AATA Board OKs Key Countywide Documents

Mix of optimism, uncertainty expressed for future of local transit

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (May 16, 2012): At a gathering that combined a retreat with a regular monthly meeting, the AATA board voted on business items necessary for a possible eventual transition of the AATA to a broader countywide governance structure and expanded service area.

CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority handed the microphone around to board members so their commentary could be more easily heard. Board member Anya Dale had just finished speaking.

Michael Ford, CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, handed the microphone around to board members at a May 16 meeting so their commentary could be more easily heard. Board member Anya Dale had just finished speaking. (Photos by the writer.)

The two key documents approved or endorsed by the board were the articles of incorporation for a possible new transit authority, and a four-party agreement establishing a framework for possibly transitioning AATA to that new authority – now with the working name of “The Washtenaw Ride.” The four parties to the agreement are the AATA, Washtenaw County, the city of Ann Arbor and the city of Ypsilanti. [.pdf of articles of incorporation]

Board action came in the context of various unknown factors, including continued federal funding, pending state legislation on a regional transit authority for southeast Michigan, and the number of Washtenaw County municipalities that will participate in a possible countywide authority. Another uncertainty relates to the status of the four-party agreement, which the Ann Arbor city council approved on March 5, 2012, after amending (several times over multiple meetings) the version that the AATA had first presented.

A wrinkle emerged on May 15, 21012, when the Ypsilanti city council approved the four-party agreement, but amended it in a way that requires reconsideration by the Ann Arbor city council. In response to an emailed query from The Chronicle, mayor John Hieftje indicated that the four-party agreement would be back on the Ann Arbor council’s agenda for its June 4 meeting. [.pdf of red-lined four-party agreement as amended by Ypsilanti city council]

The Ypsilanti amendment relates to a 1% municipal service charge that the agreement originally allowed the two cities to impose on their millages, before forwarding the millage money to the new transit authority. The Ypsilanti council struck the municipal service charge from the agreement. At its Feb. 6, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council had already contemplated – and rejected, on an 8-3 vote against it – an amendment of the language related to the municipal service charge.

Balanced against that set of uncertainties was a generally very optimistic tone during the meeting, with board chair Jesse Bernstein indicating that he felt that no matter what happened on a variety of fronts, the AATA was well-positioned for the future.

Bernstein and the board’s optimism was based in part on positive reports on several fronts. The doubling of frequency on the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Route #4 has resulted in 20-25% ridership gains on that route. The new Ann Arbor-Detroit Metro airport service had double the number of passengers in the last week of April compared to the first week of April, when it was first launched. AATA’s vanpool service is poised for implementation. And results of a survey conducted on board AATA buses late last year indicate a high level of customer satisfaction among AATA riders.

On the budget front, AATA controller Phil Webb also delivered positive news, in the context of an approved budget this year that was expected to absorb additional expenses in order to pay for some of the new service initiatives. Through the first six months of the fiscal year 2012 (which began Oct. 1, 2011) the AATA is under budget by around $500,000. The board had approved a budget on Sept. 15, 2011 that called for tapping fund reserves for $1 million. Now, Webb said, the AATA could finish the year breaking even, depending on how things play out in the second half of the fiscal year.

The board voted to support three other resolutions at the meeting: (1) approval of a contract for vanpool and rideshare matching software; (2) approval of a contract for construction of additional bus shelters; and (3) approval of revisions to the AATA’s procurement manual. The board also got updates on a number of other projects, including the construction of the new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor.

Future Governance

The board considered two key documents related to a possible transition to a new governance structure for countywide transit authority: a four-party agreement, and the articles of incorporation of the new authority. The current working name of the new authority, “The Washtenaw Ride,” replaces a previous working name of “Washtenaw Area Transportation Authority.” [It was discovered that WATA is an acronym already in use by another transit authority.]

The four parties to the agreement are the AATA, the city of Ann Arbor, the city of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County. One key element of the four-party agreement is that the two cities would pledge their existing transit millages to the new countywide authority, instead of to the AATA. The Ann Arbor city council approved a version of the four-party agreement on March 5, 2012, after amending the version that the AATA had first presented. Amendments were made in several ways, and stretched over multiple meetings.

On May 15, 21012, the Ypsilanti council approved the four-party agreement, but amended it in a way that requires reconsideration by the Ann Arbor city council. [.pdf of red-lined four-party agreement as amended by Ypsilanti city council] The Ypsilanti amendment relates to a 1% municipal service charge that the agreement originally allowed the two cities to impose on their millages, before forwarding the millage money to the new transit authority. The Ypsilanti council struck the municipal service charge from the agreement.

But at its Feb. 6, 2012 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council had already contemplated – and rejected, on an 8-3 vote against it – an amendment of the language related to the municipal service charge. At that meeting, Ann Arbor councilmembers appeared keen to retain the maximum allowable amount of the municipal service charge.

Washtenaw countywide transit board membership

Possible composition of board membership for a Washtenaw countywide transit authority. (Links to larger image.)

The AATA board’s resolution on May 16 did not try to resolve differences between the versions of the four-party agreement that have now been approved by the city councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Also considered by the AATA board at their May 16 meeting were the articles of incorporation of the new transit authority. The evening before, the Ypsilanti council unanimously approved, without amendment, the proposed articles of incorporation. The Ann Arbor city council has not yet voted on the articles of incorporation. [.pdf of articles of incorporation]

The Washtenaw County board of commissioners will consider the four-party agreement and the articles of incorporation in the near future. County commissioners have already been briefed more than once on AATA’s countywide initiative, but have not yet formally considered the proposal.

An unincorporated Act 196 board (U196) has been seated and has met since the fall of 2011. Its membership includes the following: Membership in the 11-member U196 board is: Pittsfield District – Mandy Grewal (supervisor, Pittsfield Township); Northeast District – David Phillips (clerk, Superior Township); North Middle District – David Read (trustee, Scio Township) with alternate Jim Carson (councilmember, Village of Dexter); Southeast District – (1) Karen Lovejoy Roe (clerk, Ypsilanti Township) and (2) John McGehee (director of human resources, Lincoln Consolidated Schools); West District – Bob Mester (trustee, Lyndon Township) with alternate Ann Feeney (councilmember, city of Chelsea); Ypsilanti District – Paul Schreiber (mayor of Ypsilanti) with alternate Peter Murdock (councilmember, city of Ypsilanti); South Middle District – Bill Lavery (resident, York Township); Ann Arbor District: (1) Jesse Bernstein (AATA board), (2) Charles Griffith (AATA board) and (3) David Nacht (AATA board).

