Council OKs Graffiti Law, Questions AATA Plans

Vote on Farmers Market project postponed
David Nacht, chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority Board

David Nacht, chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board.

City Council Meeting (Jan. 20, 2009): Ann Arbor city council gave final approval to the anti-graffiti ordinance on its agenda, though with some revisions that lighten its impact on property owners – compared to the version that was moved along in the process at its last meeting. And after long discussion of the somewhat complex fund transfers involved in funding the Farmers Market improvements project, council postponed the vote for two weeks.

But some of the more animated discussion came during the annual update provided by board chair of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, David Nacht, when councilmembers Stephen Rapundalo and Marcia Higgins pressed Nacht to explain the recently proposed fare increases and to clarify what the regionalization of the AATA might mean for Ann Arbor taxpayers.

AATA Basics, Fare Increases, Regionalization: “We should be more than what we are”

As AATA chair, David Nacht gives an annual update to city council. Last year, one issue he talked about was the strategy the board had identified to hire a new executive director – which was first to chart a course for the agency, then hire someone to move it along that course, as opposed to hiring someone to chart the course. The process of that hire is ongoing, with an application deadline for candidates of Feb. 6. Nacht didn’t discuss that hire in his talk, focusing his remarks instead on the basics of what the AATA does currently, and the kind of course the AATA has charted – which represents a change.

He underscored the transformative vision of the AATA by beginning his remarks with a quote from Barack Obama’s inaugural address: “Our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions, that time has surely passed!”

Nacht gave a primer on AATA financing: funds come from federal and state grants, city of Ann Arbor taxes (about 40% of operating expenses), fares, and contracts for service (from UM and surrounding municipalities). He divided the ridership of AATA’s buses into two categories: (i) those who choose to ride, and (ii) those who have no choice but to ride – seniors who have lost driving privileges and the disabled, among others. Some of the services for this second category are expensive, said Nacht, and the AATA therefore subsidizes them. [One example is SelectRide, which offers taxi service for $2.]

As part of the expanded mission of AATA, Nacht cited commuter express buses, giving the Ann Arbor-Chelsea express bus pilot as an example. He cautioned that “it’s too soon to say whether we’re any good at this … we’re learning how to do it.” But the AATA was learning, Nacht stressed, using federal grant dollars.

As another part of the expanded mission, Nacht described the proposed north-south commuter rail project, WALLY, as a “terrific initiative.” The project needed a “transit home,” said Nacht, and he credited Congressman John Dingell with demanding that the community identify an entity to take responsibility for it. The AATA has taken on that role. They have a staff member [Tom Cornillie] who is knowledgeable about trains and is putting time into the project analyzing a consulting study. It’s going to take $30-35 million to make it work, Nacht said, and that cost stemmed in large part from changing the tracks so that the trains can run fast enough to attract ridership, as well as from the need to acquire train cars that are ADA-accessible, which is a requirement.

“Is WALLY the best use of $30-35 million?” asked Nacht. His answer was that it’s a broad policy issue that the city and and the community need to have a conversation about. “I’m not yet prepared to tell you that this is our first priorty,” said Nacht.

Whereas AATA has taken a leadership role for the north-south focused WALLY, Nacht described the possibility of east-west rail as being handled by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG)and the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), with support at the county and city levels.

Besides buses and trains, Nacht said, there existed the possibility of light rail along the Plymouth Road corridor.

Nacht credited AATA board member Ted Annis – who he described as sometimes publicly critical, “pushy and persuasive” – for reducing the dollar cost per service hour. With help from Sue McCormick, public services area director for the city of Ann Arbor, who also sits on the AATA board, Nacht said that Annis had helped to change the culture of the organization to save a nickel here and there.

Nacht credited Mayor John Hieftje, Terri Blackmore of WATS, and county commissioner Jeff Irwin with helping to give transit a kind of conversational buzz in the community, which was remarkable because, he said, “transit is kind of boring!”

In describing the transformation to a more regional authority, Nacht began by saying, “We should be more than what we are.” That means in part the expansion of the size of the board to include members of the broader community. The county commission, for example, would add some members. But Nacht stressed that unless other communities besides Ann Arbor “ponied up some dollars,” they would not be represented on the expanded board like Ann Arbor would. It would require “a lot of frank conversation” with those other communities, said Nacht, but they were conversations for elected officials [e.g., city councilmembers], not appointed ones [e.g., AATA board members].

