AATA Preps Stage for Future Transit Choice

Internal organizational review paused; CEO salary raised

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Dec. 15, 2011): At its last meeting of the year, the AATA board bid farewell to boardmember Sue McCormick, voted to give its CEO Michael Ford a 3% raise, and paused a proposed $247,000 contract with a pair of consultants, who’ve been selected to conduct an internal organizational review of the AATA.

Sue McCormick AATA board member

Outgoing AATA board member Sue McCormick receives the traditional token of appreciation from the AATA – a mailbox marked up to resemble an AATA bus. (Photos by the writer.)

Background for the meeting included a proposed four-party agreement between the AATA, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County that would set a stage to allow voters countywide to transition AATA into a countywide-funded transit authority. On Dec. 7, 2011, Ford presented the four-party agreement to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners. The Ann Arbor city council also received a presentation on the proposed four-way agreement at a Dec. 12, 2011 working session.

The four-way agreement is in large part an if-then statement: If an adequate funding source can be identified for a countywide authority (likely through a voter-approved tax) then the assets of the AATA would be transfered to the new authority, along with the existing transit tax the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti currently levy. The county would file the articles of incorporation, but would not incur any liability.

Also in December, a subcommittee of the advisory group that is reviewing financial aspects of the countywide transit master plan (TMP) met to continue its work analyzing the proposed elements of expanded service. The intended early January finish date for the group’s white paper to be delivered to the AATA has slipped somewhat, because of legislation that may start moving through Michigan’s House of Representatives in January 2012.

Current AATA initiatives mentioned at the Dec. 15 board meeting include ongoing contract negotiations with Michigan Flyer to provide public transit service from Ann Arbor to Detroit Metro airport, the reconstruction of the downtown Ann Arbor Blake Transit Center, and the development of a new website.

Other highlights from the board’s meeting included a discussion of the two-grocery-bag limit for AATA’s para-transit service, and public commentary on a pending lawsuit against the AATA over its decision to reject an advertisement for the sides of its buses that calls for a boycott of Israel.

Internal Organizational Review by Consultant

The board considered a resolution that would have authorized signing a contract with two consulting firms to review and make recommendations on the internal organization of the AATA.

The two consultants are Generator Group LLC and D. Kerry Laycock. After responding to an RFP (request for proposals) issued by the AATA for the work, the two were identified as the top firms among the 10 that responded, and were asked by the AATA to partner on a proposal. The partnership was meant to use the different strengths of the two firms. Generator Group, out of Portland, Oregon, has transit experience, while Laycock taps local talent.

Laycock has been previously hired by the city of Ann Arbor in various reorganizational efforts, including its recent approval of the outsourcing of police dispatching to the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

The AATA’s approved FY 2012 operating budget allocates up to $250,000 for such a project. The contract with Generator Group and Laycock would have amounted to $247,000, but no amount was explicitly stated in the resolution the board was asked to approve – a source of concern eventually expressed during deliberations.

Sue McCormick led off the board discussion by noting that the planning and development committee minutes reflected a staff-estimated cost for the contract of $250,000. [Resolutions come to the full board after being vetted by the relevant board committee.] McCormick also noted that the meeting minutes reflected an objection from board member David Nacht, who said he didn’t want to commit more than $100,000. She wondered what the dollar amount was for the contract the board was being asked to approve – no dollar value was indicated in the resolution.

Board chair Jesse Bernstein told McCormick he’d talked with Nacht and with staff, and what they decided was that the staff had heard Nacht’s concern loud and clear. Monthly reports on the consultants’ work would be provided, so that the board would have an “audit procedure.” Coming back to the issue of the dollar figure, McCormick asked if there would be a dollar value when the contract was executed. AATA CEO Michael Ford indicated that the year’s budget called for $250,000 and the contract would be for $247,000. McCormick told Ford that if it’s a $247,000 contract, the resolution should specifically state that amount.

David Nacht Anya Dale Rich Robben

Left to right: AATA board members David Nacht, Anya Dale and Rich Robben.

Nacht then declared that he was going to vote no. He allowed that he did believe it’s important to get feedback on the AATA as an organization. He also had no problem with the process of the vendor selection. However, he did have a problem with how much was planned to be spent. He noted that the dilemma involves the fact that the AATA is undergoing significant changes as it prepares to make a possible transition to a countywide transit authority.

Nacht called it a “chicken and egg” question. An argument for having a broader consulting contract now to analyze the organization is that if the currently unincorporated U196 board becomes a fully-incorporated board with a funding mechanism, then that new board for a countywide authority would benefit from the consultant’s analysis, and that would help the new board to understand how the organization works. However, funding for the countywide authority does not yet exist. And if the countywide authority doesn’t come into being at all, or not at the level that might be anticipated, he would rather see the money spent on direct transit services.

Bernstein wondered if it might be a reasonable option to table the resolution. Responding to Bernstein, Ford noted that he and the board had talked about this consultant analysis through the process of its retreats. Ford said it’s important to make sure that internally the organization can withstand the stresses of a transition – whether that’s to a countywide or “countywide-lite,” authority. [Ford was alluding to the possibility that some municipalities throughout the county might opt out of participating in a new countywide authority.]

