City Council Action Focuses on Transit Topics

Train station, countywide transit authority, sidewalk repair

Ann Arbor city council meeting (June 4, 2012): Transportation was the dominant theme of the meeting, as the council took action on items related to the possible development of a new train station in Ann Arbor. The council also took another step toward a possible transition of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to a geographically wider governance and service area.

Christopher Taylor, Stephen Kunselman, Eli Cooper

From left: Christopher Taylor (Ward 3), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), and city of Ann Arbor transportation program manager Eli Cooper. (Photos by the writer.)

First, the council accepted the award of a roughly $2.8 million federal grant to help fund a site-alternatives analysis for possible construction of a new train station. That analysis is meant to result in the confirmation of a locally-preferred alternative to be reviewed by the Federal Rail Administration.

The grant requires a local match of roughly $700,000, which the city expects to make with funds it has already expended – in connection with the Fuller Road Station project, before the University of Michigan withdrew its participation earlier this year. Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2) voted against accepting the grant.

One of many concerns expressed by Lumm was that the study would not be conducted starting with a “clean sheet,” which city transportation program manager Eli Cooper acknowledged was the case. But Cooper observed that starting with a clean sheet would mean wiping away previous work that had already been done.

Some of that work has been completed by SmithGroup JJR. At its June 4 meeting, the council also approved a $196,192 amendment to an existing contract with the firm – for further site analysis, funded by the new federal grant. Partly on the basis of a perceived conflict of interest by SmithGroup JJR in conducting the current work – given that it had done the previous work on site analysis – Lumm and Anglin also voted against that contract amendment as a two-person minority.

Lumm and Anglin were joined by Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) in voting against a revised agreement among four parties that establishes a framework for possibly creating a larger transportation authority. The four parties to the agreement are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority. In conjunction with reconsidering the four-party agreement, the council also approved articles of incorporation for the new Act 196 transit authority that would eventually need to be filed by Washtenaw County – on request from the AATA – in order to establish a new governance structure.

The council had previously approved the four-party agreement on March 5, 2012. The need for the Ann Arbor city council to reconsider the documents arose after the Ypsilanti city council amended those documents before approving them on May 15. On a unanimous vote, the Ann Arbor city council accepted only those amendments made by the Ypsilanti city council that affected the city of Ypsilanti. The Ann Arbor council majority gained one vote from its 7-4 approval of the agreement in March – Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) switched her earlier position and voted for it. The following day, on June 5, the Ypsilanti city council reconsidered and adopted the version of the four-party agreement that had been approved by the Ann Arbor council.

The result of the action by the two councils is an agreement that the cities will treat their transit taxes differently with respect to a municipal service charge. The city of Ann Arbor will impose the charge and keep roughly $90,000 that would otherwise go to the new transit authority, while Ypsilanti will forward an estimated $3,000 to the new transit authority, rather than applying that charge.

The four-party agreement will next be formally considered by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – first at a June 14, 2012 working session. It now appears almost certain that the final ratification of all parties to the agreement will not occur with sufficient lead time for a countywide transit millage to be placed on the November 2012 ballot.

In other transportation-related action – affecting pedestrians – the council gave final approval to a revision to the city’s sidewalk repair ordinance. The ordinance revision relieves property owners of responsibility for sidewalk maintenance, during the five-year period of the millage that voters approved for that purpose in November 2011. The revision also provides a mechanism for the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to pay for sidewalk repairs within its geographic district.

In other business, the council gave final approval to new water, sewer and stormwater rates. It also revived a previous requirement that it had rescinded last year – that a construction utility board (CUB) agreement be signed with the Washtenaw County Skilled Building Trades Council as a condition of award for city construction contracts. The council had rescinded the requirement in deference to a law enacted by the Michigan legislature, but a federal court has since enjoined against enforcement of that law.

In some of its other action items, the council formally made a change in the composition of the Elizabeth Dean tree fund, and authorized two street closings for the Sonic Lunch summer music series in Liberty Plaza. The council also heard public commentary on a range of topics, including a proposed warming center for the homeless.

Federal Rail Administration Grant

The council considered action on two items that relate to a possible new train station for the city of Ann Arbor. The first was acceptance of a grant made through the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT). The grant would fund initial planning and environmental documentation related to possible construction of what’s now called the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station. The contract for the work is being funded with a federal grant worth $2,806,400 with a required 20% local match of $701,600. The grant was awarded by the Federal Rail Administration in connection with the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) program.

City administrator Steve Powers (left) chats with University of Michigan community relations director Jim Kosteva before the meeting. Kosteva was not attending the meeting in connection with the rail project, but to receive an award on behalf of the university from the city's historic district commission for the university's Burton Tower.

City administrator Steve Powers (left) chats with University of Michigan community relations director Jim Kosteva before the city council’s June 4 meeting. Kosteva was not attending the meeting in connection with the rail project, but to receive an award on behalf of the university from the city’s historic district commission for Burton Tower.

A conceptual pre-cursor to the project was called the Fuller Road Station, which had included the University of Michigan’s participation. UM was interested in a 1,000-space parking structure to be built in conjunction with a new rail station on an identified site nestled between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive, adjacent to the UM medical campus. However, UM withdrew from that project earlier this year, on Feb. 10. The university decided instead to revisit its earlier plans to build additional parking on Wall Street.

For purposes of the federal local match requirement, Ann Arbor now intends to use funds already expended toward the former Fuller Road Station project – for conceptual planning, environmental documentation efforts and some preliminary engineering. Over the past three years, the city has paid for that work from its major street fund, alternative transportation fund, and the previously existing economic development fund.

The city also hopes that UM will contribute toward the costs of the work already done. However, the city’s FY 2013 budget, approved by the council at its May 21 meeting, allocates up to $307,781 from the city’s general fund to cover the local match, if an agreement with UM can’t be reached. Responding to recent Chronicle queries, city administrator Steve Powers and UM community relations director Jim Kosteva have characterized the conversations between the city and the university on this topic as “ongoing dialogue.”

The grant was the subject of public commentary from several people.

FRA Grant – Public Commentary

Sumi Kailasapathy told the council she regretted that some of the city’s cherished parkland appears to be taking one more step toward conversion to a railway station and parking garage [a reference to the Fuller Road site]. She described how in many Asian countries, temple lands are considered sacred. In Ann Arbor, for many residents, parks hold a similar sacred status, she said. [Kailasapathy is a Democratic candidate for the Ward 1 city council seat – to which incumbent Sandi Smith has announced she's not seeking re-election.]

Kailasapathy noted that while parkland is one of the permissible uses for land zoned PL (public land), it’s the only use that has a limitation on incompatible uses, she said.

By way of background, at its July 6, 2010 meeting, the city council approved a change to the use regulations for PL (public land) to replace airports as an allowable use with the more general “transportation facilities.” The change explicitly included “municipal airports, rail stations, bus stations, bicycle centers, auto and bicycle parking facilities” as examples of such facilities.

Kailasapathy reminded the council that the city’s zoning ordinance states: “No structure shall be erected or maintained upon dedicated parkland which is not customarily incidental to the principal use of the land.”

The Fuller Road site is designated as parkland in the parks and recreation open space (PROS) plan, she said, adding that a train station would not be customarily incidental to the principal use of that land. She asked the council to respect the zoning ordinance and preserve the site as it was intended – for enjoyment as parkland. Adopting other uses for parkland without a vote of the people, she continued, is in direct opposition to the charter amendment passed by a large margin of voters in 2008, which prohibits the sale of parkland without a popular referendum.

From an economic and financial point of view, Kailasapathy said, there needs to be a detailed business plan for a train station, which lays out the funding mechanism for the station and the trains. Until there are answers in writing to those questions, she said that spending on the train station should stop.