Governance: Four-Party Agreement

Introducing the voting item on the agenda, board chair Jesse Bernstein told the board that if there are changes to the agreement made by the other partners that affect the AATA, the document would come before the board again. Depending on the change, however, Bernstein indicated that the board might be simply apprised of that as a point of information.

Noting that the city of Ypsilanti had voted on the four-party agreement the previous night, Eli Cooper wondered if the AATA board was already in a situation where it would need to vote again on the issue – after Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor had resolved the changes that had emerged in the document. CEO Michael Ford told Cooper that the focus had been on the allowable municipal service charge that the two cities could deduct from their millages, before transferring the tax levy the new transit authority. So that issue will need to be presented to the Ann Arbor city council. The Ypsilanti council had made another change, Ford said, that was a clarification specific to Ypsilanti.

Cooper asked what would happen if the AATA board voted on the four-party agreement that day, and then subsequently the two cities resolve the difference: Would the AATA board need to ratify that? Bernstein felt that unless a change impacts the AATA, the board would not need to address the issue again. He felt the current situation does not impact the AATA.

[The current transit levy of roughly 2 mills on Ann Arbor taxpayers (decreased from the charter millage of 2.5 mills through the Headlee Amendment) generates roughly $9 million annually. So depending on the imposition of a 1% service charge, the city of Ann Arbor will either retain roughly $90,000 that would not be transferred to the new transit authority, or will transfer that $90,000 to the new authority.]

Bernstein continued by saying the board could bring it back for a vote anyway. David Nacht ventured that if the city council says the board should vote on it, the board would vote on it. Also, if a lawyer says vote on it, the board votes on it. If anyone says the board needs to vote, then the board votes on it, Nacht concluded.

At Roger Kerson’s request, Ford reviewed the basic timetable of approvals. The articles of incorporation still need to be approved by Ann Arbor. The issue in the four-party agreement on the municipal service charge still needs to be resolved by the two cities. Ford said the AATA had asked if the item could be placed on the Ann Arbor city council’s May 21 agenda. [In response to an emailed query from The Chronicle, mayor John Hieftje indicated that the four-party agreement would be on the Ann Arbor council's agenda for its June 4 meeting.] Then the Washtenaw County board of commissioners needs to consider and approve its part of the four-party agreement. Bernstein indicated that by early June, he hoped all the documents could be approved.

Outcome: The AATA unanimously approved the four-party agreement, contingent on Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti coming to an accord on the language that now differs in the two versions that the respective councils have approved.

Governance: Articles of Incorporation

When the AATA board came to the specific agenda item that required a vote on the articles of incorporation, no one appeared initially inclined to speak to the issue before voting. But board member Charles Griffith said he felt like he should say something, given that he’d been part of the group that had gone through the document word-by-word.

AATA board members Charles Griffith and Sue Gott.

AATA board members Charles Griffith and Sue Gott.

Included in the board’s information packet for the meeting was a listing out of the team that had reviewed the articles: Jesse Bernstein (AATA board chair); Michael Ford (CEO of AATA); Charles Griffith (AATA board member); Jerry Lax (AATA legal counsel); Jeff Ammon (AATA legal counsel); Sarah Gryniewicz (AATA community outreach coordinator); Terri Blackmore (executive director, Washtenaw Area Transportation Study); Christopher Taylor (Ann Arbor city council, Ward 3); Sabra Briere (Ann Arbor city council, Ward 1); Conan Smith (chair, Washtenaw County board of commissioners); Alicia Ping (vice chair, Washtenaw County board of commissioners); Paul Schreiber (mayor, city of Ypsilanti); Peter Murdock (Ypsilanti city council); David Phillips (clerk, Superior Township, U196 board); and David Read (trustee, Scio Township, U196 board).

Griffith described going over Act 196 of 1986 in great detail, describing it as a tortured piece of legislation. That was to make sure the articles of incorporation are consistent with the state legislation, he said. The original document was 2-3 pages, but it increased to around 14 pages and then the group had chopped it back down. The idea was to get solid buy-in from all the players, he said. [.pdf of one red-lined version of Act 196 transit authority articles of incorporation]

Outcome: The AATA unanimously endorsed the articles of incorporation for a new Act 196 transit authority.

Five-Year Program

Also key to any transition of governance from AATA to a new transit authority incorporated under Act 196  is a funding and service plan. The publication of details of the service and funding plan in a newspaper of general circulation is one of two requirements that must be met, before the AATA can submit a request to Washtenaw County to approve, sign and file the articles of incorporation of a new authority with the state of Michigan. The other requirement is that the city councils of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti must approve the articles of incorporation.

At the May 16 board meeting, Michael Benham, strategic planner for the AATA, reviewed highlights of the draft five-year plan. [.pdf of draft five-year plan]

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.

Benham described to the board how a second round of district advisory committee (DAC) meetings was underway in each of the eight districts making up the representation on the U196 board. The goal is to provide an opportunity for continued feedback on revisions to the service plan. He indicated there was also interest expressed in a third round of meetings. Even after the five-year program document is finished, Benham said, there will be continued feedback into the future provided through the DACs.

The Ann Arbor DAC meeting had been held two days earlier on May 14 at the Malletts Creek branch of the Ann Arbor District Library. During public commentary at the board’s May 16 meeting, Vivienne Armentrout – a member of Ann Arbor’s DAC – criticized the level of detail provided in the five-year plan, as well as the way the DAC meetings are being run. She said she’d read through the plan twice, and felt that more detail on Ann Arbor route schedules was called for – given the relative dollar amounts that Ann Arbor residents would be providing, which she’s calculated at 75%.

