Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Feb. 16, 2012): The board’s monthly meeting began with a presentation from Hugh Clark of CJI Research Corp., which conducted a survey of Washtenaw County voters in late 2011 to measure their attitudes toward paying an additional 1 mill tax for countywide transit.
The results were generally consistent with those of a survey conducted two years ago by the same company. Asked toward the start of the interview if they would support a 1 mill tax for countywide transit, 54% of respondents said they definitely or probably would. Asked the same question toward the end of the interview, after receiving additional information, that figure nudged upward to 59%. That compares with “before” and “after” percentages of 51% and 58% two years ago. The geographic differences fell along predictable lines, with support strongest in Ann Arbor and weaker in the outlying townships.
Clark told the board that the four take-aways from the survey results are: (1) the AATA is highly regarded; (2) the public remains supportive of transit, even at a rate of a 1 mill tax; (3) the most compelling reason people give for supporting a tax for countywide service is to provide door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities; and (4) the most compelling reason people give for not supporting a tax for countywide service is a concern about taxes – not the efficiency of the AATA in its use of tax money. The board also heard caution during public commentary about the interpretation of survey results – they hadn’t yet seen the impact of negative advertising on any ballot proposal.
The survey comes in the context of an effort to establish an expanded countywide governance structure for the AATA, which might include asking voters to approve additional transit funding.
In its main business of the meeting, the board passed two resolutions that establish service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. It’s expected to begin in April. One resolution set the fares for the service – basic one-way fare is $15 – while the other approved the contract with Indian Trails (Michigan Flyer) to provide the service based on a per-service-mile dollar cost. The service will be branded as “AirRide.” At the board table, David Nacht recalled how he’s wished for the moment when the AATA could offer such a service between Ann Arbor and the airport since the time he’d been appointed to the board – nine years ago.
The airport service is part of the AATA’s effort to expand services, as well as its governance and funding base, to a geographic area beyond the city of Ann Arbor. Of the $1 million the AATA has budgeted to spend from its reserves for the fiscal year 2012 budget, around $300,000 will go to support the airport service – though board members discussed the possibility that up to half of that could be recouped after-the-fact from federal or state grants.
In the context of the AATA’s effort to expand to countywide governance, the board passed a resolution at its Feb. 16 meeting expressing a basic policy position that a possible new regional transit authority – encompassing Washtenaw, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties – should not be allowed to have a negative impact on the AATA’s own provision of local transit services. The new RTA is described in a set of bills currently being considered by the Michigan state legislature. The boards’ resolution also explicitly states that any new RTA needs to have a funding strategy that is above and beyond current levels of funding for transportation.
Two days earlier, according to a report from the Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS), Washtenaw County commissioner Conan Smith testified before the senate’s transportation committee that he’d be open to giving up one of Washtenaw County’s two seats on a 10-member RTA board, in order to get the legislation passed.
In other business at the meeting, the AATA board also approved a $95,500 increase to the budget for its consultant on the countywide expansion effort. And the board authorized its annual application to the state for operating assistance – including a budget for expanded services.
Also discussed at the board meeting, though no formal vote was taken, was the AATA’s policy on the number of bags that passengers are allowed to carry on when using the A-Ride – the AATA’s paratransit service. Previously there was a two-bag limit. The policy has been revised so that the limit is not expressed in terms of a number, but rather in a way essentially stipulating that a passenger’s bags should not impinge on other passengers’ space – it’s a shared ride service. The change in policy was prompted by public commentary delivered at AATA’s November 2011 board meeting from a visually-impaired passenger who’d been denied a ride by the AATA’s contractor for the service, because he’d had too many grocery bags.
The board received an overview presentation of the results from a survey of Washtenaw County registered voters about their attitudes toward paying additional taxes to support transportation countywide.
Voter Survey: Background, Method
Hugh Clark of CJI Research gave the presentation to the board. The survey research was done under a three-year contract that the AATA board authorized at its Aug. 24, 2011 meeting. The contract has two additional one-year options. The draft fiscal year 2012 budget for AATA included $75,000 for an on-board survey of riders and a telephone survey of Washtenaw County voters.
CJI was also the firm that conducted the AATA’s on-board and telephone surveys in 2009. For a review of the results from the 2009 survey, see Chronicle coverage of the Jan. 20, 2010 board meeting.
At the board’s Feb. 16, 2012 meeting, Clark gave a brief sketch of the survey methodology, which drew a random sample of 1,356 registered voters for Washtenaw County. He described how the sample was divided into four groups, each of which had more than 300 people – western Washtenaw, eastern Washtenaw, Ann Arbor and the Ypsilanti area. Except for Augusta Township, in the southeastern corner of the county, the geographic areas of survey analysis correspond to unions of the areas proposed as districts in the proposed board structure for a new countywide transit authority, possibly to be incorporated under Act 196 of 1986.
