AATA Hires Architect for Transit Center

Also, bus system gets good marks from review

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (May 12, 2010): With the expiration of two board members’ terms on May 1, and no replacement finalized for either, an absence further reduced the now five-member AATA board to four at its regular monthly meeting on Wednesday.


The mailbox at the AATA headquarters on South Industrial. There's no particular connection between the mailbox and this meeting report – it's here for pure aesthetics. (Photo by the writer.)

The meeting had been rescheduled from its usual slot on the second-to-last Wednesday of the month to avoid additional absences.

The four board members who were present listened to a glowing review of the AATA from McCollom Management Consulting, which had been hired to perform an organizational audit.

The only business transacted by the board was to approve a contract for architectural and engineering services to design a replacement of the downtown Blake Transit Center. The $343,439 contract was awarded to DLZ Michigan Inc., which had three representatives on hand at the meeting to field any questions. [The Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority may eventually provide a grant to the AATA for foundation work related to the newly constructed transit center.]

Before the meeting, the trio from DLZ clustered in conversation in the board room and noticed the missing members in the set of official framed board member photos hanging on the board room wall – “Where’s Paul?” one asked.

Who’s on the Board?

The “Paul” in the DLZ question was Paul Ajegba, whose term on the AATA board expired on May 1, 2010. According to the monthly report from Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, Ajegba did not seek reappointment. He was first appointed in October 2004 to fill the vacancy of Steve Thorp, and was then appointed to a full five-year term in June 2005.

The framed photograph of Ted Annis was also missing from the board room wall on Wednesday. As The Chronicle previously reported, city administrator Roger Fraser had pitched the idea to Annis of serving on the Ann Arbor Housing Commission board shortly before the council dissolved and reconstituted that body in mid-March 2010. [Chronicle coverage: "Housing Commission Set to Hire Director"]

Annis responded to the offer by saying that he’d prefer to continue his service on the AATA board. But as of Wednesday, there was still no clarity about the possible reappointment of Annis or a replacement for him. From the CEO’s monthly report dated May 10: “Since AATA Board members cannot continue until reappointed, we are awaiting word on the  reappointment of Ted Annis.”

At the city council’s May 3, 2010 meeting, mayor John Hieftje did not mention a reappointment of Annis when he nominated Washtenaw County planner Anya Dale to replace Ajegba on the board.

But in an email sent to media on Thursday morning, May 13, Annis reported that he’d met with the mayor – who makes the nominations to the AATA board, which must be confirmed by the city council – and that he’d agreed with the mayor that he would take a break from the AATA board, but would be willing to come back in 2011. Hieftje had told him, Annis wrote, that the AATA board composition would change via two new appointments this year and two next year. [The terms for Charles Griffith and Rich Robben expire in May 2011.]

In the fall of 2009, their fellow board members elected Ajegba as chair of the AATA board and Annis as treasurer. On Wednesday, Charles Griffith, who serves as the board’s secretary, chaired the meeting, and Rich Robben filled in as secretary.

The first order of business for Griffith was to thank Ajegba and Annis for their service and their work, but he stressed that the two would be acknowledged in a more formal way at a future meeting. Griffth indicated that he would not be seeking to fill either one of the two vacant officer positions on the board – chair and treasurer – and offered to served as the nominating committee of one. He asked board members to let him know if they were interested in filling one of those positions – there’ll be an election of officers possibly at the next board meeting in June. Griffith said he hoped that by June the board would hear something about a replacement for Annis.

Consultant’s Report: ATTA Boy, AATA

Jack Doolittle of McCollom Management Consulting delivered some welcome news to the board on the organizational audit he’d conducted across the organization.

Doolittle told the board that the review had begun in February 2010. Overall, his findings indicated that the organizational structure and the senior management team was well-qualified to meet the goals of the organization, in particular with respect to its fixed-route service. The efficiency of the driver workforce, he said, was the highest in the peer group of similar transit authorities used to benchmark AATA – Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Madison, Toledo,  Urbana, South Bend, Lexington, Durham, Little Rock,  Syracuse and Tallahassee.

The peer institutions, Doolittle said, were chosen based on factors like population, miles of service provided, and number of passengers. And an effort had been made, he said, to include as many communities as possible that were also university towns. Most of them, he noted, were in the upper Midwest.

The “fixed-route” bus service operated by AATA is the regularly-scheduled service. That’s complemented by “paratransit” services offered to seniors and handicapped people on an on-demand basis. For paratransit services, Doolittle told the board, the AATA went above and beyond what is required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Compared to the peer group, Doolittle told the board that AATA buses carried 4% more passengers per service hour, their drivers worked 7% more hours, and they achieved 4% more service hours per employee. He also told them that the administrative staff was 8% smaller, with roughly the same cost and revenue per service hour. The staffing, he concluded, was appropriate for the current mission, but needs additional professional skills in order to tackle the new, countywide mission.

The cost controls that had been set in place, Doolittle continued, had resulted in cost increases over the last six years for the AATA averaging around 1.4% per year, compared to 4% per year for the peer systems.

