AATA Looks to Ride Over Bumps

Demise of countywide transit authority results in more focused talks with smaller set of municipalities; Route #5 frequency increased

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Nov. 15, 2012): Board chair Charles Griffith called it a “bumpy month” since the incorporation in early October of a new countywide transit authority under Act 196 – The Washtenaw Ride. A week before the AATA board’s meeting, the Ann Arbor city council had voted to withdraw from the new authority and to terminate an agreement between four parties – the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA – that would have governed a transition from the AATA to The Washtenaw Ride.

AATA Route 5 between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Ann Arbor Transporation Authority

AATA Route #5 between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti has two variants – 5A and 5B. The leg that is mostly within the city of Ann Arbor will have increased frequency starting at the end of January 2013, based on an AATA board resolution.

Since the incorporation of the new authority on Oct. 3, 2012, the “bumps” have included a divergence of views by legal counsel – about the start of the 30-day opt-out period, and the ability of someone to render simultaneous service on boards of the AATA and The Washtenaw Ride. [Previous Chronicle coverage "Positions Open: New Transit Authority Board" and "Ann Arbor Mayor: Need Transit Board Members"]

Bumps also include decisions by a majority of municipalities countywide to withdraw from the authority, including some that the AATA had expected would participate. Ann Arbor’s withdrawal ended this approach to expanding transit. Until Ann Arbor’s decision to opt out, a majority of the county’s population was still included in the areas that would have participated.

Nevertheless, the mood of AATA’s Nov. 15 meeting was moderately optimistic. The Ann Arbor city council’s resolution had encouraged the AATA to pursue expanded service – but with a narrower focus. And CEO Michael Ford reported that following the council’s decision, a meeting had been held with representatives of eight different jurisdictions who were interested in pursuing some alternative to the Act 196 incorporation.

Having attended both the city council meeting and the subsequent meeting with representatives of interested jurisdictions, AATA board member Roger Kerson said, “The second was more fun than the first.” It’s expected that in December, it would be possible to start settling in on a geographic footprint for communities that would opt into an arrangement for expanded service and more stable funding.

Paul Schreiber, the mayor of Ypsilanti, attended the board’s meeting and encouraged the establishment of a more stable funding source than the purchase-of-service agreements (POSAs), through which the AATA has historically provided service to areas outside of Ann Arbor – like Ypsilanti.

The relatively optimistic tone of the board’s discussion was backed by two votes in support of expanded services: (1) the purchase of 25 additional vans to expand the AATA’s vanpool service; and (2) an allocation of funds to increase the frequency of service on the Ann Arbor branch of Route #5, which runs down Packard toward Ypsilanti.

The vote to increase service frequency on Route #5 came only after considerable debate and over the dissent of two board members. The AATA staff had recommended the increased service for Route #5 – but on a timetable that would have included a more thorough financial analysis of other services. Those other services have been added based on anticipated additional funding that would have been available through the newly incorporated Act 196 authority. They include: increased Route #4 frequency, the AirRide airport service, expanded NightRide service, and commuter express service to Chelsea and Canton.

Transportation Master Plan (TMP) Implementation

Much of the commentary by the board and the public was on the recent developments in connection with the AATA’s transit master plan that it had tried to implement with the incorporation of an Act 196 transit authority. On Nov. 8, 2012, the city of Ann Arbor withdrew from the new transit authority – called The Washtenaw Ride – that had been incorporated on Oct. 3, 2012. Incorporation of the new transit authority under Act 196 of 1986 had been preceded by the development of a 30-year transit master plan and a five-year service plan by the AATA, over a more than two-year period.

The overall tone of the AATA board’s Nov. 15 meeting reflected the optimistic parts of the Ann Arbor city council’s Nov. 8 resolution that encouraged the AATA to continue to seek ways to expand services, but not using the mechanism of the Act 196 authority.

TMP: Public Comment

Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber commented on the CEO’s written report to the board provided in the board packet – with respect to the expanded transit authority. He told the board that in the past, the AATA has helped out the city of Ypsilanti quite a bit, keeping its bus service going. There have been a lot of gyrations over the years, he noted. Whenever there’s been a cut in funding or a route change, AATA has been there to keep the buses rolling between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. We need a permanent solution to this yearly issue, Schreiber said, which exists with the eastern side of Washtenaw County – annual contracts paid for out of the general fund of municipalities. He’d been hoping that a countywide authority might be put in place so that there’d be a permanent solution, which would allow the board of the authority to plan for the future and expand. As long as we have annual purchase-of-service agreements (POSAs) or POSAs in general, they can be changed at the whim of a city council or a township board of trustees, he noted.