With that Nacht declared: “I’d love to take questions!” Councilmembers had plenty.

Skepticism from Council on Fare Increases and Regionalization

Councilmember Stephen Rapundalo led things off by saying that he was glad to hear about the changes in AATA culture, but was troubled by the appearance that little had actually changed, citing the proposed fare increases. Rapundalo said he was a little puzzled that fare increases would be contemplated in the current economic climate. He asked if a comparative analysis with similar communities had been undertaken. He suggested that it was possible in other communities to get a bus ride for a lot cheaper than a buck [current AATA base fare] let alone a buck-fifty [proposed fare in 2010]. Further, said Rapundalo, it takes people an hour to get where they need to go. How could increased fares be justified in that context?

Nacht responded by saying that he appreciated tough questions, and offered: “You’re talking to the guy who killed the fare increase in 2006.” [AATA staff had proposed to increase fares.] Nacht cited fuel prices as one factor in the decision to contemplate fare increases, as well as the fact that state support through the Comprehensive Transportation Fund (CTF) had remained at the same level for the last 10 years. It was a fund, said Nacht, that the state “raided” in order to balance its budget.

Further, said Nacht, the proposed new fare structure benefited riders who have no choice [some of their rides would be free] as well as regular commuters. It was the occasional bus rider, said Nacht, who would be paying the greatest increase. He noted that AATA’s planning and development committee, led by Annis, had approached the fare increase with great skepticism, but had wound up supporting it.

Rapundalo seemed to take little solace in Nacht’s explanation, and asked about plans to bring details to the public. He also noted that Nacht had not responded to the question of a comparative analysis, and asked that the information eventually be provided to council in summary form. “I must say I certainly am skeptical,” said Rapundalo. To ask for a  fare increase on top of a millage increase [the idea has been floated to increase the transportation millage] would mean “treading on very dangerous ground,” said Rapundalo.

Nacht was cheerful in reply, saying to Rapundalo: “I know your neighborhood well – it’s one of the best trick-or-treating neighborhoods in the entire city!” But Nacht’s real point about the neighborhood was that the No. 2 bus down Plymouth Road provided an efficient commute morning or evening, saying, “Your constituents get fantastic bus service.” He added that fare increases are not a done deal. There would be public hearings on them before any decision would be taken.

Rapundalo then asked a specific question about technology deployed by AATA for tracking real-time location of buses on any route, which has been down for more than six weeks. “I would appreciate knowing,” said Rapundalo, “when that will be back online.” If we can dial up to find out how many parking spaces are available, it should be possible to get the information about bus locations, said Rapundalo.  Nacht’s reply: “I’ll make sure you get an answer.”

Councilmember Margie Teall said she had several specific questions from constituents, some of them fairly detailed: requests for information on revenues on a per route basis, for example. She asked Nacht if she could email them, which Nacht indicated would be fine.

Nacht was also asked how much money the fare increase would generate. Nacht said that in light of elasticity of demand, they don’t completely know the answer.

As a way of addressing the broader issue of regionalization, Councilmember Carsten Hohnke gave a specific example supporting Rapundalo’s remark about people needing more than an hour to get to where they were going: Getting from the west side of Ann Abor to Lakewood Mall east of Ypsilanti. To do that, Hohnke said, you needed to take the No. 9 from Jackson Road to Blake Transit Center downtown, transfer to the No. 4 to Ypsilanti, then transfer to the No. 20, a trip that took 1 hour and 49 minutes. Based on that, Hohnke concluded, the AATA is already a regional service. But, Hohnke asked, in thinking about transit in a regional way, and the added service that might come from all of us working together, is it okay that a trip like that takes almost two hours?

Nacht’s reply: “I don’t want to live in a community where it takes more than an hour to get from one side of Washentaw County to the other.” But Nacht cautioned that we can’t literally say “from any one place to any other place” and that we had to think about where the vast majority of people need to go. He used the example as a chance to talk about the rationale for the hub-and-spoke route system used by the AATA.  It’s a strategy that all transit systems seem to use to some extent, but not completely. There are routes, Nacht said, that don’t fit that perfectly. He allowed that maybe the AATA should run more of those routes that don’t fit the hub-and-spoke model perfectly.