Jack Eaton told the council he was there to speak in opposition to the Fuller Road train station. [Eaton is contesting the Ward 4 Democratic primary, challenging incumbent Margie Teall.] He noted that Ann Arbor residents have repeatedly and consistently supported parkland. They approved dedicated millages for park acquisition and maintenance. They approved a charter amendment that restricts the sale of parkland. The city’s zoning ordinance restricts the use of parkland. He reiterated the point about allowable uses of parkland that Kailasapathy had made, regarding structures on parkland that are not customarily associated with a parcel’s principal use. The city also has a long history of supporting public transportation, he said. But a train station is not consistent with parkland use, and he asked the council to consider the precedent that would be set by re-purposing the parkland at the Fuller site for use as a train station.

Nancy Shiffler addressed the council as chair of the Huron Valley Group of the Sierra Club. She noted that she’d sent a letter with concerns about the two resolutions related to what’s now being called the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station. By appearing before the council, she wanted to reinforce those concerns about the process outlined for the environmental assessment, which is a component of the Federal Rail Administration grant, and is required under National Environmental Policy Act guidelines. Although NEPA regulations require that contractors be chosen to avoid any conflict of interest, the selection of SmithGroup JJR introduces just such a conflict, she contended. SmithGroup JJR has been contracted for the train station project from the outset – with the assumption that it will be located at the Fuller Road site.

The preliminary engineering component, for which SmithGroup JJR is contracted for, she said, can’t start until the environmental assessment has been approved by the FRA. The scope of work in the contract for SmithGroup JJR’s work makes clear that the intent is to end up with a recommendation for the Fuller Road site, she said. One of the deliverables, she continued, includes a finding of no significant impact (FONSI) for the Fuller Road site. Under those circumstances, she said, it’s hard for her to believe that SmithGroup JJR could produce an objective report. A part of the environmental assessment is consideration of alternative sites for the project – that’s reflected by including, in the scope of services document, the current Amtrak site as a possible location.

But elsewhere it’s indicated that they’re planning to take the structures with the footprint for the Fuller Road site and “plop it onto the current Amtrak site,” she said, rather than designing a plan to fit that particular site. That’s not the way to support an objective analysis, she said, unless the council’s intent is to support a forgone conclusion. The council should require that competitive bidding be used for the contract, she said. Her group has shared these concerns with MDOT and FRA in the past and would continue to do so.

Rita Mitchell spoke on behalf of the group Protect A2 Parks. She described herself as an advocate for the integrity of Ann Arbor’s public parks and honest processes that follow the will of the people on significant decisions for the city, like those before the council that night. She felt the council did not have adequate information to make a decision. She noted that the name of the project has changed from Ann Arbor Multimodal Center, to Fuller Intermodal Transit Station, to Fuller Road Station, to its current name: Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station. In the course of different council actions taken over the last few years, those described as stakeholders, city councilmembers and city staff have focused on the same piece of city parkland – for a project that has not been completely defined or approved by the council. She pointed to the city project that relocated sewer lines to accommodate a planned station there – for whatever rail project it is.

Mitchell allowed that the sewer relocation had been included in the city’s capital improvements plan, but it had not been a high priority at the time it was approved. The invitation to bid was entitled “Contract Documents for Fuller Road Station Phase One, Northside Interceptor Sanitary Sewer Relocation and Site Utility Construction Project.” SmithGroup JJR has been involved with the design since the start and is biased, Mitchell continued. The public participation so far, she said, consisted of a planning commission work session, a park advisory commission meeting and a public open house – all held between Sept. 10 and Sept. 17 of 2009. She questioned whether those meetings were adequately noticed. She contended that there’s been only one true “public hearing” – held by the planning commission in 2010. Other presentations were held as presentations, with city staff maintaining tight control on questions from citizens, she said. There was no sense of asking citizens what they wanted.

James D’Amour told the council that he is very much in support of public transit, including trains that run to Chicago. He contended that city transportation program manager Eli Cooper has stressed that acceptance of the grant means the city is obligated to carry out a full planning process. So a yes vote, D’Amour argued, strongly commits the city to build a new train station. But the city has no finalized plans for construction or financing, he said. The FRA grant funding doesn’t add to the city’s budget. D’Amour contended that voting yes commits the city to matching 20% of this grant and whatever grants are received from the federal government in the future. Because the city has no guarantees of future funding, the city would be left “holding the bag,” he contended. Voting no costs the city nothing financially, he said. He called it reckless for the council to make this decision without further thought about the consequences. He asked the council to postpone a vote.

FRA Grant: Council Deliberations

During the time allotted for council communications toward the start of the meeting, Mike Anglin (Ward 5) responded to the commentary on the rail station by saying he was impressed with speakers who had taken the time to learn about the issues. They had good suggestions about how to proceed as a council. The speakers love the city as councilmembers do, he said. While some of the things they said might not be technically correct, they are the people that the council represents, he said. The council needs to be conscious of that and be respectful of their position and their interest in improving Ann Arbor, Anglin concluded.

FRA Grant: Council Deliberations – Commitment?

When the council arrived at the FRA grant agenda item, it was Jane Lumm (Ward 2) who led off the deliberations. She started by focusing on the issue that had been raised during public commentary – about the kind of commitment that the city’s acceptance of the grant reflected.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

Councilmember Jane Lumm (Ward 2).

Lumm asked transportation program manager Eli Cooper: By accepting the grant, is the city committing to proceed with the project? A second question she had: Was the city “in any way, shape or form” committing to spending any additional local money? Cooper explained that by accepting the grant, the city would be committing to the work identified in the list of deliverables under the grant. Those include a detailed work program, an environmental document, conceptual plan and preliminary engineering after the FRA’s authorization to enter into that phase of the work. So, Cooper said, there’s a break in the contract where the FRA has the right to direct the city to proceed to undertake the work under the grant agreement.

The final deliverables are a set of preliminary plans – which could complete the city’s work, if the city decided to stop at that point. There are no additional federal funds awarded to the project at this time, he said, and the city would have to apply under a separate agreement for any subsequent work. It’s not the case, Cooper said, that if you commit to spending the first dollar that you’re fully committed to build whatever project comes out of the process. He felt it would be the community’s desire and it would be in the community’s best interest to pursue subsequent grants. But by accepting the planning grant, there’s no requirement that the city is committing to deliver a final project.

Lumm picked up on Cooper’s use of the phrase “at this time” and wanted to know if that meant there’d be an eventual commitment. Cooper responded with, “The simple answer is no.” If there were no federal funds available after the planning grant-funded activity is completing, the federal agency would itself require the city to go back and revisit the environmental clearance document. The city could not be forced to proceed during the short term or at any time, he said, under the terms of accepting the $2.8 million grant.

Lumm confirmed with Cooper that currently there were no federal funds identified for the project at this point, beyond the planning grant. Cooper said the lack of identified federal funding is a risk that had been outlined in the city’s application. Lumm asked again if by accepting the grant, the city was committing to spending any additional local funds. Cooper told Lumm that there’s no additional investment required to “complete the work that’s before us.” That’s because the city has identified local in-kind funds for the match as funds that have already been expended. Lumm said she meant beyond the planning grant activity – would there be any future local funds required?

Cooper told Lumm he wouldn’t say that no future local funds would be required to deliver a train station. If the economy were in such condition that there was another federal stimulus project that provided 100% funding – like recent awards to Battle Creek and Dearborn – then Ann Arbor “might be so blessed,” he said. But Cooper indicated that if a federal grant award for the actual construction of a rail station is made under terms of the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail grant – like the current planning grant – then a 20% local match would be required. That local (non-federal) match could be made by a combination of state, city, university or the local transit authority, Cooper said.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) wanted to clarify Cooper’s answer further: By accepting this grant, she ventured, the city was not committing to going beyond the scope of the contract. Cooper’s reply: “Correct.” Briere described it as a grant, and if the city were to decide at the conclusion of the grant phase that it’s done, then the city would be done. She said it’s her understanding that unless the city receives additional federal assistance beyond this grant, the city did not expect to build anything. Cooper told Briere that there’d been no city staff recommendation to date that the city invest 100% of funds for any rail improvement.

Briere asked if it’s the city’s intent to provide any money for the maintenance and operation of a rail system. After clarifying the question, Cooper said, “The answer is no.”