In his presentation, Clark noted that it’s increasingly difficult to reach households that have only cell phones for their telephone service. In cases where no phone number corresponding to an address could be identified, Clark explained, CJI had done a mailing to the address and offered the survey to those potential respondents online. Clark described people as very cooperative.
[The survey solicitation letter gives instructions either to visit a website to take the survey online, or else call a number to have the survey administered by phone. The letter included $2 as a thank-you to respondents in advance, and offered another $5 for respondents who completed the survey by Dec. 16, 2011. People who did not respond to the initial letter were sent a reminder postcard.]
The survey itself contained 39 numbered questions, some of which included multiple parts. [.pdf of survey text]
The survey results come in the context of the AATA’s effort to expand its governance structure and its service area to include a wider geographic region than just the city of Ann Arbor – that is, most of Washtenaw County. That possible transition is currently being debated by the Ann Arbor city council, in the context of a four-party agreement – between the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA.
A financial advisory group, co-chaired by Albert Berriz, CEO of McKinley Inc., and Bob Guenzel, retired Washtenaw County administrator, is expected to meet on Feb. 29 to produce its recommendations. The Ann Arbor city council is expected to take up the issue again at its March 5 meeting, having postponed the issue three times.
Voter Survey: General Attitudes
Clark began by presenting the board with some of the results from survey questions that dealt with general attitudes, not just about transit. For example, the very first survey question asked survey respondents: “Overall, how satisfied are you with Washtenaw County as a place to live?” Clark characterized the outlook of survey respondents as generally positive or optimistic.
The second survey question dealt with perceived changes in Washtenaw County as a place to live: “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?” Clark described the outlook as positive, but mixed, noting that in both years of the survey, at least a quarter of respondents felt that things are getting worse.
Voter Survey: Attitudes Toward AATA, Transit
Clark then discussed results of survey items designed to measure attitudes toward transit – not necessarily attitudes about taxation – and the AATA as an organization. He led off that set of items by presenting the result of a question about transit use. About 40% of survey respondents said that in the past year, they or someone in their household had used AATA People Express, the Wave, or Manchester Senior Services. Clark characterized that as “very high” – stressing that it doesn’t mean that 40% of Washtenaw County residents have used public transit in the last year, but rather that they live in a household where someone has.
The perception of the AATA is positive among those who felt they had enough knowledge to answer the question, but Clark noted that 25% didn’t feel they could answer. The question to which survey respondents were asked to respond was: “Overall how favorable or unfavorable would you say your opinion of the AATA is?”
For a question designed to measure general attitudes of voters toward public transit, Clark characterized the result as a real consensus that public transit is very important – 69% say it’s extremely or very important. The survey question: “How important do you think it is to provide public transit services in Washtenaw County?”
Voter Survey: Awareness of AATA Planning Efforts
The survey also contained an item designed to measure voter awareness of the AATA’s planning efforts over the last two years to develop a transit master plan (TMP) for the countywide area. Clark told the board, “The headline here is awareness is higher than expected.” He said that his partner and he were guessing what percent would be aware of the TMP in any meaningful sense, and they’d guessed maybe 5% or 10% as an outer bound – in fact 17% had heard of it, and had some recall.
So Clark told the board it might be disappointing to hear that 69% had not heard of the TMP. But he assured them “that’s not the way these things work.” It takes a lot of work and media coverage, he said, and he asked board members to reflect on how much they know about agencies with which they don’t work. The survey question: “Before hearing about it right now in this survey, had you heard of the Transit Master Plan for Washtenaw County?”
So 17% of respondents knowing about the TMP and having some recall is pretty good, Clark concluded. Clark also shared with the board the kind of details that survey respondents were able to recall [responses are verbatim from the report]:
- Expand it all the parts of the county
- Raises taxes
- I guess the one I’m thinking about increasing train service throughout the county
- Transportation services would be expanded into other areas and there’d be “connection points” for those traveling from outer areas into town.
- Connection for rail center AATA connection with remote commuters
- Yes they going to tax people for it
- Its financial, they are having an argument about it, about who’s going to finance it and who’s going to pay for it and about taxes.
- Provide a broader based transportation and they want to tax people for it
- Getting bus service to Dexter
- Looked at 3 plans
- The Fuller building may become part of the transit
- They are thinking about taking some of the routes away or reconstructing.
- I don’t know – I’m not going to ride the bus; why ride to work if you have a car?
- That it would include all the cities/villages in Washtenaw County.
- I recall they were talking about incorporating it expanded passenger rail system and that it mostly would be the AATA more or less taking over control of local bus systems like the wave
- They were going to be more broader and provide more public transportation for people in rural areas
- Transportation from Ann Arbor to the DTW airport; Transportation from Ann Arbor to Chelsea. Many would use both of these.
- County wide; the other key point they didn’t have any other point on how to get any funding for it except by raising taxes
- Expand the use of the bus service and the need of workers to get transportation in and out of Ypsilanti if they rely on it.