Armentrout called the DAC “not particularly functional.” Of the two meetings, she said, the first was simply an introduction, and the second was a well-meaning attempt to combine a committee meeting and a general public forum. She told the board she had walked out in the middle of the second DAC meeting, because she was unhappy with the way it was being run.

Policy Discussion

The most substantive policy discussion undertaken by the board began with a question about placement of new bus stops. The five-year program of the transit master plan calls for nearly 50 new bus stops and improvements to 100 more. It then evolved into a discussion of land use, planning versus implementation, and express commuter services.

Policy Discussion: Washtenaw Corridor – Bus Stops

Board member Anya Dale asked about placement of new bus stops along Washtenaw Avenue. Chris White, AATA manager of service development, told Dale that one proposed new stop that’s in the works is at Washtenaw and Platt, partly in connection with the Arbor Hills Crossing development that is going forward.

White also described how Washtenaw County is working on developing a new parking lot on the north side of Washtenaw Avenue just east of US-23. He’s looking at the plans for that and trying to see if there might be ways to integrate a bus stop. The AATA is waiting for the result a right-of-way study that’s being done with the federal HUD grant that was awarded to the Washtenaw County Sustainable Community last year. [The county was awarded a $3 million grant in late 2011 for a project focusing on the Washtenaw Avenue corridor, spanning Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township and Ypsilanti Township.] Part of that study is meant to identify locations for bus stops, as well as for pedestrian and bicyclist improvements in the corridor, White said.

Policy Discussion: Land Use (Park-and-Ride)

Dale wondered about possible park-and-ride lot locations along Washtenaw Avenue. [Included in the five-year program are five additional general sites identified for new park-and-ride lots and two lots identified for improvements. The park-and-ride projects would potentially add 800 parking spaces designed for commuters to park, then take public transportation the rest of the way to their destination.]

Dale noted that the five-year program did not include any park-and-ride lots for Washtenaw Avenue. White responded to Dale by saying that AATA did not have plans for a major park-and-ride lot at Washtenaw Avenue. AATA’s review concluded that people would be accessing Washtenaw Avenue all along the corridor, not necessarily at a single point. Currently there’s a small lot next to the downtown Ypsilanti Transit Center with 11 spaces that AATA hopes to be able to expand, White said. The AATA is also looking for agreements with property owners along the corridor, to expand park-and-ride opportunities. That allows the AATA to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket and gives people options, he said.

[By way of background, the "eggs in one basket" reference was an allusion to the loss of park-and-ride opportunities in the Arborland shopping center. Around three years ago, the owner of the shopping center chose not to renew the agreement with AATA to accommodate a bus stop and park-and-ride spots in the parking lot there.]

Dale suggested that this basic strategy of smaller incremental expansion of park-and-ride opportunities could be included in the five-year program to help generate public support in the Ypsilanti area. She also felt that consideration should be given to locating a stop for AirRide (the AnnArbor-Detroit Metro service) in Ypsilanti. Michael Ford, CEO of the AATA, told Dale that to address that issue, he was scheduling a meeting with Tony VanDerworp, a business development specialist for the county. And AATA is meeting with the Eastern Leaders Group, Ford said.

Eli Cooper indicated that he agreed with the incremental steps that AATA is pursuing now. But taking a longer view of that corridor, he encouraged consideration of the implications of the high level of transit service that’s currently in place and that’s expected to become more robust. How that service coordinates with the regional highway system should also be considered. The Washtenaw Avenue and US-23 interchange was an area of emphasis for Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT) access management studies, and part of the city of Ann Arbor’s long-range transportation plan.

Cooper – who serves as the city of Ann Arbor’s transportation program manager – noted that a very functional, large park-and-ride lot had been displaced [Arborland]. He encouraged AATA staff to use the current interest and current ridership, as well as benefit, to create an “intermodal opportunity” [i.e., park-and-ride lot] along that corridor. To him, he said, it seems there are a number of considerations that point to the Washtenaw corridor as an opportunity the AATA should capitalize on.

AATA board member Sue Gott

AATA board member Sue Gott, who works for the University of Michigan as its university planner.

Building on remarks by Cooper and Dale, Sue Gott suggested that looking into the future five years and beyond, she would love to see the county transition away from building larger and larger surface commuter parking lots to keep accommodating commuters. At some point, she said, the paradigm should be shifted to use land more efficiently by building parking structures. She said she understood the economic challenges of doing that. But as good stewards of the environment, she wanted to put that idea forward as something that the AATA should strive to achieve. When you look at Washtenaw Avenue, there’s not the land available for the demand that might exist. If the AATA could be innovative, Gott said, “we could set the bar in Michigan.”

Board chair Jesse Bernstein related Gott’s remarks to a concept that he said the AATA talked relatively little about, because the organization could not affect it directly – transit-oriented development. Bernstein described how many of the younger as well as the older generation are looking for more of a dense town center as a place to live. And as corridors are provided for development, that’s where development will occur, he said. Empty spaces or underutilized spaces on Washtenaw Avenue could be more densely populated living-working arrangements, Bernstein added, and the AATA can provide the back-and-forth connectivity. The AATA can aid density in a kind of chicken-and-egg way, he ventured.

Cooper said he appreciated Bernstein’s remarks on transit-oriented development. In the transit industry, he said, there’s also a notion called “development-oriented transit.” Bernstein is right, Cooper said, that as a transit authority, the AATA doesn’t control land-use decisions. However, the AATA does control its investment in transit. With respect to Gott’s point about the efficiency of land use – parking structures versus surface lots – he referred again to the MDOT access management study of the area around US-23 and Washtenaw. He noted that the study depicted a vision of a multi-level parking structure, wrapped with mixed land use, right where the Arborland parking lot is today. There are bigger “wins” out there, he said.

In terms of development-oriented transit, Cooper felt like the AATA should drive toward looking at funding the organization can obtain to guide those investments. In Minneapolis, Cooper said there was a Smart Growth Twin Cities program, which consisted of public investments – federal and regional money – to create parking structures in places like St. Louis Park. Those became the nodes for new growth opportunities in the region. And that is not going to happen unless someone takes the lead, Cooper cautioned. The AATA is well-positioned to begin to move that way, he suggested, using development-oriented transit strategies to encourage the local land-use decision makers to implement transit-oriented design.