FRA Grant: Council Deliberations – Spending to Date

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked if Cooper could provide a detailed breakdown of spending to date on the Fuller Road project, noting that the last information he had was from a year ago, which had been produced by the city under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The source of the funds outlined in a staff memo provided to the council before the meeting provided the following breakdown.

$  54,621 FY2010 Major Streets Fund (0021)
$  54,621 FY2010 Alternative Transportation Fund (0061)
$ 104,742 FY2010 Economic Development Fund (0045)
$ 327,733 University of Michigan Contribution
$  46,664 FY2010 Sewage Disposal System Fund (0043)
$  64,564 FY2010 Street Repair Millage Fund (0062)


Anglin appeared more interested in getting an itemized breakdown of actual expenditures to date. Cooper indicated that the spreadsheet he had in front of him showed expenditures related to NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and EA (environmental assessment) for the project amounting to $737,784.90.

Anglin said he was confused by the project, because for a time the city had talked about an intermodal facility, then talked about commuter rail and was now talking about passenger rail. The city has a train station and has had one for many years. If the city were to accept this grant, Anglin wanted to know if the requirement was to study the feasibility of potential sites. Cooper told Anglin that such a study was absolutely one of the prerequisites of any investment of federal funding – to look at the “no-build” alternative, as well as the alternative that would simply improve the existing facility.

Anglin indicated that some material the council had received described how by 2015 all Amtrak facilities will need to be ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant. He wondered why the city was in the railroad business, and he ventured that the city was not qualified to build a train station or a railroad or anything like that. He did not like the idea of any of the city’s money going in that direction.

Anglin said he’d spoken against the train station from the point of view of the use of parkland, and the lack of a financial plan. It comes at a time when the city is having a difficult time taking care of the essentials, he said. That bothered him. A train station would be a nice thing to have, if the city were in flush times. But it seemed to him that accepting the grant still commits the city to a 20% match – which the city has already spent. He said he could not ever remember a vote by the council saying that it wanted the Fuller Road site to become an intermodal station or a train station. It’s all very confusing, he said.

FRA Grant: Council Deliberations – National Rail Policy

Anglin asked Cooper to clarify what’s going on. Cooper began by saying that for transportation infrastructure funding, there are funding crises at all levels – federal, state and local. In conversation with MDOT, which has recently created an office of rail passenger service, they’ve indicated that stations are local issues, Cooper said. From the standpoint of rail operations, he continued, the emphasis and focus of the state and the feds is to keep the trains moving. Access to amenities locally (like stations) are seen as a local contribution. What Ann Arbor began in 2006 and continued through 2009, he said, was a local process that included the adoption of the city’s transportation plan update. That’s a part of the city’s master plan, he pointed out. So the city’s master plan indicates the provision of a better train station in Ann Arbor as something that merits consideration.

Because that’s a matter of adopted city policy, staff have pursued grant resources that have been made available, Cooper continued. And Ann Arbor was fortunate enough to be selected by the FRA for the grant that was before the council for consideration, he said. It’s a difficult decision, Cooper added, to deal with the day-to-day issues of today, compared to making an investment in an asset that will serve the community for “decades if not centuries.” The challenge for city staff was to respond to the council’s direction, so the grant was pursued and an application was made. Cooper noted that he’d stood before the council on many occasions in connection with the project and looked forward to the council’s future direction – through environmental analysis, preliminary engineering to the design, and construction at any location that the planning process determines.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) asked Cooper why he felt that Ann Arbor’s application to the FRA was successful when so many other communities had applied but were not successful. Cooper felt that Amtrak itself recognizes that the Ann Arbor station is the busiest in the state of Michigan. It’s also on a Detroit-Chicago line that is not adequate to meet current demands.

Amtrak ridership through Ann Arbor

Amtrak ridership at the Ann Arbor station. Over the last 10 years, ridership through the Ann Arbor station has shown a consistent increasing trend. For 2012 (heavy black line) the ridership levels continued at their peak levels to date through March. In April there was a significant decrease compared to last year’s record numbers. (Chart by The Chronicle using MDOT data. Links to larger image.)

Cooper felt it was important to remind councilmembers that the federal government has awarded $0.5 billion to the Michigan Dept. of Transportation to acquire and upgrade the rail line between Detroit and Chicago. This past April, FRA and MDOT purchase bilevel passengers cars to increase the capacity of each train. The number of people who will be traveling along the line will increase, he said. Cooper said that Amtrak expects that ridership will double over the next 25 years. We’re currently stressed, he said. It’s well recognized now that for certain times of the year, the Amtrak station capacity and all the parking around it are 100% consumed.

Cooper described how tracks are being upgraded to allow for faster trains. The number of trains could be increased – from six per day to 10 per day, and the capacity of each train is increased with higher-capacity cars and adding cars. The platforms that are outlined in Amtrak designs for appropriate stations are 1,000 feet long, Cooper said. The current Amtrak station platform is not nearly that long, he noted. The intent, he said, is to have 1,000 foot trains with passenger cars that people can get on and off for that roughly quarter-mile stretch. That’s the enormity of the type of infrastructure that a high-speed passenger rail system needs, he said. That’s the opportunity that Ann Arbor has in front of it – to position itself to continue to be a leading community that provides “first-rate, world-class transportation in and out of our city,” Cooper said.

Hohnke ventured that the investment being made by the federal government in Michigan’s high-speed rail would lead to the ability of Ann Arborites to make connections from Chicago, for example, to the rest of the Midwest.

He also asked Cooper to give some background on why the funds are available on the federal level. Cooper said he felt the issue is that there’s pressure on the national aviation system – to meet the demand for people to travel 300-600 miles throughout the country. As business and commerce increases throughout the Midwest, Cooper said, the capacity of the airspace and the road networks is limited. While it might appear that there’s adequate capacity near Kalamazoo, for example, as you approach the metropolitan corridors, there are congestion issues, he said. The rail system is seen as an underutilized asset in North America, he said, and that’s why it’s federal policy to make those investments. Cities like Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, and Minneapolis are all about 300-500 miles from each other, and high-speed rail is an efficient and effective way for travelers to cover that distance.

Hohnke confirmed that expenditures to date locally will cover the local match requirement. Cooper said it’s his understanding that based on the timing of the notice of funding eligibility, the resources that have been expended to date will satisfy the 20% local match requirement. Hohnke ventured that if that turns out to be accurate, then the city is looking at the opportunity to have almost $3 million to continue planning work for a passenger rail station. Cooper clarified that the roughly $700,000 local match will leverage $2.8 million in federal funds for a total investment of $3.5 million.

FRA Grant: Council Deliberations – Support, Opposition, Delay?

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) said she was excited about the project. As someone who goes past the train station, she encounters people who are coming and going. Right now, she said, a whole bunch of people pile out with 30-pound suitcases and they have to go up a long flight of stairs, across the Broadway bridge, and down another flight of stairs to find their car. It’s clear that the current train station is not adequate. The study will indicate what would need to be done to improve the existing station if it were to remain in the current location, Smith said. Cooper confirmed that’s within the scope of services that SmithGroup JJR will provide – whether the existing station can be modified to meet existing demand.

Smith asked about the traffic issue – would a traffic analysis be part of this? Yes, said Cooper. Smith felt that the pushback from the community on this was either unwarranted or at least premature – because we don’t know yet what the answer is going to be. Regardless, some kind of “blueprint” for the issue would emerge for a better train station, Smith said.

Cooper sought to make clear that while no final decision has been made after seven years of effort, there is a leading preferred local alternative. The council and the federal government will have to make a final decision about whether there is an acceptable locally-preferred alternative [the Fuller Road site]. There’s clearly been a substantial amount of effort, and now more work will be put into documenting that and clarifying that, meeting with residents and providing all that information to the FRA, Cooper said. And ultimately the FRA will evaluate whether the existing site or the locally-preferred alternative is better.

