Mid-October Ann Arbor Focus: Transportation

Two major transportation issues are currently scheduled to appear on the Ann Arbor city council’s Oct. 21, 2013 agenda: (1) consideration of a resolution admitting Ypsilanti Township into the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority; and (2) a resolution awarding a contract to URS Corporation Inc. (URS) for the environmental review related to the Ann Arbor Station.

Transportation is also a highlight of the council’s work session on Monday, Oct. 14 starting at 7 p.m. The session will feature a briefing on regional transportation issues, including the topic of admitting Ypsilanti Township into the AAATA. Council work sessions are broadcast on Channel 16, which is also streamed online by Community Television Network (CTN).

At its Sept. 26, 2013 meeting, the AAATA board voted to approve new articles of incorporation, which include Ypsilanti Township as a member. But the AAATA’s approval was contingent on Ann Arbor city council approval. The revised articles of incorporation assign an additional board seat to be appointed by Ypsilanti Township – for a total of 10.

The admission of Ypsilanti Township to the authority would come just shortly after the city of Ypsilanti was admitted as a member. The AAATA board voted on June 20, 2013 to add the city of Ypsilanti, which followed approval by the Ann Arbor city council. Adding other geographically close jurisdictions – who request membership, and who have historically had purchase of service agreements (POSAs) with the AAATA – is a strategy the AAATA has adopted after an attempt to form a countywide authority in 2012 failed to gain much traction.

Adding membership to the authority is not just meant to change governance, but also to establish a more stable funding mechanism for the entire geographic footprint where the AAATA offers service. It would also establish a possible mechanism for increasing the level of transportation service in those areas beyond current levels – because the AAATA could itself put a millage on the ballot. Passage of such a millage to fund additional services – currently estimated to cost taxpayers about 0.7 mills – would need the approval of a majority of voters in all the member jurisdictions. The 0.7 mill tax would apply in addition to the taxes already levied by the cities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, which are dedicated specifically to support public transportation.

The next meeting of the AAATA board takes place on Thursday, Oct. 17 starting at 6:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown location, 343 S. Fifth Ave. The main voting item currently on the AAATA board agenda is approval of a purchase of additional vehicles to support the van ride program. Just before that meeting, from 4-6 p.m., the AAATA will be hosting the first of several public sessions to explain the kind of increased service that could be provided if more funding is approved by voters. A millage request to voters could come as early as May 2014.

AAATA board meetings are not broadcast live on CTN. However, they are available through CTN’s Video on Demand service. The Chronicle may be able to provide a demonstration of live text streaming from the Oct. 17 meeting. If that demonstration is possible, it will be available on a separate Chronicle web page set up for that purpose.

It’s not the AAATA, but rather the city, that is leading the Ann Arbor Station project. This rail station project relates most immediately to the prospect that Amtrak will be offering increased inter-city service on the Chicago-Detroit Amtrak line. An improved intercity rail station also has implications for the way that a different type of service – commuter rail service between Ann Arbor and Detroit – might be created and offered in the future.

The total budgeted for the Ann Arbor Station contract on the Oct. 21 agenda – which will cover public engagement, site selection and conceptual design – is $824,875, an amount that includes a $63,083 contingency. The city would only pay 20% of that, or about $165,000. A transfer of $550,000 to the city’s major grant fund was approved a year ago by the city council at its Oct. 15, 2012 meeting for the total project budget. The federal grant that will cover 80% of the project cost, up to $2.8 million for the federal share, had been accepted by the council at its June 4, 2012 meeting. So for the contract on the Oct. 21 agenda, the city’s share works out to approximately $165,000 with the Federal Rail Authority covering the remaining $660,000.

The funding approved by the city council a year ago came after the city learned that previous expenditures – which were made in connection with the now demised Fuller Road Station project – would not be considered as eligible local matching funds under the federal grant. Fuller Road Station had been a joint venture with the University of Michigan, and called for UM to build a parking structure on the same site as the rail station at a location on Fuller Road.

The preliminary work that URS would do under the contract on the Oct. 21 agenda does not presuppose a preferred location for a new passenger rail station. The existing Amtrak station on Depot Street would be among the alternatives considered, in addition to the location identified for the Fuller Road Station, which is on city-owned land between Fuller Road and East Medical Center Drive adjacent to the UM medical center. The land is designated by the city in planning documents as parkland, and is zoned as public land. A 2009 appraisal commissioned by the city put the value of the land at $4.25 million.

If the URS contract is approved by the city council, the environmental review phase of the rail station project grant is estimated to be completed in about a year, by October 2014. That would set up the project for the preliminary engineering phase, under the existing Federal Rail Authority’s High Speed Intercity Passenger Rail grant program.