums and art galleries.
(f) Public-service institutions, such as: hospitals, sanatoria, homes for the elderly, children’s homes and correctional institutions.
(g) Essential services, buildings containing essential services and electrical substations.
(h) Municipal airports.
(i) Civic center.
(j) Government offices and courts.
Annis asked about statements that the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club had made, contending that the land required a charter vote before it could be put to use as a transit station.
Cooper allowed that yes, people have expressed concerns about the status of the land. However, he said, title searches have been done on the property and there is no deed restriction that the land be used as a park. [The city's implicit position here is that the site is not "dedicated parkland," which has a specific legal interpretation.] Annis confirmed with Cooper that there was no issue in his mind about the legal question of the city’s ability to use the land for the purpose of the Fuller Road Station.
But James D’Amour, speaking during public comment time, disagreed with Cooper’s assessment of the public land analysis. D’Amour, who has addressed the Ann Arbor city council and the UM board of regents previously on behalf of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club, stated that he was at the AATA board meeting speaking for himself on the Fuller Road Station.
He stressed that he is not opposed to rail transit and that he hoped for long-term service to be established. But the site where the station was proposed, he contended, was indeed city parkland. A 2007 vote by the citizens of Ann Arbor had modified the city charter to require a vote on the sale of any parkland, and the proposed long-term arrangement with the university without a vote would violate the spirit if not the legal requirement of the charter. D’Amour suggested that if it were put to a vote, people might be surprised at the outcome. He praised the board for asking questions about the station.
Jesse Bernstein inquired of Cooper whether there had been progress on a suggestion from a local developer for additional land development as part of the station. [One local developer who's made that kind of suggestion is Peter Allen: "Transit Forum Critiques Fuller Road Station"] Cooper said that not a lot of progress has been made in that area.
In the event that a decision were made to go in that direction, Cooper said, that would require a community conversation. If the community decided to capitalize on the potential for economic return that private development might offer, then the community would need to make that decision. What is currently proposed for the station is a public use of publicly owned land, Cooper said. Bernstein asked if the public use of publicly owned land would allow coffee shops to be included in the station. Cooper said that it would.
Fuller Road Station: Where’s Ypsilanti?
Speaking to the issue of Fuller Road Station during public commentary was Audrey Jackson, who stated that she was excited at the concept that Ann Arbor could come out of its tunnel vision. She’d just returned from Washington D.C., she said, which had what she described as a Cadillac transit system designed to impact the whole D.C. area, extending to the border of Virginia. But the planning for Fuller Road Station, she said, begins and ends in Ann Arbor.
“Where’s Ypsilanti in all this?” she asked. It’s good for Ann Arbor, she allowed, but it’s important to start looking out for other people, too. Whether it’s rail or local transit, she stressed, it is important to look out for the most needy and those who are least likely to have their own cars.
Consultant for Countywide Vision
Reporting out from the planning and development committee, Rich Robben said the most notable action item was a motion to approve a contract worth $399,805.32 with a consultant, Steer Davies Gleave, to head up the formulation of a transportation master plan (TMP). The TMP will underpin the AATA’s effort to expand its service countywide.
Ted Annis clarified that the TMP was a label for the countywide plan and was not the Ann Arbor Connector Feasibility Study.
Jesse Bernstein led off the discussion by saying it was one of the most exciting projects he’d been involved with. One of the things the community did poorly, he said, was knowing where we are going – not 2-3 years from now, but 25-30 years into the future. Bernstein echoed many of the same sentiments he had expressed at the board’s Jan. 20, 2010 meeting, when he’d emphasized that the approach to be taken would be first to figure out what kind of transit people wanted and would support. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA on Countywide Transit: READY, Aim, Fire"]
Bernstein said the consultant would start talking to people – Washtenaw Community College, Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan – but not just elected officials and staff. There would be extensive community meetings and there’s going to be a discussion of where the community wants to be in 20-30 years, he said.
Bernstein described transit as a “chicken-and-egg thing,” saying that when you commit to transit, it will help define development and land use. He pointed to Washtenaw Avenue where it intersects with Hewitt and Golfside as examples of where high-volume transit along the corridor could result in positive development.
Step one for the consultant, Bernstein said, would be to listen and talk to everyone. That would result in a draft plan, which would be presented to the community with the question: “What do you think?” At the end of a year, he said, they’d have the vision. The governance and funding of the system would need to be looked at, he said.