There are many factors the AATA is grappling with, Ford said. He noted that the union is very supportive of having the organizational analysis done. Ford characterized the analysis as “overdue.” With resources that he’s requesting, Ford said, he felt he could get the job done.

McCormick wanted to know what the time frame was: Is it a six-month effort or something longer? Ford indicated that it was a 12-month effort. The first phase is an assessment of the organization. From that point, it would be possible to focus on specific areas. McCormick wanted to know the cost for the first phase. Rich Robben, who chairs the committee that had reviewed the resolution, responded to McCormick by saying he’d reviewed the proposal with its various tasks and phases, and found it to be fairly comprehensive and broken down into a good level of detail. There was a good list of deliverables and hours for each consultant. The rates seemed reasonable to him – under $100 per hour. Robben concluded that it was a well thought-out game plan.

Responding to a request from McCormick, Robben said that in the first two months of 2012, the cost – for 180 hours of consultant time – was $14,680, which works out to $81.55/hour.

McCormick told Ford a lot of value could be gained from consultant work under the $100,000 cap for contracts that could be executed without board approval. She ventured that he could work within that cap.

Ford responded by saying that there are checks and balances built into the arrangement. To sign the contract, he said, it had to be for a specific dollar amount. He ventured that it might be possible to proceed with the understanding that he would not enter into the second phase of the organizational analysis without concurrence from the board.

Bernstein suggested that Ford could spend up to $100,000 and as he came close to that amount, he could come back to the board. Ford asked for clarification about whether the contract he’d execute would be for $100,000 or $240,000?Robben suggested that it would be done in multiple phases.

Nacht noted that it’s true that the money is budgeted, and stressed that Ford had not done anything incorrect. He was not questioning Ford’s judgement. But he wondered how much time a bright person needs to read some history, interview a bunch of people, and review previous work. When he did the rough math, Nacht said, it didn’t come close to $247,000.

Bernstein suggested that procedurally, the motion could be withdrawn, with the understanding that the board supports the first two phases, and that the expectation for the third phase is that the board would be inclined to look favorably on it.

Outcome: The resolution to authorize the execution of the consultant contract was withdrawn.

CEO Performance Review, Salary

Board member David Nacht introduced the motion on CEO Michael Ford’s salary and compensation. Board chair Jesse Bernstein asked Nacht to elucidate on the motion and what it contained. Nacht described a letter addressed to Ford, signed by the board chair and board member Sue McCormick in her capacity as treasurer.

The highlights of the provisions, said Nacht, include a base salary of $164,800 annually. [That's an increase of $4,800 from his previous base salary.] Other highlights were one $10,000 lump-sum payment into a 457 deferred compensation plan, and vesting in the AATA employee pension plan effective Oct. 1, 2011.

By way of background, Ford did not receive a raise last year, but was given a one-time additional payment equal to 4% of his annual salary. At the board’s May 19, 2011 meeting, the AATA board had approved a new employment contract with Ford, who was hired in the summer of 2009. [For a Chronicle report on Ford's April 2009 final interview, see: "AATA, CEO Candidate Start Talks"]

Ford’s personnel evaluation took place at a special meeting held Dec. 5, 2011 at the AATA headquarters, and was conducted in a closed session in accordance with Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. Closed sessions are permitted for a variety of reasons, including the regular performance review of personnel, if the employee requests a closed session. When asked by the board at the Dec. 5 meeting if he did request a closed session, Ford confirmed he did, making plain that the OMA requirement for closed sessions was met. The session lasted well over an hour, some of which was conducted with Ford present.

At the Dec. 15 meeting, board chair Jesse Bernstein praised Ford’s work as one of the best experiences Bernstein had ever had in hiring someone. He said he’d been involved in many hirings over the years, both in his own companies and in the course of his service on other boards. Ford has done a great deal of good for the AATA and the community. Right now, Bernstein said, Ford is effectively running two boards – the AATA and the U196 organization that could be a precursor to a fully incorporated Act 196 transit authority. When you talk about herding cats, it’s two herds of cats, said Bernstein.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the compensation for Ford outlined in the letter.

Countywide Transportation Master Plan (TMP)

For its Dec. 15 meeting, the AATA had no items on its agenda that dealt explicitly with the countywide transportation master plan (TMP), which has been under development for nearly two years. However, the TMP and a possible transition of the AATA to a countywide transportation authority found its way into the board’s meeting in the form of the regular briefings that staff give the board, as well as during public commentary.

During public commentary at the Dec. 15 meeting, Vivienne Armentrout told the board she’d been attending quite a few of the transportation master plan (TMP) meetings. She’s attended those of the financial advisory group, as well as meetings of the unincorporated U196 board. Armentrout thanked Michael Ford for making the meetings open, accessible and for providing information to the audience.