Voter Survey: Taxes
Clark described how the question about a possible millage (tax) to fund expanded countywide service was asked twice during the survey. The initial question came as the seventh item of 39 in the survey:
The new Washtenaw County transit agency will operate several public transit agencies now serving people in Washtenaw County, including A-A-T-A, The Ride, but also the smaller agencies called People Express, the WAVE, and Manchester Senior services. It will consider placing a tax issue on the ballot for the purpose of increasing public transportation service and extending it throughout all of Washtenaw County.
Assuming that this ballot issue would increase property taxes by one mill county-wide, would you definitely vote yes, probably vote yes, probably vote no or definitely no on this one mill property tax increase to expand public transit services throughout the county?
The responses to this initial question in both survey years (2009 and 2011) were characterized by Clark as a little higher but not dramatically so. When added to together, the definitely and probably yes category came to 54% in 2011, compared to 51% two years ago. Possible explanations for the slight increase might include the passage of time or the TMP or the more robust sampling effort (with the online option).
Clark noted those who said they’d definitely vote yes or definitely vote no both came in at 18% – if you leave it to those voters, it’s a draw, Clark quipped.
The same question was asked again as item number 29 in the survey instrument – the last substantive question before a series of demographic items:
Thinking again about the one mill increase in the property tax for all of the things we’ve talked about to be done by the new Washtenaw County transit agency, if an election were held today, would you definitely vote yes, probably vote yes, probably vote no or definitely vote no on this one mill property tax increase to expand public transit services throughout the county?
More survey respondents moved into the positive category than moved negative, Clark reported. On the second question, a combined 59% of voters said they’d probably or definitely vote for a 1 mill transit tax.
Voter Survey: Geographic Differences on Transit Tax
Clark then presented a breakdown of support for the 1 mill transit tax by each of the four geographic regions analyzed in the survey. Not surprisingly, support for a transit tax was strongest within the city of Ann Arbor, with 24% saying they would definitely vote yes and another 44% saying they’d probably vote yes, for a total of 68%. On the low end of support is the western half of the county, with a total of just 42% saying they’d definitely or probably vote yes. More than half of western Washtenaw residents (51%) said they’d definitely or probably vote no.
Voter Survey: Reasons for Voting Yes or No
Clark then broke down survey respondents by their answers to the tax question, using their attitudes about the importance of providing transit services in Washtenaw County. Essentially, those survey respondents who supported a tax also felt that providing transit services is important. Of those who said they’d definitely support a 1 mill additional transit tax, 68% also said that providing transit services is extremely important. Of those who said they’d probably vote no on a transit tax, just 45% said they felt it was either very or extremely important to provide transit services.
Clark noted that it’s important to recognize that of those who said they’d definitely vote no on a transit tax, 8% still felt that providing transportation services is extremely important.
The survey instrument also included items designed to measure the effectiveness of arguments for and against voting for a transit tax. Considered to be good arguments for voting yes on a tax were the 400,000 trips per year that transit agencies in Washtenaw County make, the increased ridership over the last several years, and the fact that less fuel is used by public transit riders. Not a good argument for voting yes was the idea of making an implicit threat: If the tax is defeated then no funding for door-to-door service for the disabled will be available.
Among the ideas that survey respondents said would be good arguments for opposing a transit tax, Clark reported the lack of an ability to afford more taxes, and uncertainty in the economy. He noted that the fairness issue cut symmetrically across respondents. They were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for everyone in the county to pay for a tax that mostly benefits Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. And they were asked about the idea that it’s unfair for people in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to pay more than others for transit benefiting everyone. A roughly equal number of people agreed or strongly agreed with each of those sentiments (32% and 30%).
Clark also reviewed what the survey showed about the perceived benefits of transit – one main point is that public transportation is perceived as a way to attract jobs to the area, and it’s seen as an important backup for private transportation.
Clark said responses indicated that it’s not that survey respondents wanted public transportation available to them personally as a backup, but rather for the community. For many respondents, Clark said, their motivations are community-oriented. Public transportation is not oriented to them personally, but it’s something they want the community to have.
Voter Survey: Four Main Points
Clark summarized his presentation by telling the board there were four main points he wanted to leave them with:
- AATA is highly regarded.
- The public remains supportive even at a rate of one mill.
- The single most compelling reason that people support transit is countywide door-to-door service for seniors and people with disabilities.
- The single most compelling reason that people don’t support transit is concern about taxes – not the efficiency of the organization.
Voter Survey: Public Comment
During his initial turn at public commentary, Jim Mogensen reminded the board that the results they were seeing from the survey did not include the negative advertising that might be done in connection with a ballot question. He suggested that in the next two weeks [during the run-up to the Feb. 28 presidential primary in Michigan] they’d be able to witness the effects of such ads.
