AATA Special Meeting: 5-Year Transit Plan

Also: 6-foot land purchase finalized for downtown transit center

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (April 26, 2012): At a special meeting, the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority voted formally to release for public review a five-year service and funding draft plan as part of a possible transition to expanded governance and service throughout Washtenaw County. The draft plan incorporates the advice of a financial task force that signed off on recommendations at its Feb. 29 meeting. [.pdf of draft five-year plan]

AATA strategic planner Michael Benham sets a stack of draft reports on the table at the April 26 special board meeting.

AATA strategic planner Michael Benham sets a stack of draft reports on the table at the AATA’s April 26 special board meeting, held at its headquarters on South Industrial Highway. (Photos by the writer.)

The draft plan is to be reviewed by the public for a 30-day period. Eventually, a final plan will be adopted by the AATA after incorporating public feedback and consultation with an as-yet unincorporated board of a countywide authority.

Like the task force recommendations, the AATA’s April 26 draft service and funding plan stops short of recommending a new tax to fund additional services. However, the draft plan does identify 0.5 mills as the countywide tax rate that would be needed to cover the $32 million gap between revenues and costs for expanded service. One mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. The draft plan also provides a program of overall fare increases as well as differentiated ticketing for specific services – like service on express routes, or discounted fares for families.

The draft five-year service plan includes: (1) countywide demand-responsive services and feeder services; (2) express bus services and local transit hub services; (3) local community connectors and local community circulators; (4) park-and-ride intercept lots; and (5) urban bus network enhancements. For Ann Arbor, the program includes increased bus frequencies on key corridors, increased operating hours, and more services on weekends. The total hours of operation in the Ann Arbor district are expected to increase by 33% on weekdays and over 100% on Saturdays and Sundays.

Publication of a final funding and service plan is a required step in a framework that could lead to the formation of a new transit authority, tentatively being called the Washtenaw Area Transportation Authority. The new authority would have broader representation, funding and coverage area than the AATA. The “four-party agreement” framework under which the transition could take place has been ratified by only one of the four parties – Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor city council voted 7-4 at its March 5, 2012 meeting to ratify the agreement.

As a party to the agreement and the initiator of the process, the AATA board is expected to ratify it in the near future. The Ypsilanti city council is expected to take up the issue after the May 8 election, when Ypsilanti voters will make a decision on a city income tax and a bond issuance to cover debts associated with the Water Street property. Washtenaw County is the fourth party to the agreement.

In another action item on the short April 26 agenda, the board authorized the purchase of a six-foot strip of land from the city of Ann Arbor, adjacent to the Blake Transit Center. The acquisition of the land will allow the AATA to reconfigure the new Blake Transit Center (now expected to start construction in the fall of 2012) with a transit center on the southeastern corner of the parcel, on Fifth Avenue. The Ann Arbor city council had authorized the $90,000 sale last year at its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting.

In an item added late to the agenda, the board also authorized a change order to a painting contract for the expanded part of the AATA bus storage area that’s being constructed. To the original $66,187 contract, the board added another $68,000 to include the cost of painting the pre-existing portion of the structure, as well as the cleaning and surface preparation of the pre-existing area.

5-Year Service/Funding Plan Draft

AATA strategic planner Michael Benham summarized for the board the table of contents of the draft report. He noted that the report had been distributed to board members.

The five sets of services – which Benham characterized as the “heart of the plan” – are as follows: (1) countywide demand-responsive services and feeder services; (2) express bus services and local transit hub services; (3) local community connectors and local community circulators; (4) park-and-ride intercept lots; and (5) urban bus network enhancements.

Subsequent chapters, Benham said, describe fares and ticketing, and an analysis by district of the different types of services each area would get. Also addressed in a subsequent chapter are other ongoing planning issues that continue to merit the AATA’s attention – even in the first five years of the plan. Implementation issues are also addressed in a subsequent chapter, Benham said.

The appendices, Benham explained, include “a ton of details” from schedules for various services, in many cases the routes, and detailed district-by-district descriptions of the program. He called the board’s attention to the fact that the maps included in the initial draft would be improved on – in terms of their image resolution.