Armentrout said it appears that a new theme has emerged, namely: Maybe a countywide millage will not be necessary. She allowed that Gov. Rick Snyder had floated the idea of a vehicle registration fee that could be used to fund public transportation, but she’d called her state representative’s office and learned that there’s currently no bill in process to establish such a fee. [For additional background, see "Washtenaw Transit Talk in Flux"]

Armentrout felt there was only a remote possibility that such a proposal would be enacted in time to affect local decision-making. She reported that the federal TIGER III funding grants have been announced and the north-south WALLY commuter rail line is not on the list. She told the board she’s waiting to hear if the AATA’s transit master plan will be adjusted to acknowledge that.

TMP: Four-Party Agreement – Ann Arbor City Council Reaction

During his verbal report to the board on Dec. 15, Ford highlighted his presentations to the Washtenaw County board of commissioners and the Ann Arbor city council, which he’d made earlier in the month. He told the board he will be circling back in the next month to ask those two bodies to sign off on the “four-party agreement.” [The Ann Arbor city council is expected to have the item on its Jan. 9, 2012 agenda. It's expected to be on the agenda for one of the county board's meetings in January as well.]

The four-party agreement – between the AATA, Washtenaw County, the city of Ypsilanti and the city of Ann Arbor – is a key stage-setting step for any decision that might be made to transition AATA to a countywide transportation authority. Highlights of the four-party agreement as currently drafted include the role of Washtenaw County – it would approve, sign and file the articles of incorporation for the new transit authority, under Act 196 of 1986. AATA currently operates under Act 55 of 1963.

Under the draft four-party agreement, the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti would pledge their existing transit taxes to the new Act 196 authority, instead of to the AATA. For Ann Arbor, that’s currently just over 2 mills. [At the Ann Arbor city council working session when Ford made a presentation, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) stressed that the charter millage is actually for 2.5 mills, but has dropped due to the Headlee amendment. ]

Sabra Briere Skip Simms Paul Krutko

The Ann Arbor city council’s Dec. 12, 2011 working session included a presentation about the local development finance authority (LDFA). From right to left: Paul Krutko (CEO of Ann Arbor Spark, which has a contract with the LDFA to operate a business accelerator), Skip Simms (vice president, entrepreneurial business development, at Ann Arbor SPARK), and councilmember Sabra Briere (Ward 1). Krutko is serving on the financial advisory group that is assessing funding options for the AATA’s planned expansion of services countywide.

For Ypsilanti, which uses the proceeds of its tax (approved in November 2010) to fund a purchase-of-service agreement with the AATA, the levy is just under 1 mill. [One mill is $1 for each $1,000 of a property's taxable value.] The city millage proceeds would only go to the new transit authority after a dedicated countywide funding source for that authority is identified.

Also under the terms of the draft four-party agreement, AATA’s assets (land, buses, facilities, etc.) would be turned over to the new Act 196 authority, but only after a countywide funding source is identified. The draft four-party accord specifies a voter-approved funding source, to be passed no later than Dec. 31, 2014, as a contingency for the transfer of assets to the new Act 196 authority.

Under scenarios currently being discussed, if voters countywide are asked to support a millage, Ann Arbor’s existing transit tax would also remain in place. The time frame specified in the draft four-party agreement means that there are three opportunities in a general election to ask voters to support countywide transit by agreeing to a tax: in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Recent discussions at the state level have explored the idea of creating enabling legislation for a regional transit authority that could be funded in part by vehicle registration fees. Depending on how that legislation is crafted, local units might be able to impose vehicle registration fees to fund transit without a voter referendum. If that is the scenario that unfolds – i.e., no voter referendum is held, but a countywide funding source is identified – it’s not clear whether the conditions of the draft four-party agreement would be met. [link to annotated .pdf file of four-way draft agreement]

At the Ann Arbor city council’s working session on Dec. 12, 2011, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) questioned how the transit service benefits to Ann Arbor taxpayers would be guaranteed. They wanted to ensure that the burden on Ann Arbor taxpayers would be equitably shared with Washtenaw County taxpayers outside of the city.

At that working session, Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) asked that the four-party agreement stipulate that Ann Arbor’s transit tax only be transferred to the new Act 196 authority if a new countywide millage were to gain a plurality of votes within the city of Ann Arbor. That stipulation would guard against the possibility that a countywide millage failed among Ann Arbor voters, but was approved by a wide enough plurality in other jurisdictions that the countywide millage passed.

TMP: Financial Advisory Group – Politics of a Millage

Compared to the scenario that Taylor is concerned about, most observers see the opposite scenario as far more likely: a countywide millage would likely fail among voters outside of Ann Arbor, but the plurality that the proposal might win inside the city would give it enough votes to pass countywide. That’s the view that state representative Mark Ouimet (R-District 52) expressed at a Dec. 16 meeting of the TMP financial advisory committee.

The group that met on Dec. 16 is a committee of a larger group that is reviewing the financial viability of the expanded services outlined in the AATA’s TMP. Their starting point was a two-volume document on funding options. [.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 plan itself is laid out in two other volumes. [.pdf of draft "Volume 1: A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County"] [.pdf of draft "Volume 2: Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy"]

Rick Olson

State Rep. Rick Olson (R-District 55) sat in the audience of a Dec. 16 meeting of a financial advisory committee that is looking at funding options for the AATA’s planned expansion of services in and outside of Ann Arbor.