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority CEO Michael Ford, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Scheiber

From left: Ann Arbor Transportation Authority CEO Michael Ford and Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber. They were looking at schedules before the Nov. 15 AATA board meeting.

Schreiber pledged to the AATA board members that he’d work with them to help establish a permanent transit mechanism on the eastern side of Washtenaw County – whether that’s a transit authority or something else. It would make sense to include the city of Ypsilanti, parts of Ypsilanti Township, parts of Pittsfield Township, and parts of Superior Township on the backbone along Washtenaw Avenue between the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, he suggested. He felt that if they start there instead of starting countywide – as the AATA had tried – they could establish a system that is permanent and stable, and something that can be built upon. He was looking forward to working with the AATA board on that, as well as with officials in the townships. He appreciated the board’s work, saying, “It’s not over and let’s keep working together.”

TMP Implementation: Local Advisory Council

Rebecca Burke reported from the AATA’s local advisory council (LAC), a group that provides input and feedback to AATA on disability and senior issues. She read aloud a resolution passed by LAC expressing support for continued efforts to expand transit and expressing the LAC’s readiness to support that effort.

TMP Implementation: Board Remarks

Reporting from the AATA’s planning and development committee (PDC), Sue Gott said that AATA strategic planner Michael Benham had provided the committee an update on the implementation of the transit master plan (TMP). Benham had described an encouraging discussion on the part of many communities who are still interested in incremental expansion. Benham had described the AATA as starting to settle in on a footprint of communities that would opt in for transportation. At the committee’s next meeting in December, they’d be looking at a first cut of a draft plan for expanded transit – focused more narrowly on participating communities.

Commenting during question time on the transit master plan implementation, board chair Charles Griffith said, “I think we all can admit it was a pretty bumpy month for us all, and we need to take stock of what happened.” He said he was disappointed in the outcome, but felt the AATA should continue to be proud of the work the AATA had done in leading up to this point. He allowed that “We could have done a better job in some ways,” but felt that the AATA still has a solid foundation. The implementation of the plan now needs some reworking, he said.

Griffith felt there’s a legitimate difference of opinion about whether the structure that had been proposed was adaptable to accomplish the same goals that the AATA will now take a different approach to achieve. It also works “to reboot the effort,” Griffith said. He felt ready to embrace the direction the Ann Arbor city council had given the AATA.

Given the meeting that the AATA had held earlier in the week with a wide array of officials in the urban core district, who are very eager to continue to move forward with the AATA, Griffith felt some solid beginning elements are in place for a new plan. That plan can accomplish goals that the transit master plan outlines and can get the support of the local officials that the AATA needs. While it was tough month, Griffith said, the AATA is in a good position to continue moving forward, and might end up with a better product.

AATA board members Sue Gott and Jesse Bernstein chat before the meeting.

AATA board members Sue Gott and Jesse Bernstein chat before the Nov. 15 meeting.

Jesse Bernstein also acknowledged that it had been a difficult month. The point, he said, is there’s an excellent foundation. There’s still a 30-year vision and 5-year plan that had been the result of two years of gathering community input. The question now is what’s the best way to implement that. The AATA is ready to have discussions with anybody and everybody, he said. “Let us continue and let us find a way to get the transportation services that the community has told us they wanted.”

Sue Gott expressed appreciation for the positive comments from Griffith and Bernstein. She said she’s pleased as a practicing planner that transit is such priority in the community. [Gott is the University of Michigan's top planner.] We should stop and celebrate how important it is that transit is such a priority, she said. The AATA now has an opportunity to work with neighbors moving forward. The AATA can manage and strategically implement some incrementally expanded service, she said, which benefits the health and vitality of the greater Ann Arbor area.

The AATA must continue to be flexible, Gott said, and recognize that planning is always evolving. That’s because communities are dynamic, fluid spaces and systems. The AATA board needs to remain nimble and focus on what the AATA’s core service is about. The board also needs to continue to express appreciation to the staff for leadership and engagement of all the stakeholders in the county. She now looks forward to seeing a more focused and refined approach to a plan in the next month. The AATA can then look at a more incremental rollout as neighbors bring forward their wishes. It’s a next step in an ongoing effort to bring transportation service to many different communities in the county, she concluded.

Roger Kerson reported that he attended the Nov. 8 city council meeting and the following meeting with representatives of several municipalities. “The second was more fun than the first,” he quipped.

Even in the context of the city council’s decision, he reported, there seemed to be strong sentiment on the part of city councilmembers around the table that we need a regional approach, and that partnering with neighbors was the right way to go.

