Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Aug. 24, 2011): At a meeting held at a revised time and day to accomodate board members’ summer schedules, the AATA board approved a series of resolutions, two of which related in some direct way to the possible future of transit in the Ann Arbor area.
At the board meeting, CEO Michael Ford announced that McKinley Inc. CEO Albert Berriz and Bob Guenzel, retired Washtenaw County administrator, will be co-chairing a panel of financial and funding experts who will review various funding options for a possible expanded, countywide transportation system.
The board voted to release a funding report to the panel – the third volume of its transit master plan (TMP). [.pdf of Part 1 of Vol. 3 Transit Master Plan Funding Options] [.pdf of Part 2 of Vol. 3 Transit Master Plan Funding Options]. The first two volumes were released previously.
The report describes a range of funding options, which would likely be used in some combination of strategies: fare revenues, advertising, property taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes, parking taxes, stakeholder contributions, fuel taxes and vehicle license fees.
In anticipation that the panel could recommend funding options that would require voter approval, the board also approved the selection of CJI Research Corp. as the vendor for survey work over the next three years. That survey work can include on-board surveys of bus riders as well as telephone surveys of Washtenaw County voters.
At the Aug. 24 meeting, the board also approved implementation of a new website, which will provide greater flexibility for AATA staff who aren’t computer programmers to push information to the public. The new site is also intended to make it easier for the public to track the real-time locations of their bus.
The board also changed its pricing policy for the go!pass, a bus pass offered to downtown Ann Arbor employees that allows them to board AATA buses on an unlimited basis without paying a fare. The cost of the fares has historically been paid by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority using public parking system revenues, plus a nominal fee per card paid by downtown employers. The revised policy breaks with AATA’s past practice of charging costs for go!pass rides based on its cheapest full-fare alternative. Those costs per ride will now be lower, based on the DDA’s ability to pay and the AATA’s estimate of what employers would be willing to pay.
In other business, the board approved a revision to its contract with the Select Ride company, which provides AATA’s on-demand paratransit service (A-Ride) for those who are not able to ride the fixed-route regularly-scheduled bus system. The upward adjustment was driven by a recent increase in maximum taxicab fares implemented by the city of Ann Arbor.
The board also approved a master agreement that will apply to all of its contracts with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation, and adjusted its capital plan to accommodate changes in three projects: the Blake Transit Center, the bus storage facility, and the bus maintenance facility.
Transit Master Plan Funding Report
The board was asked to authorize the release of “Volume 3: Funding Options Report” of its transit master plan (TMP). The TMP is part of the AATA’s effort to fulfill a countywide transportation mission.
The resolution specified that Volume 3 of the TMP was authorized for release to “a panel of financial and public funding experts to review, refine, and adjust the document.” The first two volumes were released to the public earlier this year. [.pdf of draft "Volume 1: A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County"] [.pdf of draft "Volume 2: Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy"]
During the Aug. 24 meeting, CEO Michael Ford announced that co-chairing the panel will be Albert Berriz, CEO of McKinley Inc., and Bob Guenzel, retired Washtenaw County administrator.
Funding recommendations made by the panel of experts are to be forwarded to a fully constituted but unincorporated Act 196 board (U196) for further consideration and action. The transition of transportation service from the AATA to an authority formed under Act 196 of 1986 is the most likely scenario under which transit funding would be established on a countywide basis.
At its July 19, 2011 meeting, the board authorized the board chair to appoint three of its members to the U196 board, and authorized the AATA’s CEO to use AATA resources in support of the U196.
In reporting out from the AATA planning and development committee’s regular monthly meeting, Rich Robben – the committee’s chair – said the committee had expected to vote on the release of the TMP funding report, but it was not finalized at the time of the meeting. Committee members had received it by email and recommended via email that the report come forward to the full board.
During board comment on the funding report, board chair Jesse Bernstein said the third volume of the TMP was the most difficult section to write. He said the AATA staff had made a heroic effort. The report would be helpful in understanding where the AATA is and where it wants to go, he said.
