AATA Plans for Countywide System

CEO Michael Ford: "Let's get moving!"
Charles Griffith and Michael Ford, two men standing together

Charles Griffith, AATA board member (left),  and Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, talk about Ford’s presentation and the board’s subsequent discussion after an Oct. 29 meeting. (Photo by the writer.)

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Oct. 29, 2009): At a special meeting of the AATA board held before dinner at Weber’s Inn, recently hired CEO Michael Ford gave board members a presentation that hammered home one basic point: The AATA needs to expand its current vision and mission by establishing a countywide transportation authority.

The AATA is currently funded by a millage levied at a rate of a little over 2 mill just in the city of Ann Arbor, with service to additional municipalities funded through purchase of service agreements (POSAs).

Board members were generally receptive to Ford’s presentation – David Nacht’s remarks reflected that this was essentially what they’d hired him to do. And to get things rolling towards an expanded, countywide mission for the AATA, Ford asked the board to adopt four specific resolutions in the coming few months. But when those resolutions are adopted, it’s not going to have an immediate impact on bus riders’ lives. As Nacht put it Thursday night, that’s simply “when the real work begins.”

And board member Rich Robben allowed that there were issues that he did not yet “feel that warm and fuzzy feeling about,” noting that ultimately the move to a countywide authority would need the support of the voting public.

After the jump, we take a look at the four specific steps Ford is asking the board to take, and summarize the board’s discussion on his proposal.

Ford’s presentation contained four requests, all of them couched in terms of board resolutions. He asked the board to pass resolutions that would (i) adopt a vision statement, (ii) establish an Act 196 authority, (iii) develop a countywide system, and (iv) integrate all transit initiatives with expertise of staff and consultants.

Vision Statement

Back at its February 2009 meeting, the AATA board adopted a mission statement, but postponed a decision on adopting a vision statement until its next meeting, with the intent of crafting the statement as an exercise undertaken by the board as a whole, instead of starting with a committee recommendation. [Chronicle coverage of that meeting: "AATA: What's Our Vision?"]

At its March meeting, however, as the board was winnowing down candidates for its CEO position, it decided to postpone the vision statement exercise until the new CEO was chosen. The thought behind this was that the new CEO, whoever it turned out to be, would probably like to have some input into the formulation of that statement. [Chronicle coverage of the March 2009 meeting: "Bus Fares Will Increase"]

The CEO who was eventually hired, Michael Ford, presented the board on Thursday with a draft of a possible vision statement. His  request was that it be considered, possibly amended, but ultimately adopted by the board through a resolution.

Here’s what Ford proposed:

Vision Statement [Ford's Draft]: The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority will facilitate public transportation that promotes quality-of-life for Washtenaw County stakeholders through mobility services that support the economy, safeguard the environment and strengthen communities. AATA will evolve toward a continuous expansion of coverage, increased frequency and hours of service to efficiently move people to countywide destinations using appropriate modes of transportation and with the most efficient use of resources.

Board discussion on the vision statement focused on the process by which the board would provide its input on the statement. Board member Ted Annis led off that discussion by saying that he was in broad overall agreement with what Ford had presented, but wanted to know what Ford had in mind as far as the mechanism by which board members could convey their input on the vision statement. He stressed that he viewed Ford’s proposal as a draft. It’s due to the apparent board consensus on that view that The Chronicle has labeled Ford’s proposal as a “draft.”

Annis also pointed out that the mission statement adopted earlier in the year should also be revisited – at least for minor revisions related to the geographic scope of the agency. Here’s the mission statement adopted by the board in February:

Mission Statement [Adopted February 2009]: 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.

Annis pointed out that if the direction the AATA was headed was to countywide service, the phrase “Washtenaw County” should be considered as a replacement for  “greater Ann Arbor community.”

Ford said that he was open to using the board’s committee structure to handle the mission and vision statements.

Board member David Nacht said he had no objection to providing additional board input on details, but expressed his hope that the process would be expedited. In that spirit, board member Sue McCormick – who is the city of Ann Arbor’s director of public services – suggested that a joint meeting of the performance monitoring and external relations committee and the planning and development committee  could, in a 60-90 minute joint session sometime in the next 30 days, just “pound it out.”

Nacht was eager to get the job done even sooner: “I bet we could get it done over dinner!” But that idea was not embraced by his board colleagues.

The board did, however, reach a consensus that they’d vote on a vision and mission statement at their Nov. 18 meeting.

Form an Act 196 Organization

As part of the initiative to establish countywide service, Ford asked the board to pass a resolution to establish an Act 196 authority – something that Nacht characterized as the “800-pound gorilla” in the room.

The AATA is currently incorporated under the state of Michigan’s Act 55. What would be the point of incorporating a new entity under Act 196? The short answer is that Act 196 is written with explicit attention to the possibility that entities as large as an entire county or that even multiple municipalities might want to join together to form a transportation authority, whereas Act 55 is more narrowly construed.