Smith reiterated that she is excited about the project going forward and that the city is on the verge of something great. She said she couldn’t imagine that there’s a Democrat sitting around the table who would not be excited to see this project coming out of Washington right now.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) followed up on the federal high-speed rail program. She said she understood the federal investment to be one-time federal stimulus money. Cooper indicated that the total investment had come over the course of more than one year from a combination of different funding mechanisms. Lumm asked if any of the money could be used for the construction of the train station. Cooper said that if there were money left from the planning grant, the money could be used to build something. But understanding the complexity of the final design and construction drawings, Cooper felt it was highly unlikely that the city could build anything with that amount of money.

Lumm asked Cooper about future federal transportation funding. Cooper said that was an ongoing debate – it had been going on for several years. He indicated he didn’t want to offer an opinion about how that might turn out.

Lumm wanted to know if the city had surveyed people who ride the trains. She also asked about having more robust public engagement on the issue. Cooper noted that the term “locally-preferred alternative” is one associated with the federal regulatory process. That process also includes various formal terms for the environmental documents – an environmental assessment is different from an environmental review or from an environmental impact statement. The draft preliminary locally-preferred alternative is something that needs to be given to the lead agency – in this case, the FRA – for their review and comment. There’s a draft environmental assessment that clearly states there’s a locally-preferred alternative, he said. That’s purely a city staff and consultant product, and was never reviewed by the FRA.

However, there was an effort put into that assessment to come up with that locally-preferred alternative, Cooper explained. It was subjected to about 18 meetings. He allowed that there are a variety of opinions about how effective the public engagement had been. However, he said there’s been a website set up with frequently asked questions that derived from the process. There were changes made between the initial plans and the locally-preferred alternative that came in response to input from the public, he said. The council had held working sessions on the topic and staff had done additional work based on direction from the council, he said.

Cooper said that the staff have been thorough and deliberative, and while they haven’t reached a final conclusion, they have “a leading track” of a locally-preferred alternative. The city is required to do so in order to advance the project for the review of a federal agency and that agency’s ultimate approval, he said. The first steps of this grant agreement, if the council approved it that night, would be to begin refining the existing documents so that the city can respond to concerns the FRA has outlined, and that include additional public meetings if they’re required. So it’s not on a “fast track” but rather on a “deliberative track,” Cooper said. Ultimately, the city will get a determination from the FRA about whether the intrusion into parkland for the train station is justified.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) literally don't see eye to eye on the Ann Arbor train station issue.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) literally don’t see eye to eye on the Ann Arbor train station issue.

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) said that, like Smith, he was excited about the project. Transportation is one of the essentials. He stressed that the preliminary step the council will be taking won’t bear fruit for several years. He’d asked the mayor of Dearborn how long they’d been working on the planning for the new rail station that recently broke ground, and Derezinski had been told around 12 years. Derezinski called the acceptance of the grant for Ann Arbor an essential step for the future of the city. You have to take some of these steps, he said, and you have to have some faith in the future. People of good intentions are on both sides of the issue, he said.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked Cooper if there was a deadline for accepting the grant. Cooper said there was not a deadline per se. But the preliminary environmental analysis, Cooper said, “grows older each day.” Kunselman wanted to know how long the city would have before that analysis would be considered “stale.” Cooper told him that would ultimately be up to the FRA, but that after a couple of years, he expected that would be too long. Kunselman ventured that meant the city had considerable time. Cooper countered that the preliminary analysis had been done a year and a half ago. Part of the proposal is to freshen up some of the analysis. Kunselman asked about a roundabout design for Maiden Lane and Fuller Road – would that be part of the traffic analysis? Cooper said he didn’t think so. Kunselman felt like another work session would be very helpful.

Kunselman expressed concern about the amount of money that was being paid to SmithGroup JJR. He asked if the following sentence was correct: “The not-to-exceed cost for the work associated with this amendment is estimated to be $196,192.00, and will be funded by a federal High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program Grant awarded to the State of Michigan and being made available through a contract between the City and the Michigan Department of Transportation.” He wanted to know if that money would be city dollars or federal grant dollars. Cooper explained that it would be federal grant dollars, under city control.

Kunselman’s line of questioning was abandoned as relevant to the subsequent agenda item – the resolution on the SmithGroup JJR contract. Kunselman asked if it would be possible to have another work session on the topic. Cooper said that if the city were to continue working on the project, then acceptance of the grant would allow that work to happen, with the aid of the federal grant.

Anglin said that for the original intermodal project, the council had been told there were 11 sites that had been considered and that the site selected would be the Fuller Road site. So if the city has already done that selection process, he wondered why the city was going back and looking at that question. He then discussed the train schedules and the difficulty that they present to travelers. The problem with the train is not with the train station, he said, but rather with the way the trains are scheduled. Building a new station won’t improve train service at all, he contended. He said he was afraid the city was about to embark on something that will be “a big boondoggle for our little town.” He said he was against the acceptance of the grant. He contended that the $1.3 million for the relocation of sewer pipes should be counted as an expense connected to the train station. Anglin contended that the city was committing to a $60 million project down the road, and he didn’t think the city had the money for that.

Kunselman said he was torn because he loved trains. He was looking forward to riding the train to Providence, Rhode Island to visit his daughters – who are graduating from high school this year and will attend Brown University. However, he did not like spending general fund dollars. Cooper clarified that the contract amendment with SmithGroup JJR would be federal grant dollars. Kunselman pointed out that the some of the matching funds that had already been expended originated as general fund dollars.

Ward 3 councilmembers Christopher Taylor (left) and Stephen Kunselman (right)

From left: Ward 3 councilmembers Christopher Taylor and Stephen Kunselman.

Kunselman asked if the MichCon site on Broadway would be included in the further study? Cooper indicated that the analysis would include the prevailing conditions at the time of the study. Right now, Cooper said, MichCon has not made the land immediately adjacent to the Amtrak station available. He said that as part of a design workshop, MichCon might be looked at to see if it could remedy any of the issues at that location. But that parcel was not one of the 15 sites that the city had looked at starting four years ago, he said. Subsequently, the staff reviewed privately-owned properties, and two rose to consideration – one was a private manufacturing plant, and the other was the MichCon property.

Kunselman noted that MichCon had indicated openness to selling the property to the city. Mayor John Hieftje said that his own discussions with MichCon related to the river side of the parcel, not the part close to the railroad tracks.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said two things were important to her. First, no new dollars would go to the project. By accepting this grant, the city would be able to spend federal dollars from the grant. Without accepting the grant, Briere said, the city can’t get to the point of looking at what the project might look like, or how it might be different from the project design as it looked 18 months ago, or what the impact on traffic will be, or whether the site at Fuller is the best possible site. The city is not making a commitment to build anything, she said, but everyone knows that once you’ve gone a certain distance, that you want to build whatever it is you struggled to get approved. But without spending the federal grant, she added, the city won’t get to the point of a decision about what to do if there are no funds to build the train station in a couple of years.

Briere addressed the idea that it’s unprecedented for a city to construct a train station. She assured people that it’s not unprecedented. The current station was constructed with state and local dollars, and the selection of the site grew out of a citizen and staff decision by committee. The location was selected to be next to the old historic train station, even though it had already outgrown the parking capacity, she said, because people sitting around a table like the current council romantically believed that the train station should be where it had always been. She allowed that she, too, is romantic and loved the Gandy Dancer [a restaurant in the former train station]. She’d be delighted if the city had a train station right there. But the FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] flood maps show that the entire piece of land is in the flood plain. What implications does that flood map have for potential improvements to the site? she asked. Briere figured she would not get an answer to that question unless the city accepted the grant. She said she was eager to accept the grant, but wanted to separate the grant from the location. That’s a conversation she wants as well.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) ventured that this had been the longest time the council had ever spent accepting a grant. Given that there would be no additional local dollars spent as part of accepting the grant, and that it did not reflect a commitment to build a train station, and that it preserved options going forward, it was not clear to him why the council would not accept the federal funds. Hohnke pointed to the lesson of Troy, Mich., where the local Tea Party had pressured the Troy city council to reject the offer of similar federal funds. That news was covered nationally, and Hohnke characterized the consensus view as an exercise in cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. Acceptance of the grant was an opportunity to align Ann Arbor with the federal and state investment in high-speed rail.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) just before raising a point of order about time of Jane Lumm's (Ward 2) speaking turns.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) just before raising a point of order about the length of Jane Lumm’s (Ward 2) speaking turns.