During the second opportunity for public comment, at the conclusion of the meeting, Mogensen suggested that the board look closely at the confidence level of the survey results. [The potential sampling error was given by Clark as ± 2.7%]
Thomas Partridge called on the board to place a millage proposal on the ballot at a time when it is likely to be approved. He also called on the board to create a new brand name to replace The Ride, which AATA currently uses. He suggested calling it The Freedom Ride, drawing a connection to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Transportation is the civil rights issue of our time, he said.
AATA Resolution on Regional Transit
The board considered a resolution expressing its intent to continue to work to improve transportation services and in support of a new regional transit authority (RTA) as described in legislation currently pending in the state legislature.
The legislation would create a four-county region for the RTA that would include Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties. The RTA legislation as introduced would give two seats on a 10-member board to Washtenaw County – with two seats for each of the other three counties, one for Detroit, and one non-voting ex-officio appointment made by the governor. [For coverage of the proposed legislation, see "Michigan Regional Transit Bills Unveiled"]
However, according to a Michigan Information & Research Service (MIRS) summary of initial testimony on Feb. 14 before the Michigan senate’s transportation committee, Conan Smith – chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – would be willing to give up one of those seats: “Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith not only supported the bills, but expressed an openness to support giving up one of Washtenaw County’s appointments on the RTA to Detroit if ‘that’s what it took” to get the bills passed.’”
The position expressed by the AATA’s resolution is that the funding for any new RTA for southeast Michigan, described in state legislation introduced in late January, should be supported with funds above and beyond the level expended by existing public transportation service.
The board engaged in some back-and-forth at the table over the precise wording of the resolution. The board’s most recently appointed member, Eli Cooper, wanted to make sure the resolution expressed specifically the importance of the AATA’s role in its current provision of transportation services, and conditioned the AATA’s support for an RTA at this time to an RTA that coordinates and connects existing services.
Cooper cautioned that the RTA proposal may be both inclusive and intrusive. He said that while the board supports a regional transit authority, its role should be for coordinating connecting services that don’t already exist.
Cooper’s suggestion was met with some apparent initial puzzlement from David Nacht, who ventured that Cooper’s intent was simply to express that the AATA gets to run its own buses in its own neck of the woods and that the role of the RTA would simply be to get people from one neck of the woods to another neck of the woods. Nacht wound up seconding each of Cooper’s motions to amend the language, which inserted phrases at two different points [indicated in italics]:
The AATA Board supports the development of a regional transit authority to provide connector corridor transit services in southeast Michigan and will participate in the planning and implementation of these important connector services.
In order to guarantee and assure the continuation of our role in providing local transit or existing services, funding for a southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority must be new, additional funding so that the existing (and future state and federal funding) for the current Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board, and any Board that supersedes it, will not be negatively impacted. [.pdf of the draft resolution]
Nacht quipped that the gist is that “this conservative community” is concerned about the big government from Lansing coming in and taking over.
Board chair Jesse Bernstein, before opening the resolution to board discussion, framed it in the context of the “huge task” that AATA has undertaken in developing its transit master plan. He felt it was now time to solidify and clarify the discussions and provide the public with a clear statement of where the board stands now and where it hopes to go in the future.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution expressing the idea that any RTA would have a specific role and would need additional funding above and beyond what already exists.
Ann Arbor-Detroit Metro Airport Service
The board considered two resolutions that together establish service between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It’s expected to begin in April.
Ann Arbor-Detroit Metro Airport
One resolution set the fares for the service – a basic one-way fare is $15 – while the other approved the contract with Indian Trails (Michigan Flyer) to provide the service based on a per-service-mile dollar cost. The service will be branded as “AirRide.”
Details on the cost to riders include a one-way fare of $12 for advance reservation (and limited refundability) or $15 with refundability up to the time of departure. Round trip fare would be $22 for advance reservation (and limited refundability) or $30 with refundability up to the time of departure. Volume discounts also may be available for groups of up to eight people traveling together. [.pdf of resolution establishing fare structure]
AATA CEO Michael Ford has previously described the intent of the service to provide 12 daily trips each way, with a very limited number of stops, in order to achieve a trip time of around 40-45 minutes. At its Oct. 20, 2011 meeting, the board had authorized the negotiation of the contract with Indian Trails. At the Feb. 16 meeting, a resolution separate from the one setting fares established a two-year contract with Indian Trails at a cost of $2.56 per service mile, with the total cost for the contract not more than $700,000 per year.
Plans call for service to pick up passengers from the Fourth Avenue and William Street parking structure across from the AATA’s Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor. Parking at that structure will cost riders just $2 for as long as a two-week stay, through an arrangement with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. The route will include a stop near Briarwood Mall. At Detroit Metro Airport, passengers will be picked up and dropped off at both the McNamara Terminal and the North Terminal.Including stops, the AATA is planning for an airport route of around 60 miles round trip.