Act 55, passed in 1963, was conceived as a way for cities to form transportation authorities:

From Act 55: Sec. 2. (1) The legislative body of any city having a population of not more than 300,000 may incorporate a public authority for the purpose of acquiring, owning, operating, or causing to be operated, a mass transportation system.

Act 196, passed in 1986, recognized that it’s not just cities, or individual municipalities that might want to form a transportation authority [emphasis added below]:

From Act 196: Political subdivision means a county, city, village, or township.

Sec. 4. (1) A political subdivision or a combination of 2 or more political subdivisions may form a public authority under this act.

In Act 196, then, the section laying out how members can join and how members can be released from membership is far more detailed and complex than the corresponding section in Act 55.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Jim Mogensen would suggest that a key difference between the two pieces of legislation with respect to membership is that Act 55 allows for non-membership when there are purchase of service agreements in place, but Act 196 does not.

The details of what must happen and what can happen are sufficiently complex that board member Ted Annis requested that a consultant, who’d previously been engaged by the AATA to provide legal advice on Act 196, be brought back. When Ford assured the board that he was prepared to lay out a specific plan for incorporation under Act 196, Annis responded: “I still want to lobby you to bring that guy back.” That guy is Jeff Ammon, a Grand Rapids attorney, who along with Jerry Lax, a local attorney who also provides legal counsel to the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, previously provided the AATA with advice on Act 196 incorporation. [See previous Chronicle coverage: "AATA: What's Our Vision?"]

Annis reminded his board colleagues about part of the advice they’d heard from Ammon: The Act 51 Act 55 organization of AATA would not disappear as soon as an Act 196 organization was established. Instead, an Act 196 organization would be set up essentially as a “shell” to be populated later. Otherwise put, it’s not a “conversion.”

In discussing the timeframe for a board vote on Act 196, David Nacht stressed the importance of holding a public hearing, whether or not it was legally required.

During public commentary, Terri Blackmore, who is director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), suggested that the public hearing on Act 196 incorporation presented a communications challenge. She urged the board to consider the fact that what they needed public input on was the more  intuitive notion of a countywide system, as opposed to the Act 196 versus Act 55 question. Most people don’t know that AATA is an Act 55 organization now, she said.

Discussed briefly by the board was the possibility of a public hearing held between their November and December meetings, dedicated solely to the question of Act 196 reorganization. However, a consensus emerged for that hearing to be held at the board’s regular December meeting, when a vote on Act 196 reorganization would be taken.

Among the questions to be answered about the new Act 196 organization concerns the make-up of its governing board. Currently, the seven members of the AATA board are appointed by Ann Arbor’s mayor, with confirmation by its city council.

The System: The Ride Goes Countywide?

If the AATA expands to a countywide system, then one basic question to be answered is: Where will the buses go and how often will they go there? Also not a trivial matter: What will the name of the new entity be?

slide meant to show the complexity of all AATA systems and new transportation options

AATA CEO Michael Ford’s “slide of confusion.” These are the elements that require integration in development of the countywide system.

In his presentation to the board, Michael Ford had built one slide by adding one-by-one all the current services offered by the AATA and all the transportation initiatives currently under discussion. He called it “the slide of confusion,” meant to illustrate that currently the AATA did not have a clutter-free narrative to tell about what a countywide system would actually look like.

The AATA needed to hire a consultant, Ford said, to assist in the development of a system that could be presented to the public – to voters – that would lay out “what they’ll get.” The recommendation by the AATA’s planning and development committee to hire a consultant for that task was reported by Ted Annis at the board’s last meeting. [For Chronicle coverage, see "AATA Sets Meeting on Regional Authority"]

Board members at Thursday’s Weber’s Inn meeting expressed a desire to have some say in the scope of work developed for the request for proposals that would be put out for the consultant. Among the items they’d like addressed: the name of the new entity. Annis expressed his assumption that the new entity would be called The Ride, which is how the AATA is currently branded in all of its marketing literature. The domain name for the AATA website reflects that branding: theride.org. Annis was still curious to see what a consultant might come up with.


Among the challenges facing a transition to a countywide authority is integration of the expanded services with services currently under discussion that are broader than just Washtenaw County. Those include north-south commuter train service from Ann Arbor to Howell (WALLY), as well as east-west commuter train service between Detroit and Ann Arbor. Demonstration service on the east-west line is expected to be rolled out in October 2010.

During public commentary, LuAnne Bullington focused her remarks on these commuter train initiatives, asking, “Where’s the money for the trains going to come from?” She pointed out that these projects were focused on commuters outside of Washtenaw County, and that if the AATA was to become a countywide system, then it should focus on Washtenaw County residents.

Sketch of the Future

Based on the consensus that seemed to form in the course of board discussion, we can expect to see committee work on the vision and mission statements between now and the board’s Nov. 18 meeting and a vote to adopt those statements at that meeting.

