AATA Extends Countywide Planning Time

Also: pay philosophy adopted; janitorial contract delayed

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Nov. 18, 2010): Starting things off on Thursday – an hour earlier than the board’s usual 6:30 p.m. start time – was an update from the consultant and AATA staff who are leading the community in developing a countywide transportation master plan (TMP).


Board members Jesse Bernstein and Sue McCormick confer before the start of the Nov. 18 meeting. (Photos by the writer.)

The steps outlined for developing the TMP include a chronology for identifying the following: a shared community vision; a transit needs assessment; transit options; a set of scenarios. The consulting team is in the midst of a phase that identifies a range of various options. The creation of various scenarios – combinations of different transit options – will constitute the final phase of work before production of the TMP in mid-April 2011.

That projected completion date reflects an extension of the original timeframe, which was originally set to conclude in late February. The extra time will allow for an additional step in the process – a step that will allow the consultant to present a set of scenarios without specifying any one of them as the recommended scenario.

To allow for the extra time, later in the evening the board approved a resolution increasing the $399,805 contract with Steer Davies Gleeve – the consultant AATA hired to help with the work – by an amount not to exceed $32,500.

In other business, the board discussed, but did not approve, a new janitorial contract for Blake Transit Center, which specified a different vendor from the current one. The new vendor’s bid came in at a cost a bit more than half of what had been budgeted for the year: $72,000 compared to the budgeted $126,069. Concerns by board members about how the cost savings were being achieved were serious enough that they chose, on a split vote, to table the issue.

In a move that did not authorize any current expenditure, the board adopted a compensation philosophy over which there was some brief but firm debate. Board member David Nacht weighed in against the idea of a public entity creating such a document – they’re only used to justify increases in payment but never decreases, he said. Expressing the view of the majority, however, was board member Sue McCormick, who stressed the importance of a public entity making a clear and transparent statement of how salaries are set.

The board entertained its usual range of committee reports and remarks from the public.

Extension of Time and Money for TMP

Before the board was a resolution to extend the timeframe for engaging the consulting services of Steer Davies Gleeve, which had been hired back in April 2010 to assist the AATA in developing a transportation master plan (TMP) for the countywide area. It included an increase in the $399,805 contract with Steer Davies Gleeve by an amount not to exceed $32,500.

TMP Consulting Extension: Update on the Plan – “This is where it’s going to get exciting.”

The board received an extensive briefing at the start of the summer on the process that would be used to develop the TMP. [Chronicle coverage: "AATA Moves Engagement Process into Gear"] Since then they’ve received periodic updates – including the one on Thursday evening, which was given by Juliet Edmonson of Steer Davies Gleeve and the AATA’s Michael Benham.

The extended timeline presented by the pair now foresees the production of the TMP document by April 8, 2011. In a process that includes development of a shared community vision, followed by a transit needs assessment, exploration of transit options, and the building of scenarios, the AATA is currently in the midst of completing its analysis of various transit options for the countywide area. Scenarios will be built out of different transit options. One focus of the presentation was to try to help establish a common vocabulary. The notions of “transit options” and “scenarios” are a part of that vocabulary.

Transit game mid-play with a scenario that includes options like urban bus service improvements (improved frequency, extended hours, better amenities at stops), high-traffic corridor improvements (better service between Ypsi and Ann Arbor, downtown improvements (a circulator) and better local connectivity (improvement in on-demand service). The image links to a higher resolution file.

As a part of its separate Moving You Forward website dedicated to the public engagement effort for the TMP, an online transit “game” is offered that allows residents to select various transit options and see the relative cost of those options, as well as the projected impact.

What are “options”? Options include improvements in: local and countywide connectivity, regional connectivity, downtown environments, urban bus service and high-demand transit corridors. An example of a specific option in the category of local connectivity is an improvement in on-demand para-transit services. Or, an example of a specific option in the category of an urban bus service improvement would be an improvement in the frequency of existing bus service.

The online game allows the player to put different options together and view them overlaid on a map as a “scenario.” The impact of a scenario – on the region’s economy, livability, accessibility, environment, safety and security and community health – is reflected in a bar chart that is updated as each option is added or subtracted from the scenario. Game players can submit their scenario to the AATA by saving it.

