Wednesday, April 22, 2009

AATA: At the Top

AATA Board Meeting, 2009-04-22

At tonight's Ann Arbor Transportation Board meeting, two issues stood out. One can be dealt with quickly: the auditor's report confirms that AATA's 2008 financial records and processes were good. $28.6 M is in T-bills (safe, but at very low interest) to be cashed in for operating funds through July, after which next year's Ann Arbor millage is expected (predicted to be 1.2% lower than last year's). For day-to-day expenses, about $831K are in various bank accounts, distributed so that they are all (mainly) covered by FDIC's $250K insurance.

OK. The fun part was discussing the finalist for AATA's vacant CEO (Executive Director) position. And the finalist is (drum rolllllllllllllll) Mr. Michael Ford, with whom the Board will enter into negotiations to finalize terms. So what kind of a person is Mr. Ford?

Well, anyone would be forgiven for mistaking him at first glance for Paul Ajegba, AATA Board Treasurer. Both are tall, black, football- or basket-ball player types with strong, handsome facial features and nearly identical shaved, (polished?) pates. Maybe Ajegba is more the basketball type, and Ford the footballer; I'd love to have them stand together for a picture - they could easily pass for brothers.

Now, enough of this superficial stuff. Michael Ford comes to us from the San Joaquin (Stockton, California) Regional Transit District (which happens to have many of the same model hybrid buses as does AATA). Ford was Chief Operating Officer there, and came to us highly recommended by his CEO. They have implemented a popular BRT-like service, on which stops are limited, tickets are purchased in advance, and traffic lights give them priority when they are late. (This lacks many features of a true BRT system, and is more like the proposed Detroit area "ART", Advanced Rapid Transit.)

Before serving the San Joaquin RTD, Ford held the position of Executive Advisor to the General Manager of TriMet, the Portland, Oregon area transit agency. That agency runs both light rail and streetcar systems, giving Ford rail experience which will be very valuable as AATA presses forward with commuter rail. While in Portland, he served on the Board of United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, and was active in working with transportation needs of the elderly and disabled community.

Stockton, with an estimated 375,426 inhabitants and 685,660 in the metro area, is considerably larger than Ann Arbor (283,904) and Washtenaw County (322,895) [all 2008 estimates]. Stockton experienced very rapid growth in the 1990s and early 2000s, but when the housing bubble burst, it crashed spectacularly. In 2008, housing prices fell a heart-stopping 39%, foreclosures reached 9.5%, and unemployment stood at 13.3%. Well, we do have it bad in Michigan, but I have to admit - grudgingly - that San Joaquin County has it worse.

However, their loss is our gain. Michael Ford is both a transit expert and an accomplished people-person, according to his former CEO and the AATA Board's interview report.

  • He's a good listener, and not on an ego-trip.
  • Although his answers to some interview questions lacked the "crispness" Board member Ted Annis would have liked, he satisfactorily covered all the issues raised, by the end of the interview.
  • Rich Robben was impressed by the answer to his question, apparently "How would you deal with a management subordinate who is not performing up to expectation?". Instead of dealing with his response to the individual's performance, Ford talked about making sure each individual is in a position that's aligned with the goals of the organization - a more holistic approach.
  • Chair Nacht was impressed by Ford's polite persistence on the rail issue. When asked repeatedly what he (Ford) would do if the commuter rail project fell through, Ford insisted he would keep trying until it was successful.

It's good to have someone who's worked with rail transit systems: he knows first-hand how popular they become, and how successful they are as engines of local economic development.

All in all, a good choice. I hope we'll soon be able to welcome Michael Ford officially to AATA.


    We know Michael Ford, he worked here at TRIMET!
    He was quietly pushed out, nobody knows why?
    What's his explanation?

  2. He hasn't said anything publicly about it. The focus here was on his last position at San Joaquin RTD, and we know why he left there: their budget bombed. Well, TriMet's loss is our gain, too! ;-)

  3. Al, do you have any input about Michael Ford? Should we really be happy to have him in Michigan, or should we have some reservations...?

  4. Can you find out what he said about TRIMET?
    We all wonder what happened over here, one day he just dissapeared!

  5. I communicated with him several times while he was director of transportation here.

    He was helpful to me personally.

    There were quite a few people who didn't like him.

    I really have no comment because I actually didn't know him personally while he worked here, our communication was strictly email.