AATA to Focus on Ypsi Cost Cuts

Also: LINK is dead, Plymouth park-and-ride moves ahead
Ted Annis AATA Board member

AATA board members Ted Annis, left, and Charles Griffith. (Photo by the writer.)

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (August 19, 2009): Looming on a six-week horizon for Ypsilanti is the renewal of its Purchase of Service Agreement with the AATA – at a price slated for 10% higher each year over the next three years to make the agreement match actual costs. That’s the context in which three out of seven Ypsilanti city councilmembers appeared at the AATA board meeting on Wednesday.

Their collective message: Recognize the fiscal constraints on Ypsilanti, focus on the 30 years of a positive AATA-Ypsilanti partnership, and find ways to cut costs of the service without cutting service levels. Their message resonated with AATA board members, who seemed more inclined to find creative ways to cut costs than to use federal stimulus dollars to simply make up the gap. Part of that creative approach could include closing the Ypsilanti Transit Station.

The longer-term solution of supporting the AATA bus service through a dedicated countywide funding source was a theme that ran through the comments made by Ypsilanti councilmembers, as well as others at the meeting.

In other business, the board approved the construction contract for the Plymouth Road and US-23 park-and-ride, and formally discontinued the LINK service – a decision that came as no surprise given that the other two funding partners – the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – had discontinued their funding for the downtown circulator bus.

Countywide Funding

The theme of a countywide funding source for the AATA was woven into several conversational threads. During public speaking time, the idea of establishing a countywide funding source for bus service – likely through a dedicated millage – came up multiple times. Three Ypsilanti city councilmembers addressed the board, in part to argue for a countywide system as a longer-term way to think about service they currently get through a Purchase of Service Agreement (POSA). They thus echoed the sentiments of Ypsilanti mayor Paul Schreiber, who had appeared before the AATA board in May. Ypsilanti’s POSA comes up for renewal soon and AATA is asking Ypsilanti to increase the payment to match the actual cost of the service.

The theme of funding Ypsilanti bus service continued in the board’s consideration of a resolution that would use American Recovery & Reinvestment Act (federal stimulus) dollars to fund the gap in Ypsilanti’s POSA on a one-time basis.

Thomas Partridge: Board chair David Nacht read Partidge’s name off the sign-up sheet and looked up scanning the room, asking where Partridge was. Partridge then rose from the third row of seats and delivered a self-deprecating deadpan: “Perhaps you didn’t notice me because of my great height!” Moving quickly to the serious side, Partridge pointed out that in August 2008 the AATA board had been presented with three different avenues they could pursue that would transition the AATA to a countywide transportation authority for Washtenaw County. He also reminded Nacht that Nacht had appeared before the Washtenaw County board of commissioners and the Ann Arbor city council, and had presented the idea of a countywide authority to those bodies. Yet there had been no progress, Partridge said, towards getting a proposal put on the ballot that would establish a countywide funding source. Partridge also criticized the proposal in one of the agenda items that explored the possibility of using federal stimulus money for operating assistance for Ypsilanti. That proposal did not, he said, explore the possibility of expanding service westward.

Said Nacht in reply: “I happen to agree with Tom Partridge – it’s been a long time.”

Carolyn Grawi: Grawi reported that she’d just come back from Toronto, where the public transportation was, she said, “amazing.” There were trolleys, buses, ferries, para-transit – everywhere you looked there was public transportation. Addressing the elimination of the LINK service, she said that if the city keeps cutting service, she was concerned for the future development of the city, for the POSA agreements, and for the future of countywide service. She suggested looking at Genesee County and asking how they managed to fund countywide service.

S.A. Trudy Swanson: The Ypsilanti city councilmember said she was there to speak about the proposed 30% increase in the Purchase of Service Agreement (POSA) with the city of Ypsilanti that the AATA was seeking. She asked for a “decrease in the increase.” She stressed that Ypsilanti had riders who depended on the service.

