Community, Conversation, and the Ann Arbor Local News Quandary

Posted June 9, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: Basis, media

Why do we need a local news source?  In the past there were practical reasons for picking up the newspaper.  Schedules for movies and sport events.  Job postings and other classified ads. Reminders for when City Hall would be closed for a part holiday.  Information about upcoming elections or new ordinances that affected daily life.  Most of these have been replaced by simple Internet searches or subscriptions.  (If you haven’t yet signed up for notices from the city, click on this List of Ann Arbor City Notices and choose the items that interest you.  At least go for the newsletters.)

But there is another, less tangible but perhaps more important reason to read local news.  It is to build a sense of community. We are a social species.  We need to know what others in our immediate circle are doing.  If we are to feel that we are part of our city, our neighborhood, or our county, we need news, even if it is of activities that we ourselves will never participate in.  (Or maybe it will open up new possibilities.)  Also, if we are to be meaningful participants in the circle of life around us, we need information.  Otherwise, we are in danger of being isolated within a tiny group of immediate friends and family, adrift in an increasingly worrisome world.

Oh, we used to complain about the Ann Arbor News, back in the days that it was a real printed newspaper.  It arrived on our doorstep seven days a week and got at least a glance over the main stories and the other parts that were of interest (sports, restaurant reviews, comics, whatever).  It could be irritating in many ways, including the political stance.  (The endorsements were reliably Republican.) Some called it The Snooze and there were parody versions “Not The Ann Arbor News“.  But just about everyone read it and we all knew what we knew.  Then it fell apart.  Read the Michigan Daily’s astute recounting of this history, The Twilight of Newspapers in Ann Arbor Today’s online “Ann Arbor News”, a branch of the media company MLive, has more news from elsewhere than Ann Arbor, and often the reporting is limited to court cases, highway accidents, sports, and business openings.  They are now limited to two print issues per week (Thursday and Sunday) and subscription drives are sounding more and more desperate.  A recent email promises “Convenient Print Home Delivery PLUS Unlimited Digital Access!” for 99¢ a week, limited time.  Unlimited digital access?  This is not a publication that can retreat behind a paywall.

What To Do?

Now keeping up with the Ann Arbor community takes more effort.  We made some suggestions last year in Seeking the News About Ann Arbor and Going to the Source for News of Ann Arbor.  It takes effort and paying attention. Sources are scattered and not always very efficient.  (Social media, for example, contain everything from puppy pictures to valuable notices of events.)  There are a number of individuals and organizations who do publish news items, but usually on a one-at-a-time basis and just clicking on all those bookmarks could take all day.  Many offer free subscriptions but that can also fill up your mailbox with more than is easily handled in the daily rush.  (Highly recommended: Mary Morgan’s CivCity newsletter.  Aimed at increasing civic participation and loaded with links and events. She does all the work of tracking down agenda items that you wanted to know about.)

Now there is an adventurous effort to fill in the gaps.  The Ann Magazine  began as a monthly print publication inserted into other local print newspapers.  It is now being produced in print on a quarterly basis and is assuming more of an online character.  They’ve introduced a new idea.  Explained in Welcome to ANNthology, it is a curated compilation of articles from many independent sites, mostly Ann Arbor but also from other Washtenaw County communities.  This comes to your mailbox five days a week – for free! Click here to go to the subscription form.  As the invitation says, “Don’t be overwhelmed – be informed.”

Is this the only and best answer to our “Ann Arbor news desert” problem?  No, but it is the best opportunity to have our community conversation that has come along for a while.  Go ahead and subscribe.  You’ll like it.

Ann Arbor and the Rail Station Gamble

Posted May 28, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation

The leaders (movers, shakers, and Council majority) of Ann Arbor celebrate the notion of Ann Arbor exceptionalism.  This evidently extends to invulnerability in times of uncertainty.  While the nation and even the world wait to see what will unfold with the Trump presidency, we are ready to bet on future Federal dollars to achieve our dream of a new train station.  On June 5, 2017, City Council will be asked to pay an additional $137,026 toward the new station.  (The last vote was in January, to put money into a contingency fund for this purpose.)  This money is intended to allow the City to collect the last part of a planning grant for a new station. Yet, it appears unlikely that Federal funds will be available for actual construction of a station.  And even more significantly, the contracted work may not be finished in time to be reimbursed under the current grant.

A good summary of the situation was provided by Ryan Stanton, writing for MLive.com (Ann Arbor News).   Stanton has been following this issue closely and earlier submitted a FOIA to see the document that the City sent to the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) for review.  All in all, the City of Ann Arbor has qualified for an award in non-transparency with regard to this project. You may remember the famous picture of the email with all lines redacted.  It has released no public documents about the project since September 2016. (All public documents are available on the City’s Ann Arbor Station page.)

Timeline on Ann Arbor City website for grant acceptance

But the project is running up against a brick wall.  The grant funds expire (gone back to the Treasury) as of September 30, 2017 (end of FY 2017). The schedule published on the City web page indicates that the required public hearing and 30 day review of public comments was to take place in December 2016, with final approval of the EA in January.  But the proposal has languished in some void between the FRA and the consultants.  Now it appears increasingly difficult to fit in all the tasks needed before expiration of the grant funds.  That would leave the City liable for all the costs that have been incurred since this phase of the work began.