The draft plan will now go out to the district advisory committees, which have scheduled meetings so far as follows:

  • Tuesday, May 1, 7–9 p.m. South Central District (Saline Senior Center, 7190 N. Maple Road, Saline)
  • Wednesday, May 9, 6–8 p.m. West District (Washington Street Education Center, 500 Washington St., Chelsea)
  • Thursday, May 10, 6:30–8:30 p.m. Southeast District (Lincoln High School, 7525 Willis Road, Ypsilanti)
  • Monday, May 14, 7–9 p.m., Ann Arbor District (Mallets Creek branch library, 3090 E. Eisenhower Parkway, Ann Arbor)
  • Tuesday, May 15, 5:30–7:30 p.m. Northeast District (Superior Township Hall, 3040 N. Prospect, Ypsilanti)
  • Wednesday, May 16, 7–9 p.m. North Central District (Scio Township Hall, 827 N. Zeeb Road, Scio Township)
  • Thursday, May 17, 7–9 p.m. Pittsfield District (Pittsfield Senior Center, 701 W. Ellsworth Road, Pittsfield Township)
  • TBD Ypsilanti District

5-Year Plan Draft: Public Comment

During public commentary at the start of the meeting, Edward Vielmetti relayed a conversation he’d had with a neighbor of his who owns a business in Saline but lives in Ann Arbor. The neighbor was very much looking forward to being able to get himself and his coworkers between Ann Arbor and their work. Vielmetti asked the board to make it possible for his neighbor to do that.

5-Year Plan Draft: Board Deliberations

Other than the board’s congratulatory remarks and expressions of appreciation, deliberations focused on: (1) clarification of the significance of the draft report release; (2) funding for continued planning of high-capacity transit projects that cannot be constructed without additional state or federal funds; and (3) questions about implications for fares.

5-Year Plan Draft: Board Deliberations – What Does it Mean?

Board member David Nacht led off the board discussion by asking about the legal significance of the board passing this resolution: What does that actually mean? Michael Ford, AATA’s CEO, explained that the board was simply releasing the document to the public for a 30-day review period. Nacht confirmed that the board was saying this is the draft version of the plan for how the AATA wants to expand the system in the first five years. He wanted to know if that plan was based on an additional 0.5 mill tax countywide.

Michael Benham responded to Nacht’s question by explaining that the plan’s budget is consistent with the revenue levels that would be generated from a 0.5 mill countywide tax level. However, Benham continued, like the financial task force’s recommendation, the draft plan that the board was voting to release stops short of recommending a millage as a funding source.

Nacht noted that when the board was considering the 30-year plan initially (as opposed to just the first five years of the plan), the board had contemplated 1 mill. Given that this report has services that would be funded through just 0.5 mill, he ventured that it “cuts out” some projects.

5-Year Plan Draft: Board Deliberations – Other Non-Local Projects?

At that point, board chair Jesse Bernstein interjected that the plan does not cut out anything, but rather separates out projects that would require state and federal money that the AATA does not yet know if it’s going to get. So, continued Bernstein, what the AATA is saying to the public is: This is what we can assure you we can do, if we get this amount of money. The 30-year transit master plan has not changed, Bernstein stressed, and when the funding becomes evident, then the AATA will be able to implement the rest of the program.

AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein

AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein.

Nacht asked if the five-year plan includes the items for which funds are not yet identified as a kind of “wish list.” Yes, Bernstein said, that’s Chapter 10 in the report.

Eli Cooper said that as a professional transportation planner, he understood that the plan for services is funded. But planning also costs money, he said. Although he often says that planning is cheap, that’s only relative to delivering a capital project, Cooper said. Even though it’s cheap compared to building a capital project, it still costs real money, he cautioned.

It’s his understanding, Cooper said, that the Federal Transit Administration has provided some funding for a specific alternatives analysis project. [Subsequent remarks indicated that Cooper meant the Ann Arbor connector study – which is looking at a high-capacity connector in a boomerang-shaped corridor between Plymouth Road and US-23 southward down through the University of Michigan campuses and central Ann Arbor to State Street and I-94. The board got at update on that project at its Jan. 20, 2011 meeting.]

Cooper wanted to know where in the draft report he could find a recommended local matching share so that the AATA could continue to receive the federal funds to continue that planning study.

Benham indicated that the draft report doesn’t contain a specific discussion of local versus federal funding, but in Chapter 10 it talks about high-capacity transit lines and the need to continue to plan those. But the plan does not say that a certain amount of money is allocated to match federal funding. Bernstein indicated that this would be a topic of discussion at the board’s retreat on May 16 – which will combine a regular meeting with longer-term planning. That’s where Cooper would get a guarantee that the local match would be there, Bernstein said. Cooper indicated that he was not looking for a guarantee, rather just trying to understand what’s in the report.