Dale felt that in general the AATA has done an excellent job of providing service to everybody, which is the AATA’s primary mission. But there’s also an opportunity to be a leader in land-use development, even though the AATA can’t directly control it. It’s pretty well known that park-and-ride lots tend to incentivize sprawl, she said. So Dale stressed that it’s important to look at the placement of such lots. She weighed in against new flat lots just outside urban areas. She advocated instead for use of underutilized lots within the urban area.

Policy Discussion: Where’s Rail Transit in 5-Year Program?

Roger Kerson ventured that all the references to rail planning had been removed from the five-year program based on the advice of the financial task force – advice that activity should match where funding is available. But knowing the team of AATA staff and the board, he said, this would not be an arena where the AATA would be idle for the next five years. Those projects need outside funding and private partners; but because the AATA staff is as good as they are at “walking and chewing gun” and running the existing system while planning for expansion, Kerson expected some planning work would continue.

Kerson suggested that the AATA needs to think about how that can be communicated to people – that rail transit is not something AATA is going to do right now and it’s not something that a millage or vehicle registration fee would be tied to; however, there’d be activity in that area. That activity is part of the vision, Kerson said. And that’s a vision that attracts a lot of people – it’s one that attracts him, he said, when you say: If there could be a train here, wouldn’t that be great. Even though that’s not something that the AATA can deliver in the near term, he said, the AATA needs to make clear to people that there’s a 30-year vision as well as a five-year program. It would be helpful, he said, if it can be made clear that during the first five years, the AATA will still be looking at things that it will do over the longer term.

Michael Benham, AATA strategic planner, responded to Kerson’s remark about eliminating rail from the five-year program. Benham noted that reference to rail in the program has not been completely removed. Rather, rail has not been prioritized. In the five-year program document, he said, it’s noted there needs to be development work to keep those projects going. From the draft five-year program document:

Because of long lead times and requirements for involving many stakeholders, projects such as commuter rail and high-capacity transit require a level of planning investment and project development that may take place years in advance of the projects’ implementation. Accordingly, it is recommended that the AATA continue to include in its plans funding for such project development work, paid for to the extent feasible by State and Federal grants.

Eli Cooper allowed that perhaps he was the only one in the room who did not believe they’d have to wait five years to see the first next type of rail service arrive in Ann Arbor. He felt that the retreat that day would be a good opportunity to explore the AATA’s interests in defining how it sees its process as engaging in rail development – currently, not five, six or thirty years from now. The financial task force had some recommendations about two projects that have five to ten years of planning work behind them already, he noted: commuter rail and local higher-capacity transit. Cooper’s interest was in exploring as a board what the AATA’s role is with rail – recognizing that the federal and state government is in the process of investing $0.5 billion in improvements in the railroad corridor.

The most recent reports from SEMCOG, which has been the lead agency for commuter rail, is that they’re working with the Federal Transit Authority on an environmental assessment. An environmental assessment is the study that’s needed in order to access federal funds for the commuter rail service. Their timetables are within a matter of a couple of years, Cooper reported – saying that it seems like “it’s always a couple of years out.” He wondered what the AATA can do to keep it moving forward – as an entity that’s connected to and serving a community that will benefit from rail service.

Cooper was not content to say that rail is something out in the future: “The future is now.” He suggested having AATA staff coordinate with SEMCOG and MDOT, and bring forward whatever the community needs to do – AATA and Washtenaw County – to help facilitate implementation of the rail service. As the AATA is implementing express bus services, he felt that rail should remain in the plan “in a timeframe that’s deemed appropriate through a coordinated effort with the professionals.” That timeframe on the rail project can be provided back to the financial task force and the rest of the community, Cooper said.

Charles Griffith supported Cooper’s suggestion. He’s heard a lot of comments from community members expressing disappointment that the commuter rail project is not being emphasized as an option. The financial task force was making a recommendation based on the availability of funding, he said. It doesn’t mean that commuter rail is not a priority any longer. It just means that it’s on a slightly different track. It’s important to clarify within the first five years what the track looks like, he said, and what it would take to keep the studies moving forward.

Griffith also brought up the Ann Arbor Connector (from US-23 and Plymouth through the campus, downtown and south to I-94), which he described as a project that excites him and the community – the idea that Ann Arbor could have something that’s world class. It’s important, he said, to move beyond just buses – not that there’s anything bad about buses.

Griffith said he uses his bus each week to get to work, but buses don’t offer a lot of excitement, he said. New forms of transportation are something that many people in the community think Ann Arbor is ready for and should have. And the AATA is the entity that can make that happen, Griffith said. He wanted to make sure people didn’t think the AATA was de-emphasizing those projects, just because they are on a longer-term track. Michael Ford, the AATA’s CEO, indicated that he was actively pursuing funding for the next stage of the connector study (the alternatives analysis), working with the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor.

[What's already complete is a feasibility study. What's needed now are local matching funds for a $1.2 million federal grant that the AATA obtained last year for the alternatives analysis phase. In November 2011, Ford updated the board on the possible timeline for the alternatives analysis, saying that this phase – in which a preferred technology and route with stop locations would be identified – would take around 16 months if it begins in April 2012. A final report would be expected in August 2013, he said at the time.]

Ford felt he’d have a clearer idea about the status of local match money he’s pursuing from the city of Ann Arbor and UM later in May.

Later in the meeting, board members returned to the idea that the AATA needs to focus on clearly communicating about the difference between implementation and continued planning, guided by a 30-year vision, which includes commuter rail.

Jesse Bernstein said he wanted to speak to where the AATA stands as a board. Zingerman’s [a local deli that has spawned a community of related businesses] talks about the north star – the place we want to go, knowing we might never get there, he said. That’s the 30-year vision of the transit master plan (TMP). The five-year program reflects what the financial task force told the AATA could be achieved with local funding over the next five years. But Bernstein said the AATA should continue to work on everything in the 30-year vision. “We’re looking at what we can do when,” Bernstein said. Planning for rail would continue at the staff level, he ventured.

