Thursday, March 17, 2011

Three Transit Updates: AATA, APTA, WATS

Family Savings for Using Transit

American Public Transit Association released their monthly calculation of the amount a family would save by giving up one car and taking transit. The annualized average for the entire country is...


Look for a figure over $10,000 next month, reflecting rising gas prices.

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority

There was a little shuffling around at tonight's AATA Board meeting about the Washtenaw Avenue Transfer Center (née Arborland). This is intended to get buses out of the flow of traffic while they wait for passengers, and make it safer for passengers to from one bus to another. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between AATA and the City of Ann Arbor has been drafted and needs to be ratified in order for work to proceed. But the MoU wasn't quite available yet, so the Board will vote electronically after having a chance to see it.

The big moment was the formal adoption of the historic "Smart Growth" plan as the 30-year goal for public transit in Washtenaw County. As Board Chair Jessie Bernstein said after the meeting, it's just a start. There's lots of work to do now. Remember though, signing the Declaration of Independence was just a start...but it was an important start. Still, there was a war to fight before it meant anything.

So what is the "war" we must fight before Washtenaw County actually gets the transit system envisioned in the Smart Growth scenario? Like any war, it will require good strategy, good funding, winning hearts and minds, and good troops in command and on the ground.

  • Good troops on the ground: we're fortunate here. The staff at AATA, including the two Michaels - CEO Ford and Coordinator Benham - have demonstrated their skilled and are eager to keep up the fight. We're also fortunate that Governor Snyder, our representatives at the state and federal level, and most of the elected officials in the county support the "Smart Growth" plan, according to Mr. Ford's extensive polling.
  • Strategy: some of the big strategic decisions involve timing and inclusiveness. Should we press for an early millage vote, while people's attention is still on the new plan, or should we go slowly, carefully, and make sure everything is "done right"? What's the best strategy for including all parts of the County, without losing revenue from Ann Arbor that provides extra services like Night Ride? Is an "Act 196 entity" really the best model for a county-wide transit authority, or might it come with some serious "gotchas"?
  • Winning hearts and minds has been a big part of the process so far, with two rounds of public meetings, a big Web push, and coverage in the media. That needs to continue. Input from public meetings indicates broad support county-wide for the "Smart Growth" option. Here's where we are so far, combining feedback from all the sources:
    Lifeline Plus Accessible County Smart Growth Total

    The "Smart Growth" option isn't really a plan, so much as a scenario - a proposal, a vision - as Board Member Roger Kerson pointed out at tonight's meeting. We've got to continue listening to input from the public, and continue education on what good transit brings to a region.
  • Good funding is "the elephant in the closet", of course. (No political implications intended!) A millage is almost certain to be involved, but other sources of funding are equally important. I can't over-emphasize the importance of public-private projects. It's one of the cornerstones of Wake Up Washtenaw's advocacy. It's working in Detroit with the M-1 light rail, as savvy business men there realized what they can gain by investing in good transit. We should consider everything from sponsored stops to transit centers with shops and cafés helping pay the bills, making passengers comfortable, and making a profit.
    And we've got to help families realize what they can save with a good transit system. It's $9,904 this year, and it's bound to go up. Anyone care to guess what a gallon of gas will cost in 2041?

The Board will have its annual retreat on June 3, and the focus will be on funding strategies for the Smart Growth model. That's when the "elephant" really comes out of the closet.

Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS)

Looking over my notes, I don't see much to be happy about from the WATS meeting Wednesday morning (March 16). Well run meeting, positive up-beat representatives from the various agencies and governing bodies, but most items were just depressing.

Oh - one good item: the intersection of US 23 and Washtenaw Avenue will be reorganized this summer to improve pedestrian and bicycle passage. If you've ever tried to walk or bike through this're probably dead. It's a killing zone. Motorists using the approach ramps have too many other fast-moving vehicles to look out for, and can't spare attention for mere human beings. I haven't seen the plans for the new arrangement, but it's got to be an improvement. (Of course, things will be really awful while they're working on it!)

Now the depressing stuff.

  • Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) admin staff is at 50% of its earlier level, and no immediate prospect of hiring anyone new. This is good news for those who want small government, but not so good for those who want our roads fixed.
  • The Federal Transit Administration (FTA), after reviewing the proposal for the Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter service, decided to "take over" the project. SEMCOG, which has been in charge up to now, does not know why (according to SEMCOG's point man, Carmine Palombo). This will result in a month or six weeks of delay. Sigh. (This may be just a wild guess, but perhaps the FTA didn't think SEMCOG's experience with rail projects was very impressive. Could it be their lack of "track" record? ;-) We'll have to wait and see if FTA can do any better.
  • Washtenaw County Road Commission (WCRC) has spent about $300 million for salt this winter, about $150 million over budget.
  • Two Ypsi Township projects - Golfside and Ford - will be postponed until next year due to lack of "obligational authority" (i.e. money) until October.
  • Governor Snyder has indicated that he won't be able to turn his attention to transportation issues until Fall. The House Transportation Committee, chaired by Rep. Olsen, will be preparing a recommendation for him late this summer.
  • A tremendous amount of confusion was revealed when Western-Washtenaw Area Value Express (WAVE) pointed out their request for new buses couldn't be entered on time to get them by next year. After hearing a lot of polite but tense discussion, my conclusion is that the fault rests squarely on the US House of Representatives. Their infighting, political posturing, and intransigence has prevented the Federal government from having a budget. As you know, the government is operating on a "continuing resolution" that goes from week to week, almost. In that environment, the FTA can't authorize any new expenditures. Without the FTA's OK, MDOT transit people can't permit new money to be obligated, so SEMCOG has blocked these requests from being entered in their on-line system. The result? Unreliable service between Chelsea, Dexter, and Ann Arbor in a year or two, when WAVE's worn-out buses start breaking down frequently.

Well, draw your own conclusions. I really wish Congress would stop partisan game-playing, show some statesmanship, and start governing the country.

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