The report describes funding options, he continued, which will need to be developed in conjunction with a service delivery model. He described the collection of people on the funding task force, which will study the report and make recommendations based on it, as an “excellent group of folks.”
Among the funding options described in the report are: fare revenues, advertising, property taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes, parking taxes, stakeholder contributions, fuel taxes and vehicle license fees.
Charles Griffith called the report valuable, because it lays out how transit funding works generally. He allowed that at certain points, his eyes glazed over trying to get through it, but he did find it illuminating for at least thinking about how to fund different elements of the transit master plan. He said he looked forward to the feedback the board received on the report.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the release of the funding report.
Voter/Rider Survey Vendor
Before the board for its consideration was authorization of a three-year contract with CJI Research Corp. to conduct survey research. The contract has two additional one-year options.
Of the three respondents to the AATA’s request for proposals (RFP), the one from CJI was the top-rated proposal with respect to the criteria: price, experience, and technical approach. CJI was the firm that conducted the AATA’s most recent on-board and telephone surveys in 2009.
CJI has experience with polling for ballot initiatives. That experience is significant, because at some point it’s expected that a proposal will be put before voters across Washtenaw County that would levy a transit tax, if approved. The draft fiscal year 2012 budget for AATA includes $75,000 for an on-board survey of riders and a telephone survey of Washtenaw County voters.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the selection of CJI as the vendor for the survey work.
A resolution on the agenda called for approving the use of $140,000 in federal funds to implement the redesign of AATA’s website. The bid for the redesign had already been awarded to the Michigan firm Artemis Solutions Group Inc.
Among the improvements desired by the AATA is a way for staff – who do not have programming skills – to update the website. AATA also wants its new website to be a tool that staff can use to broadcast information to AATA riders via email, text-messaging, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Among the enhanced information the AATA wants available on its website is real-time bus location information that includes a way for third-party developers to create and distribute smart phone applications using AATA’s real-time data.
The new website will also allow the AATA to provide a “performance scorecard” to display metrics that include finances, operations, ridership, environmental impact, maintenance and safety performance. The website is supposed to allow AATA to comply with section 508 ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards, and provide translation into multiple languages.
During board deliberations, Anya Dale asked if anything would be changed to the way that routes and schedules are looked up. She noted that when she first started riding the bus, she found some parts difficult to navigate. Board chair Jesse Bernstein asked John Gilkey of Artemis Solutions if he could provide a presentation and if so, how long that might last. Gilkey said his last presentation had lasted 45 minutes. Bernstein wondered if it might not be possible to get a five-minute version.
After some back and forth, board members seemed content not to receive a presentation at the board meeting, but they wanted to see a demonstration of some of the working functionality before the new website goes live. Roger Kerson, in particular, was keen to establish that some kind of usability testing would be done before launch. He asked specifically if the budget included a usability study. Gilkey said it was not planned – Artemis had done data collection and collected input in advance of design.
Kerson responded to Gilkey saying that he felt strongly that usability testing should be included and that it needn’t be expensive. Gilkey then said that Artemis does a lot of usability testing and would be testing out the implementation with users – he’d understood Kerson’s original question to be whether Artemis would be undertaking a full-blown scientific study, using something like Michigan State University’s usability lab.
Kerson noted that users “always find stuff we don’t find.” Kerson stressed that he’d like to see what’s included in the new website, before AATA rolls it out, so that they can find what the bugs are. Bernstein asked Mary Stasiak, AATA’s community relations manager, to keep the board posted as progress is made on the implementation.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the implementation of the new website.
The board was asked to vote on a change to the price AATA charges for rides taken under the go!pass program. The go!pass can be purchased by downtown Ann Arbor employers for their employees at a cost of $5 per pass annually.
The change authorized by the board might go unnoticed for holders of the passes, who do not pay fares to board the bus. But the change will include an increase from $5 to $10 for the annual fee paid by employers per pass. That’s an increase that will be implemented by the getDowntown program, which administers the go!pass. However, in the action the board was asked to approve on Aug. 24, the AATA was actually in effect lowering the price per go!pass ride.