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) said her issue is what commitment the city is making by accepting the grant. She indicated that she was not satisfied with the answers she’d heard concerning the required commitment. She felt that what was needed was a “clean sheet,” starting from scratch. She would not sign a blank check, and there are too many unknowns, she said. She would not support acceptance of the grant. Sandi Smith (Ward 1) raised a point of order about the number and length of Lumm’s speaking turns. Mayor John Hieftje asked Lumm to wrap up, which she did.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said he was certainly going to support acceptance of the grant. The council has a chance to do something good for Ann Arbor by moving forward with an exciting project. Meeting transportation needs is core to maintaining Ann Arbor as a vibrant, thriving place to live. So it’s “mission-critical,” he said. Acceptance of the grant doesn’t reflect a final decision – that decision would be made later, he said. The grant is bound “by the four corners of the document,” he said. People who speak to the council in general opposition to the project never fail, Taylor said, to express their affection for rail. They say: “I’m not against rail, I’m against this project.” He said he took them at their word.

However, the corollary to that, Taylor said, is that being in favor of the project doesn’t make you “anti-park.” The Fuller Road site, he said, is not “some bucolic wonderland.” It’s not a soccer field or a tennis court or a brook, but rather a parking lot, he said, and it’s been that way since 1993. No child has played there since the Clinton administration, he said. If another location is better, then let’s look at that, said Taylor, but he’d be delighted to vote yes. [.gif animation of aerial photography of the site beginning in 1940, with the last slide from 1998]

Margie Teall (Ward 4) also indicated she is excited about this project and it needs a bigger discussion. That bigger discussion can’t happen until the city gets the information from the studies that are being done, she said.

Hieftje asked city administrator Steve Powers if acceptance of the grant would affect the city’s ability to pay for core services. No, Powers answered.

Hieftje asked about ridership on Amtrak. Cooper said it continues to move in an upward direction as the speeds along the Detroit-Chicago corridor are increasing to 110 mph. Hieftje characterized the service that Ann Arbor would eventually have as the kind of train service that other parts of the country have. Ann Arbor’s Amtrak station is the busiest in the state, he said. Referring to the city’s sustainability framework that will be coming to the council for approval, Hieftje said he didn’t know how the city would achieve those sustainability goals, without investments in rail. [.pdf of proposed sustainability goals]

Hieftje disputed the idea that the council had never voted on the project. He pointed out that the memorandum of understanding with the University of Michigan on the precursor to the current project had gotten a unanimous vote from the council. [That vote had been taken at the city council's Nov. 5, 2009 meeting.]

Outcome: The council voted to accept the Federal Rail Administration grant ($2.8 million, based on a $700,000 local match to be provided by Ann Arbor with already-expended funds) – with dissent from Jane Lumm (Ward 2) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5).

SmithGroup JJR: Rail Station Planning Work

A separate item on the council’s agenda related to money that’s provided through the Federal Rail Administration grant. The council considered a $196,192 amendment to an existing contract with SmithGroup JJR for continuation of study and planning work that was already done in connection with the Fuller Road Station project. The work under the contract will be funded from the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail (HSIPR) grant, and will involve continued “… re-examination of the current program definition to affirm it is consistent with the stakeholder goals for the Ann Arbor Rail Passenger Station Project, and revisions as required to the conceptual plan,” as well as completion of required National Environmental Policy Act documentation.

SmithGroup JJR: Rail Station Planning Work – Council Deliberations

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) expressed skepticism that the work would be approached objectively. She asked the city’s transportation program manager, Eli Cooper, how he could ensure that there’ll be an objective “clean sheet.” Cooper indicated that it was not the intent to have such a “clean sheet” and he could not assure her there would be one. He said in order to assure a “clean sheet,” the city would have to wipe away the previous work.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) engaged in a conversation about the potential depth of flood waters at the current Amtrak site. Given the length of the platforms involved [1,000 feet], Kunselman ventured that some location between the Fuller Road site and the current Amtrak location might be appropriate.

Lumm wanted to make sure that the current Amtrak location got “a fair shot.”

Asked if SmithGroup JJR had a conflict of interest, assistant city attorney Mary Fales indicated that she did not believe so.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said he was pleased that sites other than the Fuller Road site would be engaged as part of the study, and that consideration of the Fuller Road site was “not stacking the deck” but rather taking into account an already established factual basis.

Outcome: The council voted to approve the contract amendment with SmithGroup JJR, with dissent from Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Jane Lumm (Ward 2).

Four-Party Agreement

The council reconsidered an agreement among four parties on a framework for possible transition of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority to a broader geographic service area, governance, and funding base.

The four parties to the agreement are the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, Washtenaw County and the AATA. In conjunction with reconsidering the four-party agreement, the council also considered articles of incorporation for the new Act 196 transit authority. Those articles would eventually need to be filed by Washtenaw County – on request from the AATA – in order to establish a new governance structure. According to the four-party agreement, even if a new governance structure is established under Act 196 of 1986, the transition of assets from AATA to the new authority, tentatively named The Washtenaw Ride, would not take place until a voter-approved funding mechanism is established.

The council had previously approved the four-party agreement on March 5, 2012, with implied approval of the attached appendix that included the articles of incorporation. The need for the Ann Arbor city council to reconsider the documents arose after the Ypsilanti city council amended those documents before approving them on May 15.

The Ypsilanti amendment to the four-party agreement related to a 1% municipal service charge that the agreement originally allowed the two cities to impose on their transportation millages, before forwarding the millage money to the new transit authority. The Ypsilanti council struck the municipal service charge from the agreement for both cities. It amounted to around $3,000 that the city of Ypsilanti would forgo, but $90,000 for Ann Arbor.

For the most recent general Chronicle coverage of transit issues, see: “AATA Board OKs Key Countywide Documents.”

Four-Party Agreement: Public Commentary

Thomas Partridge complimented the work of those who’d been presented with awards from the Ann Arbor historic district commission – at the start of the meeting – quipping that he hoped he did not appear to be an antique himself. He told the council that he had an appreciation of history. He called on the public to support countywide transportation, saying it’s essential for moving forward economically, and it’s a civil rights issue as well. He called for support of the four-party agreement.

Four-Party Agreement: Council Deliberations

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) proposed an amendment to the four-party agreement that essentially reversed the amendments that had been undertaken by the Ypsilanti city council to the extent that they applied to the city of Ann Arbor. The impact of the amendment preserved the ability of the city of Ann Arbor to apply a 1% municipal service charge to its millage before passing along the millage proceeds to the new transit authority. The Ypsilanti council’s amendment had eliminated that for both cities. The financial impact on the two cities is disparate – because of the difference in millage rate (roughly 2 mills for Ann Arbor and 1 mill for Ypsilanti) and the relative value and amount of property in Ann Arbor compared to Ypsilanti. For Ypsilanti, the 1% translates to roughly $3,000, compared to $90,000 for Ann Arbor.

In arguing for the amendment, Lumm noted that the Ann Arbor council had essentially already voted on the issue, on Feb. 6, 2012, during its initial consideration of the four-party agreement, when it considered an amendment related to the municipal service charge.

Lumm cited an email from the city’s chief financial officer attesting to the fact that the city’ financial staff spent a considerable amount of time on transportation issues. The municipal service charge is fair, Lumm said, and that’s why it’s there. She also felt that in the future, city staff would be spending even more time – as transportation evolves regionally.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) asked Michael Ford – CEO of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority – to describe what services the AATA receives from the city that are covered by the service charge. She also asked what effect would it have on the AATA if the city did not assess the charge. Ford told Briere that the money could go into transportation service for Ann Arbor. One type of charge started in 1975, Ford said, and it was for tax assessment, billing, collections, receiving and banking. Since that time, an administrative fee has been added – for coordination and review of transportation plans and over city planning, and city clerk services related to AATA matters. Such a fee might have been appropriate when the AATA was in its infancy stages, Ford said, but his own staff now deals with transportation issues involving coordination with other jurisdictions. Those services are something that the AATA is actually doing on its own, Ford said.