Some kind of organization that is focused on the urban core will be easier and more cost effective to operate, Kerson ventured, though it’s still unclear what that organization will look like. At the meeting that had taken place subsequent to the city council’s Nov. 8 session, eight different jurisdictions were represented, Kerson said. He allowed that it has been a bumpy road, but the fact that people attended that meeting said to him that “People rode over the bumps and wanted to keep going.”

At that meeting, a number of people felt a need to get specific answers on how the governance would work and what the services and costs would be. At that meeting, he’d also heard that another two-year process isn’t required. Because of the work that’s already been done – outreach, input, and data collection – the AATA will be in a position in the near term to know what it can offer and who the AATA can offer services to. Kerson said he appreciated the fact that mayor Paul Schreiber was attending the meeting. That showed that the AATA’s partners really do want to move forward. The AATA now has a modified direction from the Ann Arbor city council, but it’s not a whole new direction.

Transportation Master Plan: Specific Services

Because the AATA had anticipated that a new Act 196 would eventually provide needed funding to sustain services, it launched some services in anticipation of that funding: increased Route #4 frequency, the AirRide airport service, expanded NightRide service, and commuter express service from Ann Arbor to Chelsea and Canton.

How that mix of services is now to be evaluated – in the context of a more limited collection of municipalities in a structure yet to be defined – was highlighted as the board discussed adding another service to the mix: increased frequency on Route #5.

Route #5 has two branches – between downtown Ann Arbor and downtown Ypsilanti, and between downtown Ann Arbor and the Carpenter Road Meijer. The current service level runs buses every 15 minutes on the main trunk of the two branches. The board considered a resolution to increase service on the second branch, which is primarily within Ann Arbor, so that service on the main trunk would be every 10 minutes.

TMP: Specific Services – Route #5: Board Prelims

Reporting from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson said the committee had received a financial report. He and the other members of the committee – David Nacht and Jesse Bernstein – were all concerned about how the AATA proceeds. With the demise of the countywide Act 196 authority, the potential funds generated through that authority won’t be available for the services that had been launched to kick-start the implementation of the master plan. So the AATA needs to assess how to move forward responsibly and stay on budget, Kerson said. The committee is expecting an initial staff report on that the following month, he said.

Kerson reported that the performance data shows increased ridership continuing. “People are obviously voting with their feet to use the various services,” Kerson said. The AirRide has reached a customer level where it’s no longer requiring a subsidy from the AATA – it’s essentially paying for itself. That was the case the previous month, in any event, and if that continues it would put the AirRide in better shape than had been predicted. Ridership on NightRide is also increasing, he said, which is an expensive service to provide.

TMP: Specific Services – Route #5: CEO Report

As part of his CEO’s report, Michael Ford summarized some discussion from the performance monitoring and external relations (PMER) committee about the 5-year program that had been part of the now-demised approach to expanding transit countywide. Access to transit throughout Washtenaw County is a high priority for economic vitality and growth, he said. This is shown through the record ridership that the AATA has enjoyed, as well as the passionate support the AATA has received from residents. It’s important to Washtenaw County’s quality of life that the AATA put together the talent and resources to deliver the kind of public transit system that residents have demanded of the AATA, Ford said. “Doing nothing is not an option,” he said.

The AATA respects the opinions of the elected officials who’ve chosen to withdraw from the Act 196 countywide authority, Ford said, in favor of moving forward with a different process and more compact authority. The AATA welcomes all communities to participate in a public transportation model, he said. The AATA is focused on planning expanded service with elected officials in the urban core communities – who have indicated a strong interest in developing an expanded transit network, despite the demise of the recently incorporated countywide authority. The communities include the cities of Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline, as well as the townships of Pittsfield and Ypsilanti, and the village of Dexter. Ford indicated the AATA would also work with Superior Township, which has a purchase-of-service agreement (POSA) with the AATA.

The AATA will review the services it offers, Ford said, in order to maintain its strong history of fiscal stewardship. Specifically, the PMER committee will evaluate the continued provision of services that were already made as an investment in the 5-year transit program, which was part of the proposal for the countywide authority. The additional services that had been introduced, Ford said, had shown positive results within months of their introduction – but they might no longer be sustainable without additional funding. Those include: increased Route #4 frequency, the AirRide airport service, expanded NightRide service, and commuter express service from Ann Arbor to Chelsea and Canton.

Ford outlined a timetable for the review of services. In December, staff would present current costs and a recommended evaluation process. With the board’s concurrence, in January staff will discuss continuation of services with the AATA’s partners and riders. In February, staff would bring recommendations to the board for adoption, with implementation to take place in April, he said.