Here’s why. Holders of the go!pass card can board the bus without paying a fare, and there are no limits on the number of rides that can be taken with the card. The number of those rides is counted as they’re swiped at the fare box. [Before the fare boxes were converted to swipe-able technology, drivers recorded such rides with a button press].
The cost of such rides is funded in small part by the $5/card fee paid by employers, but in largest part by revenues from the city’s public parking system provided through the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. At its June 2, 2010 meeting, the DDA authorized three years worth of funding for the go!pass program. For the second two fiscal years of that funding, approval amounted to $438,565 (FY 2012) and $475,571 (FY 2013).
The number of rides taken using the go!pass has increased each year for the last decade, but has jumped significantly during the last year. In the past, the AATA has priced go!pass rides in a way that matches the revenue per go!pass ride to the amount that bus riders would pay if they paid the full fare under a regular 30-day pass – the cheapest full-fare option. So, as go!pass ridership has increased, the total amount charged to getDowntown by the AATA for the rides has also increased.
In the past, the DDA has increased its level of support to match what the AATA has charged. As the DDA is under increasing financial pressure due to the new public parking system management contract recently signed with the city of Ann Arbor, as well as a possible need to return excess tax increment finance (TIF) revenues that have been collected, it’s not anticipated that the DDA will be able to increase the amount it contributes to the go!pass program.
Given the levels of funding now pledged by the DDA, the price that employers would need to be charged per go!pass per year would be $26 – if the same policy is maintained of charging for go!pass rides so that their cost matches what the cheapest full-fare option would be.
In recent presentations to the DDA, Nancy Shore, director of the getDowntown program, has recommended an increase from $5 to $10, not to $26. The advisory board of getDowntown has approved the increase to $10.
The action the AATA board was asked to take on Aug. 24 essentially sets the charge for go!pass rides at a flat rate – equal to the DDA’s current level of pledged support, plus an estimate that the total employer contribution (at $10/pass/year) would be $71,000 per year, based on the roughly 7,100 go!passes sold to employers so far this year. That is, the price charged for go!pass rides for the next two fiscal years will be $509,565 and $546,571, respectively – independently of the number of rides taken by go!pass holders.
The board’s action translates to a decision to accept a $16/pass/year shortfall in revenues from go!pass rides, compared to what the previous pricing policy has been, or a shortfall of roughly $113,600 (16*7,100).
In introducing the background of the go!pass issue for board members, Chris White, manager of service development for AATA, described how the proposed pricing change was really only an interim solution, for the next two years. Three years from now, he said, the DDA may not have funds to support the program at all.
Shore, who attended the board meeting, noted that in the last 10 years, fares have gone up, gas prices have gone up, and an increase from $5 to $10 per year per pass for the employer contribution seemed feasible. She noted that it’s a “universal pass,” which means that employers must purchase the passes for all their employees, whether employees use the passes or not. It’s not an option to purchase passes for just a subset of employees.
Shore said that very few employers she’d talked with had much of a problem with the increased $10 cost. She compared it to a health care benefit – some employees would use it more and some would use it less. She noted that there’s been a huge uptick in use of the pass and it was important to maintain that benefit to everyone.
Charles Griffith wondered if the resolution was worded properly – was the board being asked to approve the increase from $5 to $10? White clarified that the board was being asked to approve the cost for the go!pass program as a whole. That would then be conveyed to the getDowntown advisory board, which sets the cost for employers. White described the situation as one where the AATA essentially sells the go!passes to the getDowntown program.
