AirRide OK’d, State Funding Reviewed

"You are one pothole away from public transit."

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority board meeting (March 20, 2014): Board chair Charles Griffith opened the meeting by noting that the agenda was a lot lighter than last month, when the board had passed 10 separate resolutions – including a vote to put a transit millage proposal on the May 6 ballot.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center.

Looking north on Fifth Avenue at the AirRide stop, just south of the newly opened Blake Transit Center. (Photos by the writer.)

The only voting item handled by the board at its March 20 meeting was the extension of a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide service between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport. The board authorized the first of three one-year extensions on the initial two-year contract for the service, called AirRide.

For the third year of the agreement, the not-to-exceed amount is $170,000. That compares with the first year of the contract that was not to exceed $700,000. The drop in the cost to the AAATA stems from a revenue-sharing agreement based on fare revenues – and ridership has exceeded projections.

The board also received an update on statewide transit issues from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. A main theme from their presentation was the need to focus on overall funding increases, as opposed to trying to fine-tune the part of the funding formula that divides public transportation funding among the 78 transit agencies in Michigan.

Harder also described an initiative to provide a non-emergency medical transportation brokerage that would tap public transportation resources. A demonstration program, to be provided through the newly formed Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), could be up and running by Oct. 1, 2015, Harder reported.

Another highlight of that presentation included the idea that the abysmal road conditions – which have resulted from the long and harsh winter – could be a rallying point for more transportation funding. To the extent that additional money for transportation is funneled through the general transportation funding formula, that would lead to an increase in public transportation funding, along with funding for road infrastructure.

The harsh winter and the challenge of clearing snow at the 1,200 bus stops was also a part of another basic theme of the board’s discussion – accessibility of the bus service to those in the disability community. Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living addressed the board to stress the importance of making sure all the bus stops are accessible. She also reiterated the CIL’s support for the upcoming May 6 millage vote.

Other highlights from the meeting included a round of applause for AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black, who managed the Blake Transit Center construction project. The driveways still need concrete to be poured before the project is completed, but the building itself is now open to the public.

AirRide Contract

The board considered a contract with Michigan Flyer to provide transportation between downtown Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport for a third year, in a service called AirRide.

The average number of passengers for the last four weeks is 1,406, according to the AAATA .

The average number of passengers for the last four weeks is 1,406, according to the AAATA.

Two years ago, the board had authorized Michigan Flyer’s two-year contract, with the possibility of three one-year extensions, at its Feb. 16, 2012 board meeting.

The first year of the contract specified an amount not to exceed $700,000 per year. The first year’s cost proved to be less than half that ($326,600) due to higher-than-projected ridership. The anticipated cost for the second year of the agreement was expected to be $216,522.

Based on additional negotiations, the cost of service for the third year is not expected to be more than $170,000. That cost will include AAATA’s share of an AirRide/Michigan Flyer staff position – who will help passengers board and load luggage. The drop in cost to the AAATA is in part attributable to Michigan Flyer’s receipt of a federal Transportation, Community, and System Preservation (TCSP) grant. The third year of service includes adjustments that eliminate the stop on the University of Michigan central campus transit center, but add a 13th trip between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport.

AirRide Contract: Board Discussion

During her report out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Anya Dale reported that ridership on the AirRide service is up 22% for the year. The average number of weekday riders for AirRide has hit 200, she said. Dale also described the historical background for the contract.

When the board reached the resolution on its agenda, board chair Charles Griffith called it an incredibly nice trend to see the cost of the service coming down each year as the ridership on the service continues to increase. He called it a great story. It reminded him of the transit improvement millage that’s on the May 6 ballot – because you take a leap of faith when you keep hearing from people about the service they want, and you think it’s the right thing to do, and then you actually provide the service.

AirRide is an example of where people really did line up and take advantage of the service, Griffith said. He ventured that it might be possible eventually to bring the price of the service down. Michael Ford noted that the AAATA is adding even more customer service components to the AirRide – as assistance loading luggage and boarding is now being provided.

Eli Cooper called the service “really outstanding.” When it was first started, the AAATA was thinking about spending around $750,000 on it, but now the cost is down to $170,000 year. It’s just remarkable, he said, what this public-private partnership has achieved. The efficiency and effectiveness of public transportation is clear in select markets, Cooper said, and it was being demonstrated here in Ann Arbor. It’s not so much a cost reduction in the contract, Cooper said, but rather a reflection of the efficiency and effectiveness of working with Michigan Flyer.

Outcome: The board voted unanimously to approve the AirRide contract with Michigan Flyer.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living called the AirRide service fantastic, saying that she and her family had used it several times going to and from the airport as well as going to and from East Lansing.

Statewide Perspective

The board received an update from Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, and Dusty Fancher, a lobbyist with Midwest Strategy Group. Their presentation had been originally scheduled for the board’s Jan. 16 meeting, but was cancelled due to bad weather.