Charles Griffith indicated that the issue identified by Cooper is part of the normal budget process. While the local matching share for those studies can amount to a substantial amount of money, it’s not on the scale that would be laid out in the draft plan they were voting to release. Michael Ford indicated that there would need to be a discussion about what the AATA’s portion of the local match would be. Benham indicated that in connection with the five-year plan, there’d be an annual element that will be very specific in its detail, which would then become synonymous with the budget.

The concern expressed by Cooper to continue to fund the planning for future high-capacity projects was reflected also in the April 10 minutes of the AATA board’s planning and development committee:

Eli Cooper was assured by Michael Benham [AATA strategic planner] that the FTF is an advisory task force, with the board having ultimate authority to accept, decline, or modify their recommendations. Eli expressed concern with only using local money for local projects for the first 5 years. If this was to occur, then the Board may not be in alignment with their overall priorities (for expansion of services).

5-Year Plan Draft: Board Deliberations – Fares

Griffith asked for a quick summary of the fares discussed in the report. Benham began by distinguishing between fares and ticketing. Fare levels were recommended by the financial task force to increase in overall level – cash fare would increase over the five-year period from $1.50 to $2.00. The AATA could accept that recommendation or not, Benham said. The report contains an analysis of the revenue impacts as well as the ridership impacts. The board would need to have a policy discussion about the level of fares and desirability of raising the level.

Also described in the report are a variety of new, different ticketing types, Benham said. For example, evening tickets would be priced in a way that’s attractive to people who don’t use the system on a regular basis. Also proposed is a family fare ticket. The rationale behind the family ticket is that when you add riders to transit, typically each additional person costs more to ride. Adding additional passengers to a car doesn’t cost more for each person. So the idea is to make the price for a group trip affordable for families on the weekends. Also proposed is a weekly fare, Benham said.

5-Year Plan Draft: Board Deliberations – Support, Thanks

Cooper indicated he’d support the resolution and took the opportunity to congratulate the staff and the project team for developing an excellent document. He encouraged the public to take time to go through the details. There’s a lot of dense information in the report and the appendices. The purpose of moving it forward is for public review and questions. There’s a connection between the services, the fare structure and other costs, which are all woven together in the fabric of the report.

Left to right: AATA board members David Nacht, Charles Griffith and Eli Cooper.

Left to right: AATA board members David Nacht, Charles Griffith and Eli Cooper.

As the AATA shares the document with the public, he said, the reaction in one area or another might “pull on the tapestry” a little bit, where the AATA might have to make changes. That’s the purpose of the report – it’s not the final statement. He complimented the team that had produced the report, because the document really does weave together the elements to make the type of system people have discussed for years. Releasing the report, Cooper said, is for the purpose of continuing the dialogue under the same transparent process it had already evolved. He looked forward to the work the board would get back from the community in the coming month.

Bernstein agreed with Cooper and extended his appreciation to the staff. The fact that the board scheduled a special meeting to release the report reflects that the AATA wanted to take the time to make sure the report is as good as it can be, he said. There will be ongoing input and changes as the process goes forward, he said. Bernstein noted he’d served on the board almost four years, and he’s still learning about transit. He imagined it would be overwhelming for the public to digest a report like this. He hoped that the AATA could continue educating people and that people would also reach out to find out what’s going on.

Nacht also expressed appreciation to the staff. He noted he’d looked at an earlier draft of the report and made suggestions. His suggestions were not incorporated verbatim – but he could see the impact (on some commuter express services) so that he could tell that serious thinking was done in response to his comments. That’s all a lay board member can ask, he ventured – that board members’ ideas are taken seriously and the professionals look at those ideas. “I’m blown away by the level of detail,” he said. Rather than being overwhelmed, he said, if he were a member of the public or a local township official, he’d pull out the schedules and the maps for his district and say, “Hey! Does this make sense?” And he’d make sure that people went to the district meetings. He concluded that he was very impressed.

Griffith noted that the AATA has been out in the community for almost two years. He’s now excited to hear what people think about the draft plan. He assumed some small changes would need to be made, but hopefully not big changes. He reiterated that he’s really excited to hear how people respond. He hoped it will prove out that the AATA has done its work right and that people will be excited to see what the AATA has come up with.

Bernstein hoped the public remembers that this draft five-year plan is part of a 30-year plan. Transit can’t be implemented overnight. Successful transit systems across the county have taken decades to implement, he said. Some things will be implemented if the AATA has the money, but he said that public input would be ongoing. The district advisory groups would be in place forever. He hoped that those groups would establish a culture of filling the AATA in on what it needs to do to make the system better.

CEO Michael Ford reciprocated the thanks that the board had expressed to the staff by saying he appreciated all the board members’ help.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the release of the draft five-year service and funding plan.