The construction of the scenarios, said Benham, is where “it’s going to get exciting.” The increased timeline is due in part to the desire to have an opportunity to review various scenarios, without the overlay of one scenario being already recommended as the preferred one. From the performance and evaluation committee minutes of Nov. 9, 2010, included in the board’s meeting packet:

Michael Ford reported on a proposal to extend the Transit Master Plan contract with Steer Davies Gleave to mid‐April and include a review of the scenarios before recommending one scenario for consideration. Mr. Ford indicated that there was a need for additional work with the Technical and Leadership Committees and for the expansion of the comment period for the TMP deliverables.

TMP Consulting Extension: Board Comment on Update

Board members could generally be characterized as enthusiastic about what they heard in the update.

Rich Robben focused in on a slide that displayed the relationship between transit and density: “Transit needs density; transit creates density.” He wanted to know if they started, for example, with an option that promotes density – like bus rapid transit, for example – could the achievement of greater density generate the need for an even more enhanced transportation mode? Edmonson told Robben that events could unfold in that way, or that they might also choose to “pitch high” in a way that would stimulate greater density and also already have the additional capacity built into the option.

In  response to a question from Roger Kerson about where Ann Arbor fits into the picture for adequate density to support various transit options, from light rail (30 housing units per acre or 50 employees per acre) down to frequent regular bus service (5 housing units per acre or 15 employees per acre), Edmonson said that it’s overall somewhat less than what’s considered necessary to support frequent bus service.

But following up on Edmonson’s remark was Jesse Bernstein, who pointed out that one result of the connector study – a still-in-progress collaboration of the University of Michigan, the city of Ann Arbor, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the AATA to look at the Plymouth-State corridor – showed that there’s sufficient frequency of trips between UM’s north campus and central campus to support light rail.

Bernstein said that from what he was hearing, the community appeared to have some control over how the county is going to look over the next 30 years.

Sue McCormick said she’d like to see called out in more detail the “nice set of dominoes that fall” when congestion is relieved along high-capacity corridors leading to local areas, causing local congestion to be relieved, thus allowing for rejuvenation of the local area.

Anya Dale, who by profession is a Washtenaw County planner, stressed that it’s important not to just “pay tribute in language” to the principles of transit-oriented development (TOD), but rather to include in the scenarios the idea of TOD as it relates to key, high-capacity corridors. She observed that if current trends do continue, that would mean the population would tend to increase in areas outside urban centers. On the question of whether that means AATA should increase service outside urban areas, she suggested that it’s important not to be reactive.

Nacht suggested it would be good to have, with the various scenarios, an indication of what the impact would be on population distribution.

Charles Griffith remarked on the value of multimodal facilities. He’d just been in the Twin Cities, he reported, and had taken note of the bicyclists taking their bikes aboard the transit system.

Kerson suggested that the impact on travel times be presented in actual units of time rather than in percentages. For example, one forecast presented is that travel time on M-14 from the eastern county border to US-23 will increase by 115%. He wanted to know how many minutes that would be.

Nacht expressed the desire to see examples from other communities. He said he’d like to be able to say: Look at that community with that vision, and here’s why it worked there and could work here. Alternatively, he said, they might look at options that didn’t work in other communities and try those here – assuming they had a clear understanding of why the options didn’t work elsewhere, and had some reason to think that this community is different in a way that would allow the option to work here.

Nacht described Ann Arbor as “a college town with some other stuff going on.” He observed that some of the fastest-growing areas of the country had poor transit. In terms of possible population growth, he said he thought that transit could factor into some – but “not astronomical” – growth. He said if he were to be sold on some scenario, he’d need to believe that it was viable from example – not “wishful thinking or, if we build it they will come.” Noting that he’d previously lived in Washington D.C., he said that they’re obviously not going to build a subway, but he wanted an example he could relate to.

Robben identified affordability as a key issue. He pointed out that transit options that might seem desirable could also have costs that are prohibitive. He also noted the importance of gas prices on the issue. Higher gas prices meant that mass transit could become a more competitive option for potential riders.