Councilmember Marcia Higgins put her concern about raising rates in the historical context of the six years since she’d first seen the question asked: Why can’t we get from the north side of Ann Arbor to the south side in under 1 hour and 15 minutes?  Why haven’t we made any further headway? asked Higgins. Six years is a long time to wait, she said. Higgins said she was not convinced that the millage should increase, and asked what the AATA board had done to date as far as the transformation of its organization to a regional authority.

Nacht identified three questions in Higgins remarks. The first: How come you guys haven’t done anything? “I’m just a small town lawyer,” said Nacht, but he went on to explain that there’s a process of studies that are required in order to qualify for federal dollars, which meant that it took considerable time. “I share your frustration,” he said. The second question (after some momentary confusion in Nacht’s handwriting in the notes he’d been taking for himself – “millage” versus “mileage”): What about the millage? We’re not proposing a millage, he said. The AATA was not pushing for a millage, but rather for a community conversation. “Your comments right now are a part of that community conversation,” Nacht said. They’d voted on the need for a conversation, he said.

The third question Nacht identified was: What about the expanded board? Nacht explained that the AATA had hired a lawyer who has expanded boards in other communities. In legislative terms, it amounts to reforming the AATA under Act 196 instead of under Act 55. It’s a separate decision, Nacht said, about whether to levy taxes. Before contemplating a decision about taxes, we need to “cohere as a community” about what transit should look like.

Rapundalo questioned Nacht’s depiction, saying that in all the conversations that he’d had, “that’s not how things have been portrayed to us.”  What had been conveyed, said Rapundalo, is a particular approach that would raise the millage on the backs of Ann Arbor taxpayers. And that was something Rapundalo said he didn’t have the appetite to engage in.

Nacht was unambiguous in his reply: “Let me make this perfectly clear; there is one person who can speak for the AATA, and you are looking at him right now.”

Higgins then sought some clarity on what the board had voted on to move forward.

Nacht said they’d voted to have a conversation about how to provide service more broadly through the county. To that end, they’d engaged a lawyer to allow the AATA as an organization to change its structure. We’re talking about creating an entity, said Nacht, that would realize a coherent vision among Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and other parties, so that we can agree how to fund transit efficiently. Higgins: “Now you have told me we’re talking about funding!”

Mayor John Hieftje pointed out that the AATA cannot itself put a millage on the ballot. In response to a query from Higgins, Hieftje said that changing the board structure would require a change in the city charter, which would require the consent of the citizens of Ann Arbor. In that context, said Hieftje, it was appropriate for the AATA to engage in the kinds of conversations it had been having.

Anti-Graffiti Ordinance

The version of the ordinance given a final vote by council differed from that which was approved on first reading – mainly in that property owners would not be fined if they failed to remove graffiti within a particular time frame. (See previous Chronicle coverage of the proposed graffiti ordinance.)

Three people spoke at the public hearing on the ordinance.

Newcombe Clark, president of the Main Street Area Association

Newcombe Clark, president of the Main Street Area Association, speaks in favor of the anti-graffiti ordinance.

Newcombe Clark: Clark is president of the Main Street Area Association. He stressed that the impetus behind the ordinance was not city council, but rather had emerged from discussions that had begun 18 months ago on the downtown marketing task force, and was supported by merchant associations, neighborhoods, and property owners. An uptick in graffiti had been noticed, Clark said, and a deficiency in Ann Arbor’s ordinances had been identified compared against the benchmark of comparable cities. The presence of graffiti, when unchecked, said Clark, begets more graffiti. The best way to address the problem, Clark contended, was not increased enforcement of existing ordinances, but rather by taking the same community standards approach that the city took when lawns are not mowed and trash is not picked up: after giving notice, the city does the work and bills the property owner.

Glenn Thompson: Thompson urged council to vote against the ordinance, because it assumes that the city is better at making business decisions than business owners. First, Thompson said, by setting a time frame for removal, council was saying that graffiti demanded priority, when that might not be the priority that a business owner would choose. Second, Thompson said, as far as the ordinance is concerned, it doesn’t matter what the image is. But a property owner might choose to retain an image that might be put on his property. Why would someone want to retain it? It’s a subjective matter, said Thompson, and gave the example of an Ypsilanti businessman who would have preferred to retain an image applied to his property, against the requirement of Ypsilanti’s anti-graffiti ordinance that it be removed. The ordinance does not distinguish between crude tags and more refined art, which is a subjective assessment, and therefore one that should be left to the property owner, concluded Thompson.