Ford described the services to be reviewed in more detail:

  • Route #4, which generated a 28% increase in ridership when frequency was doubled. The route also had improved on-time performance and reduced overcrowding.
  • Express commuter service with Canton and Chelsea, which had shown an increase in service of 29% and 14%, respectively.
  • Expanded NightRide to Ypsilanti, which has increased ridership by 31%.
  • AirRide, which is the AATA’s service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro airport, began in April and is now carrying 1,000 passengers per week. In October, the fares covered the local contribution.

Ford pointed out that in addition to reviewing those services, the staff recommendation was to defer implementation of a plan for increased service on Route #5, but he noted that because it had been added to the agenda, it was up for discussion. Ford noted that all the services under review enjoy popularity among passengers, and the AATA hopes to avoid any reduction or elimination of those services. One way to preserve AATA’s standards of service is to continue to explain the importance of expanded transit to elected officials. Ford also encouraged citizens to share their desires for expanded and improved transit with their elected officials.

TMP: Specific Services – Route #5: Nacht’s Proposal

David Nacht asked at the start of the meeting that the agenda be amended to add an item about reprogramming funds from airport services, which he reported broke even last month and required no subsidy. He said that in the current budget year, it would require $90,000 to increase Route #5 service and that’s what the reprogramming of funds would achieve. The vote to amend the agenda came over dissent from Jesse Bernstein.

Reporting from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Kerson said the committee had a long discussion on Route #5 frequency of service. He characterized it as an idea that had been brought to the staff by David Nacht. The route runs every 15 minutes, Kerson said, so it hadn’t been previously identified as needing improvements. But on closer examination, there’s overcrowding on the route and on-time performance is not up to the standard AATA would like – adding frequency could alleviate that. The public comment on the possible service change was uniform in its agreement that Route #5 could use more buses.

The committee’s view, however, is that it would be prudent to defer the Route #5 improvements until the AATA can get a better handle on the budget, Kerson said. He reviewed how the annual cost of the increased Route #5 frequency is about $150,000 and from now until the end of the calendar year that works out to about $90,000. Kerson characterized Nacht’s position at the committee meeting as “Let’s do it now.” Kerson said that he and Bernstein had carried the day during the committee discussion to accept the staff recommendation to defer and to wait next month for the staff’s more comprehensive report. Nacht now wanted to revisit the issue with the whole board, Kerson said.

TMP: Specific Services – Route #5: Board Deliberations

David Nacht led off the deliberations by saying that he wanted to bring the motion now for a couple of reasons. There’s been a healthy conversation within the city of Ann Arbor about the role of transit and the role of Ann Arbor with respect to its neighbors and with respect to the AATA’s process. “I think we have a lot to learn from paying attention and listening to all of that,” he said. One of the things he’d heard is that in the effort to promote a more regional approach – which the AATA believes is in the best interest of the city’s residents – it’s possible that a new governing authority could lose sight of the city’s residents. And the city’s residents have been paying a millage, year in and year out, to get transit service, he noted.

Route #5 productivity chart from AATA year-end report. For fiscal year 2012, Route #5 had 33.4 riders per service hour compared to a systemwide average of  32.5.

Route #5 productivity chart from AATA year-end report. For fiscal year 2012, Route #5 had 33.4 riders per service hour compared to a systemwide average of 32.5.

People who’ve been paying attention, Nacht said, know that AirRide – the service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport – was his idea. He’d pushed it for years without support. But now it’s a reality because of the AATA staff’s work, the board’s support and a cooperative private sector. He stated that he knows there’s enough money in the AirRide budget to keep that service going, and that some of it can be used to increase frequency on Route #5. That will make the daily commute easier for people who live in southeast Ann Arbor. He wants to show that first and foremost, it’s Ann Arbor taxpayers who allow the AATA to exist. “We shouldn’t delay servicing [Ann Arbor taxpayers'] needs because we’re trying to figure out what other projects which go outside Ann Arbor we might keep or not keep.”

Nacht said he had asked Chris White, AATA manager of service development, about the idea of increasing frequency on Route #5. He’d asked if it were a modestly good idea, or a pretty good idea. White had said it’s “a very good idea.” There’s no dispute that this will help people, Nacht said. So it’s a budgetary issue and policy issue about what AATA stands for and who it serves, Nacht concluded.

Responding to Nacht, Jesse Bernstein called the board’s attention to the summary of the issue laid out in White’s Nov. 6, 2012 memo, which was included in the board packet. There’s no disagreement about the need for increased frequency, but Bernstein pointed out the last paragraph of the memo, which recommends deferring that decision for now:

The added cost of this service increase is a serious concern at a time when the budget is very tight. Staff recommends deferring a decision on implementation for now, and including this service change in the evaluation that is beginning to determine sustainable services after the demise of the Act 196 authority.