The Act 196 legislation – under which the countywide transportation authority would be incorporated – provides an opportunity for an individual municipality to opt out of the authority. In a municipality that opts out, no millage would be levied, and correspondingly no transit service would be offered.

At a Dec. 7 meeting of that same financial advisory committee, Paul Krutko – who’s CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK – ventured that one way to attract Ann Arbor votes for a countywide millage would be to at least incrementally reduce the transit tax that Ann Arbor residents already pay. Terri Blackmore, executive director of the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS), responded to Krutko by saying she felt that if Ann Arbor’s tax were reduced, such a move would reduce support outside the city for a countywide millage.

Jonathan Levine, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, commented on the research he’d done to try to discover which voter attitudes lead to positive votes on transit millages. While some people talked about the need to pitch transit millages to drivers, on the idea that they would get a benefit from reduced traffic on the roads they use, he said that’s not what correlates most strongly with yes votes on a millage.

Instead, he said, the strongest predictor for yes votes on a transit millage was being generally supportive of other government services like libraries and schools. If you basically support the government as a provider of services, then you are also inclined to support transit, he said. Outside of Ann Arbor there are more “small government” types, he said, while inside of Ann Arbor, there are more “big government” types.

Jonathan Levine

Jonathan Levine, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, during the Dec. 7, 2011 meeting of a financial advisory committee. In the background are Jim Kosteva, director of community relations for UM, and Ric Devore, regional president of PNC Financial Services Group Inc.

Levine said that if he voted for the countywide millage, as a “softhearted, bleeding-heart liberal” his working assumption would be that there’s a cross-subsidy for areas outside of Ann Arbor. That is, Ann Arborites will get more service than they do now, if they vote for an additional millage, but that additional service may not match exactly the extra they’ll pay in a countywide tax. He said he felt as a voter, he’d need to give non-city residents slightly more service than what they were paying for, because those residents fundamentally might not perceive the benefit of public transit.

Part of the audience at the Dec. 16 meeting of the financial advisory committee was state representative Rick Olson (R-District 55), who was there to help educate himself further on transportation issues. He told The Chronicle that sometime in January or February 2012, he thought that enabling legislation for a regional transit authority and for the ability of local jurisdictions to assess vehicle registration fees might start moving through the House. If it turns out that vehicle registration fees can be tapped as an alternative funding source, it might not be necessary to ask voters in Washtenaw County to approve a new transit millage.

TMP: Airport Service

One of the themes that has emerged in many of the financial advisory group’s discussions is the idea of public-private partnerships. Not everyone in the group supports every possible such partnership. As the committee worked its way through the list of expanded services planned by the AATA, some members questioned the idea that the AATA would provide transportation service between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro airport.

For example, Paul Krutko has expressed a reluctance to have the AATA compete with existing private companies that currently provide the service. [At the city council's Dec. 12 working session, Jane Lumm (Ward 2) expressed a similar concern, contending that airport transportation is an already well-developed market.] Countering Krutko was Jonathan Levine, who argued that the existence of a service provided by the private sector did not necessarily mean that the service is adequate.

The AATA continues to move ahead with its plans to offer airport service through a private contractor. At the AATA board’s Dec. 15 meeting, CEO Michael Ford reported that the AATA is still working with Michigan Flyer, continuing to negotiate the Ann Arbor-to-Detroit Metro airport service contract, working out different aspects of the deal – including parking, fares, and the connection to other regional transit.

Ford reported he had received conflicting information about airport vehicle entrance fees. He had previously reported there would not be a fee charged to Michigan Flyer to enter the airport, operating as AATA’s contractor, therefore qualifying as public transit. Ford had specifically been told that wouldn’t be an issue, he said, but he had just found out that it might actually be an issue after all.

Blake Transit Center: DDA Partnerships Committee

As part of his report to the board at the AATA’s Dec. 15 meeting, CEO Michael Ford included the fact that AATA’s manager of maintenance, Terry Black, had presented the latest concepts for the Blake Transit Center to the partnerships committee of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. That committee held its regular monthly meeting the previous day, on Dec. 14.

At the DDA’s committee meeting, Black began his presentation by saying the AATA is excited about the project and that it’s long overdue. The existing center is inadequate for the AATA’s current operation, he said, let alone the kind of expansion of service that the AATA is contemplating. The design has been under development for over a year, he said, and a lot of community involvement has been included. There will be additional community involvement as well, he said.

Black didn’t have exact numbers, but said thousands of riders come in and out of the BTC every day. Some routes are in and out in five minutes, so it’s an active center currently, he said. Responding to a question from Susan Pollay, executive director of the DDA, Black said the center operates seven days a week. On weekdays, the first bus arrives just before 6 a.m. and the last bus out leaves around 10:30 p.m. at night.

Black ticked through who’s doing the work: the architect is DLZ and the construction manager is Spence Brothers. The design should be finalized soon. It’s expected to be a LEED-certified building. The anticipated construction start date is April or May of 2012.