As the City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, noted in a letter to Council members,

FRA has expressed some concern over the City’s ability to complete the work within the grant funding period. To that end, FRA has authorized a “tapered match” approach, in which the City can access the federal funds first. Staff believes under this structure, we can advance the majority of the PE effort before the end of July. Council should note that the FRA cannot guarantee that invoices sent to them after June 30th will be processed prior to their mid‐September cut‐off for FY17 funds disbursements.

Lazarus is asking Council to approve an amendment to the consultants’ contract that appears to extend their tasks beyond the original contract. One could speculate that some of this is to answer questions from the FRA in their response to the previous submission.  There is a slight pleading quality to Lazarus’ letter to the FRA. (Note: full-size text may be viewed by clicking on these illustrations.)

From Howard Lazarus to FRA Midwest Regional Manager May 26, 2017

An odd note is that the project is not shown in the attached schedule to be completed until October 2017.  How does that reconcile with a September 30 deadline, much less a June 30 deadline?  Yet presumably the City would not pay the consultants in advance of their work.  (The usual approach is that consultants issue invoices as work is done, and the City sends them to the FRA for reimbursement of the grant amount.)  It appears that the City is proposing to make itself responsible for completion of the work past the grant deadline.  All of this seems to be very creative accounting practice.

What’s  the Problem?

We recently alluded to the history of former Mayor John Hieftje’s vision with reference to the grant that was awarded for the first phase of planning a new train station.  Like most Federal grants from those golden days, this ARRA grant of $2.8 million (from the Obama stimulus of 2009) is for 80% of the cost – in this case, for the Environmental Assessment under NEPA, and some preliminary planning and engineering.  It has been the expectation that a future grant for actual construction would follow that same 80% Federal – 20% local rule.  But even 20% of a multimillion dollar building is a big bite for a small city.  So originally, the promise from Mayor Hieftje was that the City would put in NO GENERAL FUNDS.  Instead, the local match was to be picked up by the University of Michigan in a joint project, the Fuller Road Station. (Here is a post in which that promise was made explicitly). That deal fell apart and UM built a parking structure elsewhere.  Ann Arbor had already expended a fair amount of money on early planning, but that work was not accepted as a local match toward the grant, so the money was essentially wasted and new cash from the General Fund had to be invested in order to stay in the running for the grant.  The City has now spent over $1 million just in matching funds for the grant (most of this went to consultants and planners), though much more has been spent that doesn’t apply directly to that grant now.  And now it could be liable for all the sum left (about $750,000), including the 80% Federal match.

Predicting the Future of a New Station

Much of the uncertainty has been in the Federal budget process itself.  As we explained in some detail earlier, transportation funding is complex.  Part of it is based on the Highway Trust Fund – a dedicated source of revenue.  The rest is dependent on the dispensation of Congress, in money from the General Fund or from new sources of revenue.  Much of that was hanging by a thread until recently because all Federal funds were dependent on passage of a continuing resolution – which happily was passed on April 28 and signed by the President.  Here is a summary of transportation funding under that resolution. Note that some important items, namely TIGER grants and New Starts, that were to be eliminated according to the President, were saved in this extension.

Meanwhile, the President, or more accurately, the White House, presented Congress with an Executive Budget. As has always been true of Presidential budgets, this is more a policy document than an actual description of how money will finally be allocated.  Only Congress gets to appropriate money.  But it is important because it shows President Trump’s priorities and thinking.  And those priorities do not include handing money out to little cities.  Here is a revealing summary of the “Infrastructure Initiative”.  From the summary:

The flexibility to use Federal dollars to pay for essentially local infrastructure projects has created an unhealthy dynamic in which State and local governments delay projects in the hope of receiving Federal funds. Overreliance on Federal grants and other Federal funding can create a strong disincentive for non-Federal revenue generation.

Instead, the White House would move to a model in which private investors would enter into partnership with states and local governments to build or improve projects that have a revenue generation capability.  So – toll roads, transit prices high enough to pay a profit, fees for using anything. The Feds would simply facilitate all this.  The idea is so potent that investment funds along these lines have already attracted Saudi investors.

Under the very best of scenarios, Congress will pass a budget for FY 2018, to begin October 1.  All current funding will expire as of September 30.  In the past few years, Congress has failed to pass a budget at all and instead has relied on a series of continuing resolutions, which generally hold most budgets where they began, with a few small changes.  But let’s assume that they make it this time. (After all, one party controls both houses of Congress and the Presidency.)  What are the chances that discretionary spending on transit will be included in the new budget, given the strong leanings by the White House and the tax-cutting mood of Congress?

A Double Gamble

So it appears that the City of Ann Arbor is placing bets on its cards for two outcomes:

  1. That it can recoup all the grant monies for the current project, against a very tough timeline
  2. That this will somehow result in the future in a new train station.