Land Purchase

The board also considered a resolution authorizing the purchase of a six-foot-wide strip of land from the city of Ann Arbor, which will allow the AATA to reconfigure the new Blake Transit Center with a transit center on the southeastern corner of the parcel, on Fifth Avenue. The Ann Arbor city council had authorized the $90,000 sale last year at its Sept. 19, 2011 meeting. The $90,000 sale price of the 792-square-feet of land was determined to be the fair market value by an independent appraisal.


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. (Image links to higher resolution view.)

At the council’s meeting, one concern expressed was whether the sale of the strip might have a negative impact on the value of the larger parcel, at Fifth & William, the former location of the YMCA building. The city owns the property and would eventually like to see the parcel developed with a different use from its current one – a surface parking lot. The city council was advised that the sale of the strip was not thought to have a negative impact on the value of the larger parcel.

At a public participation meeting on the new BTC, held at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library later in the evening on April 26, the expected construction start of the new center was described as the fall 0f 2012, with completion of the project by June of 2013. The project will next be reviewed by the city planning commission, possibly at its May 15 meeting. The plan has already undergone a review by the city’s design review board (DRB). Some DRB members wanted the AATA to consider maintaining the current placement of the building on the site, on the northwest corner. Other feedback from the DRB included a suggestion for better articulation of entrances to the building and more attention to the pedestrian experience through the site. [.pdf of DRB report]

During public commentary at the AATA’s April 26 meeting, Edward Vielmetti congratulated the AATA on coming to an agreement with the city of Ann Arbor on the transfer of real property, without causing tremendous amounts of drama. The ability to move a six-foot-wide strip of land through an appraisal process is something to take some pride in, he said.

At the AATA’s April 26 meeting, CEO Michael Ford indicated that ordinarily he could authorized the land purchase under his own authority [for contracts up to $100,000].

But because it involves the purchase of land, it needs to be approved by the board, he said. To move forward with the Blake Transit Center reconstruction, the six-foot strip of land was needed, Ford said.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the land purchase, with abstention by Eli Cooper. Cooper is employed by the city as its transportation program manager.

Land Purchase: Abstention

Eli Cooper abstained from the vote on the land purchase because he’s an employee of the city of Ann Arbor, the entity from which the land is being purchased. There was a moment of indecision about whether the motion had actually passed – with just three affirmative votes. [Three of seven board members were absent.]

According to AATA staff, the board’s bylaws indicate that a majority of members present is needed to pass a resolution, not a majority of board members who serve on the board.

The draft articles of incorporation of the possible new transit authority differ in that respect: “Decisions of the Board of Directors require a majority vote of the Directors appointed and serving at a Board meeting having a quorum present.”

It’s not clear that Cooper was legally required to abstain from the vote. A similar issue has arisen in connection with contracts between the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and the city of Ann Arbor. At the May 5, 2010 DDA board meeting, a question was raised about the participation of mayor John Hieftje and city councilmember Sandi Smith in a vote they’d be taking as DDA board members.

When the DDA board resolution took the form of a grant to the city, legal counsel for the DDA – Jerry Lax, of Pear Sperling Eggan & Daniels – analyzed the situation as requiring Smith and Hieftje to recuse themselves, which they did. But when the resolution was on a contract between the DDA and the city, he analyzed their participation as conforming with Act 317 of 1968 ”Contracts of Public Servants with Public Entities.”

The statute prohibits public servants from soliciting contracts with entities by whom they are employed:

(2) Except as provided in section 3, a public servant shall not directly or indirectly solicit any contract between the public entity of which he or she is an officer or employee and any of the following: (a) Him or herself. (b) Any firm, meaning a co-partnership or other unincorporated association, of which he or she is a partner, member, or employee. [...]

However, there is a specific exemption for contracts between two public entities [emphasis added]:

15.324 Public servants; contracts excepted; violation as felony. Sec. 4. (1) The prohibitions of section 2 shall not apply to any of the following: (a) Contracts between public entities.

Lax also serves as legal counsel for the AATA.

Bus Garage Painting

The board considered a change order to a painting contract for the expanded part of the AATA bus storage area that’s been constructed. To the original $66,187 contract, the board added another $68,000 to include the cost of painting the pre-existing portion of the structure, as well as the cleaning and surface preparation of the pre-existing area.

Terry Black, AATA manager of maintenance, said the request for the change order was in conjunction with the bus storage garage expansion. The contractor will be painting the expansion portion of the garage. That will leave half the existing area dull and dingy, he said. He can’t use capital funds to do painting of the existing section, he explained.