The design of the floor plan is 95% complete, Black reported. It had helped the project for AATA to acquire an additional 6-foot-wide strip of land to the south of the AATA’s midblock parcel from the city of Ann Arbor. [This was a land sale authorized by the Ann Arbor city council at its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting]. The AATA is now working with representatives from the adjacent Federal Building to obtain a 10-foot easement of land to the north of the center. This would create a mid-block green space walkway that connects Fourth and Fifth avenues, running between the new BTC and the Federal Building, Black said.


This AATA-owned parcel, where Blake Transit Center is located, sits in the middle of the block bounded by Fourth and Fifth avenues on the west and east, and by Liberty and William streets on the north and south. The 6-foot-wide strip that runs along the southern edge of the parcel’s western half was sold to the AATA from the city of Ann Arbor. (Image links to higher resolution view. Parcel map and aerial photo from Washtenaw County’s website: gisweb.ewashtenaw.org/website/mapwashtenaw/)

Black described how the AATA had hosted stakeholder advisor committee meetings, and held design committee meetings within the AATA. The AATA had gone before Ann Arbor’s design review board to talk about the process, Black said. The AATA had also done rider surveys before starting the project, asking riders what they’d like to see in a new transit center. In January 2012, the AATA will go back with design drawings and proposed signage to check that what they’ve done is consistent with what riders wanted. The week of Jan. 9 is scheduled for those follow-up surveys. Black mentioned that the AATA is looking to get some credits from DTE for using more efficient HVAC equipment in the new building.

Black said there were two reasons for locating the new building on the other end of the block, instead of building it on BTC’s current footprint. First, this approach will allow for continuous operation of the current BTC during construction. Second, by locating the BTC on the south side of the parcel instead of the north, depending on how the former YMCA lot is developed, the immediately-adjacent location of the new BTC will provide an opportunity for some kind of transit mall. [The site of the former YMCA – located on the north side of William, between Fourth and Fifth avenues – is owned by the city and now used as a surface parking lot.]

Speaking to BTC’s new floor plan, Black described three entry points. He pointed out the bathrooms for the drivers and the ticket lobby. There will be space for three customer reps, as well as for the equipment needed for making photo ids for various kinds of ticketing. Currently, the photo ID service is offered only at the AATA headquarters at 2700 S. Industrial Highway.

feet outline

At the AATA headquarters on South Industrial Highway, the carpet is marked with the exact location where people should stand to get their photo IDs taken for various kinds of fare media. The planned new Blake Transit Center downtown will have similar facilities. The current BTC does not offer that service.

The layout of the seating in the waiting lobby is currently being finalized. Part of that includes decisions on how to display real-time sign information about bus arrivals and departures. The total square footage, with the first and second stories, is 7,500 square feet. Black characterized it as “not that big.” The AATA is building it to the maximum footprint for the site it has, he said.

The second story will include a remote dispatch area and the AATA’s emergency operation – the agency is required to have a contingency for its headquarters on South Industrial Highway, in case that facility goes down. Also on the second floor will be a supervisor’s office, an IT room, bathrooms, and a driver break room. Black explained that only some drivers pull out of the station with their bus and do an 8-hour shift. Others will drive a four-hour shift, have two or four hours off, then go back and drive four more hours. The second floor would also include a small meeting room, an employee training area, and an office for the getDowntown program.

Pollay noted that the flow of bus traffic will change when the new BTC is constructed – buses will come into the BTC from Fourth Avenue and exit onto Fifth Avenue. She said one of the benefits is that buses will not need to make a left turn across traffic, as they do now. [Fifth Avenue is one-way southbound, the direction of the turn that buses will make.] DDA board member Sandi Smith noted that with an entrance to the new underground parking garage located just upstream from the BTC entrance onto Fifth Avenue, that lane is likely not to have traffic.

DDA board member John Mouat asked Black about the implications of the AATA’s planned countywide service expansion for the role of Ann Arbor’s downtown transit center. Is there enough space? Black said it would be nice to have some space to the south as well. Zipcars, for example, could be stationed there, as well as other types of service. The current plan for BTC addresses the AATA’s needs today and in the future to a certain extent. The adequacy of the new center will depend in part on how the countywide program grows and develops, Black said.

Chair of the AATA board, Jesse Bernstein – who also attended the DDA’s committee meeting – noted that adding more frequent service on Route #4 between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti – which will start in January 2012 – will already have some impact. The facility will have its limitations at some point, he said. The north-south rail connector, WALLY, may also have an impact, Bernstein said, if it is eventually funded. If 500 people arrive on a train at one time, that’s 10 buses that need to take them somewhere. From his standpoint, Bernstein said, BTC will always be needed. Black supported Bernstein’s comments by noting that in response to a survey, over 50% of riders indicated that for them BTC is a destination.

The DDA committee also discussed the fact that the design plans for the new BTC include footings that would support a taller structure, if there was interest in building something on top of the planned two stories. Black and Bernstein indicated that the design of the structure would accommodate future development to the south on the former YMCA lot as well. For example, although there is not an entry point from the south, there’s a southern wall that’s designed as not load-bearing, so that the new BTC could be opened up from that side sometime in the future.

new Blake Transit Center from the south

This view is from the southwest to the northeast, and shows how AATA’s new transit center will sit on the Fifth Avenue side of the block. In the foreground is the former YMCA lot, now used for surface parking.