But it also appears that there is a mood of desperation at the possibility of having the effort collapse.  From Lazarus’ letter to Council:

From Howard Lazarus to Ann Arbor City Council

Rather high-stakes cards, and to my risk-averse eyes not a good bet.  Will Council raise, or fold?

 

 

 

 

Core Spaces and The Soul of Ann Arbor

Posted April 16, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: Basis, Business, Downtown, politics, Sustainability

It seems to have gone on forever.  But really, only for about a decade.  Now here we are, once again deciding on the fate of the Library Lot – that small precious piece of real estate next to the Ann Arbor District Library.

Rendering of proposed Core Spaces building as proposed to Council.

The Ann Arbor City Council will vote on this resolution on April 17, 2017.   It either will or will not award development rights for the Library Lot (retaining ownership of the actual land) to Core Spaces, which describes itself as “a full‐service real estate development, acquisition and management company”, and further identifies its target markets as “educational”, in other words, student-oriented.  The result will be a 17-story building, bigger than anything we could have imagined 10 years ago.

Feelings are running high and the volume of email to Council must be stupendous.  Just to make the drama more intense, because the resolution disposes of city property, it requires 8 of 11 Council votes (counting the Mayor).  Three CM have made their dislike fairly public (Eaton, Kailasapathy, Lumm).  So each one of the remaining 8 can be the one to make or break the deal.  It is generally understood that Mayor Taylor favors it.  Are all the rest committed to support it, in the face of a great deal of public opposition?  Some, especially those who are new to Council or up for re-election, are likely feeling the heat.

Why is this so important to so many?  Its importance (as measured by heat and light generated) is far more than most tall building development projects downtown.  There are many facets to the issue.  But most of all, this decision is symbolic about the direction that Ann Arbor is headed.  In many ways, it is a battle for the soul of Ann Arbor.

What Do We Want To Be?

This article from the Ann Arbor Observer (2005) outlined many issues and described the Calthorpe public process. (Click for link.)

The battle for the future of Ann Arbor has been the underpinning of our politics for over 10 years. One could argue that it began with the election of John Hieftje as Mayor in 2000, or the renewal of the DDA Charter in 2003.  That launched an emphasis on downtown development that has changed not only the appearance of Ann Arbor’s downtown, but its perceived purpose and use. There was also a shift in the objectives for the city as a whole.  We have often thought our city to be rather special, in a community-supportive, casually fun but also fairly intellectual, colorful but not in an overly contrived sort of way. See our post, What Does it Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie. In other words, a city to serve its citizens and welcome visitors on our own terms.  But in recent years, a new agenda has been espoused by the majority on our City Council.  This is spelled out at length in The Placemaking Agenda and Ann Arbor Politics. Briefly, it is to transform the city into a cradle of entrepreneurship and enterprise, especially by attracting “talent” (young people who can start or sustain high-tech enterprises).  Much of this is based on the concept of the “Creative Class”, as described by the urbanist Richard Florida in his 2002 book.

One could argue that Ann Arbor is doing very well and is succeeding in this talent-seeking strategy.  We are listed over and over again on national lists as in the top 10 for various qualities.  Maps showing economic success usually show our Washtenaw County as standing out.  But interestingly, Richard Florida himself has had something of a change of heart. Florida’s recent book, The New Urban Crisis, recognizes that the type of “success” we have enjoyed has come with a cost to whole swaths of demographics.  As he says in a recent article,

 As techies, professionals, and the rich flowed back into urban cores, the less advantaged members of the working and service classes, as well as some artists and musicians, were being priced out….I found myself confronting the dark side of the urban revival I had once championed and celebrated…As the middle class and its neighborhoods fade, our geography is splintering into small areas of affluence and concentrated advantage, and much larger areas of poverty and concentrated disadvantage.

And a summary from another article :

America today is beset by a New Urban Crisis. If the old urban crisis was defined by the flight of business, jobs, and the middle class to the suburbs, the New Urban Crisis is defined by the back-to-the-city movement of the affluent and the educated—accompanied by rising inequality, deepening economic segregation, and increasingly unaffordable housing.

Sure enough, a graphic from the article shows that Ann Arbor is #11 on his “Urban Crisis Index”.  Do increasing economic inequality, loss of affordability in housing, and racial/class segregation sound familiar?  Washtenaw County paid good money a couple of years ago for a consultant to tell us this about ourselves.  So, Ann Arbor is succeeding as a business proposition.  Is it losing what makes it successful as a place to live?  As a community in the whole?

(Florida will be keynoting this year’s SPARK meeting on April 24.  It’ll be interesting to hear what he says about our local situation.)

The Importance of the Library Lot

So what does the Library Lot have to do with all this? Because the Library Lot belongs to the entire City of Ann Arbor, and thus presumably its public, and because the project is so wildly out of scale with the downtown historic districts that supposedly make our downtown successful, not to mention the residential neighborhood immediately to the south, and because while this is a public asset, the benefit to the Ann Arbor public has not evidently been a consideration. (No public process has been employed to arrive at this use.) For all these reasons, the debate has been more passionate than for other downtown projects.  The Ann Arbor public continue to assert ownership.  For that reason, it stands as a symbol of the decisions to be made about our downtown, and thus our city.

