Transportation Talk at City Council Caucus

Also, possible amendments to proposed city budget

Ann Arbor City Council Sunday night caucus (May 2, 2010): Transportation was one of the main focuses of conversation at last night’s city council caucus, which is held on the Sunday before the council’s regular meeting.

Hieftje Briere Kunselman

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) and Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) listen to a presentation from the Committee for the Preservation of Community Quality at the city council's Sunday night caucus. (Photo by the writer.)

The Committee for the Preservation of Community Quality gave a presentation of their response to the recently conducted environmental assessment of a possible runway extension at the Ann Arbor municipal airport. And residents expressed concerns about the proposed Fuller Road Station and its location on city-owned land designated as a park in the city’s PROS (Parks and Recreation Open Space) Plan.

By the time questions about the possible upcoming budget amendments were raised, the number of councilmembers attending the caucus had dwindled from four to two. Mayor John Hieftje, Sabra Briere (Ward 1), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), and Mike Anglin (Ward 5) were there through most of the meeting, but it concluded with just Briere and Anglin.

And at the tail end of the gathering, the residents who attended weighed in on the nature of caucus itself. They offered their perceptions of the value of discussions among councilmembers at the caucus versus their own remarks. They’d prefer to see councilmembers in action and would be willing to trade some of their own time for watching the work of council.

The Nature of the Sunday Night Caucus

The relatively brief discussion of the function of caucus evolved from a conversation about possible amendments to the city’s budget that might be undertaken before it’s adopted. The public hearing on the budget is May 3, but it won’t be adopted until the council’s May 17 meeting. Asked if the council would be circulating proposed budget amendments beforehand – as they’d done with the A2D2 downtown rezoning project – Sabra Briere (Ward 1) replied that she did not foresee that happening.

There was, said Briere, no “leader of the Senate” for the council, so it was unlikely that the wisdom of the council would be pooled together beforehand for presentation at the May 17 meeting. And if the council were to do that, she cautioned, there would be a perception that they’d held closed meetings.

Asked if some of the discussion of amendments could be undertaken at a council working session, Briere noted that the topic of the working sessions is typically set by the city administrator. The next available slot for a working session is May 10. “What about the caucus itself?” Briere was asked. Briere observed that the open discussion among councilmembers at a caucus was limited by the number of councilmembers who attended. [Attendance by councilmembers other than Hieftje, Kunselman, Briere, and Anglin is a relative rarity. Some councilmembers have enjoyed perfect non-attendance at the caucus for nearly a year.]

Resident Ethel Potts observed that for councilmembers to have a discussion amongst themselves at the caucus on their upcoming business would be a challenge, because “we take up most of your time.” [The caucus has evolved to be, practically speaking, an additional opportunity for public commentary by residents, not the kind of event described on the city's website:  "... meetings of the mayor and members of council to discuss and gather information on issues that are or will be coming before them for consideration." Chronicle commentary: "Column on Caucus: Make It a Real Event"]

Asked if she’d be willing to trade some of the opportunity for the public to comment at the caucus for watching the council engage in discussion amongst themselves, Potts allowed that she would. The same three-minute time limit that is enforced for public commentary at regular council meetings would be fine, she said.

Budget Amendments, Cash from the DDA

As The Chronicle reported last week, the operations committee of the Downtown Development Authority will be bringing forward a resolution to the full DDA board at its Wednesday, May 5 meeting, calling for the DDA to pay the city $2 million. [Chronicle coverage: "DDA to Tie $2 million to Public Process"]

Up to now, there has been no formal request from the city council to the DDA for a payment in a specific dollar amount. There is also not a way to enforce, from the city’s side, the commitment to a future public process for negotiations between the city and the DDA, which the DDA’s draft resolution calls for. The last opportunity before the DDA’s May 5 meeting  for the council to pass a resolution of its own addressing the $2 million question would be at the council’s May 3 meeting.

Although there is currently one DDA-related item on the council’s May 3 agenda, it does not concern the $2 million payment, but rather the approval of the revised DDA bylaws, which the DDA board adopted at its Feb. 3, 2010 meeting.

Asked if they foresaw the possible $2 million from the DDA being used to avert layoffs in safety services – police and firefighters – both Briere and Anglin indicated they felt that was likely. Anglin said that cuts to police would make it a reactive rather than a proactive force. Briere noted that the city is not a business, but rather a service organization. The city employs people to provide services, she said. And because of that, to reduce costs meant looking at cutting people. But she said if police and firefighters were cut, residents would find that they were not happy with the level of service they were being provided.

So if the DDA board approves the $2 million payment, it appears there is at least some support on the council for using it to avert safety services layoffs.