New Blake from Fourth Avenue

This view is looking from the northwest to the southeast (across Fourth Avenue and the parking lot of the federal building). The reddish building shown behind the new BTC is the Ann Arbor District Library.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its Dec. 15 meeting, the board entertained 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: A-Ride – Safety, Two-Bag Policy

During his verbal report to the board, Ford responded to continued criticism from resident Thomas Partridge, made during public commentary at several board meetings, that the SelectRide vehicles are unsafe. SelectRide is the contractor for AATA’s A-Ride paratransit service. Previously, Ford had conducted an investigation of the maintenance procedures and found that there was not a problem. Now, he reported, he will personally ride some of the higher-milage vehicles used by SelectRide to check out the situation for himself.

Ford also reported that he is looking into obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act with respect to bags that riders of the AATA’s A-Ride paratransit service can bring with them. He reported that he’d spoken with the AATA’s contractor, SelectRide, about the issue. Ford noted that it’s a “shared ride,” so there’s a limit of two bags to make sure there’s enough room for other passengers.

Ford’s remarks came in the context of public commentary from the board’s Nov. 17, 2011 meeting.

Speaking during public commentary at that meeting, Christopher Harris described his experience riding the AATA’s paratransit service, A-Ride, on Nov. 3. On that day, he was doing his grocery shopping, which he does once a month at Kroger. He told the board that his eight-year-old daughter, who accompanied Harris to the board meeting, is his PCA (personal care attendant). He told the board he has Stargardt disease – he’s legally blind.

Harris described being denied a ride because of the number of grocery bags he had – he allowed that in the past he had been told that might happen. At that board meeting, board chair Jesse Bernstein told Harris that he wanted to follow up with him after the meeting to see what the AATA could do. [The A-Ride paratransit service offered by the AATA is a shared-ride transportation service for those who are not able to ride AATA's fixed route service. There's a limit of "one armload or the equivalent to two (2) grocery bags, or two (2) pieces of luggage." .pdf of A-Ride policy]

During question time at the Dec. 15 meeting, board member Charles Griffith asked for more information on the two-bag limit and wondered whether that’s appropriate. The rider who addressed the board at its Nov. 17 board meeting had a concern that seemed reasonable, Griffith said. So Griffith wanted to know if the two-bag limit is reasonable.

Ford responded by saying he would need to check on the size of the vehicle. From AATA staff seated in the audience, the clarification came that the vehicle in question was a sedan. Ford told Griffith that it’s a shared ride. SelectRide had made exceptions on a periodic basis, but indicated that apparently on the day the rider complained about, no exception was made. Ford said he was willing to take another look at it. The AATA is trying to maintain a consistent policy, and two bags, he thinks, is reasonable.

Griffith told Ford he was glad Ford is going to take a ride in the SelectRide vehicles himself. Griffith felt that most sedan trunks can handle the number of bags that the rider had described. He noted that people on limited incomes can only take so many trips. The two-bag limit seemed arbitrary to him.

Rich Robben expressed some surprise that the limit was on two grocery bags.

David Nacht then spoke at length, saying he would like to express that when the AATA provides services for the disabled, it’s critically important the riders don’t feel like they’re second-class citizens. Nacht said there was something incredibly compelling about a visually-impaired person leaving his house with his young child, to get groceries for that child who was helping him. “The idea that our agency would allow our contractor to effectively deprive that person of dignity in the name of enforcing a policy, I think, goes against our values,” Nacht said.

Ford responded to Nacht by saying that the AATA does not want to make anyone feel like a second-class citizen. He would take another look at the issue. Sue McCormick inquired whether the passenger was attempting to carry bags in the trunk or in the passenger area – AATA staff in the audience indicated that it was within the vehicle.

Dawn Gabay, deputy director of the AATA, noted that the trunk area also needs to be available for folding wheelchairs. She noted that the two-bag policy is a long-standing policy. McCormick wanted to know if the two-bag policy is consistent with other transit agencies. Ford replied that he had not looked at that, but could. Gabay added that the two-bag policy has been reviewed by the local advisory council (LAC), which advises AATA on policies related to its service to disabled and senior riders.

Comm/Comm: Bus Advertisement Lawsuit

By way of background, the AATA currently faces a lawsuit over its rejection of a proposed advertisement that included the text, “Boycott ‘Israel’ Boycott Apartheid.” [For a detailed account, see Chronicle coverage: "Bus Ad Rejection Affirmed"]

Before approaching the podium, Henry Herskovitz asked if it was appropriate to speak to the lawsuit that had been filed against the AATA about the rejection of a bus advertisement. Herskovitz noted that public speaking at the start of the meeting is intended to be limited to agenda items, and while the lawsuit was not an agenda item, it was included as part of the meeting minutes that were in the board’s information packet for that evening’s meeting. Board chair Jesse Bernstein told Herskovitz it was fine for him to speak on that topic.