Briere asked how the AATA would use the $90,000 from the municipal service charge if it were available to the AATA to spend. Ford reiterated that it could be reallocated into increased services – adding frequency to routes #4, #5, or #3, for example.

Mayor John Hieftje said he was inclined to support the amendment.

Outcome on the municipal service charge amendment: The council unanimously approved the amendment to restore the municipal service charge.

Briere clarified that by approving the four-party agreement, the council is also approving the articles of incorporation, so she encouraged her colleagues to think about whether they had any remaining questions on that document.

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) clarified with assistant city attorney Mary Fales that after the council approved the amended document, it would need to go back to the Ypsilanti city council and the AATA board as well for reconsideration and reapproval. [Ypsilanti did that the following evening, on June 5, 2012.]

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked about the agreement with Ypsilanti, noting that Ypsilanti is a vital part of the community. He noted however, that Ypsilanti is strapped financially. Outside the framework of a possible new transit authority, Anglin said he’d be willing to work with Ypsilanti to provide services. His fear was that the agreement would be putting an undue burden on Ypsilanti, which would lead to some hard decisions in the future. He wanted to keep Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti in “strong unison.” Ford responded by saying that he would not speak for Ypsilanti, but that he felt Ypsilanti was looking to provide transit service at a higher level. Route #4 [between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti] is up 20% since increasing the frequency of service. He felt that Ypsilanti thinks “this is the way to go” in partnership with Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked Ford about the purchase of service agreement (POSA) between Ypsilanti and the AATA. Kunselman noted that it expires in June 2012. Ford confirmed that is the case and said that the AATA is working with Ypsilanti on that issue. Kunselman asked Ford to elaborate on what happens when the POSA expires. If it’s extended, where will the funding come from? Ford said that Ypsilanti and the AATA are talking about that right now and would be meeting on that issue to work out some strategies.

Kunselman pressed the issue of where the money would come from – not from the city of Ypsilanti, because they don’t have the money, he said. The only source of additional funding for Ypsilanti would have to come from the Ann Arbor millage or from state funding or federal funding, Kunselman ventured. He felt like the Ann Arbor millage was the most likely revenue source and asked Ford to explain if that were an option. Ford said there are different options on the table right now and he would like to meet with Ypsilanti to discuss them.

Kunselman asked about expanded services that are to be offered – based on a possible additional 0.5 mill countywide millage. Ford indicated that as part of the new transit authority, expanded service is planned for both Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor – he pointed to higher frequency service, later evening service, and more weekend service. He passed around a brochure outlining some of the features of the improved services.

Sandi Smith Sabra Briere peruse the AATA brochure as Tony Derezinski speaks.

From left: Sandi Smith (Ward 1) and Sabra Briere (Ward 1) peruse an AATA brochure as Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) speaks.

Kunselman noted that Ypsilanti can’t pay for the level of service it enjoys now. With an additional 0.5 mill worth of revenue, that might get Ypsilanti to the point where it can cover its existing service. But if services are to be expanded in Ypsilanti, Kunselman asked, where will the money come from to cover that? Ford said that Ypsilanti’s millage and additional funding for the countywide authority would together fund Ypsilanti’s transportation, and that Ypsilanti has to make that clear to its citizens.

Kunselman came back to his question about the city of Ann Arbor millage: Is it an option that the city of Ann Arbor millage will be used to help support Ypsilanti during tough times? Ford said he’d rather talk to Ypsilanti first and find out what the options are.

Kunselman asked about ridership and revenues. Ford noted that according to a recently published USA Today report, AATA was fourth in the nation, measured by ridership increase. Kunselman also asked about discount fares that are expected to end. Ford confirmed that the new service to the Detroit Metro Airport (AirRide) has a promotional fare of $10, which will go up to $12 at the end of July. That service, Ford reported, had started off with 400 passengers a week and is now carrying over 1,000 passengers a week. Kunselman asked who is paying for long-term parking in the downtown Ann Arbor parking structures. Ford explained that through partnership with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority (which manages the city’s downtown public parking), AirRide passengers can park for two-weeks for $2 in a downtown parking structure. Kunselman elicited the fact that the AATA is not paying the DDA the difference in the regular cost. Ford characterized that arrangement as the DDA providing the AATA with the opportunity to grow the AirRide service.

Kunselman stated that he would not support the four-party agreement. He said he’d been out to Chelsea recently and he had a problem with running empty buses past that farmland. Kunselman said he was more interested in working with Ann Arbor’s immediate neighbors where there is the most density and where it makes sense to run fixed-route buses – like Ypsilanti.

The council’s subsequent deliberations unfolded along similar lines to previous discussions. Highlights included Briere’s observation that some Ann Arbor city councilmembers’ concerns about only having 7 of 15 seats on a new countywide transportation authority board were countered by worries in other communities that Ann Arbor would dominate with 7 of 15 seats. She noted that the five-year service improvement plan includes increased frequency and more weekend and evening service.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) said that the four-party agreement and the articles of incorporation lay the groundwork for intergovernmental cooperation: “You can’t have intergovernmental cooperation without intergovernmental cooperation.”

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) couched his support in terms of the importance of regional approaches to issues.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked if it’s accurate that other jurisdictions can opt out of the countywide authority. Ford confirmed that’s the case, but said the idea is to get everybody involved with an opportunity to participate. The more communities that participate, the better it is for everybody, Ford said.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) said he was hopeful that the council’s unanimous support for the amendment that night might lead to unanimous support for the whole agreement. There’s a great benefit to the city if the council speaks with a loud, clear voice. He allowed that it was a bit of a stretch to expect that those who opposed the agreement the first time around would vote for it on that basis.

Kunselman confirmed for Hohnke that it was a stretch to expect that – by ticking through some of his by-now-familiar objections.

Outcome: The council voted to approve the amended four-party agreement and articles of incorporation, with dissent from Jane Lumm (Ward 2), Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) and Mike Anglin (Ward 5). Marcia Higgins (Ward 4), who had previously voted against it, supported it this time around.

Sidewalk Repair Ordinance

The council considered final approval to a revision to the city’s sidewalk repair ordinance – in light of the voter-approved sidewalk repair millage, which passed in November of 2011.

The basic idea is that for the period of the authorized millage – through fiscal year 2016 (which ends June 30, 2017) property owners will not be responsible for repairs to sidewalks abutting the property on which they pay taxes. There are various wrinkles and contingencies in the revised ordinance for properties located within the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority tax increment finance (TIF) district.

Ann Arbor voters authorized an additional 0.125 mill to be levied as part of the street repair millage, which was also renewed at that November 2011 election for 2.0 mills, for a total of 2.125 mills.

As part of the resolution passed by the city council to place the sidewalk millage question on the November 2011 ballot, the council directed the city attorney and other staff to provide the ordinance revision for the council’s consideration on or before Dec. 1, 2011. Like the council’s deliberations on May 21, when initial approval was given for the ordinance change, they did not include any comment at the council table about why the revision came to the council nearly half a year after the date specified. Nor did discussion by the council focus on the basic purpose of the ordinance change – to ensure that property owners were not held responsible for sidewalk repairs adjacent to their property.

Instead, the focus of council deliberations was on the wrinkle of the ordinance revision that pertains to the area of the city inside the DDA district.

Sidewalk Repair Ordinance: Public Hearing

Thomas Partridge stressed that safe pedestrian transportation is very important for seniors and handicapped people.