In the first year of the service, the AATA is planning to support it with up to $302,000 from the unrestricted fund balance, which is part of the $1 million of fund balance that the board is planning to spend for this year’s budget.
Marketing and promotional efforts are expected to be shared by the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau and the University of Michigan. Signs directing airport passengers to the service will be placed by the Detroit Metro Airport. The resolution approved by the AATA board also provides for an introductory promotional offer of $10 one-way and $20 round trip. At the AATA board’s planning and development committee meeting on Feb. 7, 2012, board member David Nacht characterized the airport service as part of “the world class development of a community called Ann Arbor.”
Service to Detroit Metro has been actively a part of the AATA’s work plan at least since a board retreat held on Aug. 10, 2010. And the board’s deliberations at its Feb. 18, 2009 board meeting included the fact that conversations between the AATA and Detroit Metro date back to the early 2000s.
Results of the recent CJI Research survey, conducted toward the end of 2011 and presented to the board at their Feb. 16 meeting, showed that 75% of registered voters throughout Washtenaw County said that hourly express service to Detroit Metro Airport was either very or somewhat important. [.pdf of survey results on airport service and other transit enhancements]
Ann Arbor-Detroit Metro Airport: Board Deliberations
David Nacht led off by saying that he’s been trying for the nine years that he’s been on the board to get to this moment: to have AATA provide bus service between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. He said he didn’t have feelings about whether it had to be a public-private partnership – he just wanted it to be efficient and wanted it to work.
Nacht said he was impressed with the work that Indian Trails did. Indian Trails has been limited in its ability to provide service to the airport, because the airport dealt with them as a private entity and charged an entry fee, Nacht said. Operating under the auspices of the AATA, providing public transit, Indian Trails will not be charged the fee that private operators would be. An additional benefit, said Nacht, is that Ann Arbor will have a presence in the airport. [Mary Stasiak, AATA manager of community relations, clarified after the meeting for The Chronicle that the signs the airport would use to provide direction to airline passengers to the service would not include "Ann Arbor" but only "public transportation."]
The marketing for AATA’s airport service, Nacht continued, will be beneficial to businesses, universities, and hospitals in Ann Arbor’s community as well as for residents of the community who go out of town. He said he genuinely hoped that the service works beautifully. But if it doesn’t, he said, the AATA needs to be flexible to find ways to make it work beautifully. Nacht said he was impressed with the contract negotiations – he had a sense that the contractor will work with the AATA.
It takes a while to get things done, Nacht said, noting that there was no additional board support other than himself when he first raised the issue nine years ago. But he noted that the CJI Research survey, about which the board had received a presentation that evening, indicated that 75% of respondents said that express service to the airport was very or somewhat important. He thanked staff for their work and said he was glad the rest of the board supported the service.
Roger Kerson questioned a roughly $300,000 figure on the cost breakdown for the service, and CEO Michael Ford confirmed that the number reflected the amount of the AATA fund reserve that would be used to support the service. After the meeting, Ford confirmed for The Chronicle that the $300,000 figure was part of the $1 million gap between revenues and expenditures that the AATA is incurring this year as a part of the board-approved budget.
Responding to a question from board chair Jesse Bernsetin, AATA controller Phil Webb indicated that starting two years after the new service, there’ll be additional federal dollars that would help support those additional service miles. Chris White, manager of service development, said he felt that around $130,000 could be recovered.
Kerson said he certainly supported the move to provide airport service, quipping that he didn’t want to get in the way of Nacht’s “quest.” But he noted that both the airport service and the increased frequency of service on Washtenaw Avenue between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti (Route #4) required dipping into reserves. There’s got to be a limit to how long the AATA would do that, he said. The AATA needs to get to expanded funding soon, Kerson concluded.
Nacht responded to Kerson’s remarks by saying that the concept is that the AATA is making an investment for a new service. He noted that other partners in the community are putting forth some resources – the DDA, for example, is offering parking at $2 for two weeks. If the service is not successful, Nacht said, “We don’t want to keep running it.” Once it becomes successful it will become important for those community partners to get more involved. Jesse Bernstein pointed out that one element of that partnership is that the University of Michigan will link to the AATA’s airport service on its transportation website.
Bernstein recalled how Rich Sheridan of Menlo Innovations had addressed the Ann Arbor city council at its Jan. 23, 2012 meeting and described his experience in Portland, Oregon, and how full the bus was that served the airport, and how it took over 30 years to put that system together. Michael Ford noted that the public transportation system serving the Portland airport is a train, not a bus. Charles Griffith prodded Ford to mention that Ford was previously in charge of all of bus and train operations for Portland’s public transportation system.