Fuller Road Station

[For The Chronicle's most recent coverage of Fuller Road Station: "AATA Gets Its Fill of Fuller Road Station"]

Resident Nancy Kaplan expressed two points on the proposed Fuller Road Station. First, she contended that it’s “for sure city parkland.” To say that it’s already used for a parking lot because of a mistake in the past does not mean, she said, that the city should continue with that mistake. Second, she pointed out that the University of Michigan had not promised not to build the two parking structures on Wall Street in exchange for construction of the Fuller Road Station. Rather, she pointed to the memorandum of understanding, which says that the university will suspend those plans “at this time.”

Regarding the status of the land, the city’s transportation program manager, Eli Cooper, had pointed out at his recent presentation to the AATA board that the public land zoning designation has many possible uses, according to city code:

5:10.13. PL public land district.
(1) Intent. This district is designed to classify publicly-owned uses and land and permit the normal principal and incidental uses required to carry out governmental functions and services.
(2) Permitted principal uses.
(a) Outdoor public recreational uses, such as: playgrounds, playfields, golf courses, boating areas, fishing sites, camping sites, parkways and parks. No structure shall be erected or maintained upon dedicated park land which is not customarily incidental to the principal use of the land.
(b) Natural open space, such as: conservation lands, wildlife sanctuaries, forest preserves.
(c) Developed open space, such as: arboreta, botanical and zoological gardens.
(d) Educational services, such as: public primary and secondary schools, and institutions of higher education.
(e) Cultural services, such as: museums and art galleries.
(f) Public-service institutions, such as: hospitals, sanatoria, homes for the elderly, children’s homes and correctional institutions.
(g) Essential services, buildings containing essential services and electrical substations.
(h) Municipal airports.
(i) Civic center.
(j) Government offices and courts.

The list of possible uses does not currently specify a transportation facility like the Fuller Road Station. However, at its May 4 meeting, the city’s planning commission is scheduled to hold a public hearing on a text amendment to that section of the city code that would replace “municipal airports” with “transportation facilities.”

At the caucus, Kaplan went on to say that there were other ways for UM to address its parking needs. She pointed to the fact that the facility had been divided into two components – the train station and the parking deck with bus bays. The project currently has nothing to do with rail transportation, she said. [The project has been divided into those two components and staged chronologically, with the train station in a later phase.]

Briere told Kaplan that whatever happened with Fuller Road Station – whether it’s built or not – she hoped Kaplan would remember her passion. She said she wanted Kaplan to remember how she feels now, and that in case UM in the future decided to build parking decks on Wall Street, Kaplan would let her voice be heard. When UM wanted to build parking decks on Wall Street earlier, Briere said, Kaplan’s voice was silent.

Kaplan countered that just because she’d not spoken up against the proposed Wall Street parking decks did not mean that she could not speak up now. Briere clarified that she did not mean that Kaplan should be silent now, but that if UM resurrects its plans to build Wall Street parking structures, she hoped Kaplan would weigh in.

Kaplan then noted that the situation felt as if one part of the community was being pitted against another and that she felt like this happened fairly often. Briere allowed that Kaplan was “quite right” about that.

Mayor John Hieftje weighed by ticking through the standard talking points on the rationale for locating Fuller Road Station where it’s proposed: east-west rail is key to the region’s future success; the UM hospital employs 20,000 employees and has 2 million visitors per year; the site is consistent with a possible north-south intra-city connector being studied for the Plymouth-State corridor.

Hieftje indicated that Obama’s University of Michigan commencement address the previous day had provided an occasion for him to talk to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and Congressman Sandy Levin about possible federal support for the Fuller Road Station. [The Levins were among a slew of dignitaries in attendance at UM commencement.]

Hieftje asked Kaplan where she would put parking for the university. She responded by saying that just because she objected to a parking deck at one location did not obligate her to provide the solution. Briere then drew out from Kaplan that Kaplan objected to a parking deck at the Fuller Road location, and also objected to a train station there, though Kaplan said she supported the idea of rail transportation.

In light of Kaplan’s objections to a train station at that location, Briere encouraged Kaplan to think about where she would put a train station, working under the relevant constraints. Specifically, it would need to be next to the railroad track, and the land would need to be already city-owned or else acquired. Briere told Kaplan she was not asking her to solve the problem, but rather just asking her to think about it.

Asked if there was some possibility of putting a ballot question before voters in November on the sale of the land where the Fuller Road Station is proposed, Briere figured that would not happen. Once a proposal to sell land was put on the ballot, she said, that would be seen as a step away from the assurances that many councilmembers have given over the years that they were not thinking of selling parkland.