Kerson agreed with Bernstein, saying it’s a matter of communicating. The potentials for rail should be included in the AATA’s planning scenarios, he said. When the Ann Arbor city council was considering the four-party transit agreement, state Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-53) addressed the council, Kerson said, and told councilmembers said Ann Arbor can’t control what Lansing does, but Ann Arbor can control what Ann Arbor does.

Sue Gott added to Kerson’s remarks on communication. The theme she felt could be highlighted is that there are items that are “in front of us” in terms of implementation. But there are other projects that are “equally in front of us” in terms of planning, but are not yet in an implementation mode. It’s a matter of making sure the AATA is using the right language so that community expectations are managed effectively, she concluded.

Policy Discussion: Express Commuter Service

Sue Gott asked Michael Benham what the methodology was for deciding express bus services. Benham explained that staff had started with a list of options that had been considered some time ago – they’d studied origin-destination pairs. Consultants had analyzed demand for those services and selected those that appeared to have the best cost-benefit ratio.

Charles Griffith allowed that there’s some concern about the extent to which the AATA emphasizes service for those who live outside of Ann Arbor and even outside of Washtenaw County. The board’s performance monitoring and external relations committee, he reported, had a goal of minimizing the cost to citizens. For the commuter services, he continued, the AATA has achieved reductions in the amount of the local millage that’s used for the service – but there’s still a share paid out of the local millage.

Griffith pointed out there are also costs of not using the millage to help fund the commuter service: more cars on roads, more cars in parking structures and the like. Griffith said the board felt comfortable there’s some role for the AATA to play. It’s worth being thoughtful about how to characterize express bus services as the AATA continues to plan additional commuter services, he said. The cost of the express services would potentially be covered, he ventured, and part of the countywide initiative is an attempt to share costs more widely than just Ann Arbor. Griffith said he felt the role the AATA should play is to try to allocate fairly the cost of service to those who get the benefit.

By way of background, revenues for commuter express for the first half of FY 2012 (through March) showed $54,138 in passenger fares (some portion of which University of Michigan paid, for any of its employees who used the service) and $42,313 in state operating assistance – for a total of $96,451. Expenses for commuter express over that period were $138,053, leaving a total of $41,602 that was covered by Ann Arbor taxpayers.

Benham noted that the five-year program’s differential fares, based on geographic zone, are a part of the attempt to allocate costs fairly.

Eli Cooper recalled that when the board initially considered implementing the Chelsea commuter express service, one of the board members at that time had suggested that it needed to be self-funded. Cooper had argued that the fares needed at least to be competitive with the cost of driving and parking. The good news, he said, is that there’s more room in the cost equation for commuter service as potential riders compare costs – because “the cost of dinosaurs” (i.e., gasoline) is 2-3 times higher now than it was then. But Cooper noted a limit as to how high the fares can go on commuter service.

Cooper then highlighted why the conversation in Ann Arbor includes commuter service. The fact is, he said, that 70,000 workers commute to jobs into Ann Arbor every day. He repeated that fact for effect. Of those 70,000 people, 95% arrive in a car, he said. That causes huge expenses – parking spaces at $50-60,000 per parking space. That cost is not borne by commuters, but by the community. On top of that, there’s the congestion and the time lost because of competition for that “fleeting space.”

Locally, it’s not feasible to knock down buildings where employees work, in order to widen roads, Cooper said. And there aren’t significant state and federal funds to widen roads like M-14 or I-94, he said. So, Cooper concluded, it might be for the greater good of the community that ways are found for people to travel in groups of 50-70 people (i.e., on buses), instead of filling up lanes on the freeway and streets and creating a need to construct expensive parking structures. It’s 70,000 commuters today, but the city of Ann Arbor is planning based on tens of thousands of new employees in the next 30 years. Commuter express, he said, is an economic tool.

Gott wanted to know if “cost avoidance” is being factored in by calculating actual dollars. That’s an area the AATA could look at added data, she suggested. Benham indicated that cost-benefit analysis had been done in connection with the transit master plan, but it had been done on a fairly high level. He felt more detail could be achieved.

Outlook: Uncertainty, Optimism

Board chair Jesse Bernstein summarized his view of where things stood – in the context of the wide-ranging policy discussion, as well as a previous presentation from AATA community outreach coordinator Sarah Gryniewicz.

Outlook: Uncertainty

Gryniewicz had noted that the AATA has been working across jurisdictional boundaries. If and when the countywide process moves forward and local funding is approved, the board would need to work on a transition process, she said. That involves transitioning the board, its assets and its various committees, including the local advisory council.

As the district advisory committees give their recommendations and refinements are made and different communities decide whether to participate, adjustments will need to be made.

By way of background, if a municipality that has thus far participated in the process were to withdraw, that would reduce costs, because service would not be extended to that area. But it would also reduce revenues, because the additional funding such an area would otherwise contribute (property millage or vehicle registration fee) would not be collected. For example, on May 8 Northfield Township voted 5-1 to rescind the inter-local agreement under which it had been participating in the northeast district and the U196 board.

Ultimately, Gryniewicz said, the funding question will come to the AATA board and the U196 board. As the two entities get closer to the final five-year program and the AATA gets updates from the legislature, the financial advisory task force can be reconvened as appropriate, she said.

Right now there are two main funding options that might be available. The one that is currently available is a property millage. The five-year program currently would require the equivalent of an 0.05 mill tax countywide, she said. She compared that to the rough equivalent of the recently successful technology bond approved in the May 8, 2012 election by voters in the Ann Arbor Public Schools district.

The second option – a motor vehicle registration fee – would still need state enabling legislation, Gryniewicz said. She said the AATA is working with the governor’s office and the state legislature to make sure that option also works for the AATA. At the Ann Arbor district advisory committee meeting held on May 14 at the Malletts Creek library, Bernstein had identified Republican state Sen. Tom Casperson – who represents Michigan’s 38th district and chairs the senate transportation committee – as a legislator with whom he and AATA CEO Michael Ford were working directly. Bernstein also indicated at the May 14 DAC meeting that they were working closely with Gov. Rick Snyder, who lives in Washtenaw County.

