Planning Commission Approves Capital Plan

Ann Arbor's proposed projects head to city council

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 4, 2011): A presentation and discussion on the city’s proposed capital improvements plan – known as the CIP – was the main topic at the year’s first planning commission meeting.

Cresson Slotten

At the Jan. 4 planning commission meeting, Cresson Slotten, acting unit manager for the city of Ann Arbor's systems planning unit, explains the process of developing the proposed capital improvements plan (CIP).

Commissioners ultimately approved the CIP, which will now be forwarded to city council. No one attended a public hearing on the topic.

The plan covers the fiscal years 2012-2017, and includes a list of major capital projects, both ones that are funded and those for which funding hasn’t yet been identified. The city code requires that the CIP be developed and updated each year, looking ahead at a six-year period, to help with financial planning. It’s intended to reflect the city’s priorities and needs, and serves as a guide to discern what projects are on the horizon.

Projects high on the list include the recently approved Argo millrace reconstruction and whitewater feature, the reconstruction of East Stadium bridges, Stadium Boulevard construction between Hutchins and Kipke, a shared-use path at the US-23 underpass on Washtenaw Ave., and LED streetlight conversion, among others.

The presentation to commissioners didn’t focus on specific projects, but primarily outlined how the plan was developed. This year, that process included a new public input component: An online survey. Part of the staff presentation included an overview of the 283 responses to that survey, and a discussion about how to broaden citizen participation in future years.

The meeting took place at the Washtenaw County administration building. Like many other city entities, the planning commission is meeting at an alternate venue due to renovations at city hall. It was an iffy start, as the doors were locked tight when staff, commissioners and The Chronicle arrived a few minutes before the meeting’s scheduled time. A quick call by Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, resulted in the arrival of a county employee to open the doors, and the meeting began on time.

Capital Improvements Plan 2012-17

The staff presentation of the proposed capital improvements plan for 2012-2017 was given by Cresson Slotten and Connie Pulcipher of the city’s systems planning staff. They had briefed commissioners informally at a Dec. 14, 2010 working session, going over much of the same material.

No one attended a public hearing on the CIP.

CIP: Online Survey

Pulcipher gave a report on results of the online CIP survey. City officials and staff wanted to engage the public more fully this year, she said, so they designed the online survey to solicit input. They were seeking input in four basic areas: (1) the level of satisfaction with existing facilities and services; (2) thoughts on the current and future allocation of dollars; (3) priorities/ideas for improvements, and (4) suggestions about future public engagement opportunities and models. [link to full survey results, including responses to open-ended questions; .pdf file of PowerPoint presentation on survey results]

In the course of roughly a month – from Nov. 3 to Dec. 4, 2010 – 283 people responded to the survey. The responses will be useful not only for developing the CIP, Pulcipher said, but also as feedback for the city’s unit managers, to see how their programs and services are viewed by the community.

Pulcipher’s presentation focused on the responses that were not open-ended, beginning with levels of satisfaction in three areas: (1) existing municipal facilities;  (2) transportation; and (3) city utilities – water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer.

Respondents expressed the highest level of satisfaction with solid waste collection and recycling, she said – roughly 60% satisfied for each category – and the least satisfaction with the urban forest and city-owned buildings (33% and 32% satisfied, respectively).

Connie Pulcipher

Connie Pulcipher, who is a city of Ann Arbor systems planning staff member, briefed the planning commission about results of an online survey regarding the city's capital improvements plan.

For transportation systems and services, respondents were almost equally satisfied with traffic signals and/or street lighting, alternative transportation and parking lots/structures, and least satisfied with bridges. Many answered “Don’t Know” regarding satisfaction with the Ann Arbor airport.

In the utilities category, people were most satisfied with the municipal water system, and somewhat less so for the sanitary sewer and storm sewer systems.

Regarding the allocation of funding, solid waste collection was the area that most people (71%) identified as being funded “about right,” while city-owned buildings got the highest percentage of “too much” funding reponses (46%). For the transportation category, bridges and streets were identified by the highest percentage of respondents as receiving too little funding (60% and 49%, respectively), with parking facilities getting the highest percent of “too much” responses (31%). In the utilities category, water and sanitary sewer systems were each regarded by about 59% of respondents as getting the right amount of funding, with the storm sewer system less so (51%).

The top five categories that survey respondents identified as spending priorities for the coming years are: (1) bridges;  (2) streets; (3) alternative transportation; (4) parks & recreation; and (5) the urban forest. The top areas to consider when making decisions about capital projects were identified as: (1) financial impact; (2) operations & maintenance; (3) economic development and retention; (4) coordination with other projects; and (5) safety and emergency preparedness.