Sidewalk Repair Ordinance: Council Deliberations

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) introduced the background of the ordinance revision by describing the purpose of the ordinance change as setting up a way to give the city responsibility for maintaining and repairing sidewalks inside the DDA district, and for the DDA to provide funding for that task. Sabra Briere (Ward 1) pointed out that funding to be provided by the DDA comes from the DDA’s TIF [tax increment finance] capture of the newly enacted city sidewalk millage.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) chats with assistant city attorney Mary Fales before the meeting.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) chats with assistant city attorney Mary Fales before the June 4 meeting.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) wanted to know if the DDA would make payments to the city after the sidewalk repairs, or if the city treasurer would withhold the money prior to disbursing the TIF capture to the DDA? Craig Hupy, interim public services area administrator, told Kunselman that he anticipated the DDA would return the tax capture of the 0.125 mill tax to the city. Kunselman asked if there’s a separate agreement between the city and the DDA to that effect – if so, he wanted to see a copy of that agreement. Hupy noted that the ordinance revision lays out the two options – either the DDA does the work, or the DDA returns the money to the city for the DDA area.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the revision to the sidewalk repair ordinance.

Water, Sewer, Stormwater Rates

The council was asked to give final approval to increased rates for drinking water, sanitary sewer and stormwater utilities. According to a staff memo, the impact of the increases on an average single-family customer comes to 3.21% across three different rate increases – assuming the same level of consumption as last year. That 3.21% increase works out to $19.40 per year.

By way of illustration of the rates, the drinking water rate for the vast majority of residential customers is tiered, based on usage. For the first 7 “units” of water, the charge is proposed to increase from $1.27 to $1.31. For the next 21 units, the charge is proposed to increase from $2.64 to $2.74 per unit. And for the 17 units after that, the increase is proposed to be from $4.50 to $4.69. For additional amounts more than 45 units, the charge is proposed to increase from $6.50 to $6.78 per unit.

One hundred cubic feet is 748 gallons. So a rate of $1.31 per unit translates to significantly less than a penny a gallon – $0.00175.

Ann Arbor’s tiered rate system was implemented in 2004. Before that, the rate for all usage levels was the same. In 2003, that was $1.97 per unit. In 2004, the lowest tier was dropped to $0.97. This year’s rate for the lowest tier is still less than what the general rate was in 2003. However, basic service charges for water and sewer service were implemented as part of the tiered system – which for the smallest size 5/8-inch meter are currently $10.57 and $11.25 per quarter, for water and sewer, respectively. The stormwater service charge is $6.77 per quarter. Those service charges did not increase this year.

[Link to Google chart illustrating the history of Ann Arbor water rates] [.jpg of chart showing history of Ann Arbor water rates] [.pdf of water, sewer rates]

Water Rates: Public Hearing

Thomas Partridge told the council that they need to come up with a formula that is progressively oriented and that does not impose undue burdens on tenants.

Water Rates: Council Deliberations

Sandi Smith (Ward 1) pressed for some explanation of how the financial incentives are set up for the stormwater discounts. By way of background, residents can get discounts to the stormwater charge – based on a formula that includes the amount of impervious surface area on their property. Residents can get discounts for various measures. By way of example, by installing one or more rain barrels, residents can get a discount of $1.96 per quarter.

Craig Hupy, interim public services area administrator, explained to Smith that the amount of the discount is based on the estimated actual reduction in the cost of services. The city has actually pushed hard to get discounts up to the current level. Smith allowed that it was a fair rationale, but she wished that the incentive would be high enough that people would actually implement those measures.

Mike Anglin (Ward 5) asked what the administrative charge covered for the stormwater fee. Hupy explained that it’s for the overflight, with infrared photography to measure impervious surface – on which the stormwater rates are based.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the new water, sewer and stormwater rates.

Dean Tree Fund Committee Changed

The council considered an item to officially eliminate the city council appointee to the Elizabeth Dean Tree Fund committee. The committee was established in 1975 to oversee the use of investment earnings from a nearly $2 million bequest made to the city by Elizabeth Dean. According to a Nov. 10, 1974 Ann Arbor News article, the bequest was made in the early 1960s to “repair, maintain and replace trees on city property.” The principal amount remains intact.

The formal elimination of the city council committee member leaves the committee with seven voting members and one non-voting member – the city’s urban forestry & natural resources planning coordinator. The city’s description of the committee indicates “No Council Rep. Based on City Council action taken on 1/6/03.” Based on city council action on that date, it appears that no councilmember was appointed when all of the council committee assignments were made. It appears that in subsequent years, the council has not had a representative on the Dean Tree Fund.

A staff memo accompanying the resolution indicates that the reason for the formal change is a desire to have an odd number of voting members and to reduce the quorum requirement for meetings from five members to four.

For fiscal year 2012, the investment income to the fund is budgeted at $85,000.

Currently, only six people are listed as members of the Dean Tree Fund committee, in the city’s Legistar system: Albert E. Gallup, Bonita D. Ross Ion, Jane Immonen, John R. Bassett, John Remsberg, and Warren Attarian.

During the brief council deliberations, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) observed that the council’s action was making official an unofficial practice. Mike Anglin (Ward 5) indicated support for having the city’s urban forestry & natural resources planning coordinator on the committee. He said there were major changes taking place with the urban forest and he hoped there would be information about that in the near future.

Outcome: The council unanimously approved the change in the composition to the Elizabeth Dean Tree Fund committee.

CUB Agreements

Last year, the Michigan state legislature passed Act 98 of 2011, which prohibited municipalities from signing construction contracts in which contractors were required make an agreement with a collective bargaining organization.

At the time, the city of Ann Arbor had such a requirement: Contractors signing construction contracts with the city had to execute a Construction Utility Board (CUB) agreement with the Washtenaw County Skilled Building Trades Council, as a condition of the contract. So on Aug. 15, 2011, in response to the state law, the city council rescinded that requirement.

However, the U.S. District Court has since found Act 98 to be unenforceable, based on the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution and the National Labor Relation Act. The court’s decision has been appealed, but currently Act 98 cannot be enforced.

So at its June 4 meeting, the council considered reinstating the CUB agreement requirement. Brief deliberations were highlighted by Jane Lumm’s (Ward 2) objections to the requirement, on philosophical and practical grounds. She pointed to similar pending legislation that might be enacted that would address the court ruling, as well as the possibility that the U.S. District Court’s ruling could be overturned.

Outcome: The council reinstated the CUB requirement, with dissent from Jane Lumm (Ward 2).

Communications and Comment

Every city council agenda contains multiple slots for city councilmembers and the city administrator to give updates or make announcements about important issues that are coming before the city council. And every meeting typically includes public commentary on subjects not necessarily on the agenda.

Comm/Comm: Warming Shelter, Community Center

Alluding to the presentation of the historic district awards at the start of the meeting, Orian Zakai told the council she hoped that 40 minutes could also be devoted to the tents of Camp Take Notice and the people who live there and who are about to be evicted. She wanted to talk about the Imagine Community project – a nonprofit organization working to open a 24-hour warming center by next winter. It would also serve as a daytime community center that is open to all. No one should sleep outside in the Michigan winter, she said, and everyone should have a space to explore their creativity. The North Main community offers very limited services, she said. She doesn’t see her group as a charitable organization, but as a hub of creative people who inspire each other and care for each other.

She said that her group’s weekly daytime creative program at the Delonis Center, a shelter at 312 W. Huron, has taught them that it doesn’t take much to bring people together through creativity – all you need is some enthusiasm, some art supplies, some musical instruments, paper and pens, and safe space.

The Imagine Community needs a space of its own, she said, and has approached the city several times about the building owned by the city at 721 N. Main. They’d been given two tours of the building and found it suitable for their intended purposes. Despite many conversations with city officials, she said, the city had informed her group that the city would not consider giving her group the space.