TMP Consulting Extension: Board Deliberations

On the issue of extending the contract, there was little in the way of deliberations.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the increase in the dollar amount and the timeframe for the work that Steer Davies Gleeve is going to do.

Janitorial Services Contract

Before the board was consideration of a three-year contract at $72,000 per year with JNS Commercial Cleaning to provide janitorial services for the Blake Transit Center. The contract with the current vendor expired on Oct. 31 and was extended through Nov. 30, 2010. The AATA received 14 proposals in response to their RFP (request for proposals).

The proposals were reviewed by operations staff with respect to their technical merit and scored separately from the financial merit, which was assessed by the controller. Based on that analysis, the field of vendors was winnowed down to three. After an interview with the top choice, a reference check caused that vendor to be disqualified. The second of the three finalists, JNS Commercial Cleaning, was then interviewed. References checked out, and JNS was recommended for selection.

Janitorial: Board Deliberations

Board member Rich Robben wondered what allowed for the dramatic drop in cost – was the vendor paying a living wage? Controller Phil Webb indicated that he was not sure about compensation details. Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, indicated that he could get back to the board about that issue. Roger Kerson indicated that he’d raised the question of compensation at the performance monitoring and external relations committee meeting, and had been told there was a $2 difference in the hourly rate – $19 versus $17.

Board member David Nacht asked Robben if he had concerns that would cause him to want to delay a decision. Robben indicated that he’d like more information on employee compensation, before voting. The board then voted to table the motion.

Outcome: The board voted to table the decision to award a three-year contract to JNS for janitorial services at the Blake Transit Center. Dissenting were Sue McCormick and Charles Griffith.

Compensation Philosophy

Before the board was a resolution to adopt a compensation philsophy. The compensation philosophy considered by the board reads in part:

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority believes in a Merit System that rewards higher than expected performance. To determine merit increases, AATA takes into account, rather than specific changes in the cost of living:

  1. Individual performance
  2. Financial condition of the authority
  3. Competitive job market
  4. General economic conditions

AATA is committed to pay competitive market rates with organizations that are within the following parameters:

  1. Transit providers with similar numbers of employees
  2. Organizations with 100 to 249 employees and similar revenue streams to those of AATA
  3. Government units located in the South Eastern Michigan area

Compensation Philosophy: Board Deliberations

David Nacht led off discussion by noting that the compensation philosophy was a re-draft of something that had been found lying around on the books somewhere. He indicated that at the planning and development committee meeting on the subject, he’d voted no on it.

Nacht said it’s not clear to him if the document refers to the compensation of the CEO, the senior staff, or all staff. As long as the AATA has a CEO, he said, that person is hired to pay everybody else. If the CEO is a good steward of taxpayer money, then that person is rewarded. “I don’t like pieces of paper like this,” said Nacht. He said he anticipated that someone might advance a case for a raise based on the piece of paper. But he said that nobody would come forward to say: This paper says I deserve less. He said he did not want the board to be bound by the piece of paper, and that he just didn’t feel the AATA needs it. He said he didn’t want another piece of paper that could wind up costing money.

Sue McCormick, who also serves as the city of Ann Arbor’s public services area administrator, responded with a different view. She stated that the document reflected a reasonable and transparent way for a public body to express to the public how it compensates people. It’s reasonable to have such a philosophy, he said.

Rich Robben said he sees his role, as a steward of the AATA, to make sure it has as much or more value after his stewardship than before. The compensation philosophy, he said, reflects good sustainable criteria to maintain the equity value of the organization.

Nacht picked up on the theme of public organizations that McCormick had introduced. In the private sector, he stated, many people have concerns about the public sector. The public sector, he continued, is in the opinion of many Americans “a mess.” Many of the recent elections were won by candidates saying that and nothing more, he said. He suggested that the AATA does not need pieces of paper to do what is common sense.

Boards need to create pieces of paper, Nacht concluded, but people with common sense can get things done.

Outcome: The board voted to adopt the compensation philosophy, with dissent from Nacht.