Karen Sidney: Sidney urged council to vote no. She said she worked downtown and was surprised at the claim that graffiti is a problem. Where is it? she asked. Her answer: It’s in the alleys. This reflected the fact that business owners had made a business decision that it’s not cost-effective to remove graffiti in alleys. “This is not a safety issue,” she said, “People are not harmed by looking at graffiti.” If it’s a priority for the city, then artists could be paid to paint murals. She alluded to the remarks made at council’s recent budget retreat from chief of police Barnett Jones, who talked about increased crime from recently released inmates. Hire them to paint murals, she suggested. Don’t beat up on the victims.

Councilmember Margie Teall, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, thanked everyone who put hours of work into it.

There was much procedural confusion over the moving of the various amendments that were required to make the changes from the version of the ordinance that council had approved previously on first reading. Eventually, it was councilmember Leigh Greden who summarized the key points: (i) the fine on property owners had been eliminated, (ii) the time frame given for property owners to remove graffiti had been increased, and (iii) covering up the graffiti (with paint or similar substance – not a piece of paper) would suffice.

Greden said he supported the ordinance and characterized it as a classic case of collaboration between city council, staff, downtown merchants, and the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce. He said that it recognizes that graffiti is a problem, but had eliminated a system of levying fines that was not in anybody’s interest.

Councilmember Sandi Smith, who had voted against the ordinance on first reading, said that she appreciated the work people had done to improve the ordinance, noting that she had not participated except to “stir the pot.” She said that she would like to see information go out to owners of properties on how they can remove graffiti or cover it up. Several people chimed in with the suggestion of Elephant Snot.

Responding to Smith’s concern about the need for dissemination of information on removal techniques, Teall noted that the ordinance would not go into effect until 90 days after council passed it. The rationale for that was in part to allow time for education.

Margie Teall

Councilmember Margie Teall clarified the amendments to the anti-graffiti ordinance.

Mike Bergren, assistant field operations manager with the city of Ann Arbor, stepped to the podium to offer his assistance and expertise in sharing information and knowledge with property owners. Bergren’s department will be tapped to do graffiti removal, if property owners don’t comply after receiving notice.

In his remarks, councilmember Christopher Taylor responded to the view that even as amended [with the elimination of fines and the increase in time frame for compliance], the ordinance still requires something of the victim. Taylor said he didn’t view it that way. The property owner who chooses not to clean up graffiti is imposing both tangible and intangible costs on the community: tangible costs in contributing to the increased probability of graffiti applied to surrounding properties; and intangible costs in reducing cleanliness and safety of neighborhoods. It’s not just a business issue, Taylor said, it’s a neighborhood issue. An example he cited was the AT&T boxes that have been installed on neighborhood lawn extensions. AT&T’s property is subject to this ordinance, he said, so it does not  just affect urban neighborhoods, but also the streetscapes where AT&T boxes have appeared.

After passing the amendments, there was additional brief discussion of the main motion, with support reiterated from Greden, Hohnke and Mike Anglin. Teall asked city administrator Roger Fraser to have it reviewed in six months – the requirement of review was not written into the ordinance itself.

Outcome: passed unanimously.

Farmers Market Improvements

The resolution DS-9 on council’s agenda was a complex set of fund transfers and appropriations, and that complexity ultimately led to its postponement. The resolution:

Resolution to Approve Amendment No. 1 to Existing Professional Services Contract with Beckett & Raeder, Inc. to Increase the Contract Budget by $122,862.62 for a Total Contract Amount of $232,246.62, Accept and Appropriate $13,538.67 Grant from the DDA, Appropriate $30,661.97 from the Market Fund Fund Balance, Transfer $48,000.00 from the Stormwater Fund FY09 Operations and Maintenance Budget, Appropriate $30,661.98 from the Parks Rehabilitation and Development Millage Fund Balance, and Appropriate $122,862.62 from the Parks Rehabilitation and Development Millage to the Farmers Market Master Plan Construction Design Project Budget to Create a Total Project Budget of $2,056,900.00 (8 Votes Required)

During public commentary reserved time, Glenn Thompson had spoken to the issue of the resolution.