Statewide Perspective: MPTA History, Purpose

Clark Harder, executive director of the Michigan Public Transit Association, opened his remarks by thanking the AAATA board for the invitation to come down from Lansing and speak. He noted that some of the faces on the board were recognizable from his last visit two years ago, but others were new to him. He allowed that sometimes local transit authority boards don’t really understand what the MPTA does or why they do it. So he wanted to share some information about the MPTA.

The Michigan Public Transit Association was created in 1977, he said, as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit. The MPTA exists to be an educational and advocacy arm for members of the association. Out of the 78 transit authorities in the state of Michigan, 50 are members of the MPTA, he said. He characterized 50 members as a high-water mark for the MPTA, and it’s been at that level for a number of years. Some of the smaller systems, which the MPTA would love to have as members, have not joined. Harder ventured that sometimes the reason was budgetary, or for very small systems they did not see any reason to be involved. But for a very small system, he continued, that’s all the more reason to be involved. “We are all working collectively for the same goal, which is stronger support, stronger funding for public transportation,” he said. That’s why the MPTA was created, he added.

The MPTA was created with a lot of direction and support from the Michigan Dept. of Transportation (MDOT), Harder explained. In the early days of public transit in the state of Michigan, MDOT noticed that all the other entities it dealt with – like road commissions – had some kind of association to represent them. But public transit authorities had nothing at that point. So at that time a number of different people came together – including the forerunner of the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART), which was called the Southeastern Michigan Transportation Authority (SEMTA), and the Capital Area Transportation Authority (CATA) in Lansing. Those two entities were instrumental in creating the MPTA.

It wasn’t very long after the initial creation of the MPTA that the long-standing association between the MPTA and AAATA came into being, Harder said. “You are one of early members and one of our very active members.” He pointed out that Dawn Gabay, deputy CEO of the AAATA, is the AAATA’s representative on the MPTA’s board of directors. AAATA manager of service development Chris White had been extremely active in the MPTA across the years, and AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black chairs the maintenance committee at the state level, Harder pointed out. So the AAATA has a high level of involvement and a large stake in what the MPTA does.

The MPTA was created for advocacy, but over the years that role has evolved, Harder said. About 10 years ago, MDOT – which had previously done a lot of training and educational programs – stepped back and said it could no longer afford to do it. As a result of that, MPTA had moved into a variety of educational and training programs, he explained. So now the MPTA has a dual role: advocacy and education/training. As a result of taking on the additional role of education and training, Harder explained, the committee structure that already existed was made more robust and more active. The MPTA now has a very strong committee structure, he said.

There are four annual conferences a year and an annual meeting, which is always in August. There’s a legislative conference in February. There’s a rural transit managers workshop typically at the end of March. And every June, the MPTA holds a transit vehicle maintenance seminar. That was something that historically MDOT had done. They stopped doing it for four or five years and a lot of transit systems approached the MPTA and asked for that program to be restored.

During question and answer time with Harder and Fancher, board chair Charles Griffith asked if the MPTA offered anything for board members by way of training on how to be a good board member, or on governance issues. The AAATA is not the only transit agency that is looking to expand, he said, and the AAATA has learned a lot about several related issues – so maybe some of that information could be shared with other transit authorities.

Michigan Public Transit Association executive director Clark Harder told the board that state public transportation funding had remained basically level over the last 10 years, which was a success in the context of other departments that had seen drastic reductions.

Michigan Public Transit Association executive director Clark Harder told the board that state public transportation funding had remained basically level over the last 10 years, which was a success in the context of other departments that had seen drastic reductions.

Harder told Griffith that it had been one of the long-term goals of the MPTA to have a transit boardsmanship training program – similar to what the Michigan Municipal League does for city council members. Some steps have been made in that direction, he said. He provides one-on-one training sessions with transit authority boards. He does not charge anything to members for that service, because he thinks that’s part of what MPTA members already pay for. He does not push it or advertise it a lot. He hoped that one day there would be a transit board certification program that would be offered on an ongoing basis.

Another program the MPTA has launched this year is called the “Route to Excellence” customer service training program, Harder reported. It’s the first one of its kind in the nation, he said, and the first one of its kind that he was aware of that any state transit association has put together. It’s a transit-based customer service program. The MPTA has been in the process of rolling out that program.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels

The MPTA’s main focus over the years has been to advocate for transportation funding – for operating funds and for bus capital, Harder stressed.

The MPTA had been successful in that advocacy over the last several years, he said. Throughout all the state cuts that every other department has faced, transportation has been able to hold its funding. He allowed that due to the cost of doing business rising, the dollars don’t go as far.

But in the face of severe budget cuts, public transportation is one of the very few things that has remained consistent across the board over the last decade, he said: “We are rather proud of that fact.” The MPTA’s current focus is on the transportation funding package in front of the legislature.