The proposal before the board would establish a fixed cost for each pass instead of linking the cost to the number of rides that are taken, White explained. White allowed that it’s a bit of a strange relationship, because the getDowntown program is currently part of the AATA – its two staff members are compensated as employees of the AATA. [Discussions are currently taking place about the future of the program, and whether the getDowntown program will become part of the DDA. For recent coverage, see "DDA Board Mulls Absorbing getDowntown Staff into DDA"]
Rich Robben noted that when board members had questioned the issue at the planning and development committee meeting, from the AATA’s perspective, if there’s a dramatic increase in ridership, then the AATA recovers less per ride. Historically, Robben said, the go!pass program has panned out nicely for the AATA.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the change in price structure for the go!pass.
Amendment to Capital Plan
Before the board for its consideration was approval of a revision to AATA’s capital and categorical grant program to accommodate three projects: the Blake Transit Center (BTC) reconstruction in downtown Ann Arbor, the bus storage facility expansion, and the bus maintenance facility upgrade.
The scope of the BTC project has expanded, with a total estimated cost of $5.5 million. The estimate is based on a schematic design that is not yet complete. Already secured is $4.195 million in grant funds, which leaves a balance of $1.044 million.
At the Aug. 24 meeting, CEO Michael Ford said that AATA is looking to finalize design of a newly reconstructed Blake Transit Center in the next month. The AATA is still working with the city to obtain the use of a six-foot strip of land on the southwest edge of the AATA parcel, between Fourth and Fifth avenues. The AATA is planning to issue construction bids in October or November 2011 with the hope that construction work can start in the spring of 2012.
The bus storage expansion was AATA’s final project approved for federal stimulus funds – $1.01 million in stimulus funds were allocated to the project. With a current cost estimate of $2.404 million, there is a balance of $1.394 million.
The bus maintenance facility upgrade includes the addition of a urea filling station. Already approved in grants for that work is $0.598 million. The total cost will be $1.244 million, leaving a balance of $0.647 million.
The board’s action on Aug. 24 revised the AATA’s capital and categorical grant program to provide a total of $2,676,678 for the three projects from the AATA’s federal formula funds.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the adjustment of its capital plan.
The board was asked to consider an increase in AATA’s contract with Select Ride, to provide service for the AATA’s A-Ride – an on-demand program offered to those with disabilities preventing them from riding the regularly scheduled AATA fixed-route service. The increase in the contract authorized by the board is 2.9% – from $2,793,481 to $2,873,481.
The increase reflects the recent increases in taxicab rates, authorized by the Ann Arbor city council at its May 16, 2011 meeting. The increase authorized by the council was from $2.25/mile to $2.50/mile, which had been requested by several taxicab companies in light of rising fuel prices.
The contract with Select Ride is structured so that the company is paid based upon the distance that passengers are transported, together with the fare structure for the taxicab rides. The contract increase reflects a compromise under which the AATA is shouldering only part of the increased cost due to the taxicab fare increase.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the change in the A-Ride deal.
MDOT Master Agreement
A resolution on the agenda called for authorizing standard terms and conditions for a five-year master agreement with the Michigan Dept. of Transportation. The master agreement will facilitate future contracts with MDOT for state funding, as well as to pass through federal funding to the AATA. The standard terms and conditions are established as part of a master agreement so that they don’t have to be spelled out in every future contract individually.
The current five-year master agreement expires on Sept. 30, 2011. The board’s action authorized a new agreement that reflected only minor changes from the current one: third-party contracting procedures are updated, and reference to a regional program was eliminated because it no longer exists.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the five-year master agreement.
Commuter Rail Communications: WALLY
During his communications to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that the last planning and development committee meeting had included discussion of the Washtenaw and Livingston Line (WALLY) project. AATA continues to look at the project and evaluate it, Ford said. He’d come back to the board in September on the issue, Ford told the board, but there would be additional discussion by the planning and development committee to focus on the status of the project, the money that’s been spent so far, investments in the WALLY corridor, and a description of the project’s major issues.
Ford said an “analysis paper” would be created to describe the WALLY project’s status and an action plan going forward, which would clarify the role of the state (via MDOT). Work would include talking to Livingston County and other community partners, as well at to Ann Arbor Railroad.
In reporting out from the planning and development committee, Rich Robben, chair of that committee, characterized the committee’s conversation about WALLY as “quite a discussion.”