The conversation by the PMER committee was not a question of whether the service improvement is needed – it was about fiduciary responsibility. It’s his understanding that the staff would bring to the committee’s next meeting additional information and a recommendation that is more fully vetted from a financial standpoint. Bernstein would be ready to vote when the committee has a full report from staff. He wants to support Ford’s timetable. He noted that the AATA is in a very different situation from last month. We need to “catch our breath,” Bernstein said.

Anya Dale stated that her priority was moving people within the urban area. But she agreed with Bernstein that she would like to have more background on the Route #5 improvements, before moving forward.

Eli Cooper noted that ridership on AirRide is substantial. He asked Nacht as treasurer of the board if there was an expectation that the $90,000 that Nacht was asking the board to reprogram from AirRide would be sufficient. Nacht told Cooper that he had a high degree of confidence that the success of AirRide doesn’t depend on this $90,000. Fare revenues are way ahead of predictions for AirRide. He felt it’s a very responsible financial decision. In contrast to the approach he was taking – reprogramming funds from AirRide – he said he would not support tapping the AATA’s cash reserves for this.

Perfomance graph for the AATA AirRide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport.

Performance graph for the AATA’s AirRide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport.

Cooper noted that the riders who will benefit from this decision are paying taxes to support the service, but are standing on buses or getting to work late, so this investment will improve the lives of the residents of the city of Ann Arbor. Based on Nacht’s remarks, Cooper didn’t think it was worthwhile to force people to stand on buses and be late for another month or two while the board deliberates the financial future of the system. “Let’s move the people,” Cooper concluded.

Bernstein asked for a more detailed explanation of how the AirRide funding works. Ford explained that $250,000 goes to Michigan Flyer, the private operator that provides the service for AATA. Once that threshold is met, additional fare revenues are split between the AATA and Michigan Flyer. In October 2012, there was enough ridership that it completely defrayed what was owed to Michigan Flyer. Projections are for continued high ridership for the next three to four months. Ford noted that “We do have some money there; it is available.” But he cautioned that the AATA has only been offering the service for 8-9 months.

Bernstein drew out the fact that the first year’s contract ends March 31 and the $250,000 guarantee is re-established for the next contract year. AATA controller Phil Webb explained that it’s a complicated formula. Michigan Flyer charges $81 per service hour, which is higher lower than its gross cost – made possible by the fact that Michigan Flyer has additional riders who board in Lansing. AATA’s contract is negotiated so that Michigan Flyer is guaranteed the first $250,000 of fares, because that was their fare revenue level before the AATA contract.

The $250,000 minimum was reached within the first six months of the current contract year, Webb said. So any additional fares reduce the cost of the $81 per service hour. The $81 cost works out to about $57,000 a month – 31 days, 22 service hours per day. But fares were $60,000, so the invoice for October had no payment due. If ridership stays at the same level, the AATA will have little if any payment for the next six months. But on April 1, 2013 the contract will reset – until the $250,000 threshold is reached again.

Webb explained that for the current year’s budget, the AATA projected $580,000 of fares for AirRide. If every month were like October, that would be $60,000 times 12 – or $720,000. Not every month will be the same, but Webb estimated that there could be around $100,000 more in revenue, if trends hold.

Kerson said that it’s great if AirRide produces extra money, but his concern about supporting Nacht’s motion is “What do we do next year?” For this year’s overall budget, the AATA had already dipped into reserves. The AATA would need to be considering several services, including Route #4. Comparing Route #4 to Route #5, Kerson pointed out that Route #4 also serves Ann Arbor residents. He said he’d prefer more time and information.

Invited to comment by board chair Charles Griffith, CEO Michael Ford said he’d like some time to talk to other communities to see what their willingness is to pay for certain services, and what services they wanted. He wanted to take some time and be comprehensive in the AATA’s approach and make the most informed decision possible.

Griffith called it a difficult decision. When Route #4 was discussed, which ultimately resulted in the doubling of frequency on that route earlier in the year, he was aware of overcrowding on Route #5. He’d received comments from people asking about Route #5 and he’d asked about that several months ago. He called it disjointing that staff doesn’t feel the AATA isn’t quite ready to make that leap. While he’s supportive of Nacht’s motion, he is still mindful of the issues that Kerson and Bernstein have raised.

The vote on increasing Route #5 frequency now instead of waiting was 5-2.

The AATA board vote on increasing Route #5 frequency now instead of waiting was 5-2, with dissent by Jesse Bernstein and Roger Kerson.