Nacht wrapped up deliberations by observing that the fare structure for the airport service meant that a large family with kids could use the service and the kids would ride for free. Also related to fares on the new airport service, during the public comment period at the conclusion of the meeting Cheryl Webber told the board she hoped that service for seniors and disabled people would be structured so that people who are visiting from out of town can have access to the service as well. If the discounted fare were limited to residents with their local card, visitors might not realize they can access the service.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved both resolutions related to establishing service between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport.
Budget for Consultant
The board considered a resolution to increase a contract with Steer Davies Gleave (SDG), by $95,500 to $288,817. The current contract with the London-based consultant, initially hired two years ago to help develop AATA’s transit master plan, is for “implementation assistance” of the plan. The original implementation assistance contract was approved by the board at its July 19, 2011 meeting.
At that July board meeting, some board members indicated they’d like to see SDG include more local resources as the process moves forward. The local planning firm Carlisle Wortman has since been engaged. The original contract with SDG for development of the transit master plan was for $399,805. It was previously extended and increased at the AATA board’s Nov. 18, 2010 meeting by an amount not to exceed $32,500.
The additional amount approved by the AATA board at its Feb. 16 meeting is meant to cover the costs of continued public engagement through district advisory committees throughout the county, support of a financial advisory group (scheduled to meet on Feb. 29), analysis of the AATA fare structure and payment mechanisms, and detailed description of the initial 5-year component of the 30-year transit master plan.
During deliberations, David Nacht said he was the guy who “killed” a consultant contract at the previous meeting for a different project. [That project related to an internal organizational review, which was tabled at the board's Dec. 15, 2011 meeting. As board chair Jesse Bernstein subsequently pointed out, that contract was simply being restructured, not killed.]
Nacht said it’s work that needs to be done, so the question for him is whether it is more efficient for the taxpayer to: (1) hire full-time staff; (2) hire someone on a part-time basis; or (3) work with consultants. Nacht noted that AATA’s strategic planner, Michael Benham, was hired at the staff level and has been quite instrumental with development of the transit master plan (TMP). But Nacht said he doesn’t want to significantly increase staff if the TMP is not passed. The AATA is trying to be conservative, Nacht said, and sometimes hiring an outside firm is more efficient.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to increase the amount of the consulting contract.
Annual State Aid Application
The board considered an annual resolution authorizing its CEO to apply for aid from the state of Michigan under Act 51 to provide transportation services. The resolution passed by the board cites AATA’s current year’s estimated revenue budget of “estimated federal funds $3,023,440, estimated state funds $10,988,677, estimated local funds $12,673,833, estimated fare box $6,552,000, estimated other funds $151,000, with total estimated expenses of $33,388,950.”
The budget amounts reflect the maximum that the AATA might use, provided it moves forward with elements of its transit master plan, which calls for expanded service. So it’s higher than the approved FY 2012 budget. As described in a staff memo:
The operating budget is just over $33 million, 9% higher than the adopted FY 2012 budget. The increase is primarily due to a full year’s operating cost for the route #4 service increase, a full year of operating cost for airport service, and implementation of the service expansion included in the TMP financial plan for 2013. The ability to implement this service expansion depends on developing a local funding source. The local funds are projected at $12 million, about $2 million higher than the FY 2012 budget.
At the Feb. 16 board meeting, in response to a question from board chair Jesse Bernstein, Chris White – manager of service development – explained that the state’s Act 51 requires application for state assistance every year. There’s a capital portion and an operating portion. This resolution was for the operating portion. The operating budget submitted with the application is used for planning purposes, White said. It’s important to include a budget for expanded service under the new transit master plan (TMP) to give the state an indication of the AATA’s intent. White described how he’d had a conference call with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) staff about about why the state aid planning budget for the AATA is increasing.
Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the application for state aid.
Bag Carry-On Policy
Although there was no vote, board members and the public discussed at the Feb. 16 meeting the subject of a changed policy on the number of bags that passengers on the A-Ride – AATA’s paratransit service – can bring with them on the shared-ride service. Background to the revised policy was a visually-impaired rider who addressed the board at its Nov. 17, 2011 meeting – he’d been denied a ride from the AATA’s contractor for the service (SelectRide), which had simply enforced a two-bag policy that the AATA had for the shared-ride service.
At the board’s Dec. 15, 2011 meeting, David Nacht had expressed his displeasure at the way the passenger had been treated. From The Chronicle’s meeting report:
David Nacht then spoke at length, saying he would like to express that when the AATA provides services for the disabled, it’s critically important the riders don’t feel like they’re second-class citizens. Nacht said there was something incredibly compelling about a visually-impaired person leaving his house with his young child, to get groceries for that child who was helping him. “The idea that our agency would allow our contractor to effectively deprive that person of dignity in the name of enforcing a policy, I think, goes against our values,” Nacht said.