Glenn Thompson: Thompson traced the history of the project from 2002, saying it began as simple maintenance project and had been expanded along the way to include various improvements including lighting, and ultimately storm water treatment, to the point where it had ballooned into a $2 million project. The new project called for more money to be spent on design than the initial repairs would have cost, said Thompson, all while not increasing the amount of retail space. The cost of treating storm water [measured in dollars per pound of phosphorous removed] at the Farmers Market is 10 times the cost at other locations where storm water treatment projects had been proposed. Noting that the benefit of the Farmers Market storm water treatment project had been touted not for the volume of storm water treated, but rather for the educational benefit, Thompson said that the educational benefit would be: helping citizens understand why the city can’t afford to plow snow or plant trees but instead squanders millions on pet projects.

Councilmember Hohnke began the discussion in a way that could be seen to respond partly to Thompson’s concerns. Hohnke asked Jayne Miller, director of community services for the city of Ann Arbor, how the project grew from $950,000 to the current project of $2 million.

Miller first established that the initial actual cost was $1.3 million as determined by consultant Beckett & Raeder. The cost for the storm water improvement was $600,000, she said. In the exchange between Hohnke and Miller, it was established that the storm water improvements were being funding through a low interest loan through the county water resources commissioner’s office [formerly called "drain commissioner"]. The loan would be paid back from the storm water fund.

Rapundalo said that it was important to track the fund transfers and asked for greater clarity on how exactly the project was getting funding. Miller broke it down this way: $728,000 would come from the rehabilitation side of the parks millage; $110,000 would come from the capital side of the parks millage; just under $300,000 would come from DDA; $306,000 would come from the Farmers Market fund balance; $600,000 would come from the loan through the water resources commissioner’s office; and $50,000 would come from the storm water fund.

Rapundalo wanted to know if the city’s Park Advisory Commission (PAC) had a view on the parks millage spending. Miller said that PAC had looked at it. Taylor said that in light of his attendance at the PAC meeting that day, that their recollection may not be as fresh as hers on the issue. Miller said that it was four years ago when it was looked at by PAC. That, said Taylor, could explain the lack of recollection on PAC’s part.

For his part, Greden said that what gave him comfort was that the vast majority is grant money: someone else “higher up” had determined that it was worth it.

In a comment apparently meant to correct Greden’s characterization of the $600,000 as a grant, Hohnke established through querying Craig Hupy, head of systems planning for the city, that it’s actually a loan to be paid back over 20 years. Hohnke also asked what current city requirements were with respect to storm water improvements on new construction in general. Hieftje chimed in: “We’re just doing what we require everyone else to do.”

Taylor elicited from Hupy confirmation that the educational component had a reasonable expectation that some of the cost would be recaptured through increased sensitivity to storm water in the populace.

Anglin cautioned that council should be careful about how the city taps the storm water fund. He said he didn’t see enough happening  in terms of efforts of ordinary citizens, like the creation of rain gardens.

The impetus to postpone came from Higgins. She said that some of the questions asked had given her pause. It was important, she said, to understand the difference between grants and loans. There seemed to be a consensus that councilmembers wanted a clearer picture of all the fund transfers involved.

Jeff Dehring, who is the city’s project manager on this project, was called to the podium to assess the implications of a delay with regard to loan applications. Dehring said that it was preferable to get a decision that night. In the end, it was agreed that city staff could proceed with their work, and that if the resolution were approved at council’s next meeting, the window of opportunity would not be lost.

Outcome: postponed

Three Site Plans Approved

Only Michael T. VanGoor, the architect on three projects (1012 Hill St., 833 E. University, and 808 Tappan St.) spoke at the three public hearings on the projects. In each case he simply stated that he was available to answer any questions. By the third hearing, it had a somewhat comedic effect on those assembled. The three sites involve alteration of an existing structure that does not currently conform to zoning.

Outcome: unanimously approved with no discussion

Leftover from Last Council Meeting: Art Commission Appointment and Utilities Easement

At the Jan. 5 council meeting, the nomination to appoint Cheryl Zuellig to the public art commission was withdrawn, prompted by a query from Higgins about Zuellig’s Ypsilanti address. In the interim, it had been clarified, said Hieftje, that the area of special expertise qualifying Zuellig for the commission was the installation of large-scale projects. Zuellig is a landscape architect, said Hieftje.

Outcome: unanimously approved with no further discussion

The resolution to accept an easement for public utilities from the Ann Arbor public schools for the Miller-Maple transmission water main project – located at Forsythe and Wines schools, had been postponed from the Jan. 5 council meeting at Hieftje’s request. He wanted to get a clearer understanding of what he understood to be an objection by the public schools to having an electrical conduit in the easement that would service a windmill. There was no discussion during the meeting on the issue, but after the meeting Hieftje said that he’d been unable to get definitive information on it.