Fancher explained that the state is in the middle of the budget cycle for fiscal year 2013-14. A supplemental budget bill has just been passed in Lansing, she said.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels – Potholes

The big issue surrounding the supplemental bill was the condition of the transportation infrastructure, Fancher said: “You may have noticed there are a few potholes. I saw some coming down Main Street tonight!” There’s been discussion in Lansing for a long time about how to come up with a solution, she said, to solve transportation funding. There was a budget surplus this year, and the legislature decided to spend $250 million of that surplus to go toward the road budget. Some of that will take care of winter maintenance – salt and overtime to cover plowing activity. There’s also some additional money to go out and “cover up some of those potholes.”

AAATA board members Eli Cooper and Gillian Ream Gainsley.

AAATA board members Eli Cooper and Gillian Ream Gainsley.

Fancher ventured that the long winter had awakened a new sense of urgency for the public to do something about road funding. And that urgency has been lacking up to now. Everybody recognizes the need to fix the roads, but nobody wants to pay for it, she said. Right now there are a lot more holes in the road and it’s definitely going to get worse as the spring freeze-thaw cycle continues. So talks on the issue are starting back up, she reported.

Democrats are talking to the Republicans and they are sitting at the table and they are having conversations, she said. She wished that they were talking about a larger dollar amount, but at least they were talking. She was happy that they’re talking about a dollar amount that will flow all the way through the transportation funding formula – that is, to public transportation systems as well. When you hear people talk about “road funding” in the newspaper, it always makes her nervous, she said. While road funding is a part of transportation funding, it’s also important to make sure that it flows through to all the other parts of the transportation system. So she’s encouraged that the talks continue to focus on the entire CTF [comprehensive transportation fund] formula.

When the board was given a chance to ask questions, Eli Cooper noted that because the potholes are real and people see them, it might give cause for action. But the needs for the transit industry go far beyond just those visible infrastructure deficiencies, Cooper stressed. Funding is woefully lacking with appropriate regional and local transportation in the Ann Arbor community, in southeast Michigan and statewide, Cooper continued. He told Harder that the AAATA looked to the MPTA to advocate so that the legislature and state administration understands the need.

Cooper thought there’s a real responsibility to review both the levels and the mechanisms for funding local and regional authorities. So he asked Harder and Fancher to please keep that in mind as they head back up to Lansing and talk with other authorities. There’s an opportunity right now because the potholes are creating focus. “We should never let a crisis go unused,” he quipped. Harder agreed with Cooper, but said that some of the MPTA members get a little antsy and concerned when everything they read in the newspaper is about potholes. But that is what drives the message statewide. And if that is what they have to use to get more funding for public transportation, then Harder was OK with that –as long as they don’t lose sight of the big picture.

AAATA board member Larry Krieg.AAATA board member Larry Krieg. He represents Ypsilanti Township on the board.

AAATA board member Larry Krieg. He represents Ypsilanti Township on the board.

Larry Krieg offered a suggestion as a slogan that could be used, which he’d heard from AAATA staff: “You are one pothole away from public transit.” Krieg noted that public transit had taken a hit as a result of the snow, and the impact was felt not only on the roads. Krieg cited a figure from AAATA maintenance manager Terry Black – that nearly $144,000 extra was needed for snow removal contracts alone, not to mention the overtime of the AAATA’s own staff.

So when we think about regional transportation, we also need to keep ourselves running, Krieg stressed.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford – chief executive officer of the AAATA – noted that he’d had an incident with a pothole this week and found himself taking the bus. “It’s nice to have that option,” he said.

Statewide Perspective: Funding Levels – By Formula

The transportation budget for the fiscal year 2014-15 – which will start on Oct. 1, 2014 – is currently being debated, Fancher told the AAATA board. She expected the state House of Representatives to vote their budget out of committee later this month. She thought that funding for transit would remain about the same. In the last two years, there has been a $5 million operating line item that MDOT could use for discretionary funding. The MPTA had argued to get that in because of the southeast Michigan regional transit authority (RTA), which creates a disruption in the funding of the system. She did not think that the $5 million would be part of next year’s budget.

She was hearing that there might be some money in the budget – whether it’s in MDOT’s budget or in some other budget – for the RTA. The MPTA had advocated for $2 million in the supplemental budget bill, but there was “not enough education on the House side” to get that done, she said. So what the governor’s office has done is to say “we will find the money for fiscal year 13-14 … we’ll figure it out.” And then the governor’s office would advocate for the remaining money in the next year’s budget. That would allow RTA members to go out and educate members of the House of Representatives. She pointed out that the RTA is a member of the MPTA.