It was noted that the consultant is based in London, England, which meant that they’d be getting ideas and benchmarking from around the world. CEO Michael Ford indicated that the consultant would be working out of AATA offices.
Outcome: The board voted to approve the contract with Steer Davies Gleave, with Ted Annis dissenting.
Consultants for Public Relations
AATA awarded a contract for three firms to act as its agencies of record to provide professional public relations and marketing services. In question time, Sue McCormick brought out the nature of the resolution – it was not to award a contract in a particular dollar amount to one vendor, but rather to authorize a total expenditure over three years of $350,000. Each vendor would be tasked, said McCormick, with the specific projects for which they were suited, in a relationship that was somewhat similar to having legal counsel on retainer.
The estimated cost of $350,000 breaks down as follows for each initiative:
SPENT AS OF ESTIMATED BY PROJECT AREA 4/15/10 3/31/12 Transit Master Plan Public Outreach 0 $ 50,000 Comm. for Countywide Transit $ 12,000 $ 12,000* Rebuilding Blake Transit Center 0 $ 35,000 Washtenaw Avenue Transit Hub $ 1,000 $ 15,000 Central Campus Transit Center 0 $ 10,000 Plymouth Park & Ride Lot $ 9,000 $ 13,000 Fuller Road Station 0 $ 10,000 Dvlpmnt of “Casual” P & R Lots 0 $ 15,000 WALLY $ 50,000 $ 95,000 Employer Outreach Programs 0 $ 15,000 Public Education/Image Campaigns 0 $ 35,500 Board Meetings at AA Public Library 0 $ 4,000 Improving Internal Comm. & Culture 0 $ 15,000 Social Media $ 1,000 $ 2,500 Other (i.e., East/West Rail; M Ride; POSAs; Website, $ 8,000 $ 23,000 Pilot Programs _____________ _____________ TOTAL $ 81,000 $ 350,000 *Communications pertaining to Countywide Transit will be included as a part of “Transit Master Plan Public Outreach” in future years.
The three vendors who will form the set from which AATA will draw expertise will be: The Rossman Group, Ilium Associates, and re:group. From Mary Stasiak, AATA’s manager of community relations, Nacht drew out the fact that two of the three vendors are local or regionally based – Rossman Group (Lansing) and re:group (Ann Arbor). He wondered why the approach seemed to be to extend existing relationships with current vendors instead of bidding out the work to a wider pool of expertise. He observed that for the development of the transportation master plan, the AATA had selected a vendor based in London, England.
Stasiak indicated that when the work had initially been bid out last year, they’d received responses from across the county. The current item was before the board, because the initially anticipated costs were not estimated to exceed $100,000. The increase to an amount exceeding $100,000 required the board’s approval, she said.
Outcome: The board voted to authorize up to $350,000 for the three-year period ending March 31, 2012. Ted Annis dissented.
Board Meeting Time and Location: LAC and A-Ride Considerations
At the previous board meeting in March, the board voted to change its bylaws to provide for meetings on the third Thursday every month, instead of the third Wednesday, and to specify the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library as the meeting location.
In his report to the board on his activities, CEO Michael Ford indicated that it would likely be August before the board began the new schedule. There are details being worked out to make sure that people who use the AATA’s A-Ride paratransit service have their needs met for the library location. From the written text of Ford’s report on his activities, which he submits to the board each month:
Brian Clouse [AATA liaison to the local advisory council (LAC)] met with Josie Parker [AADL dirctor] last week and discussed logistics for paratransit service riders to attend meetings at the library. They also discussed a notification system that could be installed at the library, by AATA, which could be activated by paratransit service drivers to provide notification to someone waiting inside the library. This solution would also allow riders to wait inside the library after the library is closed, if someone is attending a Board meeting. Staff will discuss the cost of providing such a notification system and make a recommendation on how to proceed.
A-Ride got a mention as well from Rebecca Burke, who chairs the AATA’s local advisory council (LAC). She expressed the LAC’s concern that the target window for elapsed time after calling for a ride was contemplated to increase from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. It’s often the case that riders already wait as long as 30 or 40 minutes, she cautioned, and she wondered if the increased target window would mean that riders would wait up to an hour.
In her report to the board from the LAC, Burke thanked CEO Michael Ford for his report to them on plans for reconstruction of the Blake Transit Center – he’d answered all their questions, she said.
Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Ted Annis, Jesse Bernstein, Paul Ajegba, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, May 12, 2010 at 5:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]