Outcome: approved with no discussion

Airport Improvements

A raft of resolutions regarding improvements at the airport (DS-6 through DS-8) were postponed at the request of Higgins, who said that the city was still working with Pittsfield Township, a neighborhood that would be affected by the runway work.

Resolution to Approve FY2010-2015 Capital Improvements Plan

The public hearing drew one speaker.

Karen Sidney: Sidney said she’d just paid her utility bill, and noted the increased storm water rate. The extra money, she said, should be used to address storm water issues, not tree replanting, which should be paid for from a maintenance fund. She characterized the storm water rate increase as a “back door tax” to do maintenance. She said that the city spent double in 2003 on trees compared to 2008.

There was no discussion on the resolution by council.

Outcome: passed, with Higgins dissenting.

Tree Inventory

The following resolution required eight votes for approval.

Resolution to Accept and Appropriate Grant Funding from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources ($20,000.00) and for Approval of Professional Services Agreement with Davey Resource Group, a Division of Davey Tree Expert Company, ($243,500.00) for the GIS based inventory of City owned Street and Park Trees

There was no discussion, but with Higgins dissenting, Hieftje elected to have a roll-call vote in light of having only nine councilmembers in attendance.

Outcome: passed, with Higgins dissenting.

Comcast, Parking Agreement, Solid Waste

There were three  items on the agenda (DC-2, DC-3, DC-4) added too late to appear on the printed copy distributed at the meeting and which still did not appear on the electronic version as of 1 p.m. the day after the meeting. The first involved the relocation of Comcast Internet lines in preparation for construction on the Larcom building site. It was approved.

A second item involved a call for the DDA to begin discussions of the parking agreement on metered parking between the DDA and the city. The word “discussions” was a replacement for “negotiations” in the original wording. It was approved.

The third item was the appointment of the solid waste rate schedule oversight committee, which at the last meeting of council was decided would be the responsibility of city council as opposed to the environmental commission. It was approved.

Council Communications

Higgins conveyed the complaint of a resident on Stadium Boulevard, who’d put out compost bags back in the fall and still hadn’t had them picked up. Fraser asked for the street address so that service could be provided.

Anglin said he’d received a lot of feedback on snow removal. He suggested offering some kind of opt-in service for those who were not able to clear the snow out from in front of their driveways.

Teall reported that Festifools “is back” and they’re having a pancake breakfast on Saturday, Jan. 24.

Public Commentary

Elaine Rumman: Rumman spoke to the topic of the situation in Gaza, as a Palestinian-American on the occasion of the celebration of Barack Obama’s inauguration. She said that she was opposed to killing of Israelis as well as Palestinians. She criticized the use by Israeli military of white phosphorous, banned by UN convention. Gaza, she said, had been under siege for 18 months, was running out of food, water, and medicine. She listed out the Palestinian casualties in the recent fighting: 1,320 killed, 5,500 injured; of these, 425 children, 100 women. Israel claims it has a right to defend itself, she said, but Palestinians have a right to resist. She wondered how American Jews, who have suffered injustice, are not demanding justice for Palestinian people. She concluded by asking city council to support, on this historic day [Obama's inauguration] freedom for all people, including Palestinians.

1000 pitches

Alex Levine makes a pitch for recycling No. 6 plastics.

Alex Levine: Levine is an undergrad at the University of Michigan and pitched an idea that he said would be beneficial to UM and Ann Arbor: recycling No. 6 plastic cups. He’d identified two companies that re-processed that kind of plastic, and suggested that from tailgating [at football games] there would be a supply of cups. He said he would be delighted to work with council to make No. 6 plastic recycling a reality [Editor's note: After his comments, Levine told The Chronicle that he had won the Green Campus category of the 1000 Pitches competition with a similar idea, but that this time around it wasn't about winning a contest, it was about making something happen. Links: Chronicle coverage of the 1000 Pitches 1000 Pitches website]

Tom Partridge: Partridge spoke during public commentary reserved time at the beginning of the meeting, as well as during a public hearing on the rezoning of some parcels to public land, and at the conclusion of the meeting during public commentary general time. Partridge said he was proud to be a citizen of the United States on the day of Obama’s inauguration – the most historic act in American history. When Obama took the oath of office, Partridge said, he had called on the nation to take cognizance of the serious economic and social problems confronting the nation: affordable transportation, housing, health care, and education.