The board will receive detailed briefing documents from Ford on the Act 196 question in preparation for a public hearing and vote to incorporate an Act 196 organization at its Dec. 16 meeting.

After getting feedback from the board on the scope of work for a consultant to develop a plan for an actual countywide system, an RFP will be issued, with a request coming to the board to award a contract early in 2010.

As board member Rich Robben pointed out, voters will ultimately decide the question. A vote on a countywide millage to support the new Act 196 organization could happen in November 2010. Ann Arbor residents could face a ballot choice that eliminates or reduces the current transportation millage, contingent on passage of a countywide millage. Ypsilanti residents – who currently get bus service from the AATA through a purchase of service agreement – could face a ballot choice with the opposite contingency: implementation of a dedicated transportation millage, contingent on the failure to pass a countywide millage.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Ted Annis, Jesse Bernstein, Paul Ajegba, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]


  1. By Vivienne Armentrout
    November 3, 2009 at 9:52 am | permalink

    Thank you once more for this comprehensive and understandable discussion of a complex subject.

    In the 8th paragraph (beginning “Annis”) under the subhead “Form an Act 196 organization”, you say, “The Act 51 organization of AA would not disappear as soon as an Act 196 organization was established.” I know that P.A. 51 is part of the legislation that makes public transportation possible, but did you mean Act 55 here?

    The agenda provided before the meeting contained this statement: “Reorganization under Act 196 requires no change in the City’s ownership of the transit system, the make-up of the Board of Directors, or in the current method of providing transit services inside or outside of the City.” You mention board makeup as an unresolved question. I found this agenda statement confusing because what I heard when interviewing for a story about this last year was that each jurisdiction that joined the new authority would naturally expect to have representation. The picture that was emerging at that time was that the county BOC would establish seats for each jurisdiction and Ann Arbor’s mayor would no longer appoint a majority of members.

  2. By Dave Askins
    November 3, 2009 at 10:44 am | permalink

    Re: [1] and the question about Act 51. That’s a typo, sorry. It should read “Act 55.” I’ve corrected it.

  3. By Vivienne Armentrout
    November 3, 2009 at 11:08 am | permalink

    At the citizen journalism workshop Mary mentioned, the presenter, Kelly McBride, made special (positive) mention of the Chronicle’s habit of showing corrections as strike-throughs with color codes for new insertions. I agree with her – this gives your articles continuity so that we know when you have made changes, substantial or otherwise. With electronic reporting, you never know how much water has flowed beneath your feet. She mentioned the Missed Ticks, too.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    November 3, 2009 at 12:12 pm | permalink

    (But to do that in a truly semantic (or geeky) way, you should use the INS and DEL tags, and let the CSS do the coloring.)

  5. By Dave Askins
    November 3, 2009 at 12:35 pm | permalink

    Re: [4] “(But to do that [denoted corrections] in a truly semantic (or geeky) way, you should use the INS and DEL tags, and let the CSS do the coloring.)”

    There’s actually a specific archival benefit to that approach that becomes clearer when one considers other uses of red-lining and blue-facing in The Chronicle’s material. E.g., We sometimes use the same technique to make clear contrasts between original versions of public documents and revised versions.

    If we coded our corrections differently from other uses, and let CSS color them (presumably still the same), it would still be possible to search the corpus of Chronicle material and find all instances of corrections, without having to manually filter out other uses of red and blue text.

    It’s something that’s not exactly a top priority to implement, but is in the mix of “things to eventually attend to.”

  6. By EOS
    November 3, 2009 at 1:37 pm | permalink

    Anyone can make up a mission statement and hire a consultant, but there’s a significant problem with your vision seeing that the rest of the county doesn’t want and can’t afford AATA.

  7. By Rod Johnson
    November 3, 2009 at 3:27 pm | permalink

    Dave: You may already know about standards but what the heck.

  8. By John Floyd
    November 3, 2009 at 11:20 pm | permalink

    Why are Ann Arbor taxpayers funding the development – consultants, lawyers, staff time & resources – for a “countywide” system?

  9. By EOS
    November 4, 2009 at 8:17 pm | permalink

    John -

    It’s because county-wide funding would primarily benefit Ann Arbor, where all routes would lead. There certainly won’t be buses on every corner, running at 15 minute intervals in the outlying areas of the county. AATA is leading the effort because it seeks to expand its bureaucracy and grow the salaries of its executives. It would be in the best interests of Ann Arbor residents to not spend the money up front for a system that is very unlikely to be bought into by the rest of the county, especially in these tough economic times. The residents of Ypsilanti Township turned down the millage for police yesterday. Do you think it is likely that they would vote to support expanding the expensive bus service provided by AATA? AATA has already priced itself beyond the financial capabilities of the City of Ypsilanti.

  10. By Barb Fuller
    November 13, 2009 at 10:41 am | permalink

    Has there been consideration given to having the boundary of this proposed authority follow the Washtenaw County Road Commission’s Urban Services Boundary?