Board chair Charles Griffith recalled the situation last year when there had been an interpretation of the CTF formula that had been unexpected – and it took almost a year for the AAATA to get the money back that it had expected. “Has that been fixed in a permanent way, or is that still something we still need to get done right for the long-term?” Griffith asked. Fancher indicated that it was in fact something that could happen again. She reviewed how the Detroit Dept. of Transportation’s reduction in funding had impacted other transit agencies when the regular funding formula was applied. There has not been a permanent fix for that, she said. She would be happy to find a permanent solution moving forward. She felt there was interest among legislators in finding a permanent solution. But she said the focus right now is on finding an overall transportation funding increase “before we bust into fixing things inside Act 51.”

Harder added that the MPTA has tried to spur that conversation with MDOT, but said that the MDOT was not just rather resistant, but “adamantly resistant” to carrying on that conversation – until there is new, additional funding for the formula. They’ve made that pretty clear, he said. That’s clearly coming from the governor’s level – that they don’t get into these conversations until they get appreciable new funding.

Eli Cooper added that a couple of days ago there was an article in the local media that talked about 15,000 new jobs coming into the Ann Arbor community. That’s 15,000 people looking for ways to get to work. In our economy and our community and in this state, we need to have travel choices – proper local travel choices, regional and statewide travel choices, Cooper said.

Cooper appreciated the MPTA’s work and encouraged the MPTA not to argue over the smaller pieces, but to look more broadly and into a brighter future where transit authorities and transit services in our community and statewide are adequately funded – so that local transit agencies have the ability to provide the service without worrying about whether a millage is passed or not.

In response to Cooper’s remarks Fancher said her focus was on making sure that everything goes through the formula.

Statewide Perspective: Detroit

Eric Mahler noted that in Detroit’s state of the city address, mayor Mike Duggan had made it clear that public transportation is a focus. Duggan had also said he was looking to the federal government for buses and other things. Mahler asked if Harder and Fancher had heard anything from the state level about partnering between the federal government and the city of Detroit and some kind of collaboration for other transit authorities around the state.

AAATA board member Eric Mahler.

AAATA board member Eric Mahler.

Harder told Mahler that he had heard there was interest on the part of the administration in Washington to try to identify some additional funding. Of course the issue for the state is the match for any federal dollars on the bus capital side. Harder said that Gov. Rick Snyder’s recommendation is still very strong on the bus capital match side – and that is one of the things that Snyder’s administration had prioritized right from the start.

Harder indicated that right now, on the federal side, the reauthorization for transportation funding is being discussed. He allowed that the state of Michigan is not doing as well now, as when earmarking was the normal process. “We had a senior delegation and we did very well with earmarking,” Harder said. But “earmarking” is a dirty word in Washington now, so they don’t do that, Harder said.

On a more positive note, Harder pointed out that right now the city of Detroit and the new mayor have the ear of the U.S. president. And sometimes miraculous things can happen because of that kind of relationship, Harder said. Mahler was right about Duggan being a very strong supporter of public transportation – as a former manager at SMART. “[Duggan] gets it in terms of fixing what’s wrong,” Harder said. Fancher added that she has heard that MDOT is trying to turn over every stone to make sure that they are making the best use of grants that are available and are really trying to help out as much as possible to pull in federal funding.

Statewide Perspective: Regional Thinking

Eli Cooper recalled about a year ago a conversation about the RTA and the state budget. It focused on whether money was going to be available and that local CTF funds would be supporting the RTA. It sounded like things might be a little bit different this year, he ventured. The AAATA had wanted to support the RTA – but not at the expense of the rides that are provided within local communities, he said. Cooper was looking to the MPTA to continue to advocate on the AAATA’s behalf.

Statewide Perspective: Non-Emergency Medical Transportation

MPTA executive director Clark Harder reported that last year, the MPTA has put a lot of time into researching non-emergency medical transportation with the goal of creating a statewide public-transit-based brokerage for those non-emergency rides. There’s been great input from the AAATA on that topic. Vanessa Hansle, the AAATA’s mobility manager, has been leading the mobility management aspect of that study, Harder reported.

In just the last month, the MPTA has authorized moving that forward, creating the Michigan Transportation Connection (MTC), which will be the coordinating body. They will soon be bidding out some of the managed care contracts across the state. It’s possible that by Oct. 1, 2015 there will be at least one demo project up and running to handle Medicaid non-emergency medical transportation, coordinated through the MTC, Harder said.

Later in the meeting, Midwest Strategy Group lobbyist Dusty Fancher mentioned that she had been advocating legislatively on the issue of non-emergency medical transportation – within the state’s Dept. of Human Services budget. She had arranged for the committee to hear from Harder, and he had testified in front of that committee. It had put on the committee’s radar screen that they could be thinking about public transportation as a tool to save on Medicaid dollars. There’s no reason to contract out transportation service at a higher rate than what could be provided by the local public transportation service. People are already paying tax dollars for that, she pointed out, so full advantage should be taken of it.