But many other interests have eyed this choice little bit of real estate for particular ends.  The DDA has had a single-minded intent to increase the magnitude of development in the downtown, generally.  A group of influential insiders put forth a plan as early as 2008 to build a hotel and conference center on the lot, with the DDA’s assistance.  The Library Lot Conference Center controversy and battle is recorded in this series of posts.  The effort was finally killed by Council resolution in April, 2011 after a public campaign by concerned citizens.  Meanwhile, the DDA had constructed an underground parking structure in which part of the structure was specifically reinforced to support the intended hotel.

Projection of desired building density (700 F.A.R) for Library Lot in DDA study, 2013. Purple area is unreinforced “plaza”.

Things slowed down for a bit while the Ann Arbor District Library planned to build a new library.  The new building would not have been on the Lot (the current building would first have been demolished) but doubtless the Lot would have been used for staging.  However, that bond proposal was defeated in November, 2012.   The DDA sprang to the task of planning the immediate area in a project called “Connecting William Street”.  They used a pseudo-public approach (online surveys, public meetings) which unsurprisingly arrived at the conclusion that a tall building was needed on the lot.  The plan met with derision in some quarters and the City Council declined to adopt it.  It was added to the “resource documents” for the Planning Commission in March, 2013.

In a memorably feckless act (thank you, CM Kunselman), Council passed a resolution in April 2014 to hire a real estate broker.  They put the Lot up for sale.   Although the resolution cites the Connecting William Street project, no further effort was made to establish what the Ann Arbor public saw as the best use for this site.   Further, it accepted the notion that the reinforced portion of the lot would be used for building.  So here we are.

From page 42, Downtown Development Strategies, Calthorpe Associates, 2005

The Calthorpe process, 2005, is often cited as demonstrating that there was a public process followed for the fate of this parcel.  There was a report on Downtown Development Strategies issued (many recommendations have been ignored).  It does not make a specific recommendation on the Library Lot.  However, it calls for building height to be stepped down toward the residential neighborhoods, especially that last block before William.  And it calls for a Town Square.

ADDENDUM: The Library Lot was briefly, but seriously, considered as a site for a new City Hall, a.k.a Municipal Center, in 2006.  Here is the task force report. Community Security and Public Space 2006 The report specifically notes the importance of “an outdoor gathering place” and put the Library Lot high on the alternatives for a new Municipal Center that would include a public space.

 

It’s Not Just About a Park

Admittedly, the idea of a downtown “Central Park” (or Town Square) has been a major theme of the disputes about the Library Lot.  The Library Green Conservancy has been advocating vigorously for a park on the portion of the lot without special reinforcement, and there was that whole problem with collection of signatures on petitions. The DDA has been trying to put a damper on that idea for years.  (The Connecting William Street exercise did not even acknowledge the possibility.)

It’s Not Just About the Parking

The deal has serious implications to downtown parking.  It would give away a substantial part of this expensive structure to a private enterprise. (Some historical details are here: note we will be paying interest for many years to come.)  There are also legal questions that have not been satisfactorily answered.    Read it here.  Finally, it will reduce access to downtown by its customers. Downtown business organizations have objected.

It’s About Our Downtown, Our City

Our social media and comment pages are flooded with anguished complaints and worries about this project.  It is clear that our citizens do not believe this will enhance our experience of our city and that it will likely damage the downtown.  The comments shown below are from my personal social media feeds (Facebook, Nextdoor) and are unedited but anonymous because I don’t wish to make the writers’ identity the issue.  (Click on the boxes to read at full magnification.)

 

 

 

 

 

Note that these comments are all about quality of life and the viability of our downtown businesses.  There is a concern about the resilience of this part of our community, and of course the Downtown is still the center of town, and a location that affects us all.

If Council does vote to approve this deal, they will be going against the express wishes of a substantial number of their constituents.  Based on comments in the media, it seems that they are dazzled by the cash offer.  A complication is that it will supposedly be an assist to “affordable housing”.  But the benefits in that regard are modest.  (One scenario even has the City paying over a million dollars back in order to obtain more units.)  We have not really had a city-based discussion about what we want in “affordable housing” or what our best means of achieving that are.  It seems imprudent to sell off one of our choicest assets for this purpose, especially since so many questions persist about the effects of the parking on both businesses and city finances.  If our city finances are so challenged (and they do not seem to be) we should be looking at savings or new taxes instead of selling off our real estate.

Or – is Council going to go ahead with this because of the dogma of dense development?  In that case, are they considering the health of our present community?  Or are they aiming for a different one?  If the latter, they’d better consider more carefully the consequences of their actions.  A city is a complex ecosystem.  The Council has a solemn duty here.  I hope that they vote to preserve our community.  It has so much good, still.

ADDENDUM: Here is the Ann Arbor News preview of tonight’s vote. “And the consequences of whichever way the council votes could last for generations.”  Yup.

UPDATE: The Council voted to sell the lot, 8-3.  All the usual suspects voted as anticipated.  Here is what Mayor Taylor had to say about it.  