Several survey questions related to public engagement. Most respondents – 85.5% – said they’d respond to surveys and feedback forms. A far lower percentage – 60% – said they’d attend neighborhood meetings, and even fewer said they’d come to city-wide public meetings or focus groups (roughly 41% each). Nearly 90% picked email notification as the method they’d like to use to stay informed.

CIP: Prioritizing Projects

Cresson Slotten described for commissioners the process that had been used to prioritize projects for the CIP. City staff members formed teams for each of the city’s “asset categories”: city-owned buildings; parks & recreation; solid waste; airports; alternative transportation; bridges; new streets; other transportation; parking facilities; street construction; sanitary system; stormwater management; and the water system. A financial team was also involved, he said. In total, more than 50 staff members participated in the process.

Information is factored in from several areas, Slotten said, including requests received by the city from residents and outside agencies, like the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. The staff also reviews the city’s master plans, and draws on their knowledge based on day-to-day operations of the city. This year, the online survey was also used in setting priorities.

Category teams reviewed the needs for their area, looking at each potential project’s scope, cost and scheduling. At the same time, Slotten said, the financial team reviewed the city’s revenue projections, identifying the amounts that would be available for capital projects.

This year, an additional scoring system was used to help prioritize – it had originally been developed for the city by the consulting firm CH2M Hill, in connection with a 2006 project at the water treatment plant. The scoring system then had been piloted in the CIP for 2010-2015, but was used in the proposed CIP for the first time to prioritize all asset categories, Slotten said.

The system uses 12 scoring categories:

  1. Environmental goals
  2. Safety/compliance/emergency preparedness
  3. Funding
  4. Coordination with other projects
  5. Master plan objectives
  6. User experience (level of service)
  7. Innovation
  8. Economic development/retention
  9. Partnership
  10. System influence/capacity
  11. Operations and maintenance
  12. Energy

For each project, points are awarded within each scoring category. For example, in the category of “environmental goals,” points were distributed in the following way:

  • 0 points = Does not contribute to meeting any of the city’s environmental goals.
  • 3 points = Modestly contributes to meeting one of the city’s environmental goals.
  • 7 points = Significantly contributes to meeting one of the city’s environmental goals, OR modestly contributes to meeting several of the city’s environmental goals.
  • 10 points = Significantly contributes to meeting several of the city’s environmental goals.

[.pdf file of complete prioritization scoring system]

The scoring categories can be weighted, Slotten noted, which gives the system flexibility. The system also gives the process consistency, he said, and a metric by which to evaluate projects with common measurements.

The result is a ranking of projects in the CIP totaling $1.226 billion over the six-year period from FY 2012 through FY 2017. That includes nearly $475 million in unfunded needs, Slotten said – of that, about $438 million is in the category of alternative transportation. [For example, the estimated cost for construction of a transit connector is $300 million, scheduled in the CIP for FY 2015. See Chronicle coverage: "Transit Connector Study: Initial Analysis"]

Slotten noted that in the past, an unfunded project would be removed from the CIP. But those needs remain, he said, so the city now keeps the unfunded projects in place, pushing them back until funding is available. This approach helps keep projects on the table in the event that unexpected funding – like federal stimulus dollars – gets awarded. Most of the unfunded projects show up in the CIP starting in FY 2014.

Slotten explained that the first two years of the CIP form the basis for the city’s capital projects budget. For FY 2012 and 2013, there are 131 funded projects identified, Slotten said. Of the $184 million in projects for those two years, 39% of the funding comes from non-city sources, he said, such as grants or developers. For example, the site plan for Burton Commons requires improvements to Burton Road – those are in the CIP, and are funded by the developer for an estimated $1.5 million. [.pdf file of CIP projects and cost, by category]

CIP: Commissioner Questions, Comments

The discussion by planning commissioners covered specific projects in the CIP, as well as broader categories and the overall approach to developing this year’s plan.

In the proposed CIP, alley repairs outside the Downtown Development Authority are budgeted for $200,000 each year, from FY 2014 through FY 2017. Wendy Woods asked whether the DDA pays for alley repairs within its district. Yes, Slotten said. The DDA’s executive director, Susan Pollay, served on the group that developed the CIP, he said. Slotten also pointed out that some projects in the CIP – such as the $50 million South Fifth Avenue underground parking structure – are funded by the DDA.

Tony Derezinski asked whether the newly formed Main Street Business Improvement Zone could fund alley work in the future for the area it covers. Slotten wasn’t sure.