Dusty Fancher is with Midwest Strategy Group, a lobbyist firm in Lansing.

Dusty Fancher is with Midwest Strategy Group, a lobbyist firm in Lansing.

Responding to AAATA board questions about overall transportation funding in Michigan, Harder said one reason he was excited about the non-emergency medical project is that he sees a lot of potential to alleviate some of the pressure on the existing funding formula. That’s because it’s a new source of funding that does not come with the same strings attached as the current formula. But Harder could also see the benefit that it would bring to moving the conversation forward on a regional basis. In the time he has worked for the MPTA, he’s concluded that is really what is needed – something that can drive the arguments regionally. Those who work in public transit understand the importance of moving toward regionalization, he said. But there has not been an overriding issue that they could fall back on and point to and say: This is why we need regional transportation and here’s an example of how it pays off and works.

A non-emergency medical transportation brokerage is regional transportation, Harder said. If success is achieved with that, they would be brokering rides for people – whether it is rides on public transportation or private transportation. That will help to build the case that people don’t just live within the confines of their city or their county. Services are not just confined to the city or the county where people live, Harder said. People need to get across those artificial boundary lines that have been put up. He said public transportation was initially set up in ways that actually helped to encourage those artificial boundary lines – so that now they have to be broken down. The MPTA felt that the RTA is a wonderful thing that needs to happen – but not if it’s funded on the backs of all the existing transit agencies in the state. That would tear down the infrastructure that has taken 35 years to build.


Accessibility of the AAATA’s service – particularly to those in the disability community – was a significant theme of the March 20 board meeting. Clark Harder, with the Michigan Public Transit Association, gave a presentation to the board about the MPTA’s efforts on behalf of its member transit authorities, of which AAATA is one. He fielded questions from AAATA board members after that presentation, including one from Jack Bernard.

Bernard wanted to know what the MPTA is doing for riders who have disabilities. He asked what was happening in Lansing specifically with respect to disability issues. Harder replied that MPTA has a strong partnership with the state-level disability organizations. In the past, the MPTA had led coalition efforts involving disability groups, but had backed off in recent years, he said. A new coalition called Transform had emerged. MPTA had encouraged the groups that they had previously worked with to get involved with Transform.

Transform had some funding available and was able to do some things that MPTA was not able to do, Harder said. The MPTA would continue to work closely with the disability network – saying that they had always worked very closely with United Cerebral Palsy and groups like The Arc. He could not tell Bernard that there are any new sources of funding being identified for persons with disabilities in terms of public transportation usage. But he felt there was a keen awareness that for many people who have disabilities, public transportation is their only way to be mobile in our society. He felt that there is certainly room to add funding to assist persons with disabilities.

Accessibility also came up in connection with the issue of snow clearing at bus stops. During his report to the board, CEO Michael Ford noted that it had been the worst winter in many years, and with that came many challenges. Shelters and walkways get cleared and then the street plows come along to do their job, which means that the AAATA needs to redo its job. That’s particularly difficult with 1,200 bus stops, Ford said. The effort is actually coordinated, Ford added, between various agencies and contractors. AAATA works with the city of Ann Arbor and the community standards department to address sidewalk complaints. And as the season draws to an end, the AAATA staff will be meeting with representatives of the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County to review how things went this year, and to start thinking about how things can be improved and coordinated next year.

AAATA board member Jack Bernard.

AAATA board member Jack Bernard.

During the “question time” agenda slot, Jack Bernard told Ford that he appreciated the emphasis that Ford had placed on making services accessible. It’s of critical importance that the AAATA do that, Bernard said. The AAATA is uniquely situated to be able to serve populations who cannot drive or who don’t drive, so it’s critical that the AAATA make its services accessible.

On the topic of snow removal, Bernard allowed that it’s very difficult to make sure the 1,200 bus stops are accessible for all of the AAATA’s patrons so that they can get on and off buses safely and conveniently. He allowed that not every bus stop could be cleared the way the AAATA would ideally like it to be cleared. But when the AAATA knows that there are particular patrons who had disability issues or have difficulty boarding, he wondered if snow clearance could be prioritized in those spots. He allowed that it’s important to get every spot, but AAATA drivers know their passengers – so he thought it might be possible to target those spots.

Ford responded to Bernard by saying an internal meeting had been held recently on that topic. Ford said the AAATA wants to make sure it does the best job possible. Accessibility is definitely a high priority for the AAATA, Ford said.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living commented on the snow removal issue. She reported that she gets calls from people who are able to get out on the bus, but when they come back – because of the way things get plowed, or shoveled after they’ve left their home – they are stuck. Bus drivers try to be helpful in helping people off the bus, but the drivers can’t leave the bus.