Partridge weighed in against the permanent conversion of land to parks, saying that it meant that it could not be used for affordable housing or transit stations in a public transportation system.

In his later remarks, responding to some of the previous council deliberations the same night as well as in April 2008, he said that he was there to address issues of greater importance than graffiti and backyard chicken farming. He recommended that city council, the county board, and all the government entities in the region pass resolutions honoring and congratulating Obama on his inauguration. Further, said Partridge, Obama should be invited to Ann Arbor to speak about his proposals and plans to bring the country out of the recession that it’s mired in.

Present: Sandi Smith, Stephen Rapundalo, Leigh Greden, Christopher Taylor, Margie Teall, Marcia Higgins, Carsten Hohnke, Mike Anglin, John Hieftje

Absent: Sabra Briere, Tony Derezinski

Next Council Meeting: Monday, Feb. 2, 2009 at 7 p.m. in council chambers, 2nd floor of the Guy C. Larcom, Jr. Municipal Building, 100 N. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]


  1. By Steve Bean
    January 21, 2009 at 7:07 pm | permalink

    “Further, said Nacht, the proposed new fare structure benefited riders who have no choice [some of their rides would be free] as well as regular commuters”

    Dave, could you confirm whether he said that he actually used the word “benefited”? I think most people would interpret a benefit, at least in financial terms, as a cost decrease. Since that would apparently only apply to some riders, Nacht would be overstating, at best, if he expressed that it applied to all of the “no choice” riders.

    “Nacht was also asked how much money the fare increase would generate. Nacht said that in light of elasticity of demand, they don’t completely know the answer.”

    What we can probably take as a given is that demand destruction would occur to some extent among those who ride by choice if their fares were to increase. If the “no choice” riders will ride regardless of a price increase, while those with a choice might not, won’t a rate increase simply decrease the ridership of the population segment for which we actually want to increase it? Or is that an unstated objective–to decrease ridership?

    Thinking about this in relation to the university’s contribution to AATA, along with the U’s purchase of the Pfizer property, the subsequent city income tax discussion, and the thumbs down that Coleman gave to payment in lieu of taxes, I suggest that the city make a specific request of the U for additional funding to AATA to avoid any fare increases and, if possible, to lower them. In the big picture, making Ann Arbor a more transit-oriented and transit-friendly city, including the campus, is in the interest of the U. University students who have jobs off campus would benefit from the support of AATA, the U might be able to slow its expansion of its parking system (if not reduce it), and a greater integration of the AATA and U bus systems might be possible. I’m sure that other mutual benefits could be identified.

  2. By Dave Askins
    January 21, 2009 at 8:26 pm | permalink

    “Dave, could you confirm whether he said that he actually used the word ‘benefited’?”

    My notes are inconclusive on what word he used to describe this. I did not come away with the impression that in describing who’d be bearing the heavier burden of the fare increase (the occasional riders) that Nacht was attempting to create the impression that it was all riders-with-no-choice who’d enjoy zero fares.

    This issue came up at tonight’s AATA board meeting in the form of some public commentary by Jim Mogensen. He compared the fare system to health insurance: if you’re “in the system” equipped with insurance, then your cost is arranged to be low; if you pay cash then your cost is high and they send you a bill … and fast. Jim’s point was that if there are to be discounted and zero-fare programs, with relatively high cash (occasional) fares, then the special programs needed to be made as widely available as possible, with active outreach to make sure that people who qualified actually got their passes in hand — because if they had to pay full fare cash they’d be in the highest paying category.

  3. January 21, 2009 at 9:29 pm | permalink

    Thanks to council members Rapundalo, Hohnke, Teale, and Higgins for their detailed questions of Mr. Nacht.

    I’m particularly impressed by Carsten’s ability to get all the way from Westgate to Rawsonville (for donuts, probably – there’s 24 hr donut place near that exit) but agree with him that 1 hr 49 minutes isn’t the best option, given that it’s about 17 miles by freeway – i.e. your average effective speed on that route is only about 10 mph.

    And I’m grateful for Stephen’s direct and pointed public questioning of Mr. Nacht regarding RideTrack; it appears, finally, to be back online.