Jean Carlberg asked what the status was for the East Stadium bridges – when would the reconstruction work begin, and how much would it cost? Slotten reported that construction documents are being drawn up and the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) is involved in the process. It’s fully funded, he said, with a large portion of the estimated $23 million project coming from a federal grant. [Nearly $14 million was awarded to the project through the second phase of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, known as TIGER II. News of the grant came in October 2010.] Work is expected to begin in the late summer of 2011, and will include sidewalk, stormwater system and water main upgrades, he said.

Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski

Planning commissioners Jean Carlberg, left, and Tony Derezinski at the commission's Jan. 4, 2011 meeting.

Carlberg then asked about funding for street repair. When federal funding for the East Stadium bridges had been uncertain, the plan had been to use funds from the street repair millage, which would have impacted the amount available for other street projects. Slotten replied that because the federal grant came through, the funds for street repair are available for other street projects. High on the priority list are reconstruction of stretches of Dexter Avenue, Miller Avenue and South State near Eisenhower, he said.

Slotten also noted that the street repair millage will be on the ballot for renewal this fall. It’s a key revenue source, he said, adding that the city might ask voters to approve broadening the projects for which the street millage funds can be used, perhaps to include funding projects like sidewalk construction and repair.

Derezinski asked how the online survey was incorporated into setting priorities for the CIP. Slotten described its greatest value as feedback for the future, adding to the mix of calls and communications sent to city staff from property owners, citizens, officials and others.

Derezinski then asked about projects that are currently low on the priority list – does that mean they’ll likely never be funded? Not necessarily, Slotten replied. The priority-setting system  is a tool, he said, but the human element is important too – from staff, commissioners, city council and others. If funding becomes available – from a grant, for example – a project might be bumped higher on the priority list. There any number of factors that might come to light and move an item higher on the list, he said.

Connie Pulcipher noted that a core pre-planning team has been formed recently, with its primary purpose being to monitor the CIP after it’s approved, primarily focusing on the first two years of the plan. They’ll be looking for opportunities to coordinate multiple projects and doing public outreach, among other things. For example, a routine street reconstruction project in the CIP might be coordinated with other projects on the list, such as a utility project or non-motorized transportation improvement on the same section of street. That approach would minimize multiple construction disturbances in an area. When emergencies arise, this team will monitor response to those as well, she told commissioners. The group will likely be using results of the online survey as they evaluate future projects, she added.

[Responding to a follow-up request from The Chronicle, Pulcipher provided the names of the city staff on the core pre-planning team. In addition to Slotten and Pulcipher, the group includes Craig Hupy, interim unit manager of the field operations unit; Mike Nearing, senior project manager of the project management services unit; Homayoon Pirooz, unit manager of the project management services unit; Anne Warrow, project manager of the project management services unit; and Molly Wade, unit manager of the water treatment plant.]

Derezinski wanted to know if outside agencies – like the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority – would be looking at the CIP before it’s approved. No, Slotten said, but they’ll have access to it after it’s adopted by city council. At that point, the CIP will be used by several entities to help guide their work – Slotten specifically cited the Ann Arbor public art commission, which gets its Percent for Art funding from city-funded capital projects.

Erica Briggs asked whether all projects scheduled in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 were funded. Not all, Slotten said. The list includes some projects for which funding is tentative. Briggs then noted that some larger projects – like Fuller Road Station – are in the plan but haven’t yet been approved by the city council. What happens if they aren’t approved? What’s the process for handling changes like that?

Slotten explained that the plan would be evaluated in eight or nine months, with adjustments made – much like the city budget. Projects that aren’t funded wouldn’t necessarily be eliminated, he said. They’d be left in the plan, but would move to a lower priority.

Kirk Westphal praised the staff for using the new prioritization system, calling it progressive. He wondered whether any kind of risk management analysis had been included when looking at a project’s financial impact or operations and maintenance. For example, was there any thinking about how to mitigate dramatically higher energy costs?

Slotten pointed to two of the criteria used to evaluate projects – energy and environmental goals – that would address energy costs.

Bonnie Bona followed up on the issue. She also praised the new evaluation method, saying it was great to be talking about priorities rather than specific projects. But she didn’t see some of the things she wanted to see in the criteria related to the environment. For example, the category of energy seems to relate to the energy it would take to build a project, not to the energy needed for operations. She hoped that Matt Naud and Andrew Brix – the city’s environmental coordinator and energy coordinator, respectively – would continue to inform the process. It’s a huge improvement, Bona concluded, but “it doesn’t quite get there.”