Briere then recounted some to the history of the charter amendment passed in 2008 requiring a vote of residents before any parkland could be sold. She noted that former councilmember Bob Johnson, who “sat in this chair before me” representing Ward 1, had been the father of the “we-will-not-sell amendment.” And Johnson – who was no longer on the city council, but provided advice to Briere on the wording of the amendment – had said that it should not include leasing. That is, leasing without a voter referendum would be allowed.

Airport Runway Extension

The caucus was led off by a multi-person presentation by the Committee for the Preservation of Community Quality. The committee gave their response to the environmental assessment (EA) recently completed on a proposed runway extension at the Ann Arbor municipal airport. [Chronicle coverage of the public hearing on the EA: "Ann Arbor Airport Study Gets Public Hearing"] Kathe Wunderlich introduced the group.

Barbara Perkins led off by saying that she hadn’t attended a caucus in a long time, but she’d been active in local politics 40 years ago, when she first moved to Ann Arbor and when the airport runway was an issue. She said she never thought she’d have to be back in the 21st century to argue against the extension again.

Perkins called the airport layout plan a “disaster” and criticized the EA for failure to address issues like the potential impact on the city’s water supply. She said that after passage of the airport layout plan in 2007, the city staff had been called upon to gather public input, but that had not happened. She said that she’d requested to meet with her Ward 4 city council representatives [Marcia Higgins and Margie Teall] on the issue and that they’d arranged to meet, but the chair and the vice-chair of the city’s airport advisory committee had attended, and her city council representatives had left, saying,”These gentlemen will answer your questions.”

The bulk of the presentation was delivered by Andrew McGill, based on a spiral-bound 60-page document that was the group’s formal response to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration on the EA.

Key points presented by McGill from the report:

I. The project’s stated purpose and need is unsupported by the evidence.
A. The EA supports neither the problem it aims to solve nor its purported solution.
B. The EA incorrectly relies on total annual operations to support the proposed runway extension.
C. Shifting Runway 6/24 150 feet to the southwest will not achieve an additional margin of safety.
D. The EA falsely intends to convey rural setting in a densely populated area.

II. The EA does not consider all reasonable alternatives.

III. The EA fails to adequately analyze or disclose the project’s air quality impacts where it fails to address or determine the project’s Clean Air Act conformity.
A. The EA fails to establish that the project is exempt.
B. The EA fails to establish that the project is presumed to conform.
C. The EA fails to establish the project’s conformity status.

IV. The EA fails to account for wells on airport property.

V. The EA fails to analyze the presence of hazardous wildlife near the airport and fails to present any mandatory mitigation measures.

VI. The EA does not acknowledge or analyze the project’s manifest growth-inducing impacts.

VII. Political jurisdictions that proposed action or alternatives would impact.

VIII. Noise modeling for the project failed to include increased jet aircraft and nighttime operations in developing noise contours.

IX. Procedural justice

Key among the many conclusions presented by McGill was that there is a habitat at the airport  conducive to Canada geese – which are numerous enough to warrant goose-crossing signs on nearby roads. The FAA requires appropriate mitigating measures if a habitat that could cause movements of hazardous wildlife (Canada geese) into the approach and departure airspace is located within five miles of the airport. The cost of those mitigating measures, McGill felt, would be prohibitive.

Sol Castell, a commercial airline pilot, addressed the issue of whether a longer runway would mean that heavier aircraft could take off and land there. For him as a pilot, he said, it was clear: a longer runway allows heavier aircraft. He then cited a landing-distance chart showing that prescribed landing distances increase with increased weight.

As a part of his recurrent pilot training, Castell said, they distiguish between managing threats and managing errors. Managing errors, he said, is managing the past. You manage the future by managing threats. The threat of heavier aircraft flying at low altitudes over residential areas, he said, could be eliminated by not extending the runway. The idea that runway overruns could be addressed by a runway extension was, said Castell, “managing the past.” The accident reports for the runway overruns, said Castell, showed that the incidents were attributable to pilot error in failing to control the direction of the aircraft.

There is no action currently before the city council – or scheduled to come before the council – regarding the proposed runway extension. The Committee for the Preservation of Community Quality does not expect any action to be brought to the council, because they see the EA as flawed in so many ways.

One Comment

  1. By Karen Sidney
    May 3, 2010 at 1:19 pm | permalink

    Budget amendments are rarely drafted during council meetings. Amendments to the FY11 budget on how to spend the $2 million in DDA public parking money will be drafted before the May 17 meeting. Those amendments will be prepared with the help of staff and circulated to some council members. There is no reason why the contents of the proposed amendment should be known to only a few. It’s not a violation of the open meetings act to circulate the proposed amendment to all council members and the public before the meeting. They just cannot have an email discussion about it. If the budget amendments were posted to the city’s website, the public could use council caucus to provide input about whether or not they agreed with the amendments.