“I love Ann Arbor the way it is. We are not Chicago or Detroit, and I don’t want to be. ”

 

 

 

 

Making a Federal Case for Ann Arbor Rail

Posted April 3, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, Transportation

As we related in the last post, Ann Arbor has been dreaming of trains for the last decade. We have paid for multiple studies, and detailed plans and reports have been produced. Our Mayor, Christopher Taylor, has named rail travel as a top priority. In a letter sent to many constituents early in January, he stated “Expanded rail service is vitally important to the future of Ann Arbor”. (Here are some further comments reported by the Ann Arbor News.) Now the City Council has just a couple of months before the next Budget is adopted.  How much of the City’s resources should continue to be devoted to this purpose?  After so many years with rail in the future, is it time to relegate these dreams to the past?

For Love of Trains

First of all, this question is not about whether we love trains.  Of course we love trains.  Most of us of any age or travel experience have happy memories to relate.  (I have a sentimental description of my own experiences in this post from 2011.)  Trains are part of the sensibility installed in us from childhood.  Here is a video of a favorite childhood song about trains.  Wouldn’t you like to climb aboard on this train, or at least join in?

Trains are a great mode of travel.  Sit and read (or work) or just look at the scenery. No worries.  Why wouldn’t we want to be able to travel to Detroit without worrying about freeway traffic and parking?  And as a commute, it can’t be beat, especially if that “last mile” problem can be solved.  (Transit from the station to work.)  If you have visited a city with a light rail system, you know how nice it is to travel around an urban area that way.  Just hop on, ride a few minutes, hop off.

For all these reasons, and for several others, the dream has survived since 2006 and has been enthusiastically adopted by many on our Council, and by many citizens.  The rail projects have all been studied and are ready to be implemented, more or less.  But is this possible?  Most of all, can we afford this vision under the present circumstances?

A Very Expensive Wish List

Because consultants have been hired to do studies of our rail wish list, we have some rather good numbers now for how much these projects will cost.  The costs for the Ann Arbor Train Station have been kept rather obscure through the Environmental Review process, as has much other information. A construction estimate was provided via a FOIA by Dave Askins (thanks to a direct response by Howard Lazarus, the City Administrator).  A couple of feasibility studies have been completed for the Connector. The North-South Commuter Rail (aka WALLY) Feasibility Study has recently concluded; here is the Financial Analysis.  The Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail was folded into the Regional Transit Authority and cost estimates were included in that plan (RMTP) .

From all of these studies, we can compile a total of the full cost of the rail wish list for Ann Arbor.  Note that these figures are not the amount that the City expects to pay.  The Connector, WALLY, and the Ann Arbor-Detroit Commuter Rail are all expected to be cooperative projects and other governmental entities are expected to contribute. (The Ann Arbor Station is an Ann Arbor project alone.)  But in every case, the expectation has been that the main burden of the cost will be borne by the Federal Government.  Often the statement has been made that 80% of the cost will be Federal, and the 20% local matching amount is partly offset in theory by the State of Michigan (MDOT).

Costs for these projects are of two types: Capital (original construction) and Operating (annual cost of operation and maintenance).  Capital costs are a one-time investment, but operating costs are perennial.

Capital costs for four rail projects

Annual operating costs for three rail projects. It is assumed that Amtrak would continue to operate the train station. These are gross costs; offsets for fares and fees not subtracted.

Making Decisions about the City Budget

Most City expenditures are based on fairly accurate estimates, either for existing contracts or from well-fleshed out plans.  Most budgeted items will be spent as described, with a fair certainty that the deliverable will be produced.  There is never quite enough money for all the things we would like to achieve as a community.

The City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, has been making presentations to the Council in advance of the budget.  Capital improvements are suggested for firehouses, streetlights, sidewalks, dams, and signals.  The slide also showed the following amounts ($millions) for FY 2018 and FY 2019. The last column to the right is “FY 2020+”.  Taken all together, the rail items constitute 43% of all capital improvements.  These are General fund expenditures in the City Budget for the next couple of years.

From the slide of 2018 capital improvement costs. Figures at bottom include more items than shown here.

If Council is going to continue to use Ann Arbor city funds (taxes) to pursue these rail projects, it is making a calculated gamble.  We are continuing to put chips on the table in hopes that there will be a big payoff.  And the expectation has been that the deep pockets at the table belong to the Federal government.  That is no longer true.

The Shifting Sands of Federal Funding

With the Trump presidency, predictions are impossible.  One can, however, hear solid hints of what he is thinking.  There are other players in Federal funding, especially many different factions and interests among members of Congress.  Here are a few high points about Federal transportation funding, which has usually been very contentious.