Woods described the online survey as very helpful, but she wondered if there was some other way to ask the questions. For example, the survey allows people to choose five facilities that should have funding priority. Given the political climate in the community, it’s not surprising that bridges would be high and city-owned facilities would be low in the responses, she said. [Both the East Stadium bridges, which have fallen into serious disrepair, and the new municipal center were controversial projects – many people in the community have argued that the bridge repair should have been funded sooner, and conversely, that there was no need for a new municipal building.]

Woods asked how priorities might be teased out, so that it’s easier to discern what projects are really important.

Pulcipher characterized the survey as a first attempt, and said there’d be opportunity in future years to drill down – possibly through focus groups. They’ll use this initial survey to develop a more comprehensive approach to public outreach, she said.

Eric Mahler asked Slotten to clarify the funding status of the Argo millrace reconstruction and whitewater feature. It has been approved by the city council and the funding is identified, Slotten said. [For more details on the $1.17 million project, see Chronicle coverage from November 2010: "Ann Arbor Council Passes Watery Agenda"]

Mahler noted that in the list of projects that are as yet unfunded, totaling $475 million, most of those  – $438 million – are in the category of alternative transportation. Given that some of them have a decent ranking in priority, what are the chances of getting funding for them? He said he was asking because these are projects that the public wants, and it concerns him that they are unfunded.

Slotten said that in working with Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, they decided to separate out different elements of the possible alternative transportation projects, with the hope that if funding becomes available for any one of those elements, they could act quickly. Funding discussions are happening beyond city hall, Slotten said, and include partners like the AATA, the DDA and the University of Michigan.

Mahler also asked about the shared path project at the US-23 underpass on Washtenaw Avenue. Were other communities planning to share the cost of that $2.8 million project, which is slated for fiscal year 2012? Yes, Slotten said – in fact, the city’s portion would be relatively small, he said. Most of the funds will come from the state, the Washtenaw County Road Commission and Pittsfield Township.

Woods asked about another transportation-related project that’s already completed – the roundabout at US-23 and Geddes. Did the city fund that? she asked. Slotten said the city funded a small portion of that project, but most of the funding came from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. Some intersections on Geddes – including one at Earhart Road – had been identified in previous CIP cycles, he said, so when funding became available, those projects were tackled.

Woods then asked how the roundabouts were working – she said she knew some people are uncomfortable with roundabouts. When Slotten said he hadn’t heard anything about them, Derezinski chimed in, noting that those roundabouts are located in Ward 2, which he represents on city council. There was initially an outcry, he said, especially regarding the roundabout at Nixon and Huron Parkway. He praised Homayoon Pirooz, head of the city’s project management unit, for providing compelling data that roundabouts are safer. And in fact, now that people are used to it, complaints have totally ceased, he said. However, he said it was too soon to know the outcome of the Geddes roundabouts.

Outcome: Commissioners unanimously approved the 2012-2017 capital improvements plan (CIP). It will now be forwarded to city council for final approval.

Wendy Rampson, Wendy Woods

At left, Wendy Rampson, head of Ann Arbor's planning staff, hands a Jan. 4 meeting packet to planning commissioner Wendy Woods. Next to Woods is commissioner Bonnie Bona, and walking past is Jean Carlberg.

Misc. Communications

Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff, announced that two neighborhood meetings were being held by developers: (1) a Jan. 5 meeting for the Ann Arbor hotel project at 202 S. Division; and (2) a Jan. 10 meeting for redevelopment of the Georgetown Mall. Developers for the hotel are expected to turn in a site plan by the end of January, she said, and Georgetown Mall developers are also planning to submit a site plan soon, along with a brownfield redevelopment proposal.

Rampson also noted that the city planning staff would be working with commissioners to evaluate the city’s citizen participation ordinance and the A2D2 zoning changes. [.pdf of the citizen participation ordinance]

Kirk Westphal reported that the design guidelines task force was nearing the end of its work, and that a city council working session on the guidelines would be held on Monday, Jan. 10.

Present: Bonnie Bona, Erica Briggs, Jean Carlberg, Tony Derezinski, Diane Giannola, Eric Mahler, Kirk Westphal, Wendy Woods. Also: Wendy Rampson, head of the city’s planning staff.

Absent: Evan Pratt.

Next regular meeting: The planning commission typically meets on Tuesday, but due to the Jan. 17 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the group’s next regular meeting will be on Thursday, Jan. 20 at 7 p.m. in the basement conference room of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [confirm date]