In relevant part, the minutes of the planning and development committee meeting read as follows:
David Nacht stated that he was opposed to any further spending of funds at this time on architectural services for WALLY noting that these funds have been provided by AATA’s WALLY partners, and suggesting that at this point it is very unlikely that the project will go forward. He suggested that an offer be extended to the WALLY partners to return the funds, or ask for permission to spend the funds on other projects that will benefit transit. Michael Benham explained that the completion of station design would aid with qualifying for additional federal grant funds and added that the WALLY project was rated the top project by the State of Michigan to receive funding to improve signals and ongoing development of the project.
Committee members and staff engaged in a lengthy discussion regarding WALLY. It was suggested that absent the political will in Washtenaw and Livingston County, it is unlikely that trains will run. In contrast, it was noted that even if WALLY does not go forward, the tracks (which have already been improved) can still be used by freight cars.
Michael Ford was requested to contact the Governor’s office and the head of the Michigan Department ofTransportation (MDOT) to ascertain whether the project is a priority of the current administration, and if so, will that support lead to the needed capital and operating support for WALLY. Michael Ford indicated that he recently met with Kirk Steudle (the Director of MDOT). They discussed the idea of identifying more incentives to develop and urge collaboration between communities.
Rich Robben suggested tabling the WALLY discussion with a caveat that the funding not be spent without specific authorization from the board. Mr. Robben requested the opportunity for more discussion on operating funds. Michael Ford requested confirmation (which he received) that the funds for WALLY will remain in the draft budget, but will not be spent without specific action from the Board.
Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary
At its Aug. 24, 2011 meeting, the board entertained other various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.
Comm/Comm: Shorter-Term Service Improvements
In addition to the work on the transit master plan (TMP) and the governing body that would be the countywide authority, CEO Michael Ford mentioned shorter-term initiatives that the AATA is working on to enhance service: Ypsi-to-Ann Arbor service, van pool service, extension of A-Ride (paratransit) service to the East Ann Arbor Health Center, and airport service.
Ford reported that because the AATA had received more than one response to the request for proposals (RFP) it had issued for the airport service contract, the project would be delayed by six to eight weeks, but the AATA was still moving forward with that, he said. AATA is collaborating on funding issues with private and public partners, which includes talks with the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau. He reported that AATA would be meeting with the Wayne County Airport Authority, as well as with Wayne County EDGE to discuss how the AATA might operate out of the airport.
The A-Ride service was extended on July 1 to the East Ann Arbor Health Center. Ford reported that training was held for employees on the details of the new service.
An RFP was issued for van pool service in late June, Ford reported, and a recommendation could be ready for the planning and development committee to review at its meeting in September.
In the area of improving the Ann Arbor-to-Ypsilanti workforce transportation service, Ford said that Night Ride would be expanded to Ypsilanti in the fall. AATA is also looking at doubling the number of weekday trips on Route #4, which would begin in January 2012. That’s already included in the 2012 budget, Ford said.
The AATA continues to work with community partners to support service, Ford said
Ford reported on the in-progress landscaping project at the AATA headquarters facility.
He noted that the ivy, dead trees and rocks were gone and they’d be replaced with low-maintenance plants. Accessible concrete ramps are also being installed.
Comm/Comm: CTN Viewership
Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Charles Griffith told his board colleagues that board meeting online viewership on Community Television Nework was included in the board information packet. Counts reflect the number of views, not necessarily the number of unique IP addresses, and do not include views of the regular cable broadcast, which CTN does not track.
Sep. 16, 2010: 27 Oct. 21, 2010: 44 Nov. 18, 2010: 2 Dec. 16, 2010: 50 Jan. 20, 2011: 9 Mar. 17, 2011: 23 Apr. 21, 2011: 21 May 19, 2011: 12 Jun. 16, 2011: 9
Comm/Comm: Performance Update
Charles Griffith, chair of the board’s performance monitoring and external relations committee, characterized the financial operating data as “in good shape.” He allowed that expenses have started to go up on a per-service-hour basis, but are still under the target amount. The AATA continues to see an uptick in ridership.