As a potential problem, Doolittle identified the fact that the operating workforce has a high level of seniority – which is a function of the fact that the top pay rate is achieved after just three years of service. So about 70% of the drivers, he said, are paid at the top wage rate. Because vacation time is also a function of seniority, he said, the high percentage of top seniority drivers reduces availability and flexibility for scheduling.

Doolittle characterized the online, real-time supervision of the system as effective.

Commenting on the AATA bus fleet, Doolittle described the coaches as modern and well-maintained with their size and age at industry standards. He said there’d been an 86% improvement in reliability of the buses over the last six years. One problem with the maintenance program, he said, was that the inventory of parts was too large for the fleet. There was a one-year inventory on hand, when there should be something like a 6-7 month inventory. The inventory management system, he said, needs to be upgraded or replaced.

Doolittle characterized the headquarters facility as well as the bus shelters as in “good shape.”

Commenting on the ridership levels, Doolittle noted that from 2006 to 2008, ridership had increased 50%, from 4 million per year to 5.9 million – largely due to the impact of the MRide program, which allows University of Michigan staff and students to ride AATA buses without paying a fare when they board a bus. From the period 2003 to 2008, Doolittle said, the amount AATA spent per passenger ride had dropped from $3.39 to $2.37.

Commenting on the presentation from Doolittle, board member Jesse Bernstein noted that in the performance monitoring and external relations committee meeting, they’d delved into the draft report from McCollom in more detail than the 50,000-foot level view the board was being presented. Bernstein wanted to know if the report was available online. Answer: not yet. The final draft has not yet been prepared.

Charles Griffith said he found it reassuring that their costs are in line with those of other systems once adjustments are made for the cost of living. He characterized the report as a useful tool.

Bernstein asked for some additional clarification on how the federal Section 5307 formula funds are used by AATA as compared to the peer systems. Brian McCollom fielded that question. He explained that such funds can be used on two main categories of items: (i) capital expenses – like buses, shelters, and terminals, and (ii) preventive maintenance on capital assets. The Section 5307 funds pay 80% of the costs, he said, with a 20% local match expected.

In the peer systems, McCollom said, about 11% of operating budgets were paid out of Section 5307 funds, compared to 10% for the AATA. Looking at the balance between capital expenses and preventive maintenance in the Section 5307 funds, the AATA has a 60-40 split, whereas peer systems show an average of a 33-67 split for capital expenses and preventive maintenance.

The analysis of AATA’s use of 40% of its Section 5307 dollars on preventive maintenance, compared to a 67% portion by peer systems, may have given board member David Nacht some comfort. Nacht has often expressed concern about the use of preventive maintenance dollars. Most recently, at the board’s March 24, 2010 meeting, he had cautioned against using preventive maintenance dollars for budget fixes:

Nacht concurred, saying that financial direction was especially important, given how easy it is to use preventive maintenance dollars for temporary budget fixes.

Board member Sue McCormick noted that sometimes she hears snippets of conversation from the community about the AATA operating a “gold-gilded service.” She asked Doolittle and McCollom to comment on any aspects of the AATA’s service that might fit that description.

McCollom indicated there was nothing that he thought would merit that description. He reiterated that the AATA’s numbers were good – 31 passengers per service hour was a good number, he said. On the paratransit side, he said, the peer systems they had evaluated just meet the letter of the ADA law. “You go beyond that,” he told the board. But that’s a policy decision, he said, concluding, “I’m uncomfortable saying that’s excessive.”

During the first public commentary time slot, which immediately followed the consultant’s presentation, Carolyn Grawi, who works with the Center for Independent Living, responded to the consultant’s comments on the ADA requirements, describing the accessibility requirements this way: “That’s the bottom, not the top.” She described the AATA paratransit system as a “model system,” but said it still had gaps. In Mount Pleasant, she said, it cost $1 for same-day on-demand paratransit service, compared with the $4 charged by the AATA.

In an email sent to current board members on May 13, the day after their meeting, former treasurer Ted Annis questioned why the consultant’s report did not include a contrastive analysis of the AATA with the University of Michigan bus system, which operates at $55/service hour compared with $105/service hour for the AATA. In his email, Annis also noted that overpayments made by the AATA for its on-demand paratransit service were less than what had previously been identified. But even with the different analysis of overpayments, Annis wrote, the AATA was paying $444,000 a year too much for paratransit service.

Architect for Blake Transit Center

At its Dec. 16, 2009 meeting, the AATA board had approved issuing bids for the reconstruction of the Blake Transit Center (BTC) on the same footprint as the existing facility on South Fourth Avenue. [Chronicle coverage: AATA Board: Get Bids to Rebuild Blake] On Wednesday night, the board approved a $343,439 contract with DLZ Michigan Inc. for architectural and engineering services.

The AATA sent its request for proposals on the project to 49 firms and received 15 qualified proposals in response. Three top proposals were identified: DLZ Michigan; Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment Inc.; and Parsons Brinckerhoff Michigan. Oral presentations from the three were heard on May 4-5, 2010.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Fred Pezeshk, Brad Funkhauser and Michael Vernich of DLZ were available to answer questions, but there were no board questions that could not be handled by Terry Black, who’s manager of maintenance for AATA. Black answered a question from Jesse Bernstein about construction start and timeframe by saying that they expected to start in the spring of 2011, with an 8-10 month construction period. Black confirmed that the AATA was coordinating with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority on the underground parking garage project the next block over on South Fifth, which will still be under construction during that time period.