Herskovitz introduced himself as a taxpaying supporter of AATA and a frequent rider. Three board members had conflicts of interest, he contended, in making a decision to reject the advertisement. He emphasized that he supported the right of anyone to join any group they like. However, he said it merits pointing out that Bernstein is a board member of Michigan Israel Business Bridge. MIBB is a nonprofit created “to facilitate business and investment opportunities between Michigan and Israel for their mutual economic benefit.”

Herskovitz contended that a second conflict was the fact that Jerry Lax is legal counsel for the AATA and also a member of the Jewish Federation of Ann Arbor. Board member David Nacht is member and supporter of the Anti-Defamation League, he said. [Nacht's profile on Linked In also lists membership in the American Civil Liberties Union, the group that is providing legal counsel for the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the AATA over the bus advertisement.]

The three men, Herskovitz said, support the State of Israel – they’re free to do that. But they had a conflict of interest when polled for their vote on the ad – an ad that was critical of the state of Israel, which they support, he said.

Comm/Comm: New AATA Website

Mary Stasiak, AATA’s manager of community relations, updated the board on progress in designing the new AATA website. They’re looking at the graphic design, making sure it includes everything it’s supposed to, she said. Surveys have been completed at the Ypsilanti Transit Center, the Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor and at Busch’s grocery store. Internal staff at the AATA have been asked for input.

A survey was also done at a meeting of LA2M, which is described on its website as ” a non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching about all things marketing – especially topics related to new media, digital marketing, social media, and web design.” Requests to complete an online survey were sent to the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living email list, all AATA Twitter followers, Facebook fans, and MyRide subscribers.

Stasiak said one thing she’s happy about is that the AATA has a final design contract. That means that by the end of January, the AATA should be able to begin content integration. In response to a question from board chair Jesse Bernstein, Stasiak clarified that the “usability study” phase would not come until there is a “live site” that people can test out.

Comm/Comm: Sue McCormick’s Departure

Through Dec. 16, Sue McCormick was public services area administrator for the city of Ann Arbor. She left that position to take a job as head of the Detroit water and sewerage department. She also resigned her position on the AATA board.

Michael Ford Jesse Bernstein AATA board

AATA’s CEO Michael Ford and board chair Jesse Bernstein work as a team to prep Sue McCormick’s parting token of appreciation on the occasion of her last board meeting.

In acknowledging McCormick’s service to the board, David Nacht said he’d learned a tremendous amount from her. He’d become a better public servant because of her membership on the board, he said.

Rich Robben said he was doubly sad because he would not be working with McCormick any longer in two separate venues. As the city’s public services area administrator, McCormick interacted with Robben in his capacity as executive director for plant operations at the University of Michigan. He allowed that sometimes they banged heads, but said she’d be missed in both venues. Board chair Jesse Bernstein wished McCormick the best of luck and said the AATA would miss her.

On the occasion of McCormick’s last meeting as an AATA board member, she was presented with a parting gift that has become a traditional token of appreciation from the AATA to outgoing board members – a mailbox adorned with AATA markings to resemble a bus.

The Ann Arbor city council voted on Dec. 19 to confirm the nomination of the city’s transportation program manager, Eli Cooper, to replace McCormick on the board. Two councilmembers voted against the confirmation, based on Cooper’s employment with the city. Cooper served previously on the AATA board, from 2005 to 2008. When asked by The Chronicle if he’d received a traditional mailbox for his previous stint on the board, Cooper said he’d not received one.

At the conclusion of the AATA’s Dec. 15 meeting, board chair Bernstein gave McCormick the privilege of making the motion for adjournment.

Comm/Comm: Thomas Partridge

During the first opportunity for public comment at the meeting, Thomas Partridge introduced himself as a resident of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County and recent candidate for state senate. He advocated for expansion of the AATA’s service countywide, but called for all townships to be a part of the system. He opposes the ability to opt out of the system.

Partridge also spoke at the second opportunity for commentary, toward the end of the meeting. He said he was an advocate for all of those who deserve and need AATA’s services in Washenaw County. He called for an end to the glitz and glamor of PowerPoint presentations and full-color printouts of plans that might end up being “pie in the sky.”

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

Absent: Roger Kerson.

Next regular meeting: Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]

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  1. By Mark Koroi
    December 26, 2011 at 7:03 pm | permalink


    Thank you for the AATA coverage and your previous article on November 29th that contained the link to the Motion For Preliminary Injunction filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in United States District Court in Detroit.

    That lawsuit has received nationwide press coverage and may create landmark First Amendment legal precedent on the ability to post political advertisements on buses regarding issues of public interest.

    Do you have an update on the status of the federal court proceedings? Did the AATA file a response to the complaint pleading or the motion for preliminary injunction? Has there been a hearing date set on the preliminary injunction motion?

    This lawsuit has generated tremendous amounts of public controversy locally.

  2. December 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm | permalink

    The existing Michigan Flyer service to Metro airport isn’t all that useful. Airport service would have to run at least once an hour, and connect with AATA, to be something I’d want to use.

    Why would AATA have to pay any kind of fee to enter the airport?

  3. December 26, 2011 at 9:40 pm | permalink

    Re: [2] “Airport service would have to run at least once an hour, and connect with AATA, to be something I’d want to use.”