Mary Conway told the council that Camp Take Notice will be soon be dispersed. There are 50 residents, she said, but that number varies on regular basis. Wherever they wind up, she said, they will have needs – bathroom, a tent, a place to eat, a place to get water, a place to wash and clean their clothes. The Delonis Center, she said, can’t help many of the people at Camp Take Notice, because of drug abuse and behavioral problems. But the needs of these people need to be addressed. She said that if the city won’t make the building at 721 N. Main available, the city should at least set up port-a-johns at Liberty Plaza [a city park at the southwest corner of Liberty and Division]. There needs to be an alternative plan, she said, otherwise homeless people are going to interfere with business and tourism. The homeless are residents of Washtenaw County, she said. She said she was joined that night by two residents of Camp Take Notice who are barred from the Delonis Center. Conway invited councilmembers to read some of the poetry that had been written by members of the homeless community at “We can make them a part of our great city of Ann Arbor,” she concluded.

Alexandra Hoffman followed up on comments from Zakai on the possible use of 721 N. Main. She said she didn’t want to believe that a city would drag along a group of caring citizens in an attempt to frustrate and exhaust them. Her group was not exhausted and won’t give up, she said. She felt it was possible to turn the deserted, wasted space into an opportunity. To change homelessness, you have to change yourself, she told the councilmembers. It’s important to change the focus away from the failures of those who are homeless, she said, and rather turn attention to our communal failing – that someone doesn’t have a place to go for warmth and support.

Lilly Au disputed remarks made by mayor John Hieftje to the effect that no one was being turned away who wanted access to a warming shelter. She talked about the challenges that the homeless face in getting referred to the Dawn Farm treatment program. Right now, she said, it’s just the faith community that takes care of the homeless.

Comm/Comm: Vacancies on Boards/Commissions

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) alerted her colleagues to the fact that John German needs to be reappointed to the city’s environmental commission. There is another vacancy on that commission too, she added. [Briere serves as the city council appointee to that commission.]

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that there are still two vacancies on the taxicab board.

Comm/Comm: Crime

City administrator Steve Powers publicly congratulated the Ann Arbor police department on arrests made in connection with graffiti offenses and an armed robbery at the Broadway Party Store.

Comm/Comm: Argo Cascades

City administrator Steve Power reported that on Memorial Day, the city grossed over $72,000 between the Argo and Gallup liveries – as the city was sold out of kayaks.

Comm/Comm: South State Street Corridor

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2), who is the city council’s representative to the planning commission, reported on a retreat the commission had held recently, focused on the South State Street corridor. The city is currently engaged in a process to study the corridor, from Stimson down to Ellsworth. [For more detail on that retreat, see Chronicle coverage: "South State Corridor Gets a Closer Look"]

Present: Jane Lumm, Mike Anglin, Margie Teall, Sabra Briere, Sandi Smith, Tony Derezinski, Stephen Kunselman, Marcia Higgins, John Hieftje, Christopher Taylor, Carsten Hohnke.

Next council meeting: Monday, June 18, 2012 at 7 p.m. in the second-floor council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron. [Check Chronicle event listing to confirm date]

The Chronicle could not survive without regular voluntary subscriptions to support our coverage of public bodies like the Ann Arbor city council. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle. And if you’re already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors and colleagues to help support The Chronicle, too!


  1. By Alan Goldsmith
    June 12, 2012 at 10:58 am | permalink

    “However, the corollary to that, Taylor said, is that being in favor of the project doesn’t make you “anti-park.” The Fuller Road site, he said, is not “some bucolic wonderland.” It’s not a soccer field or a tennis court or a brook, but rather a parking lot, he said, and it’s been that way since 1993.”

    Then why is Taylor so afraid of putting this issue to a vote of city residents and instead favors an end run ‘lease’ instead? The giveaway is a direct violation of the spirit of the law.

  2. By Jack Eaton
    June 12, 2012 at 1:11 pm | permalink

    “Right now, she said, a whole bunch of people pile out with 30-pound suitcases and they have to go up a long flight of stairs, across the Broadway bridge, and down another flight of stairs to find their car.”

    Is it true that when the federal rail improvement project is complete that the Detroit to Chicago route will have two sets of tracks?

    Isn’t also true that rail regulations do not allow passengers to cross tracks to get to the train using the far track and that we would need to build a station that has an overhead passenger bridge to traverse the rails?
    For an example of that kind of bridge, see the design of the Dearborn Station: [link]

    If we had a station at the current location with the pedestrian bridge over the tracks, travel from the station’s current location to the DTE property the City leases for parking would be made easier. We would just need to expand the available parking on that leased DTE site.

    As I recall, and I might be mistaken on this, the design for phase 2 of the Fuller Road project included drawings of a train station that included the kind of pedestrian bridge shown in the Dearborn station plans.

  3. June 13, 2012 at 7:58 am | permalink

    Wouldn’t moving the station farther from town for the convenience of car drivers be contrary to the City’s sustainability goals?

  4. By George Gaston
    June 13, 2012 at 1:49 pm | permalink

    I would like to clarify and comment on Jack Eaton’s entry above.

    Amtrak owns the parking lot across the tracks from the station, this is the lot that is accessed from Broadway. There is additional Amtrak property adjacent to this Broadway lot that is not presently used for parking. Amtrak also owns the city metered lot on Depot Street that is directly across from Casey’s Tavern. Amtrak uses this Depot Street lot for free long term rail passenger parking. With the redevelopment of the DTE/Michcon property, perhaps additional parking, if needed, could be provided for use by rail passengers and city park users between the station and the new riverside park.

    In order to become compliant with ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements, any two, or more, track station will need to have a bridge over the tracks with an elevator at each platform. this will be true wherever the Amtrak station is built. If the present Depot Street depot is rebuilt at the current location, ihis bridge over the tracks will eliminate the need to lug suitcases up and down staircases.

  5. By Jack Eaton
    June 13, 2012 at 3:19 pm | permalink

    Thanks for the clarification and additional information George.

    This raises another question. If Amtrak owns the current station and the property upon which it sits, why is the City involved in providing a site and financing the construction of the new station?

  6. By cosmonıcan
    June 13, 2012 at 8:51 pm | permalink

    Has the principal of the Dean Fund increased with inflation, or has it remained the same? It would be a shame if the fund loses capitol because it doesn’t invest in itself, or does it?

  7. By Lawrence Baird
    June 14, 2012 at 11:02 am | permalink

    Why is the city providing financing for a new Amtrak station?

    The word leverage is thrown around quite a bit by city council, such as leveraging federal dollars to build this or that. However, unlike the new Dearborn train station construction which is 100% federally funded due to the one time stimulus money, it is the federal government who is now doing the leveraging. They are leveraging (extracting) a 20% local match for building their own (Amtrak) train station.

  8. By Tom
    June 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm | permalink

    From the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) “Procedures for Considering Environmental Impacts”:

    3.(f) ‘‘4(f)-Protected Properties’’ are any publicly-owned land of a public park, recreation area, or wildlife and waterfowl refuge of national, State or local significance…

    (g) ‘‘4(f)-Determination’’ is a report which must be prepared prior to the Administrator’s approval of any FRA action which requires the use of any 4(f)-protected properties. This report documents both the supporting analysis and the finding required by section 4(f) of the DOT Act (49 U.S.C. 303(c)), that (1) there is no prudent and feasible alternative to the use of such land, and (2) the proposed FRA action includes all possible planning to minimize harm to the park, recreational area, wildlife and waterfowl refuge, or historic site resulting from the use.

    [In other words, FRA projects proposed to be located on “4-(f)” properties (which include locally-designated parks like Fuller Park) must meet a higher standard than simply one of “no significant impact.” The report must instead provide proof that there is “NO PRUDENT OR FEASIBLE ALTERNATIVE” to using the proposed site, including the option of doing nothing at all. Perhaps this is why the previous environmental assessment referred to the site as the “Fuller Road Parking Lot” instead of “Fuller Park?”]

    8.(b) Conflicts of Interest. A Program Office shall exercise care in selecting consultants, and in reviewing their work, to ensure that their analysis is complete and objective. Contractors shall execute a disclosure statement prepared by the Program Office, specifying that they have no financial or other interest in the outcome of the project.”

    [In other words, environmental consultants should not be performing other work on the project, or related sub-projects, that could in any way be construed as being dependent on the outcome of the environmental assessment.]