In response, AATA board member Ted Annis said that the reason for the increase was to stop having Ann Arbor taxpayers subsidize Ypsilanti bus service. As an AATA board member, Annis said, he objected to Ann Arbor subsidizing its neighbors and said that Ann Arbor’s neighbors needed to pay the freight. He invited Swanson to the Aug. 31 meeting of the planning and development committee, where they’d be working on the size of the required increase to Ypsilanti’s POSA.

David Nacht, AATA board chair

David Nacht, AATA board chair. (Photo by the writer.)

Michael Bodary: Bodary introduced himself as a Ward 2 Ypsilanti councilmember. He was there to speak to the issue of the increase in the POSA for Ypsilanti. The 10% increase per year, for a total of 30% over three years, had been explained by Dawn Gabay and Chris White of the AATA at an Ypsilanti city council meeting, he said, so he understood the issues behind the increase. For Ypsilanti, however, revenues were down due to decreases in taxable value as well as drops in state shared revenue. He pointed out that some of the costs incorporated into the POSA are infrastructure costs, for example for the Ypsilanti Transit Center, as opposed to operations. He reported that 1/4 of police calls in downtown Ypsilanti were to the YTC. The AATA itself, he said, paid for a security guard there. He reported that some Ypsilanti citizens had suggested closing the YTC – he was not necessarily advocating that himself. He emphasized that Ypsilanti and the AATA needed to work together on solving the problem, because the Number 4, 5 and 6 buses were lifelines between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. He pointed out that it’s only been the last three out of 30 years that Ypsilanti had been afforded a reduced rate for its POSA.

Nacht responded by saying, “We share almost all your views,” but noted that it was a matter of working out the details. Referring to the YTC security issues Bodary had raised, Nacht said the last thing the AATA wanted to do was cause a public safety problem.

Annis noted that the cost data on the YTC showed that $110,000 was spent on security, so he’d like to “explore” closing it down. Nacht interjected to say that the board was not at this meeting in any way taking a position on the issue of closing down the YTC. Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, also said that whenever he heard talk of something “getting closed down,” it gave him pause.

Pete Murdock: Murdock is also a member of the Ypsilanti city council. He began by saying that they understood the AATA’s situation. The problem, he said, was that they had “flat out no ability to raise taxes.” He said that their view was that the survival of the transit system depends on a regional system with a dedicated source of revenue. Someone other than them, he reminded the board, needed to put a measure on the ballot.

Nacht responded by saying that it was good to hear there’d be support for such a measure. “We’re a regional economy,” Nacht said, “and we need a regional transit system.” Nacht confirmed that the board shared that view philosophically.

At several points Annis invited Ypsilanti councilmembers to come to the planning and development committee meeting on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m.

The board considered a resolution involving the use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds – otherwise known as federal stimulus money – to bridge the gap in funding for the Ypsilanti Purchase of Service Agreement.

Board members expressed hesitation about using stimulus money in this way, when there might be other longer-term solutions available. Annis said he’d like to consider the matter in the planning and development committee. Board member Charles Griffith indicated that he didn’t want to see stimulus funds used if it meant that it was a way of not implementing other, longer-lasting solutions.

So board member Jesse Bernstein moved to table the resolution so that it could be available as a back-up plan.

The board voted to table it, which flummoxed the staff. “Now we can’t talk about it!” said Chris White. The resulting discussion revealed that the wording of the resolution didn’t authorize spending the money, but rather authorized AATA staff to talk to Ypsilanti about using ARRA funds to bridge the gap:

Now, Therefore, be it resolved that the AATA CEO is hereby authorized to discuss using a portion of the ARRA funds allocated to the AATA to bridge the gap between the beginning of the fiscal year and the implementation of service reductions.