At the board’s Feb. 16 meeting, during his verbal report to the board, CEO Michael Ford reported that 17 peer transportation systems had been reviewed for a comparison of their policies on bags, and the AATA’s local advisory council (LAC) was advising that the AATA’s two-bag limit be revised. The idea would be to stress that the number of bags could not displace another passenger – the A-Ride program is designed as a shared-ride program. [The LAC is the body through which the AATA receives input on policies affecting seniors and disabled people.]
During her report from the LAC, Cheryl Webber stressed that the LAC hadn’t recommended that there be no limit to the number of bags, but rather that the limit be defined in a different way. Bags must be confined to the area of the vehicle occupied by the rider – whether that’s under their legs or on their lap. The rationale for that is based on the fact that it’s a shared-ride program. Webber noted that there’s still a requirement that any items carried with a passenger be safe – no explosives, toxic or noxious items.
Webber observed that a limitation of carry-on bags is hard to understand for passengers in the context of a shared-ride program if they don’t often see the rides being shared. It’s rare that the program is used in a way that results in rides being shared. She noted that she enjoys getting a ride by herself, but it’s a shared-ride program for a reason, to make it efficient and affordable.
During his remarks from the board table, Charles Griffith thanked the LAC and staff for taking up the issue of the extra bags and finding ways to be more accommodating.
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi, director of advocacy education for the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living, noted that she’d worked as part of a subcommittee that had worked on the carry-on bag issue. She said it was good to see the collaborative effort of working together. She reminded the board that seniors and people with disabilities always need to be at the table.
At the Feb. 16 meeting, the board reset its committee membership and chairships to accommodate the departure from the board of two of its members in the last three months (Sue McCormick and Rich Robben) and the addition of one replacement (Eli Cooper.)
The planning and development committee will consist of: Anya Dale (chair), Eli Cooper and David Nacht. In practice, Dale had already presided over the Feb. 7 committee meeting as chair. The performance monitoring and external relations committee will continue to consist of Charles Griffith (chair) and Roger Kerson. The board’s governance committee consists of the board chair (Jesse Bernstein) plus the chairs of the two other committees.
Robben resigned from the board in November 2011, but served through the January 2012 board meeting. McCormick resigned around the same time, but her last meeting was December 2011. The nomination of Cooper – who serves as Ann Arbor city transportation program manager – was confirmed by the Ann Arbor city council in December 2011. [For coverage of the resignations and Cooper's appointment, see "Cooper Confirmed for AATA Board" and "AATA Board Bids Farewell to Robben"]
At the city council’s Jan. 23, 2012 meeting, mayor John Hieftje told the council that he hoped to bring a nomination for Robben’s replacement to them at the council’s next meeting, on Feb. 6, but he did not nominate anyone at that meeting. The AATA board does not currently have a treasurer, pending appointment of a replacement for Robben – McCormick had served in that office.
At its Sept. 15, 2011 meeting, the board had elected the same slate of officers that had served the previous year: Jesse Bernstein (chair); Charles Griffith (secretary); and Sue McCormick (treasurer). At that time, Bernstein noted that as the AATA contemplates a transition to a countywide focus, it was felt that it would be good to have some continuity.
The committee structure was also carried over from the previous year. At that time, the planning and development committee consisted of Robben (committee chair), Nacht and Dale. And before McCormick’s departure, the performance monitoring and external relations committee consisted of Griffith (committee chair), McCormick, and Kerson.
Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary
At its Feb. 16 meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.
Comm/Comm: Commuters, Residents
During his first turn at public commentary, Jim Mogensen addressed an item included in CEO Michael Ford’s written report, in which Ford had responded to public commentary made by Ethel Potts at the board’s Jan. 19, 2011 meeting. Ford had explained in his report that the service Potts had described as being eliminated had actually only been reduced. From the CEO’s report:
During public time at last month’s meeting a statement was made with regard to reducing service in order to serve a park and ride lot. This is not the case. Service was not eliminated, but rather service was reduced (with approval of the Board) because of very low productivity, not to provide service to the new Plymouth Road Park and Ride lot.
Mogensen told the board that he and Potts shared an interest in land use issues. He allowed that while the service on that route may not have been eliminated, for him, it meant that he had to stop using the bus. [Mogensen has addressed the board previously on that specific route, for example, at the May 12, 2010 board meeting.] The issue, he said, is related to a general policy issue of residents who are non-commuters and commuters who are non-residents. Resident non-commuters will always lose out to commuter non-residents, he said.
During his public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Mogensen continued the theme of balancing the needs of resident non-commuters against the needs of non-resident commuters. He pointed out that the express bus commuter service from Canton and Chelsea into Ann Arbor was being paid for in part by Ann Arbor’s local transit tax. [In AATA's financial performance reports, for each service provided, a line is included that's labeled "net local property tax applied" and year-to-date that figure for the commuter express service is $34,050.]
Mogensen also noted that the increase in service on Route #4 between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor and the new airport service is being subsidized in part by dipping into fund balance reserves. The needs of commuters and residents have to be balanced, he allowed, but he hoped that the new expanded services would not be balanced to the detriment of those who need to shop for groceries.