So what he’s requesting is to use operating funds. Year to date, he’s spent $96,000 of his facility maintenance budget. He has $323,000 for the entire year – at roughly the halfway point. [AATA's fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.] Typically, he said, he would be in the hole at this time of year, because of winter snow removal, but he’s in pretty good shape, he said. So he has $226,000 left in the approved FY 2012 budget. He wants to take a portion of that to paint the other half of the garage. It’s been 10 years since anything has been done to it, Black said. The 10 years of accumulation from buses idling has an impact.

David Nacht very much appreciated the clarification that it’s repurposing existing funds and there’s no budgetary impact. CEO Michael Ford said that if board members took the opportunity to look at the improvements that had been made to the bus storage and maintenance area, he felt they’d be impressed. Black gave board members a quick tour immediately following the meeting.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the resolution on painting the garage.

Bus Garage Painting: Quick Tour

After the April 26 special meeting, AATA manager of maintenance Terry Black took board members on a quick inspection of the work they’d recently authorized, including the new bus storage facility and new hoists.

AATA bus storage area

On the left is the newly constructed portion of the bus storage area. On the right is the pre-existing portion, which will also be painted, based on the AATA board’s April 26 resolution.

Bus Hoist AATA

AATA manager of maintenance Terry Black explains to board members how the new bus hoist is controlled.

AATA bus external

This new hoist is long enough to accommodate articulated buses, if the AATA eventually acquires such vehicles. The external, above-ground posts allows for washing of a bus chassis, without having the contaminants from the wash run down into the inner workings of the lift. That’s a negative impact of washing buses using a bus hoist with below-ground lifting mechanisms.


Public Commentary

At its April 26 meeting, the board entertained commentary from the public as required under Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. AATA board meetings include two opportunities for public comment, one toward the beginning of meetings (restricted to commentary on agenda items) and one at the conclusion of meetings.

Comm/Comm: Scheduling Data

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Edward Vielmetti told the board he rides the #5, #6, #4, #22 and other bus routes. He said he uses the Mobile RideTrak to see how early he is for the next bus. A few years ago, he said, he’d requested from the AATA under the Freedom of Information Act the set of data that the AATA regularly uploads to Google – the Google Transit Feed Specification (GTFS). After some labor he’d received the data on a CD. He pointed out that it’s possible technically to put the data online so that as long as the terms and conditions are met, anyone can download it. It wouldn’t be real-time data, but rather an enhanced digital version of what the current schedule would be.

So Vielmetti asked the board to consider publishing the data that is already provided to a wealthy company based in California [Google] on the same terms to anyone who wanted it. One additional reason to care, beyond knowing where the nearest bus stop is: Other data sources like Walk Score use the proximity of bus stops as a proxy for how walkable an area is.

Present: Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Eli Cooper.

Absent: Sue Gott, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale.

Next regular meeting and board retreat: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 at noon, Holiday Inn Express, 600 Briarwood Circle. [confirm date]

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  1. April 28, 2012 at 12:50 pm | permalink

    Congratulations to Eli Cooper for pointing out the disconnect on the exclusion for the high-cost, intensively capital projects that are not accounted for in the 0.5 mill estimate. Most Federal projects require a 20% matching fund contribution from local sources. As Cooper says, even the planning and grant submission activities associated with such projects costs money (staff time is not actually free).

    The exclusion of these projects has introduced a major smoke-and-mirrors element to the exercise.

  2. By Lawrence Baird
    April 28, 2012 at 2:45 pm | permalink

    The AATA does not have to worry about funding the 20% grant match for the Fuller study though, because the city has already spent and/or budgeted over $700,000 to qualify for the local match.

    At the same time, the AATA’s Master Plan (page 84) states:

    the long-term implementation of the Transit Master Plan Vision will (be) dependent on two land use planning objectives:

    Encouraging increased housing and employment density in appropriate locations along transit corridors; and

    Promoting a development character that incorporates new transit facilities and mixed use development in urbanized areas.

    So how does the Fuller Park site, meet the objectives of increased housing and mixed use development opportunities when the site is completely surrounded by public lands? The site selection study will identify this major shortcoming and many others associated with moving the current Amtrak station to Fuller Park.

  3. April 29, 2012 at 10:52 am | permalink

    It’s refreshing to see that the AATA admits that its plan depends on fomenting development.

    Big ugly buildings – coming soon to your neighborhood!

  4. April 29, 2012 at 11:18 am | permalink

    Actually, it is seen as a benefit of the plan that it will enable TOD (creates development opportunities). (This is from the Transit Master Plan implementation chapter, not the new 5-year service plan.)