Gryniewicz sketched a legislative update on the federal level, saying that the U.S. Congress is still working on a transportation bill. The main debate, she said, does not seem to be about transit, but rather about the Keystone Pipeline and job creation. But on the transit end, it’s encouraging, she said, and Michigan’s legislators are working hard to ensure that transit funding is maintained and that there’s room for growth.

At the state level, several transit-related policy items are being discussed, she said. One of the main sets of bills involves changes to Act 51, she said. Right now it looks like all local transit authorities – like the AATA – would be able to maintain their current state operating monies. A separate fund would be established for higher-capacity transit, like rolling rapid transit (aka bus rapid transit) or connectors. The AATA will continue to work with the state, she said, on developments that related to the regional transit authority (RTA) bill. The governor’s office and other legislators, she said, have been very supportive of the AATA’s efforts to develop the transit master plan (TMP) and are fully aware of the AATA’s planning efforts.

The RTA legislation would establish the possibility of a four-county area as a regional transit authority: Washtenaw, Wayne, Macomb, and Oakland counties. For more detail on the possible RTA legislation, see Chronicle coverage: “Michigan Regional Transit Bills Unveiled.” At the May 14 DAC meeting, Bernstein had talked about the possibility that Washtenaw County could be separated out from the other three counties – a possibility that has not yet been formally introduced in the state legislation. Bernstein felt that if the legislature did not act before the summer recess at the end of June, the issue would not be taken up until the “lame duck” session after the November election.

Outlook: Optimism

At the board’s May 16 retreat, Bernstein said the most important thing is funding. If through “some horrendous outcome” the federal programs supporting transportation don’t continue, then the AATA would be in a very different position than it is now. The AATA board has a policy that the AATA won’t do anything that is not funded, he said.

AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein

AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein.

Bernstein felt that the AATA is well-positioned, no matter what. The AATA could remain an Act 55 transit authority and continue to deliver services. But there’s a well-thought-out plan to change to an Act 196 authority, he said, adding that he saw the AATA moving ahead without any reservations.

If there is another option of having a regional transit authority, and another funding option based on vehicle registration fees, the AATA is in position to take advantage of that, he said. Whichever way the wind blows, the AATA is positioned to go any direction that situation leads them, he said. The reality, Bernstein allowed, is that without more revenue, AATA will remain an Act 55. But the AATA won’t give up on its 30-year vision – the AATA would accomplish the vision the best it can. Bernstein concluded his remarks with a lot of praise for the AATA staff.

New Service Initiatives: Vanpools

The board was briefed on the status of a number of initiatives the AATA has been working on. One of them is the entrance of AATA into the vanpool market. Vanpools are essentially a group of people who are provided a vehicle, and charged a price for the use of that vehicle so they can drive to work together.

AATA’s planned entrance into the vanpool services market comes in the context of the discontinuation of the Michigan Dept. of Transportation’s MichiVan program. AATA’s strategy is essentially to step in and provide an alternative to MichiVan – as the vehicles currently being used reach the end of their useful life. So AATA intends to add those already existing vanpools to its operations. The University of Michigan has around 90 such vanpools. On Sept. 15, 2011, the AATA board authorized a contract with VPSI to provide vanpool services, and on Jan. 19, 2012, the board authorized the purchase of up to 25 vans to provide the vanpool service.

During an update on board initiatives that started last year, community relations manager Mary Stasiak laid out the sharing of responsibility between VPSI and AATA for the vanpool service. VPSI handles maintenance, insurance, vehicle prep, driver training, background checks, billing, and reporting. The AATA handles contract oversight, vehicle purchase and ownership, promotion, customer service, and vanpool group formation.

The fleet is currently seven and they’re currently having decals put on. Right now, the purchased vehicles are being stored at the dealership at no cost. Stasiak expected those vehicles to be put into service quickly. The rates charged to riders, she said, are expected to cover costs. The rates are different depending on whether the trip origin and end are both in Washtenaw County. For start and end in Washtenaw County, the minimum number of riders in a pool of four plus the driver is charged at $99 per rider. For 5-6 riders plus a driver, that per-rider cost drops to $79 per rider. Outside of Washtenaw County, the respective rates for different numbers in the vanpool are $139 and $119. In all cases, the vanpool driver’s cost is zero.

Vanpools: Software

The board considered a five-year contract totaling not more than $125,000 with Ecology & Environment Inc. for rideshare and vanpool matching software. The software will be paid for using existing and anticipated federal funds, provided to the AATA through the Congestion Mitigation/Air Quality (CMAQ) program.

According to a staff memo accompanying the resolution, a requirement of the software is that it must be accessible through standard Internet appliances, and provide instant, accurate online ride‐matches through detailed map information presented to the end‐user. It must also integrate with social networking services such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+.

Vanpools: Software – Public Comment

During his first turn at public comment, Thomas Partridge mentioned the vanpool software contract. He told the board he was there as an advocate for residents of Washtenaw County who need and deserve public transportation. He said he was a long-time and constant advocate for conversion of AATA to a countywide system. He was there to advance that cause on behalf of those people whose interests don’t appear on the agenda. There are multi-year contracts that favor people with jobs, he said, alluding to the vanpool software item. The beneficiaries of that are well-paid UM health system employees, he contended, and there were no corresponding improvements in senior and handicapped services.

Vanpools: Software – Board Deliberations

Anya Dale sought clarification about ownership of the software. Staff indicated that it was a licensing arrangement, not a purchase. Board chair Jesse Bernstein said he wanted to hear somebody say that the cost includes all updates and upgrades. Community relations manager Mary Stasiak told Bernstein that was the case – unless the AATA makes requests for custom functionality.

Eli Cooper indicated he’d vote in support of it. He noted that 20 years ago, when he’d worked in the field, vanpools and transit were seen as competitors. With that background, he said, he supported the AATA’s entry into the vanpool market as movement in a positive and progressive direction.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the vanpool and ride-matching software.