Grawi noted that the University of Michigan has a strategy where patrons can provide information about where they live and where they need to go – and as a result, certain locations receive an asterisk so that they receive extra attention for snow removal. But it’s not just a question of where the person lives or where they board on a regular basis, she cautioned. Because the bus will take us wherever life takes us, and people are getting on and off the bus everywhere in the community. So it’s every curb ramp in every subdivision that needs to remain cleared, she said. There’s still ice on some ramps, even though a lot of it has melted. She suggested that in the spring, the AAATA and others should start to think about a plan so that for next winter a plan is in place.

Ford also acknowledged the issue during his March 20 report to the board. He noted that during its Feb. 20 board meeting, the board had also heard about the critical need to make the system accessible. He noted that Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living had met with staff during the past week to discuss specific concerns. Making services and systems accessible is a priority for the AAATA, Ford said, and will continue to be.

The board also received a report from the local advisory council, a group that provides input and feedback to AAATA on disability and senior issues. Rebecca Burke reported from the most recent LAC meeting, that the group had received a presentation on the Jewish Family Services (JFS) vehicle accessibility plan. The group had also reviewed a users guide, which is due to be out in May. They had also reviewed data from a survey from a small population of users. The survey had covered items like destinations that users would like to reach that are currently not served by AAATA.

Communications, Committees, CEO, Commentary

At its March 20 meeting, the board entertained various communications, including its usual reports from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, the planning and development committee, as well as from CEO Michael Ford. The board also heard commentary from the public. Here are some highlights.

Comm/Comm: Financial Report

Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Anya Dale gave an update on the financial report the committee had received. Revenue is under budget by 0.1% but expenses are under budget by more than that, she said. Some of the extra costs the AAATA has incurred involved additional expenses due to weather-related items, she noted. Because of the very cold weather in January, ridership had dropped off. But the other indicators – operating expense per passenger, operating expense per service hour, operating expense per service mile – were all slightly better than budget for the fiscal year, she said. In that context, everything is still doing well, she said.

Ridership on ExpressRide is doing well – as it is up 10% for the year, Dale said. There is an increase in ridership on the Canton route, so that Canton and Chelsea are now about equal in ridership, Dale said.

Dale reported that the committee had received a presentation from the getDowntown program director Nancy Shore. Shore had presented the committee with results from a survey of downtown business owners and commuters in 2013. Dale pointed her board colleagues to the full report, which is available on the getDowntown website. Something that stood out for Dale was that employers considered the go!pass program a significant benefit used to attract and retain employees – with 76% of businesses using it as a way to recruit people. Among bus riders, 34% of respondents said they would be driving downtown if they did not have a go!pass. That’s 1,000 people who are choosing to ride the bus rather than driving, she said. Results from the AAATA’s ridership survey are in draft form and that would be available later, Dale reported.

AAATA controller Phil Webb.

AAATA controller Phil Webb.

During question time, Gillian Ream Gainsley asked about the “interest, advertising, and other” line item. She recalled that last year, advertising revenue had exceeded expectations. She asked if there were any insights that could be provided into why it’s down this year, or if there is anything that can be done about it. AAATA controller Phil Webb explained that the budget line item is a combination of a few different items.

It includes advertising revenue and some other revenue from the getDowntown program. He allowed that advertising revenue is a little bit down compared to budget. Just this week, however, he’d received a report for February, and revenue had shot back up again. The monthly amount received by AAATA was $26,000 – which was ahead of the monthly average, whereas in January it was below average for that month. “It’s starting to come around,” he said.

On the topic of low ridership in January, Charles Griffith said that a lot of people just did not get out on the very cold days. As a regular bus rider, he said, there were a lot of days he would’ve been very unhappy, if he’d had to take his car out. But the buses were still running. And “miraculously,” he said, buses were running for the most part on time. He was able to commute to work very consistently, saying it was almost kind of surprising. Off mic, Ford lightly ribbed Griffith about the idea that it was surprising to him. Griffith responded by noting that everyone else was struggling out on the roads, but the buses have good traction and they get around quite well.

Comm/Comm: Blake Transit Center Opening

In his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that the new Blake Transit Center had opened. It’s located on South Fifth Avenue across from the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library, north of William. It had been opened as part of a soft launch on Monday, March 17. Staff had been on hand throughout that day to share information, he said. The new center will better serve passengers and employees, Ford said. The facility also provides a chance to make the urban core communities a more attractive place to live and work. Ford thanked everyone who had helped with the Blake Transit Center. Ford noted that additional work still needs be done – including concrete that needs to be poured.

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority maintenance manager Terry Black got a round of applause at the board March 20, 2014 board meeting. He was project manager on the construction of the new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor, which had a soft opening on March 17, 2014.

Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority maintenance manager Terry Black got a round of applause at the March 20, 2014 board meeting. He was project manager on the construction of the new Blake Transit Center in downtown Ann Arbor, which had a soft opening on March 17.

