Monday, June 22, 2009

Wally inches forward; Arborland shuts out AATA

There's good news and bad news. For every step forward we take at least one step back. First, the good news.

Wally Inches Forward

Wally, the proposed commuter rail line from Howell to Ann Arbor, is coming slowly closer to reality. Today's coalition meeting noted these steps forward:

  • An archeological investigation was conducted at the proposed Hamburg station site to insure than no Native American grave sites or artifacts would be desecrated. That was necessary because it's within a mile of a known Native American burial ground. The only artifacts found were two nails and a bolt, less than fifty years old, so the Hamburg station has the go-ahead.
  • The plan calls for using bi-level commuter rail cars sold by Chicago's Metra agency when then got too old to be worth keeping. After a competitive bidding process, a contract has been awarded to Great Lakes Central Railway to refurbish the cars and make some of them ADA compliant. The idea is to assemble the cars into sets that will each include at least one car with a wider door and space for wheel chairs.
  • The boarding-platform height has been determined: 8 inches over the top of the rail. This will allow plans for stations to be started.
  • Surveys are in progress to determine what people want and how they feel: the phone survey for Livingston County areas near Wally was completed last week; the one for Washtenaw Wally areas is this week. An on-line survey of interested people will be available soon. I'll send you the link when it's up.
  • The PR consultant suggested a unified approach to getting information out - especially the reasons we need Wally. It involves two co-chairs, one from each county through which Wally will pass (Washtenaw and Livingston). There was a long discussion of how that effort would be organized, the upshot of which is that nothing has been decided yet.

Arborland Ejects AATA

If you live in the area, you've probably heard by now: Arborland's management is shutting out buses beginning July 1. AATA has used Arborland as a transfer point for thirty years. I remember riding to WCC when I first started teaching there in 1983, transferring at Arborland. Routes 4, 7, and 22 call there, and AATA counts about a thousand boardings there every weekday.

Apparently AATA has been in negotiations with Finsilver Friedman, Arborland's owners, off and on for a couple of years. A significant number of passengers are known to park in Arborland's convenient lot, hop on a bus, and retrieve their cars several hours later without spending a dime at the mall. Store owners - reasonably enough - objected to parking spots being taken in that way, so AATA posted signs to direct bus users to use only spots away from the stores. They even offered to put AATA staff at Arborland to shoo passengers away from parking in places too close to the shops. Finsilver Friedman simply refused to renew. AATA has explained it in a press release on their Web site.

Let's be clear: Finsilver Friedman has every right to restrict their parking lot to paying customers, and AATA is not a paying customer. That said, it's a stupid move. Really dumb. Rumor has it their email inbox is over quota from all the complaints they're getting. They're not answering any of them. They won't say why they're refusing AATA's permission in spite of efforts to accommodate the mall's needs. My private theory about their reticence is that they don't like the kind of people who are supposed to ride buses. They want Arborland to be seen as an upscale kind of place, but "everybody knows transit riders aren't the right kind of people." Articulating that would leave them wide open for accusations of stereotyping, prejudice, and even *gasp* racism, so silence is golden.

With more and more people flocking to public transit, you'd think mall management companies would welcome buses. You'd think they would consider ways to integrate bus-riding and shopping. Perhaps bringing the buses closer to the shops, rather than keeping them at arm's length on a concrete island surrounded by parking lots and driveways. Maybe even putting stores like Hiller's and cafés like Starbucks right next to the bus transfer points, so people could easily pick up a latte or a gallon of milk while waiting for their bus.

Instead, the buses will be stopping in traffic on Washtenaw Avenue, at least for now. Most people wanting to transfer will have to cross Washtenaw at one of its busiest points. AATA is urging people to cross at the Yost signal (here's the diagram). But the arrangement of the intersection is maximally inconvenient for that. Let's say you're on a 4 or 7 bus heading toward Ann Arbor, and you need to get to North Campus or the VA Hospital. For many years, it was just a question of getting off your first bus, waiting for the 22, and getting on. Beginning July 1, You'll have to get off, wait for the light to cross the west Arborland drive, wait again to cross Washtenaw, and wait again to cross Yost before boarding. Tell me nobody will try to dart through traffic on Washtenaw, especially if they see the 22 about to leave. Tell me everybody will wait for three changes of the traffic signal, even if it means missing their bus and waiting another half-hour in the rain.

AATA has been in touch with MDOT to try to remedy the situation. Washtenaw is a State Highway, so MDOT has to approve any changes. You may have noticed that MDOT's budget is disappearing fast, and AATA's revenues are shrinking rapidly, so tell me how long you think it will take to get funding to make any changes.

There may be a bright spot, though. With those nasty buses gone, and plenty of parking available for upscale customers, Arborland's revenues will be going up, right? So the City of Ann Arbor will benefit from a huge increase in tax revenues, won't they?

What to you think?


  1. I am hoping for the best possible outcome. AATA buys the "Dollar Tree" formerly "Frank's Nursery." Then they make a first rate transfer station there on the south side of Washtenaw including some businesses that pay rent to the AATA to offset their aquisition/maintenance costs. The glass is half empty. At least!

  2. Right on, Anon! The strip mall on the south side of Washtenaw is ideal for development as a transit-oriented, mixed-use area.

    Some states allow transit agencies to own land and lease it as an income property. Federal transit law actually encourages it, but I'm not sure about Michigan law. It might require some fancy legal footwork. Anybody know?