New Service Initiatives: Airport Service

AATA deputy director Dawn Gabay gave the board an update on the recently launched AirRide service, which provides service between Ann Arbor and the Detroit Metro Airport. Gabay described how the AATA had negotiated with Michigan Flyer on the public-private contract,  which provides 12 daily roundtrips between Ann Arbor and the airport. [Key to the economics of the service is the fact that the Detroit Metro Airport is not assessing an entrance fee to the AirRide service – because the Michigan Flyer buses are operating under the auspices of the AATA. Public transit is not charged an entrance fee, but private operators must pay an entrance fee.]

The promotional fares will end on July 30, Gabay said. She  described various discounts for seniors and children. She also described the other partners with whom the AATA is working on the service, including the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority. The DDA has arranged for passengers on AirRide to park at the  Fourth and William parking structure for $2 for up to 2 weeks. The Kensington Court hotel, a stop on the AirRide service, is providing parking at a rate of $2/day for up to three weeks. Detroit Metro Airport has allowed wayfinding signs (that indicate public transit) and has assigned AirRide a designated bus stop. The  Ann Arbor Convention and Visitors Bureau, Michigan Flyer and the University of Michigan have also helped promote the service, Gabay said. She provided the first four weeks of ridership statistics.

AATA ridership on the Detroit Metro Airport to Ann Arbor service: Weeks 1-4

AATA ridership on the Detroit Metro Airport to Ann Arbor service: Weeks 1-4 (Image links to higher resolution file.)

During subsequent board discussion, Roger Kerson related an anecdote about his own experience with the service. He said it was terrific – the pickup from the Kensington stop was on time. On his return trip, he changed his plans and did not get on the bus he’d reserved – and he received a call saying, “You didn’t meet the bus at your spot, so when can we pick you up instead?” Kerson concluded that the level of service that’s being provided is really excellent.

The fact that the ridership has doubled over four weeks shows that this is a service that can work, he ventured. What causes him concern, he said, is that he doesn’t see “AATA” or “The Ride” anywhere in the signs at the airport. It says “public transit.” So as the AATA looks to expand the service generally, he wanted to have the AATA brand on it somewhere. Given that the name of the AATA might be different very soon, that might not be easy to change, but he felt that on the AirRide website at least, it should be clear that it’s the AATA that’s getting you to the airport.

New Service Initiatives: Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Work

A desire for an increase in frequency of service was a highlight of a recent on-board survey that included 2,824 riders. [.pdf of survey report] Increased frequency is being implemented as part of a workforce transportation initiative on Route #4 between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.

Route #4 performance since implementation of increased frequency of service.

Route #4 performance since implementation of increased frequency of service.

Chris White, AATA manager of service development, gave the board an update on the impact on ridership of the Route #4 service, since the frequency was doubled in February, to run every 5-10 minutes during peak times and every 10-20 minutes midday. Part of the implementation was to develop two variations on the route. Unchanged on Route #4 is the section  between the downtown Ypsilanti Transit Center westward to Geddes and Washtenaw. But now, half the buses go to the University of Michigan and the others go to the central campus. White explained that this route variation cuts eight minutes off the round trip of every bus, without reducing service levels at the UM hospital.

So the strategy has spread the ridership load. The impact has been beyond what the AATA expected, White said, even though the location of the route hasn’t changed. Ridership systemwide was already up about 5-7%, but since implementation of the increased frequency on Route #4, he said, the increase in ridership on that route has been 20-25%. White said he’s anxious to see how ridership continues to change on the route.

On-time performance on Route #4 since implementation of increased frequency of service.

On-time performance on Route #4 since implementation of increased frequency of service.

On-time performance has also improved significantly on that route, partly due to the fact that the buses are not as crowded. White explained some amount of increased ridership was expected – because that’s typically what happens. But typically, the impact is not seen the next day, because it takes a certain period for riders to adjust and become aware of the availability of increased frequency. The increased ridership the AATA has seen on the route, he said, reflects that there’s a lot of latent demand in that corridor.

Another initiative related to workforce transportation is the expansion of the geographic area served by the AATA’s NightRide service. NightRide is a demand-response service that’s offered when the regular fixed-route bus service stops running, and on holidays. Passengers have a similar experience to ordering a taxi; the standard fare is $5. The cost is high enough so that it does not really attract a lot of casual riders, White explained. Work transportation is the predominant use.

Inreased Ridership on NightRide service since geographic expansion of service area.

Increased ridership on the NightRide service since geographic expansion of its service area.

White explained that the service was limited to the city of Ann Arbor when it was first offered in 1983. In April of 2011, the geographic are was expanded as far east as Golfside Road.

That had not resulted in a significant ridership increase, White reported. But in January 2012, the service area was expanded to Ypsilanti, and that had a significant effect.

The expanded NightRide service is being funded by a federal Job Access and Reverse Commute (JARC) grant. Board member David Nacht asked when the JARC grant ran out. White explained that it’s a continuing funding source. However, White said, it would be his preference to find a different way to fund the roughly $23,000 cost long-term, and to use JARC to fund new initiatives.

New Service Initiatives: E. Medical Center

A status update on another new initiative was the extension of the AATA’s A-Ride service to a location outside Ann Arbor – to the University of Michigan’s East Ann Arbor Health Center (EAAHC), starting last year on July 1, 2011.  The university and the AATA share the cost of trips from Ann Arbor, White said. UM pays the entire cost of trips from outside Ann Arbor.

Usage of the A-Ride service is about what the AATA predicted, White said. About 17% of the rides are for passengers who use wheelchairs.

Other Initiatives: Bus Shelters

The board was briefed in moderate detail on a number of other initiatives that are not covered in this report. They include the reconstruction of the downtown Ann Arbor Blake Transit Center, the bus garage expansion on South Industrial Highway at the AATA headquarters, development of the new AATA website, and bus stop improvements.

One news item from the presentation on bus stop improvements related to the technical problem of transmitting real-time arrival information to the lighted signs at the University of Michigan central campus transit center. That looks to have been solved, and might be implemented sometime over the summer.