Nacht responded by saying that Kerson and Bernstein had made their point well. But he said that “moving Ann Arborites from their home to downtown is our core. That’s a given.” There are other things, like constructing new buildings or running services to other communities, or hiring staff to study different kinds of services. About those other things Nacht said, “Those things are not given. They are icing – this is cake. This is our job. We should do it. And budget around it.”

Responding to a question from Bernstein, Ford indicated that to increase the frequency in service on Route #5 in January, the board would need to make a decision tonight. The plan had been to come back to PMER in December with a recommendation, then go to the full board in January. In February there’d be a vote on implementation of changes in April. Bernstein concluded that if the board decided that night, then this would accelerate implementation by only one month. But Ford said a decision that night would mean a service implementation could be made at the end of January. Kerson ventured that he was not prepared to make the decision that night, but felt it should be possible to implement sooner than April – by identifying higher priority items.

Nacht pointed out that there are only certain points in the year when service changes can be made. Ford confirmed those times are the end of January, the end of April, and the end of August. It would take about two and a half months’ notice to implement a service change, Ford said.

Griffith called the information about service change dates persuasive. The winter months are toughest for riders, he said. There’s high ridership in the winter and he would prefer not to wait until April. If cuts need to be made, they’d need to be made in other places, he said.

Outcome: The board approved the increase to Route #5 frequency on a 5-2 vote, over the dissent of Jesse Bernstein and Roger Kerson.

TMP: Specific Services – Route #5: Public Comment

The public commentary time at the end of the meeting immediately followed the vote on the Route #5 service. Jim Mogensen told board members that the conversation they’d just had is a microcosm of future conversations they’d have soon. It’s not going to get any easier, he said. The relationship between the city of Ann Arbor and the AATA is complicated. There are minutes from a past Ann Arbor city council meeting showing that a then-young attorney named Jerry Lax had to explain to councilmembers how the AATA operated – because the city council thought that the AATA was part of the city, when it wasn’t.

Mogensen characterized the purchase-of-service agreements the AATA has used as a way to administer a regional transit system over longer periods of time. The reason he’d previously brought up the Title VI issue with respect to minority communities is that he believes the fixed-route service is the AATA’s service. And when the AATA makes decisions, it will need to make sure that service to minority communities is retained. That would be difficult to do, he contended. It might require some new thinking, he said. By way of additional background, the Nov. 6, 2012 memo written by AATA manager of service development Chris White includes a reference to the issue Mogensen raised about Title VI:

A Title VI, Environmental Justice, and Limited English Proficiency Analysis for major service changes is in preparation. The #5 route serves census tracts with higher than average minority and low-income populations. Our preliminary analysis is that this is a positive change, but AATA will complete the analysis to insure that service changes do not inadvertently disadvantage protected populations.

Vivienne Armentrout announced that she was there to state the obvious. She noted that the meeting agenda includes the mission statement of the AATA:

It is the mission of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to provide useful, reliable, safe, environmentally responsible, and cost-effective public transportation options for the benefit of the Greater Ann Arbor Community.

Some people would say the whole county is the “Greater Ann Arbor Community,” or some people might describe it as the urban area around Ann Arbor. But she wanted to remind the board that the name of the organization is still the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority and the main source of local funding is still the Ann Arbor taxpayer. So she read aloud from the resolution that established the AATA: “… the City shall annually levy a tax of two and one-half mills on all taxable real and personal property situated within the City for the purpose of providing funds for operating and equipping a public transportation system for the City.” She said she’d heard some things around the table that night indicating that board members are aware of this. She was just bringing it up because local taxpayer funds had been used to pay for commuter express service from other communities and for the countywide planning effort. She just wanted to remind the board of the obvious.

Responding to Armentrout’s remarks about the “greater Ann Arbor area, Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber also spoke during public commentary at the end of the meeting. He noted that there’s a Marriott Hotel just south of the city of Ypsilanti, at Huron and I-94 – and the name of that hotel is the “Ann Arbor Marriott in Ypsilanti.” They do that because they’re part of the Ann Arbor area. He agreed with a lot of the board’s discussion. But there are details involved in serving the city of Ann Arbor – like the fact that over half of Zingerman’s employees live in Ypsilanti. When you’re serving the area around Ann Arbor so that people can arrive for work in Ann Arbor, you’re helping the city of Ann Arbor, he pointed out.

Vanpool Vehicle Purchases

The board was asked to authorize the purchase of 25 2013 Dodge Caravans at $21,356 apiece – as part of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s vanpool program. The funds used to buy the 25 vans come from federal and state sources.

Vanpool Vehicle Purchases: Background

At the board’s Jan. 19, 2012 meeting, the AATA board had previously authorized the purchase of seven Dodge Caravans (model year 2012) for $21,272 each (total = $148,904), with an option to purchase up to a total of 25 vans (total = $531,800). That vehicle purchase was preceded by an authorization given over a year ago, on Sept. 15, 2011, to contract with VPSI Inc. to administer the AATA’s vanpool program.