Ford thanked staff for all the hard work that it’s taken to get things to this point: “I think it’s a magnificent facility. I also just want to acknowledge Terry Black for all of his hard work and effort. This guy has been relentless day in and day out, just being there making sure everything is going to work, and I just want to thank you personally for all your hard work.” Ford’s remarks prompted applause for Black.

Board chair Charles Griffith noted that some board members had an opportunity to get a tour just before the board meeting and he’d visited the facility on Monday during the soft launch. He asked Black for a report on how things had gone with the BTC construction. “You don’t have to tell any horror stories – we don’t need to hear those,” Griffith quipped.

Black reported that most of the feedback he received so far has been very positive. A lot of staff had worked really hard on Saturday and Sunday to get the facility to the point where it could be opened on Monday, Black said. He felt that the reaction had been positive – as far as the bus drivers and passengers were concerned. Like any new building, there are some things that need to be tweaked, he said. He was looking forward to a little warmer weather so that the concrete could be poured.

Eric Mahler asked Black to summarize some “lessons learned.” Black replied that there were a lot of lessons learned and he wanted to leave it at that. Those lessons would be incorporated into the AAATA’s future work on the Ypsilanti Transit Center.

Comm/Comm: May 6, 2014 Millage Vote

The upcoming millage, which the board approved for the May 6, 2014 ballot at its Feb. 20, 2014 meeting, came up at several different points during the March 20 board meeting.

During communications time at the start of the meeting, Gillian Ream Gainsley reported some “really great endorsements” had come out of Ypsilanti. She thanked the AAATA staff for coming to give a presentation to the Ypsilanti city council. That same morning, AAATA staff had presented to the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority. The Ypsilanti DDA had passed a resolution of support for the millage with wording similar to that of a resolution passed by the Ann Arbor DDA – saying that if the millage passes, the Ypsilanti DDA will increase its support for transit and transit-related activities.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford noted that the ballot language for the 0.7 millage request had been delivered to the Washtenaw County clerk the day after last month’s board meeting. During the last four weeks, staff had been hitting the road and hitting the pavement with the message about the urgent need for improved transportation services within the community and within the greater Ann Arbor area. As campaigns often go, he said, the AAATA had received some negative press recently. Ford said he recognized that’s part of the process and said the AAATA would do its level best to balance that part of the equation by continuing to provide good factual data. Internally, the AAATA is engaged in a readiness process to ensure that it’s in a position to deploy new services shortly after funding is approved, if it is approved, Ford said.

During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Carolyn Grawi of the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living reiterated her support for the May 6 millage vote. Grawi said she was pleased to see the number of endorsements that were starting to be announced. The whole community benefits from transit expansion, she said. We need the service now – we need the service today, she concluded.

Comm/Comm: Connector Study

An alternatives analysis is currently being conducted by the AAATA for the corridor running from US-23 and Plymouth southward along Plymouth to State Street, then further south to I-94. The alternatives analysis phase will result in a preferred choice of transit mode (e.g., bus rapid transit, light rail, etc.) and identification of stations and stops. The study has winnowed down options to six different route alignments.

During his report to the board, Michael Ford gave an update on the connector study. The project team recently reviewed updates on the timeline, modeling, and finances. Ridership estimates are scheduled to be completed at the end of March, he said. He was recently in Washington D.C. and met with Federal Transit Administration (FTA) officials, who support the connector study concept and had agreed to meet with project partners to discuss possible opportunities for federal funding.

Comm/Comm: Ann Arbor Station Environmental Review

During communications time at the start of the meeting, Eli Cooper reminded the board that the Ann Arbor Station environmental review project was getting underway. The first of a series of three public meetings would be taking place on April 2, he said. Meetings will take place at the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library at 343 S. Fifth, he noted, starting at 4:30 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. For people who want to come earlier in the day or those who preferred to attend later in the afternoon, there would be opportunities to attend. At those meetings the project would be introduced, he said, and the dialogue would begin – which he hoped would culminate in the identification of an appropriate intercity passenger rail station for the city of Ann Arbor and its environs.

Comm/Comm: Annual Board Retreat

Eric Mahler reported out from the planning and development committee meeting. The committee has spent a great deal of time planning for the board retreat, he reported. The committee had discussed what it wanted to get out of the retreat. They were at this point looking at June as the likely time for the retreat, he said.

Present: Charles Griffith, Eric Mahler, Susan Baskett, Eli Cooper, Anya Dale, Gillian Ream Gainsley, Jack Bernard, Larry Krieg.

Absent: Sue Gott, Roger Kerson.

Next regular meeting: April 17, 2014 at 6:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., Ann Arbor [Check Chronicle event listings to confirm date]

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  1. March 25, 2014 at 8:37 pm | permalink

    I would get a chuckle out of your subheading “You are one pothole away from public transit”, were it not for the fact that the buses put tremendous pothole creating pressures on the streets. During the frost-law months of March, April and May, and other times as deemed necessary by MDOT and MSP, all vehicles over 10,000 lbs. are required to reduce their weight by 25-35% depending on the road construction, and limit their speed to 35 mph.