Comm/Comm: David Read
At the start of the meeting, board chair Jesse Bernstein introduced David Read, sitting in the audience as the representative on the U196 board for the north central district. Read is a Scio Township trustee. Board member David Nacht chimed in that he knew Read from his own service on the Scio Township board. He described Read as at times opposed to Nacht’s positions on the township board and at times supportive. He called Read a “class act” and said that he’s thrilled Read is a part of the countywide transit effort.
Comm/Comm: Website Development
From Jan Hallberg, IT manager for AATA, the board got an update on the status of the development of AATA’s new website.
She described the new website as having two different sections: (1) a basic website, which is currently being tested; and (2) the part with custom functionality. When the first phase is launched, she said, the site will include all current functionality. The subsequent phases will add new functionality.
Within the next month, Hallberg said, different departments should be able to start populating the site with content. Two of the AATA marketing staff have gone through training on how to update the site. She noted that the new website will be a content management system (CMS). That means each department within the AATA will be able to keep its content up to date on an ongoing basis. She allowed that with the updates at each month’s board meeting, it might sound like it’s taking a while. But the new website is going to have a lot of functionality that people have requested, she said.
Comm/Comm: Route #4
As part of the CEO’s report and as part of Charles Griffith’s report from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the board heard a preliminary summary of performance on Route #4, which runs between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The board had approved an increase in service frequency on that route at its Nov. 17, 2011 meeting. Increased frequency began at the end of January.
At the board’s planning and development committee meeting the previous week (on Feb. 7), Chris White – AATA’s manager of service development – urged caution about the increased ridership and on-time performance on the route. It’s just the first week and it’s possible that riders are simply switching routes. Compared to the previous week, before the implementation of the more frequent service, ridership on Route #4 increased 8% compared to a systemwide ridership decrease of 0.6%.
On Route #4, ridership numbers were as follows: Jan. 23-Jan. 27: 18,388 | Jan. 30-Feb. 3: 19,796. Systemwide, ridership for the same period: Jan. 23-Jan. 27: 129,579 | Jan. 30-Feb. 3: 128,754. Over the same timeframe, on‐time performance of Route #4 increased 9% compared to a 1% increase systemwide. On-time performance for Route #4 after implementation of increased service was 95%. Systemwide, it was 89%.
Griffith said the initial news is good, but noted that there are still some [too] full buses out there.
During question time, Roger Kerson asked how the increased frequency on Route #4 was handled – did the AATA hire additional drivers, or did the AATA give additional hours to existing drivers? Ford indicated that another group of drivers had been hired – five new drivers for that particular route.
Comm/Comm: Performance Indicators
Following up on Kerson’s query about increased frequency on Route #4, David Nacht noted that he was struck by the increase in the ridership in the overall performance data. He told Ford that under Ford’s leadership, the AATA seems to be doing a good job of targeting those areas where people are more likely to ride the bus. AATA’s service miles are up 1% and its service hours are up 2%, but the total number of passengers is up 7%. Nacht stated that means the AATA is running more buses when more people are going to ride them. Nacht concluded that is a good use of tax dollars:
Year Prior to Date Year Service Outputs AATA Service Hours 63,430 61,997 2% AATA Service Miles 872,438 867,006 1% AATA Passengers 2,165,332 2,020,942 7% AATA Passenger Revenue $1,546,352 $1,591,444 -3% Weekday Passengers 1,991,582 1,855,544 7%
Charles Griffith noted as a follow-up that the expense per passenger and per mile are down 10% and 14% respectively. Nacht and Griffith were summarizing from the AATA’s year-to-date performance data.
Comm/Comm: Inter-Local Agreements, Four-Party Agreement, Next Steps
At the Feb. 16 meeting, CEO Michael Ford gave an update on the status of the AATA’s effort to expand its governance structure and its service area to include a wider geographic region than just the city of Ann Arbor – that is, most of Washtenaw County. That possible transition is currently being debated by the Ann Arbor city council, in the context of a four-party agreement – between the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA.
The proposed governance structure under Act 196 of 1986 is based on inter-local agreements between several different local units of government in Washtenaw County. At the meeting, Ford indicated that the inter-local agreements among units of government forming districts in the proposed governance structure of an Act 196 authority had been filed with the state of Michigan. However, Sharon Township had become the fifth local unit to decide not to participate.
The Ann Arbor city council has postponed consideration of the four-party agreement three times, in part because some councilmembers want to hear the funding recommendation of a financial advisory group before voting on the agreement.
Ford indicated that the financial advisory group’s meeting on Feb. 29 would be followed by a public meeting on March 2 to help answer any questions people might have. The city council is scheduled to take up the issue of the four-party agreement again at its March 5 meeting.
Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Eli Cooper, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale.
Next regular meeting: Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor. [confirm date]
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