  • The gold standard is outright grants.  In other words, Federal taxes distributed directly to states and localities for use in transportation projects.  This is what we would like for all our projects.  There has been a move in recent years toward encouraging localities to apply for loans instead. The TIFIA program is an example.
  • Pennies were falling from heaven in 2009, with the Obama stimulus program, better known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  This was especially friendly to transit programs and included the high speed rail program (HSIPR)  program that has paid for our preliminary rail station study.  It was not renewed with the new Republican Congress in 2010. All ARRA grants expire at the end of the current fiscal year (September 2017).
  • The main source for transportation grants has been the Federal gas tax, or Highway Trust Fund.  The tax rate has not increased since 1993.  This fund was originally to pay for the Interstate system.  A mass transit fund was added to it in 1982.  The Transportation Act, which is the law that governs how the money is spent, has expired a number of times and been renewed and rewritten.   This is always a big food fight in Congress.  The way the money is allocated changes in each revision.  There are always legislators who would like to get rid of the mass transit and alternative transportation provisions so more money can be spent on roads and bridges.
  • Through some miracle (and our Senator Debbie Stabenow deserves a lot of credit), the Transportation Act actually got revised and renewed in the last Congress.  The name always changes.  The last bill was MAP-21; this one is  the FAST act.
  • An important feature of the Transportation Bill is that items funded by the Highway Trust Fund are not dependent on the Federal Budget because they are not part of the General Fund.  This has kept funding of mass transit programs, for example, very stable.
  • The FAST Act included rail travel for the first time.  BUT it did not attach Highway Trust Fund monies to it.  RAIL IS DEPENDENT ON ALLOCATIONS IN THE FEDERAL BUDGET (the General Fund).
  • Congress has been keeping the Federal Government running by a series of continuing resolutions.  It has not actually passed a budget for a long time.  The current Continuing Resolution expires on April 28, 2017.
  • Meanwhile, President Trump and Congress are trying to conclude negotiations on a variety of bills and spending priorities.  Here is the Budget Blueprint recently published by the White House.

Important Cuts and Immediate Significance

The two most important points affecting grants to local governments for rail in the White House blueprint are the cancellation of TIGER grants and the loss of New Start funding for new projects.  TIGER has been a source of discretionary grants – very competitive (only 1 in 20 grant applications funded) but very essential to localities.  That is the source that Ann Arbor hoped to tap for the new train station.  New Starts have been the method of choice to start a new rail system “fixed guideway program” (which includes Bus Rapid Transit); this would have been the likely source of cash for the Connector or possibly one of the commuter rail systems.   Without these, there is literally no Federal grant program that could realistically pay for our rail programs.

Even if Congress does not follow this blueprint, it must still appropriate funds for any grant program.  With the Continuing Resolution due by April 28 and tax cuts looming on the horizon, this seems unlikely.

The Trillion-Dollar Question

What about the infrastructure program that President Trump has mentioned?  It would not be grants, but rather tax incentives for private investment.  The likely mechanism would be “P3” (Public-Private Partnerships) programs where the locality borrows money from private investors.   A preliminary list of likely projects has been released, but has no force in law.  Many such programs will require a source of revenue, such as fares, tolls, or fees.

ADDENDUM: The Administration’s likely approach is being telegraphed by Elaine Chao, the Transportation Secretary.  In this speech she says,

“Investors say there is ample capital available, waiting to invest in infrastructure projects. So the problem is not money. It’s the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments. That’s why a critical part of the President’s infrastructure plan will include common-sense regulatory, administrative, organizational and policy changes that will encourage investment and speed project delivery.”

This is a clear call for privatized projects.  What is not clear is what “impediments” are going to be cleared.  Agreement by local governments? Safety regulations? Environmental hazards?  Best not to picture this too fully.

The Gamble

Since it is so unlikely that there will be Federal grants to pay for the wish list of rail projects, what should the City Council do?  One alternative would be to sit tight and wait for developments.  But will they spend substantial funds in the next year on these projects, with all the other priorities? To do so seems to be a triumph of hope over prudence, indeed.  Perhaps there is a good lottery running somewhere.

 

 

Ann Arbor’s Fading Dream of Trains and Rail Systems

Posted February 12, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance, politics, Transportation

The Mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, held a convocation of area leaders on June 15, 2006, in which he outlined a broad vision of transportation for Ann Arbor and the region.   As he explained (press release), the vision would bring environmental benefits (lessen air pollution), enhance quality of life, and increase the region’s economic competitiveness.  The vision was named the Mayor’s Model for Mobility.  Its elements were an East-West Transit (commuter rail) to link communities in Southeast Michigan, as well as a North-South Rail.  There would also be a local connector system to link up the two railroads, and a streetcar system that would encompass the many sprawling campuses of the University of Michigan.  The plan was illustrated by a sketch that is positively jolly.

Mayor's_Model_for_Mobility_20060008The vision was bold and in those heady days before the economic meltdown that affected local property values (and thus local property tax revenues), it seemed not unlikely.  Hieftje at that time was at the height of his influence, with a City Council that was solidly behind him.   He had the power of appointment to the board of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, the ear of our Congressman, John Dingell, and a strong relationship with the administration of the University of Michigan.