  4. By Marvin Face
    January 21, 2009 at 11:44 pm | permalink

    How refreshing to hear someone during public comment actually proposing something tangible that would benefit both the community and university. Thank you Alex Levine for a breath of fresh air amidst the customary circus of palestine foolishness and the usual suspects who like to hear their own voices. I’m all for public comment, and I realize that people can talk about whatever they want during their turn at the podium but I also know that it is now essentially a booby hatch.

  5. January 22, 2009 at 9:12 am | permalink

    I was glad to read Mr. Nacht’s comments about getting away from the hub-and-spoke model. There are some glaring holes in its application to Ann Arbor. For example, there is no way for me to take a bus directly from Pauline & Stadium to my office at Jackson & Stadium. Why isn’t there a Stadium loop? that’s ridiculous.

  6. January 22, 2009 at 9:15 am | permalink

    I share Steve Bean’s skepticism about the “elasticity of demand” and would like to see a historical analysis of AATA’s accuracy in forecasting the revenue effects of price hikes. As Steve said, this is a strange time to be thinking about demand destruction.

  7. January 22, 2009 at 9:36 am | permalink

    You have it pretty good actually, Fred – the 8 goes from Pauline/Stadium to Jackson/Stadium every 30 minutes and takes 9 minutes for that route.

    On the other hand, from Packard/Stadium to Jackson/Stadium is a 47 minute trip (says Google) for an effective speed on that 3.3 mile trip of just over 4 mph.

  8. January 22, 2009 at 9:59 am | permalink

    If you don’t know what the elasticity of demand is you should not lower or raise fares until you do. My guess is that it varies for by route.

    Ted Annis actually hypothesized that giving the AATA extra money actually would make them less efficient than they are. The cost to operate a bus in AA is $110 per hour. By comparison the University is $55 per hour. If we really wanted to save money we would let the University operate more of the routes.

    A further note, the University makes up 40% of the ridership and and only pays 10% of the costs.

  9. January 22, 2009 at 11:11 am | permalink


    I have not seen sufficient detail in accounting to reproduce either of these numbers.

    Presumably some of the University $55/hr costs are lower because they use student drivers, and don’t have to pay the same health care costs since student healthcare is otherwise subsidized.

    I’m also not sure that any of the performance committee’s “efficiency” metrics capture rider satisfaction adequately. They divide up route usage by route, not by time of day, so they don’t have any visibility into the number of times that buses are packed standing room only to the point that no additional riders can get on.

  10. By Steve Bean
    January 22, 2009 at 11:15 am | permalink

    40% of which ridership, Stew? AATA’s? If that’s so, then the City/AATA really have a leverage point there to request a greater contribution. I don’t remember the arrangement that AATA and the U have, though, so I’d appreciate a refresher on that if you or someone else can provide it.

    With regard to the relative costs, it’s not all about saving money, of course. Providing quality service, serving a broad population and geographical area, paying employees a living wage, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions are among the other considerations.

    Where did you get those numbers–both for costs and ridership?

  11. By Vivienne Armentrout
    January 22, 2009 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    According to the 2009 adopted budget, the UM pays $700,000 to AATA for the MRide program. It also transfers $1.2 million in federal funds to AATA for this program. In addition, UM pays a little over $145,000 for the LINK bus program (it has a mostly-campus branch). In total, UM contributions are about $2.045 million, out of budgeted revenues of $24 million.

    I don’t know how passenger numbers were arrived at. MRide provides free passage for all holders of valid yellow MCards. Unless each person boarding with one of those cards is recorded, it would seem difficult to make that estimation. Instructions merely say to “show” the MCard.

    The total AATA budget includes service to other municipalities and the “demand” services too (like A-Ride, door-to-door service for people with disabilities), so simple percentage comparisons are probably misleading.

  12. By Steve Bean
    January 22, 2009 at 1:57 pm | permalink

    I looked at the U’s web site to learn about the MRide program and found that some of my thoughts in #1 have already been addressed by that program. So a better question would be, how could the existing program be expanded and improved to further benefit both the university and city communities? It’s been in place for several years. Now might be a good time to evaluate it with that question in mind.

  13. By Mark
    January 26, 2009 at 11:01 am | permalink

    Last summer, my daughter went to get a 30-day AATA pass, and was dismayed that the office did not take credit or debit cards. She had to make another trip to the bank to get cash. Everyone accepts those cards, and why AATA seems to be unable to do so is pretty lame. Perhaps they have fixed that by now, but if not, that’s not providing very good service.