It puzzled board member Rich Robben that a resolution had been brought seeking nothing more than an authorization to talk: “Why did you bring this to us at all??” Dawn Gabay, deputy CEO, explained that staff didn’t want to get out ahead of the board on a policy issue. Board chair Nacht traced the inclination of staff to proceed cautiously to an episode with former AATA director Greg Cook, who had arranged a deal to raise fares to cover the POSA gap, but didn’t have board approval to do so. Nacht recalled that he’d led the charge against those fare increases. The message that had been sent to staff at the time, said Nacht, was that staff needed board approval before going to POSA partners to talk about policy matters.

Robben, who’d voted for tabling the resolution, brought it back for reconsideration. It was not crystal clear to The Chronicle what happened from a parliamentary point of view, but the board did not seem to revote the tabling motion, instead opting to vote on another motion that expressly gave staff permission to talk to Ypsilanti about possible use of ARRA funds.

Outcome: Unclear from a parliamentary point of view. The board did, however, express its will that staff could talk to Ypsilanti about use of ARRA funds to bridge the POSA gap, among other solutions that might be longer lasting.

Report from Planning and Development Committee

In his update on the planning and development committee’s work, Ted Annis said that there were two main items they’d be focusing on: (i) the Ypsilanti Purchase of Service Agreement, and (ii) hammering out an AATA budget that met their goal of $96 per service hour in cost.

The LINK: Discontinued

The AATA board considered a resolution to discontinue the LINK service. The LINK is a downtown circulator service that does not charge a fare to ride. The LINK buses are painted purple.

The issue of the LINK was addressed by Tim Hull during public time in the context of public input on service changes.

Tim Hull: Hull identified himself as an AATA bus rider for the last six years, and suggested that the board reflect on the various avenues available for public input. It seemed to him, Hull said, that the public was often involved only at the last step. The Local Advisory Council, he said, was more of an advocacy group for seniors and disabled people, and met at a time inconvenient for people who worked a regular daytime schedule. He suggested that the public be engaged on matters such as schedule and service changes before they are set in stone. The discontinuation of the LINK, he said, felt like it was already a done deal at the time of a public meeting held over the summer.

In response, Nacht said that the last time that schedule changes had been contemplated, it had been a multi-month process and that originally, the Number 13 route to Newport Road had been targeted: “We were going to kill it!” But people spoke out, Nacht said, and the route was retained. So, Nacht said, he took Hull’s concerns very seriously and suggested that particular concerns could be conveyed to the director of community relations for the AATA, Mary Stasiak.

In his communications at the beginning of the meeting, board chair Nacht had already alluded to the item on the agenda that would discontinue the LINK. He described it as a “painful, difficult” decision, but that the AATA could not take on the funding of the service without the help of the two partners who’d bowed out – the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority.

AATA CEO Michael Ford, who’s been on the job for a month, said that in the future, when the AATA embarked on a project involving partners, he hoped the authority could plan for a way to continue that project, even if the partners bowed out.

Board member Ted Annis quipped that his wife was going to be disappointed, because she takes the grandkids to ride the purple buses, which they enjoy.

Nacht said that philosophically he thought that a free downtown circulator was something that was important, and he was sorry the board was discontinuing the LINK.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to discontinue the LINK service.

Goals and Objectives

A document called “Goals and Objectives” generated some animated discussion between Ted Annis and David Nacht. Nacht was concerned that the document would constrain the new CEO, Michael Ford, from putting his own stamp on the organization, if the goals and objectives were provided to him with no room for flexibility.

Annis wanted to make explicit how Ford would provide his input on the goals and objectives: “Let’s nail it down!” To which Nacht responded: “I think it’s too early to nail it down – the man has been on the job for a month.”

One concern cited by Nacht in the exchange was that among the goals and objectives there was nothing about expanding the AATA to include countywide service.

For his part, Annis was somewhat frustrated that Nacht was not attaching adequate significance to the document – which had come out of the planning and development committee, chaired by Annis: “What do you want to do with this – ignore it?”