Since then, a lot has happened.  The economic collapse affected not only Ann Arbor, but Michigan and the nation.  There have been significant shifts in Congress and in attitudes toward transportation funding.  Prospects rose (with Obama’s election) and sank (Tea Party).  AATA (our local transit authority) put major effort into a countywide transit plan, which failed.  Then a smaller local urban transit millage succeeded.  A Regional Transit Authority centered on the Detroit Metro area was created.  Its millage failed and that effort is now in limbo.  (Some, but not all, of this history, is recorded in our posts on The Transportation Page.)

The remarkable thing is that, over a decade later and despite many discouragements, the current Mayor (Christopher Taylor) appears to be bent on fulfilling the original vision.  And its elements, especially those relating to rail travel, remain at the top of Ann Arbor’s priorities, as reflected by the Capital Improvements Plan.  But these are extremely expensive and rely on the assumption that there will be Federal grants to pay the major portions.

Looking At It With Clear Eyes

In light of recent changes, both in current transportation funding, and in the change of emphasis in the Presidency (as we indicated in the last post, the ground has shifted), how realistic is this vision now?  And how does this affect the rest of our local government initiatives, since we are presumably setting aside considerable funds in order to accomplish these decade-old objectives?

The timelines and priorities for some of the rail projects, such as the North-South rail (WALLY) and the East-West commuter rail, are more distant.  But the rail station (the Ann Arbor Station) is priorities # 1,2 and 3.  Also a very high priority is the Connector, a light rail system that will connect the UM campuses.  While the commuter rail projects and the Connector have other possible participants, the rail station is our very own.

First Comes the Train Station

The train station was part of a grant awarded to the State of Michigan from President Obama’s stimulus program.  That program, ARRA (American Resource and Recovery Act) was launched in 2009 and the availability of the funds is ending in May 2017.  Actually, the grant awarded is only to pay for the initial assessment of the site and preparation of a preliminary design and engineering review.

Mayor Christopher Taylor has consistently placed the Rail Station at the top of his list in importance for Ann Arbor.  In a recent article in the Ann Arbor News, he argued for its importance as he anticipates an increase in rail travel, including a new commuter rail service.  As described in a second article , Taylor was able to persuade a majority of his City Council to provide funds for work that cannot yet be done.

Council voted at the meeting of January 17, 2017 to allocate another $151,600 (matching funds for the ARRA grant).  As the background for the resolution states, availability of those funds is ending in May 2017.   This is awkward because the City is still awaiting a ruling from the Federal Railroad Administration as to the preferred site for a new station.  (The selection process has been arduous and there have been many delays.  More detail is available on the City website.  The two possibilities being considered are Fuller Park and the current site on Depot Street.) (Additional information and viewpoints are on the All Aboard on Depot Street website.)  Basically, the Council has now authorized funds for a contract which cannot be fulfilled at this moment but must be invoiced by May 2017.  (This is about 3 months from now, and critical information is not available.)

Money and Timelines

As always with government, much comes down to money.  How much will it cost? Where will it come from? When will it be spent?  The answers to some of these questions are in that Capital Improvement Plan mentioned earlier.  Staff takes all the information given to them and assembles timelines and cost estimates.  They also indicate some of the expected sources of the money.  But here are some important points to keep in mind.

The General Fund is the checkbook for the City’s cash flow.  It is the amount of money from property tax each year.  Most other funds in the budget are restricted to specific uses, such as roads from the road millage. If Council spends money on special projects, it is from the General Fund.  The General Fund revenues for 2016 were $83,617,342.  That’s $83.6 Million for the whole city.

Another important point is to recall that we are currently in Fiscal Year 2017.  It ends on June 30, at which point we will be in FY 2018.  Council is currently working on the budget for that FY, which will be passed in May 2017.  (Again, three months from now.)

Now look at this information from the CIP.  Note that some activities are already in process (2017).  But we have some big-ticket expectations, in a relatively short time.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan. WALLY omitted.

Amounts from the FY 2016-2021 Capital Investment Plan.   WALLY omitted.

According to this, we’ll be building a train station in the next fiscal year (begins in July 2017)   And we’ll put more than 10% of the General Fund into this one project.

I don’t believe it either.  And there are other details.  The remainder of that $44.5 million is supposed to come from a Federal grant.  (Money has not been allocated.)  And I’m guessing that part of our General Fund amount is hoped to come from the State of Michigan.  AAATA is being tasked with a grant for some of the Connector expenses, but they have a hard time making all their current expenses.  The University of Michigan, on the other hand, has committed to major expenditures for the Connector, but this is not shown here.  Still, the mere scale of these commitments is breathtaking.

In the next post, more details about transportation funding as it might affect this project.  But meanwhile, all this is hard to take in.  Will we really rearrange our city priorities to accommodate this heavy a drain?  Are the uncertainties being considered?  How will it affect the budget (that has to take in all other City considerations) that is under preparation?  How much will this vision affect our reality?

UPDATE: At the February 13, 2017 Council Working Session, the City Administrator, Howard Lazarus, presented a slide showing new projections for the CIP.  It indicates $500,000 for the Ann Arbor Station for FY 2018 and $13 Million for FY 2019, with the cryptic notation, “New revenue or financing”.  For the Connector, it shows $600,000 for FY 2019, with nothing for FY 2018.  For FY 2020 and beyond, we now see $10 Million for the City alone, with the funding noted as “tbd”.