According to a staff memo accompanying the Nov. 15 resolution, the AATA currently has 23 vanpools in operation, and on average, these vanpools commute 90 miles per work day. The AATA expects to continue to grow its VanRide program to 100 vans over the next three years.

Vanpools are arrangements in which a vehicle is provided through the service, but is driven by one of the members of the pool. Riders pay for operational costs. Currently, the MichiVan program, operated by VPSI, also provides such a service. However, MichiVan is only providing vanpool service for existing vanpools in the Ann Arbor area. AATA is handling demand for new vanpools. And as MichiVan vehicles reach the end of their useful life, MichiVan vanpools will transition to the AATA’s service.

Vanpool Vehicle Purchases: Board Discussion

Reporting from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Roger Kerson described the AATA’s funding of the van purchase as a pass-through function. The funds are provided by state and federal sources, he said. He noted that the bid was widely distributed, but there had been only one bidder.

David Nacht pointed out that the contract was going to an Ingham County dealership. He’d asked if the AATA had contacted Washtenaw County dealerships. He’d been told that emails were sent to local dealerships, but the AATA did not receive bids from them. But an effort had been made to give local businesses a chance to compete.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the van purchase.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its Nov. 15 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: Chairship of Committees

The AATA board has two standing committees: planning and development (PDC) and performance monitoring and external relations (PMER).

At the start of the meeting, board chair Charles Griffith announced that Sue Gott would now chair the PDC instead of Anya Dale, as Dale was stepping down from that role. The third member of that committee is Eli Cooper.

Comm/Comm: Commuter Rail Test

Eli Cooper reported that he’d stayed at the Ann Arbor Amtrak station until about 10:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 waiting to see the test run for passenger cars for SEMCOG’s planned east-west commuter train.

Passenger rail cars that were a part of a test run conducted on Nov. 13, 2012.

Passenger rail cars that were part of a test run conducted on Nov. 13, 2012. Photographs by Steve Sobel with the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers (MARP).

The cars didn’t come through Ann Arbor until later, however. He had talked to an Amtrak official who said that the test run was delayed somewhat due to conflicts with freight traffic. Cooper reported that he did have some photos.

The photos were taken by Steve Sobel, a photographer for the Michigan Association of Railroad Passengers. The MDOT commuter cars were pulled by an Amtrak locomotive from Pontiac out to Jackson and back, Cooper said, for final operations testing.

Preliminary information is that the test went well, Cooper reported.

Comm/Comm: Minutes from Oct. 18, 2012

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Jim Mogensen called the board’s attention to the minutes of the Oct. 18 meeting agenda. He quoted from the minutes, which described his public commentary:

Mr. Mogensen suggested that municipalities are not purchasing fixed route bus service, but rather the expenses associated with operating fixed route bus service.

He suggested a more accurate to state his comments:

Mr. Mogensen suggested that municipalities are not purchasing fixed route bus service, but are providing the local match associated with the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s fixed route bus service.

Mogensen asked that the minutes be amended to reflect that.

Later in the meeting, when the minutes from that meeting were approved, board member Roger Kerson asked that the minutes be amended to reflect Mogensen’s request. That change was made.

Comm/Comm: Blake Transit Center

As part of his CEO’s report, Michael Ford noted that the groundbreaking for the new downtown Ann Arbor Blake Transit Center would be taking place on Nov. 19. at 11 a.m.

Commenting later in the meeting on the BTC, Jesse Bernstein thanked the staff for their hard work on the project. He also observed that a new attitude had been discovered in the course of the project, when the neighbor to the north of the parcel – the federal building – had raised the possibility of granting access across the southern portion of their parcel for a mid-block cut-through between Fourth and Fifth avenues.

Comm/Comm: AAPS Transportation Work Group

As part of his CEO report, Michael Ford said that the Ann Arbor Public Schools transportation work group had met the previous Wednesday to discuss a menu of options to reduce costs. Some of the items have been eliminated from consideration, but expanded use of the AATA system is still being considered as part of the plan. A recommendation for options is expected next month, Ford said. [The AATA is currently providing school transportation for three routes – to each of the school district's comprehensive high schools.]

Comm/Comm: Connector Study

Michael Ford also reported that the project team had met with the consultant on the connector study for first time after agreement had been signed between the local funding partners. By way of background, the study is focusing on a transportation connector – for the corridor running from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street and south along State Street to I-94. The outcome of this study phase is to identify a preferred mode of transit (e.g., bus rapid transit, light rail, etc.) and the location of stations and stops. A feasibility study has already been completed. The Ann Arbor city council finally authorized its part of the $300,000 local match for a $1.2 million grant at its Oct. 15, 2012 meeting.