    The AAATA buses weigh, unloaded, well in excess of 10,000 lbs., but continue to run year-round with no consideration given to the effect this has on the roads. That joke is at the expense of those of us who have had damage-causing collisions with potholes. I just experienced one, in a giant pothole in front of a bus stop on Traver just west of Nixon. What is giant? How about 30″ wide x 65″ long by 8″ deep. This series of pothole lined up exactly with the front and back stop position of the wheels of an AAATA bus stopped at the stop. Cost to me to repair the front-end damage to my truck? $700. There is nothing funny about that, and the lack of concern exhibited by AAATA Staff and Board for the quality of life of others is no laughing matter, either.

    Contact me for a picture of the offending pothole, it is really quite remarkable. It was so big as to be indistinguishable from the gravel-strewn roadway, until I went over the edge, that is.

  2. March 25, 2014 at 9:49 pm | permalink

    Jeff -

    The pothole hotline is 99-HOLES or email to

  3. March 26, 2014 at 7:48 am | permalink

    Yes, I called it in. I have called in over two dozen dangerous potholes this year, most have been filled, some have not. The real joke is trying to get any sort of compensation from either insurance (it’s your fault – you are deemed “at fault” in our no-fault state) or the city – through their inscrutable web form. I had come to accept the fact that nothing is going to be done about the terrible conditions of the roads in our “leadership’s” push to transit, and gone about my business of dodging them, until now. Losing $700 has reinvigorated my efforts to hold local and state officials accountable for their mis-management of public property.

  4. March 26, 2014 at 9:39 am | permalink

    I thought it remarkable how unselfconsciously Michael Ford revealed that he took the bus only after an encounter with a pothole.

    Yes, AAATA provides an alternative transportation service for those who don’t have access to a private car, whether by accident or by choice. But does the system in Ann Arbor make it possible to use it continuously and thereby eliminate the car? The expanded system does not really increase that possibility for Ann Arbor users. It primarily extends hours on existing routes while adding more opportunities to commute into the city.

    I don’t agree that the state of the roads and transit are tradeoffs for one another. The deficit for the CTF affects all forms of transportation. The Michigan Legislature only just now approved a supplemental bill that failed to do much more than an emergency patch. We need a long-term transportation funding revision, not just in the state, but in the country.

  5. March 26, 2014 at 10:51 am | permalink

    > But does the system in Ann Arbor make it possible to use it continuously and thereby eliminate the car? The expanded system does not really increase that possibility for Ann Arbor users.

    I disagree with the premise of the question. The bus system succeeds when it gives people transportation choices. Later nights and more frequent service will put a dent in the need to drive, but it won’t eliminate it. For me, being able to get home from downtown late at night is the big plus and that will save me maybe 30-50 car trips a year.

  6. By John Floyd
    March 26, 2014 at 12:01 pm | permalink

    At one level, it’s a surprise that the head of the bus agency doesn’t ride the bus except as an “option”. Its sort of like learning that a restaurant owner doesn’t eat his his own place: makes you wonder what’s wrong with the offering.

    At another level, it illustrates a truth about public transit: one of its purposes is to get OTHER people off the road, so that Big Shooters’ car commutes are easier.

  7. March 26, 2014 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    Re (5) yes, any expansion of transportation options is good, but there are those who would like to get rid of one family car, or live without one altogether. If you live near a major route and can eliminate just a few trips a year, great. If you would like to get across town to key locations other than the downtown, you have few options.

  8. March 26, 2014 at 2:21 pm | permalink

    A song about living without a car (in DC), for levity. [link]

  9. By Tom Whitaker
    March 26, 2014 at 2:58 pm | permalink

    @6: Mr. Ford receives a $10,000 per-year personal vehicle allowance.

  10. March 27, 2014 at 4:20 pm | permalink

    I just posted a discussion of transportation funding as related to the transit issue and was startled on rereading this article to find that the consultant/lobbyists have some incorrect information as quoted above.

    Here is the state supplemental bill (summarized by the Senate Fiscal Agency). [link to .pdf] Please note that the amount is $215 million, not $250 million, for the “road budget”. Only $100 million is for winter damage (not for any other purpose like resurfacing, etc.) and $115 million is for special projects to be determined by Senate and House leadership.

    Also, these amounts are not added to the CTF but are standalone allocations to be distributed to road agencies by the existing formula in Act 51.

    Perhaps talks about increasing flow to the CTF are happening around some tables but nothing is official. Also, transit funding is limited to 10% of the CTF by the Michigan Constitution. I’m not sure that Mr. Cooper’s comments reflect that reality.