In the end, a consensus seemed to be reached that would have Ford delivering his input on the goals and objectives, with the planning and development committee, as well as the performance monitoring and external relations committee, “getting a shot at dealing with the goals as proposed by Michael Ford,” Annis said.

Questions for Michael Ford, CEO

Board member Charles Griffith thanked Michael Ford for his weekly updates. Annis said that he’d been having fun with Ford, and that he’d been putting pressure on Ford to control costs. Nacht followed Annis’ comment with, “Michael is still here!”

Plymouth Road Park-and-Ride Lot

Before the AATA board was a resolution authorizing the CEO to execute a contract with D&R Earthmoving for $1.144 million to construct the park-and-ride lot at Plymouth Road and US-23. The Ann Arbor city council had approved the site plan for the 245-space park-and-ride lot at its July 20 meeting. Board chair Nacht wanted to know what exactly D&R’s work would entail, besides digging a hole in the ground. “What are they doing?”

In response, Chris White, manager of service development for the AATA, joked, “Stimulating the economy!” He went on to elaborate with Phil Webb, AATA controller, chiming in: earthmoving, paving, drainage construction, traffic signals, lighting, trees, signage. There will be a sign acknowledging the work was supported with federal stimulus funds.

White confirmed for Nacht that D&R was the low bidder, with the highest bidder coming in at around $300,000 more.

Annis confirmed with White that the “funny little” Green Road park-and-ride would remain open.

Outcome: The resolution authorizing the execution of the park-and-ride lot construction was unanimously approved.

Public Time: FITS and WALLY

LuAnne Bullington: Nacht greeted Bullington by congratulating her on the race she ran in the recent Ward 3 city council elections, though she did not prevail. Bullington stressed that if WALLY (the Washtenaw-Livingston Rail Line, a north-south commuter rail) was going to be built, it was important to identify sources of funding for operations, not just construction. She expressed concern that the Ann Arbor city council’s recent approval of design work on the Fuller Intermodal Transit Station (FITS) meant that city council was moving ahead as if the AATA board had made a decision to close the Blake Transit Center downtown.

Board member Jesse Bernstein responded to Bullington by clarifying that the approval for FITS was a study and siting phase on a parcel of land owned by the city and currently leased to UM. As far as Blake Transit Center was concerned, Bernstein said that there’d been no discussion of moving it, and that the board was instead discussing funding improvements and repairs to it. [Renovating BTC is a part of the goals and objectives document that provoked much discussion later in the meeting.] Regarding FITS and BTC, Bernstein said, “It’s not one or the other, it’s both.”

Communications: More on WALLY

Board chair David Nacht described a meeting he’d had with representatives of the University of Michigan along with Chris White, who’s manager of service development for the AATA, as a way to “open doors with that relationship.” Nacht also described “a lot of activity” to try to find capital funds for construction of the north-south commuter rail line known as WALLY. That included a multi-agency application for a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant. Nacht said the AATA continues to remain open to the concept of WALLY, but expressed concern that there’d been a lack of interest thus far from Livingston County for the funding of operations. “We’d like to see more support,” he said. However, Nacht concluded, “We’re doing our best to push the project forward.”


In his communications at the beginning of the meeting, board chair Nacht had said that he was impressed with the committee work that was getting done and how the board’s committees were able to process a tremendous amount of information.

Board member Jesse Bernstein was appointed the sole member and chair of the nominating committee for board officer elections, which will take place at the board’s September meeting.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Rich Robben, Ted Annis, Jesse Bernstein.

Absent: Sue McCormick, Paul Ajegba

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. [note the unusual time] at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave. [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. By Joel Batterman
    August 24, 2009 at 3:11 pm | permalink

    The LINK should be brought back by combining it with the recently added Route 17 from Blake Transit Center to Amtrak.

    The resulting circulator service, connecting downtown to U-M and the train station, would closely approximate the route of Ann Arbor’s old streetcar line.