Ford reported that a representative from URS Corp. – the consultant with the contract to perform the study – as well as the University of Michigan, AATA, Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, the city of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study, and SEMCOG – had attended the meeting. The consultant reviewed the purpose, schedule and data collection efforts. Primary discussion focused on the design of the public participation effort and how to make it as effective as possible. The initial efforts will be interactive drop-in sessions to be held at locations along the corridor early in December, Ford said. Steering committee meetings take place monthly, he said.

Comm/Comm: Disadvantaged Business Enterprises

Reporting from the planning and development committee, Sue Gott said a goal of engaging 10% disadvantaged businesses had been achieved.

Comm/Comm: Website

Roger Kerson, reporting from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, said that the AATA’s new website is almost ready for user testing and that would happen in the near future.

Comm/Comm: Countywide Transportation

Thomas Partridge introduced himself as an Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County resident and an advocate for the most disadvantaged members of society. He called on the Ann Arbor city council to revisit its decision to withdraw from the countywide transit authority. He said the AATA should change its name to The Washtenaw County Transportation Authority, and he called for a countywide vote on a countywide transportation system.

Partridge also addressed the board during public commentary at the end of the meeting. He held up a book he’d found at the library, where the board holds its meetings: “The Glory and the Dream” by William Manchester. He called on the board “to step up to the dream” and transform the articles of incorporation of the AATA to expand its services countywide.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Eli Cooper, Sue Gott, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale.

Next regular meeting: Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library fourth floor conference room, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor. [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already on board The Chronicle bus, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. November 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm | permalink

    Dave, you omitted an important moment in Paul Schreiber’s comment following mine. He strode to the podium and announced, “I’m Paul Schreiber and I’m the Mayor of Ann Arbor.” There were gasps, then laughter (good-natured and spontaneous). He then retreated a few steps and tried again, substituting “Ypsilanti” as the city he represents.

    I asked him afterward if that was intentional and he said it was a genuine mistake. I think this slip actually reflected a point that he had in mind (and expressed somewhat), namely that Ypsilanti is part of the greater Ann Arbor area, but more than mere regional contiguity, is part of the essence of Ann Arbor and is its working partner. I actually agree with this. But boundaries are significant when it comes to taxes and sovereignty of the populations who live within them. (And of course, the two cities are not quite contiguous. I know someone was going to point that out.)

    This situation needs a really creative approach. Unfortunately, I don’t think the vehicle AATA is likely to propose will be it.

  2. By Alan Goldsmith
    November 20, 2012 at 2:22 pm | permalink

    “He wants to show that first and foremost, it’s Ann Arbor taxpayers who allow the AATA to exist. “We shouldn’t delay servicing [Ann Arbor taxpayers'] needs because we’re trying to figure out what other projects which go outside Ann Arbor we might keep or not keep.””

    Wow, what a concept.

  3. By Tom Whitaker
    November 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm | permalink

    If there are truly surpluses from the AirRide service that can be applied toward better Ann Arbor service, that’s great. But surely there are more expenses than simply paying the contractual fee to the AirRide service provider. I seem to recall an advertising campaign and isn’t AATA also paying for discounted parking for riders in the downtown structures? What about administrative costs?

    I’m just curious, because it seems the decision to spend the “extra” money was based solely on covering the fees to the operator without any discussion of other costs.

  4. November 21, 2012 at 2:37 pm | permalink

    The article notes that “The overall tone of the AATA board’s Nov. 15 meeting reflected the optimistic parts of the Ann Arbor city council’s Nov. 8 resolution …”

    The AATA Board pursued the countywide plan for almost 4 years without noticing that most communities were not interested in collecting a transit tax from their residents. I certainly hope the AATA Board noticed that the optimistic parts were added to the resolution and hurriedly passed before the composition of Council changed.

    The AATA Board needs to face the fact that the TMP failed when the countywide transit plan was rejected. It is time to focus on transit service for the under-served residents within the existing AATA area. The image of standing room only buses on Route 5 while the AATA spent years and millions planning service for those who do not pay any transit tax is pretty offensive.

  5. By Matt Hampel
    November 28, 2012 at 9:32 am | permalink

    I have little substantive to add to this conversation — but I do want to use it as my “public comment” and note that I love the AirRide. It’s now my primary way to get to DTW, and it’s been a fantastic value. I only wish it could take me further (eg to work in downtown Detroit), but even I can admit that’s somewhat out of the AATA’s remit.