    Jim, this probably isn’t enough detail for you to assess whether you’d want to use the service, but back in October, the kind of service being negotiated by the AATA was to provide 12 daily trips each way, with a very limited number of stops, in order to achieve a trip time of around 40-45 minutes.

    Re: [2] “Why would AATA have to pay any kind of fee to enter the airport?”

    I think that question reflects the same position the AATA takes: Why should a private contractor operating under the auspices of the AATA need to pay the usual entry fee that private operators pay? Detroit Metro’s entry fee policy, as I understand from AATA’s descriptions, is that public transportation does not pay a fee, while private companies do. When Detroit Metro sees a Michigan Flyer vehicle, they “see” a private operator, whether that bus is operating under contract with AATA or not. It looks like some kind of breakthrough had been achieved – Detroit Metro had apparently agreed there’d be no fee for Michigan Flyer buses operating under contract with AATA – but based on Ford’s report at the meeting, it sounds like that breakthrough may have been short-lived.

  4. December 26, 2011 at 10:05 pm | permalink

    Re: [1] “Do you have an update on the status of the federal court proceedings? Did the AATA file a response to the complaint pleading or the motion for preliminary injunction? Has there been a hearing date set on the preliminary injunction motion?”

    On Dec. 13, 2011 the court extended the deadline for the AATA to file pleadings responsive to the motion for a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order, which are now due by Jan. 17, 2012.

    A status conference by telephone is supposed to take place among the parties and the court on Jan. 4, 2012.

  5. By Mark Koroi
    December 27, 2011 at 11:58 am | permalink

    Thanks for the update, Dave.

  6. By John Floyd
    December 28, 2011 at 12:34 am | permalink

    I’m not surprised that the AATA board is looking for ways to tax people (under the guise of a registration “fee”) in order to avoid needing voter approval. Fear of/contempt for the voters is the hallmark of our local political class. This sort of thing is right up their alley.

    I am surprised by the non-response of the community. This stated intention to foil democracy seems more like China than America.

  7. December 28, 2011 at 5:50 am | permalink

    Thank you for this thorough exposition and also for the annotated 4-party plan, to which you have appended many thought-provoking notes. As you have indicated, the timeline for a financial plan has slipped (the next meeting of the task force is January 27), thus it seems to me that a rush to approve the 4-party agreement is premature.

    I am very concerned about the possibility that the City Council may sign off on an agreement that could transfer Ann Arbor’s millage and the AATA assets to a new authority without a public vote. As I have attempted to show in a recent blog post [link], over 60% of the funding for the new authority would come from Ann Arbor even if a countywide millage is enacted, assuming that no more townships opt out.

    Meanwhile, recent news reports indicate that the City of Ypsilanti council is ambivalent about transferring their millage to the new authority, and have even indicated that the language enabling that millage might not permit such a transfer. In addition, with a countywide authority, the revenue from Purchase of Service Agreements (POSA)that the authority currently receives for service outside the city would vanish.

    If a method is found to bypass a millage, there might be no public referendum either within the city or outside of it. I hope that the Council does not approve an agreement that would permanently transfer all of our local assets without a requirement that this arrangement is affirmed by a vote of the people.

  8. December 30, 2011 at 5:23 pm | permalink

    Dave, I never cease to be impressed by your coverage. If I don’t have any comments for a particular meeting, I know I can always find out *in detail* who said what by reading your article. :-)

    The Governor’s initial proposal for the vehicle registration tax [link] was that it would require a referendum in any given county, and that money for transit would be limited to the 10% stipulated in the State Constitution. However, in a recent email/web statement, he wrote,”…I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from drivers and it seems like people are grudgingly willing to pay higher registration fees, but on a few conditions: “First, people are only willing to pay more if there is a guarantee the funds will actually go to the roads. I’ve heard this message loud and clear, and I agree.” [link]

    This strongly implies that Snyder is not willing to put his weight behind dedicating any vehicle fees to transit, which brings us back to the millage option as the primary source of public funding for additional transit services. Unless, as is rumored, there’s a plan coming out of the western side of the state to push for local sales taxes. I, for one, would welcome that, as millages are a form of taxation based on an abstraction (appraised property value) rather than actual money available to individuals, families, or businesses.

  9. December 31, 2011 at 9:18 am | permalink

    There was a reported comment by Mayor Hiefje about something in western Michigan, but it was not clear to me that it was about local sales taxes. I’d be happy if our municipalities were allowed to do that, too, though it opens a whole can of worms of a different species. It would require a constitutional amendment. Anything actually published about this “rumor”?

    The proposed 4-Party agreement allows the AATA until December 31, 2014 to declare themselves duly constituted. This is too long a timeline if they are meanwhile going to continue operating at a deficit. This fiscal year (2012), they announced that they would “catapult” themselves into the county plan – reported by the Chronicle [link] – with a budget that leaves only 3 months in reserve to cover operating expenses. If they continue at this rate of spending, they will have 4 fiscal years (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015) to expend resources before a countywide vote of any kind has been declared a yes or no.