Black indicated that temporary quarters would likely at least in part take the form of trailers located on the parking lot at Fifth & William. Sue McCormick confirmed that the AATA’s local advisory council, which advocates for seniors and handicapped riders, would be included as an internal stakeholder as the project moved from a conceptual phase to actual design.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the contract with DLZ for the design and engineering of the Blake Transit Center reconstruction.

At Wednesday’s meeting, McCormick noted that the city of Ann Arbor engineering staff, who assisted with the review of the responses to the RFP for Blake, had been very complementary of the AATA process and implementation by staff. Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, returned the praise to the city staff.

Also included as part of the review team for the Blake Transit Center proposals was Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. Earlier Wednesday morning, Pollay had told the DDA board’s partnerships committee that she would be asking the DDA’s full board for a grant to help fund more substantial foundations and footings than would be required for the current concept for reconstructing the Blake Transit Center. The conceptual design, also done by the architectural and engineering firm DLZ, includes two levels on the existing 3,675 square foot BTC footprint.

The thought behind a possible DDA grant would be to allow for a taller structure to be built in the future on top of the building that’s currently planned. Pollay has floated the same idea previously – for example, at the January 2010 meeting of the DDA partnerships committee. [Chronicle coverage: "DDA Floats Idea for Fourth Avenue"]

Reports from the CEO and Committees

Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, is approaching the first anniversary of his service at the AATA, and expressed his appreciation for the staff’s hard work so far. He’s previously mentioned that he’s been running them hard.

Ford noted that the AATA had launched the informational part of the countywide transportation initiative. It’s supported with a  new website – movingyouforward.org.

Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Jesse Bernstein said that some of the initial meetings with public officials were starting to take place and that some of them were starting to “get it” – the AATA is not asking them for money, but rather asking what the plan should be. At the board’s April meeting, a contract with an outside consultant to develop the countywide plan – a transit master plan (TMP) – had been approved.

[Bernstein has written some pieces for Concentrate on the subject of the countywide transit plan.]

What the Plan Should Be: Public Comment

Though they were not speaking directly to the question of what the countywide transit plan should be, two people made remarks during public commentary that could be taken that way.

Tim Hull, a freshly baked University of Michigan master’s degree holder and now UM employee, asked the board to reflect on the efforts the AATA made on behalf of commuters – the Chelsea-Ann Arbor Express and the Canton-Ann Arbor Express services, as well as the new park-and-ride lot at US-23 and Plymouth Road, which held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday. Hull suggested that those services needed to be funded by the communities where the commuters live: “I question whether Ann Arbor should be funding this.” Hull supported the idea of such services, but stressed that Ann Arbor transit tax dollars should go to services that are useful for Ann Arbor residents.

Also addressing the issue of park-and-ride lots, and how they can affect the bus service for those who use the system to get around town, Jim Mogensen related an anecdote about a ride he’d taken recently on the Number 2 bus from downtown. It was on the Thursday that the city hall had experienced the carbon monoxide episode, he said. [The date was April 15, 2011 2010. Coverage is included in the city council's April 19, 2010 meeting report.] He was downtown and decided to take the bus home. He noted that when he takes the bus, he plans strategically, because he uses a walker to get around. When he tries to board a bus at the Michigan League, he said, the number of students boarding buses makes safety an issue – for him and the students.

So he boarded at Blake Transit Center, he said. The bus wound its way through the UM campus accepting a full complement of passengers, then letting them off. By the time the bus reached the next-to-last stop, where he got off, there was only one other person on the bus. The one remaining stop on the route, explained Mogensen, was the new park-and-ride lot. Yet the route had been reconfigured specifically to serve the park-and-ride lot. The number of passengers on that route, he said, would continue to reflect high ridership, but the effect might not be to serve the park-and-ride lot – even though the route had been reconfigured, accepting the possibility that it was less optimal for local transit riders.

Present: Charles Griffith, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben, Jesse Bernstein

Absent: David Nacht

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, June, 23 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]


  1. By Eric Boyd
    May 15, 2010 at 6:51 am | permalink

    This sentence: “The date was April 15, 2011.” appears off by a year.

  2. By Rod Johnson
    May 15, 2010 at 9:33 am | permalink

    I imagine the Park and Ride, like most, gets almost all of its bus traffic at very specific times of day. Without knowing when Mogensen took his trip, it’s hard to know how to interpret his anecdote.

  3. By Dave Askins
    May 15, 2010 at 9:40 am | permalink

    Re: [2] “Without knowing when Mogensen took his trip, it’s hard to know how to interpret his anecdote.”

    That’s a fair point. I failed to include that detail: 5:30 p.m., which Mogensen characterized as “rush hour” in his remarks.

  4. By Rod Johnson
    May 15, 2010 at 10:33 pm | permalink

    Aha, yes, that’s interesting. Thanks.