Communications from Committees, CEO

The board entertained its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from the CEO, Michael Ford. Here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Blake Transit Center

As a part of the CEO’s report came the item that the AATA is in discussions with the city of Ann Arbor to acquire a six-foot parcel at the southwest corner of the lot where the BTC is located. The AATA is planning a reconstruction of the downtown transit center, located north of William, between Fourth and Fifth avenues in downtown Ann Arbor.

From the planning and development committee meeting minutes:

DLZ [the firm that's designing the new center] is working with Devon Title Company to secure the required parcel information for the City of Ann Arbor and should have this for the City by mid-November. This information will give AATA the ability to work with the City to move forward with the acquisition of the additional six feet of land to the southwest corner of the property. The additional land would allow AATA to construct the new building in a way that addresses some of the concerns AATA has heard (expanding the customer lobby area, improved security, and more public restroom space) during the public meetings held. Once this is completed, AATA will move forward swiftly with the final design so that it can be brought in front of City Planning for review and approval. We anticipate having a design of the new floor plan of the facility to present at the December committee meeting.

Comm/Comm: Performance Metric Charts

Image links to higher resolution file.

Charles Griffith, in reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, noted the new visual format for some of the reporting metrics. During board discussion, it was the operating expense per service hour that drew the most discussion.

That expense was budgeted for the year at $107.50/hour, but for the first part of the year, the organization has been coming in below budget. Nacht pointed out that in his tenure on the AATA board, Ted Annis had focused on the dollars/hour figure as a key metric and that it appeared that the year was off to a promising beginning.

Rich Robben wanted some clarification on the lack of a more apparent relationship between the number of passengers per service hour compared to the cost per passenger and CEO Michael Ford said he’d look into that.

Comm/Comm: On-Time Performance

Responding to the report of ongoing efforts to improve on-time performance, David Nacht suggested that in discussion with riders, a key problem is when a bus is extremely late – 10 minutes versus 20 minutes. Nacht suggested that it was important to eliminate the absolute worst offenses for lateness – the kind of lateness that cause people to lose jobs and miss doctor’s appointments.

Comm/Comm: Rider Forums – “We will not, however, be deterred.”

The first rider forum hosted by the AATA resulted in no one attending. It’s noted in the CEO report as follows:

As you know, there were no attendees at the October 21 Public Forum. We will not, however, be deterred. Plans are underway for the next session that will be held prior to the January 20, 2011 Board meeting beginning at 5:30 p.m. in the Conference Room of the Ann Arbor District Library on Fifth Avenue. This event is a priority for us.

Public Commentary

Two people addressed the board during public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting.

Tim Hull introduced himself by saying that he’d attended previous meetings. He thanked the board for being proactive about seeking input on proposed service changes. The board is already seeking input on changes scheduled for January 2011, he said. He described it as unfortunate that no one showed up to the first rider forum – he’d been sick, he said.

Thomas Partridge said he was gratified that Washtenaw County has a public transit system. He’s a long-time user of the system, he said. He recommended that board members ride the system, including the A-Ride para-transit system, to set an example to others. He said he appreciated the board’s efforts to reach out to the public in connection with the countywide planning effort, but said that it duplicates prior efforts.

Closed Session: Not Held

With all agenda items completed except for adjournment, Nacht inquired about a possible closed session to discuss an employee contract. Board chair Jesse Bernstein told Nacht that they could enter into closed session only if the employee requests it. When the conditions are met, Bernstein said, he would be happy to move the board into a closed session. The meeting concluded without the closed session.

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act reads in relevant part [emphasis added]:

15.268 Closed sessions; permissible purposes.

Sec. 8. A public body may meet in a closed session only for the following purposes:

(a) To consider the dismissal, suspension, or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, or to consider a periodic personnel evaluation of, a public officer, employee, staff member, or individual agent, if the named person requests a closed hearing. A person requesting a closed hearing may rescind the request at any time, in which case the matter at issue shall be considered after the rescission only in open sessions. …

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale

Next regular meeting: Thursday, Dec. 16, 2009 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]

One Comment

  1. November 24, 2010 at 5:30 pm | permalink

    Dave, as always excellent reporting. The CHRONICLE is the next best thing to being there – and sometimes better!