One voting item that related to the general program of bus stop improvements was a contract with Duo-Gard Industries to provide shelters at stops. The $390,000 contract is to manufacture and install around 60 bus shelters and 126 benches over a three-year period. There’s an option to extend the contract twice, for a year at a time. The AATA expects to use existing and future federal and state grant funds to pay for the shelters.

During the brief board deliberations on the item, Eli Cooper said he recalled when the AATA approved its first contract with Duo-Gard, it was a local vendor that made exciting new shelters. “We’ve seen them, we love them, we’re going to get more of them,” he said. Cooper also noted that Duo-Gard was the low bidder.

Outcome: The board unanimously approved the contract with Duo-Gard.

Budget Update

The budget approved on Sept. 15, 2011 by the AATA board expected to tap the fund reserve for around $1 million in a $30.4 million expense budget. The board characterized it as a calculated risk to fund some of the service initiatives on which the board was briefed at the May 16, 2012 retreat.

At the retreat, AATA controller Phil Webb briefed the board on the status of the budget. Through March (midway through the AATA fiscal year) the AATA is about $573,000 under budget. Factors contributing to that, Webb said, included the fact that the budget provided for an earlier launch of the AirRide service. The educational expenses associated with the transit master plan (TMP) have been less than anticipated. And finally, some staff positions have been vacant for part of the year.

Webb said he felt that depending on revenues, it might be possible to break even for the year, or have a small surplus. The variable, Webb said, is the cost of the education effort associated with the TMP.

Public Commentary

AATA board meetings provide two chances for public participation – one near the beginning and another at the end, each time limited to two minutes. The first session is meant to be restricted to agenda items. Commentary not otherwise included above is reported here.

Thomas Partridge said he was there as a declared candidate for the state of Michigan’s house of representatives 53rd District (a spot currently held by Democrat Jeff Irwin). His platform includes countywide, regionwide and statewide interconnected public transportation. He advocated that the board adopt the concept of integrated services – in terms of those people needing services the most, in terms of access to affordable housing,

Partridge told the board he was there to speak frankly. Many candidates for public office like to go before the public with smiling faces and gloss over serious problems. The AATA board needs to address the issue of connecting with the public, he said. He complained about the length of that day’s session, which prevented people from staying through the whole session. Partridge also objected to the fact that the meeting was being held in a venue where it was not videotaped for broadcast on Community Television Network (CTN).

Present: AATA board members Charles Griffith, David Nacht, Jesse Bernstein, Eli Cooper, Sue Gott, Roger Kerson, Anya Dale.

Next regular meeting: Thursday, June 21, 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
    May 23, 2012 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    Thank you for the detailed account of this meeting.

    Is their any update on the ACLU lawsuit against the AATA over the “Boycott Israel” ad?

    I noticed earlier there was a quote in a prior article as to the legal fees and costs being incurred by the AATA as of the end of December 2011 to defend this proceeding in United States District Court. Is there an updated amount?

    I understand the AATA only realizes about $80,000.00 per annum from bus advertising and am aware that two outside private law firms have been retained as well as a U-M business professor expert witness to help the city keep “Boycott Israel” off city buses.

    I see the AATA’s defense of this suit as a colossal waste of taxpayer monies and ascetaining the level of current expenditures for outside legal services is material in determining at what point the general public will concur that spending further taxpayer funds in defending this suit is not in the public interest.

  2. May 24, 2012 at 7:55 am | permalink

    This is pretty good news. More frequent and faster service on the 4, more bus shelters, and airport service are all things I thought I’d never see in my lifetime.

  3. May 24, 2012 at 8:55 am | permalink

    Re: [1] Lawsuit status update.

    There’s nothing new in the case history as of this morning. As we reported previously as a part of April 19, 2012 board meeting report, there was no ruling from the bench on the April 19 motion hearing. Since then, there was a status conference on May 10.

    The roughly $80,000 per year as net ad revenue is accurate. From back in February, when we looked at this, it appears that the use of taxpayer funds is limited to the $50,000 deductible. At that time AATA controller Phil Webb wrote the following:

    [As of Feb. 21, 2012 ]AATA has paid one invoice for $5,963.90 to the legal firm of Maddin Hauser Wartell Roth & Heller of Southfield for services up through December 31, 2011. This firm was selected by the Chartis Insurance Company. We have a “Public Official and Employment Practices Liability Policy” with an aggregate liability of $2,000,000 and a deductible for $50,000 with Chartis. Therefore, our exposure is the $50,000 deductible.

    So it appears to me that the waste-of-taxpayer-money argument centers on the $50,000 deductible. That’s not a trivial amount of money. I don’t have a ballpark number for AATA bus driver compensation, but I’d guess that $50,000 translates to salary and benefits for a bus driver for the better part of a year. The same observation applies, though, to the $80,000 in bus ad revenue. It’s a drop in the bucket in a $30 million annual budget. Still, it’ll pay for some non-trivial amount of transportation.

    In any case, I think the board has essentially already made its decision – it’s willing to spend the $50,000 to get a decision from the courts. And the ACLU, I think it’s fair to say, doesn’t pick cases to resolve specific disputes, but rather to make broader, precedent-setting points. In other words, I don’t think the ACLU is involved because they’re interested in getting a resolution only to this specific AATA dispute on bus advertising. They’re looking to establish a precedent, that would guide future advertising practice for transit agencies and other public entities across the country. So my best guess is that it’ll just grind its way through the legal process.

  4. June 2, 2012 at 7:08 am | permalink

    Update on the proposed Regional Transit Authority (four-county metropolitan Detroit RTA): the legislative session ended without action in either the state Senate or House on the related bills.

    In the U.S. Congress, action on the transportation bill is stalled. The Senate has passed a bill (called MAP-21) but the House has major differences. It is not on the House summer calendar. SAFETEA-LU, the current bill under which public transit measures are funded, expires July 1. More information here: [link]

    In my opinion, AATA should guard its finances carefully. It should not continue to expend additional money on the assumption that a new revenue source will soon be available. Given their recent history, I am concerned about the creation of a new, less accountable Act 196 authority at a time when transportation policy at both state and national levels is in such a flux.