It’s now possible to compare on an apples-to-apples basis, he said, because it’s been over a year since the last fare increase was implemented. Ridership in July 2011 was up 6.2%, he said, adding that they can only speculate why.
Griffith said it might be possible for the October 2011 on-board survey to help shed some light on that. He noted that ridership for the demand response component of the AATA’s service is down 3.5%, which is a continuation of the downward trend since the fare increase.
Comm/Comm: Information on Intermediate Stops
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Vivienne Armentrout told the board that she had a suggestion for a service improvement: The stops that are intermediate to those listed in the schedule are not listed anywhere that she could find.
That had caused her some confusion at times, Armentrout said, though overall she was delighted with her Route #13 service. The drivers are considerate and courteous, she reported. But sometimes she thinks there’s going to be a stop and then there’s not. She ventured that one reason it might not be possible to put those intermediate stops into the schedule is that it would take away some flexibility. But she wished for a list or some way that information could be accessed.
Comm/Comm: Wake Up, Washtenaw!
Larry Krieg spoke during both times available for public commentary. He called the board’s attention to several recent developments indicating the role of transit in growing the economies in the regions it serves. He noted that the American Society of Civil Engineers had released a study recently concluding that by 2021, the average American household will lose $7,000 in spending power, unless additional funds are spent on roads, bridges and transit.
He noted that the Michigan State Police had released a report stating that the direct cost of car crashes in 2009 was $4.9 billion, with indirect costs in pain and suffering of $4.0 billion. And Orlando, Florida has begun work on SunRail, a 39-mile commuter line, using existing rail right of way, despite initial objections from Florida Gov. Rick Scott. There’s no doubt that operation costs for SunRail will be fully covered by public and private sources in addition to farebox revenue, he said.
Transit has an important role to play in the economic development of the community, Krieg said. Now is no time to hang back. In the time allotted for public commentary at the end of the meeting, Krieg returned to the podium to describe some steps that his group – Wake Up, Washtenaw! – is taking to promote economic development through transit.
Krieg said he felt that opposition to investment in transit is generally based on a lack of information. There needs to be a strong voice for each transit project. So Wake Up, Washtenaw! proposes to continue support for Partners for Transit, a citizen group promoting the transit master plan. The group will also engage civic and business leaders in Washtenaw County and surrounding counties. He also suggested convening a roundtable discussion of transportation funding alternatives, that would involve business leaders, transit officials and the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). He suggested that the discussion should include alternative legal and financial structures that could bring public transit closer to being self-sustaining. Krieg concluded by inviting people to email him at wakeupwashtenaw at gmail dot com.
Comm/Comm: Paratransit, Human Rights
Thomas Partridge complained about the time for public commentary at AATA board meetings, which is limited to two minutes (at the start and the end of the meeting), calling it undemocratic censorship. He called on the board to give priority to monitoring the AATA’s paratransit service performance. He contended that he’d be victimized, even though he’d taken a limited number of taxi rides through the service. He contended that some of the taxicabs have more than 250,000 miles on them and don’t ride well or drive well and have non-functioning air conditioning. Partridge contended that the AATA board members are not performing their functions well, because they don’t take ride themselves and inspect buses themselves. They don’t know what’s going on in the streets, he said.
Partridge also spoke at the conclusion of the meeting during public commentary. He lamented the fact that public meetings have become “routine” for participants and for board members and employees. What the public needs to understand, he said, is that public transit is a primary human rights and civil rights issue. Support for transit should be garnered on this basis, he said. Partridge contended that transportation services are being rationed out on a discriminatory basis. Drivers and other personnel are stressed, and service is strained too far, he contended. Vehicles are assigned to drivers in a racist and discriminatory manner, he claimed.
Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Rich Robben, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale
Absent: David Nacht, Sue McCormick
Next regular meeting: Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]