Now What? Local Government in the Age of Trump II

Posted February 5, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance

Reading the tea leaves for predictions about local government funding.

In the last post, we predicted that there will be some serious changes in the relationship between local government and the Federal Government.  This is because of the election of Donald Trump as President.   As we stated, this is because the President qualifies as an extreme-impact, highly improbable phenomenon, a “black swan”.  This is not just because of a change in party from a Democratic to a Republican presidency.  Trump has already shown himself to be highly unpredictable and that he doesn’t follow any conventional playbook, even a Republican script.  “You can’t do that” is not a meaningful statement.  In fact, with the sudden ruling on immigration (for a recent example), he has shown that he will do things because he can.  So assumptions that anything will go on as it has are very poorly based.

Early Indicators

There are a few hints as to what may happen.  One is that he is apparently intent on fulfilling many of his campaign promises, even those thought to be too outlandish to be real during the campaign.  Often these were no more than tweets, but I hope that planners everywhere have already assembled a book of those for study.

Another hint is his appointments to Cabinet and other high-placed positions.  It appears that his main thrust is to appoint people who have a contrary view on the policies that are the responsibility of their new position.  So for example, Betsy DeVos – hates public schools, appointed to Department of Education. The Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, whose important relationship with that agency has been to sue it.  As these individuals take their places, it will be necessary to examine their records and pronouncements in order to guess what may happen.  But it is obvious that the intent is not to go on as we have.

Then there is the Republican Congress.  They have a rather uneasy relationship with their new President, but they are exultant at the opportunity to apply their views on spending, taxation, and regulation that have been held in stasis for eight years.  So where there are budgetary blueprints already on the table, they should be taken as a serious indication of where things may go.

According to an article in The Hill, Congressional staffers are putting together a “skinny budget” that is also being scrutinized by the President’s staff.  This budget is based on the Blueprint for Reform assembled by the conservative Heritage Foundation. The Hill has assembled a number of proposed agency cuts (which might affect local governments directly) and listed them in the article.  We hope to examine these closely in a future post.

Another set of guidelines to watch is a set of transportation priorities highlighted in an article from McClatchy DC.  These are slightly different from a set of priorities compiled by the National Governors’ Association.  All these are relevant to Trump’s promise to invest heavily in big infrastructure projects.  But they also have a potential effect on other transportation initiatives.

Willingness to Act

Fifth Ward Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski

Fifth Ward Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski

All of this should also be taken in the context of Trump’s evident willingness to wield a funding sword (or perhaps chainsaw is the better tool) to punish local governments for straying from the policy path that he prescribes.  The recent executive order regarding sanctuary cities, as detailed in this article from MLive, indicates that he will not hesitate to use this tool without a concern for collateral damage.  This caused at least one councilmember, Chuck Warpehoski, to express reservations at taking a step (the casual use of the term sanctuary city) that would endanger programs in the City, including affordable housing.

Be Prepared

Given all these still indefinite indicators, our local representatives should be looking ahead to see which programs may be vulnerable.  Our administrative staff and those whom we have elected to represent us need to be on their toes.  This certainly doesn’t seem to be the time to engage in bold adventures.

UPDATE: Some explicit worries about changes to support for affordable housing from Shelterforce.

SECOND UPDATE: Some shoes are beginning to drop.  This article from the Washington Post details some of the likely cuts to HUD housing programs.  Consequences for local programs are immense.

 

Now What? Local Government in the Age of Trump

Posted February 2, 2017 by varmentrout
Categories: civic finance

Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County local government will have to embrace a new paradigm in which Federal funding for long-accepted programs is no longer assured.  We hope they start now to think about this.

The Black Swan phenomenon

the_black_swan_taleb_coverThe book,  “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable”, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, was released in April 2007.  Taleb used the metaphor of the Black Swan (you never expect to see one, and have trouble believing it when you do), to describe an event with three attributes:

First, it is an outlier, as it lays outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.

Second, it carries an extreme impact.

Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

The book ranges through a variety of literary references, mathematical formulations (including chaos theory), parables, historical references, psychoanalytic tropes, and expanded metaphors to make its point.  It is quirky and sometimes difficult to read. (Sample heading: “Zoogles are not all Boogles.”)  But it makes a strong case that just when we believe that the course of the universe is a smooth sail, it will turn around and bite us in the (tail).  Perhaps the best metaphor is the story of the turkey, who lives happily in a grassy field with plenty of corn – until Thanksgiving comes.

Since Taleb often has made his living in finance (as a hedge fund manager, for example), his lessons are evidently meant to apply to the world of finance.  “A storm is coming.” (Not his quote.)  The book appeared in April 2007. In August 2007 there was a small panic as a hedge fund refused withdrawals.  In October 2007, the DOW was at a high of 14,000+ points.  By March 2009, it was at 6,600.  Meanwhile, the US and the world had endured an economic collapse.  Now the causes are well known, or at least well explained.  But at the time, everything was looking fine.   Black swans were hiding, but they were there.

We Shall Persevere

After the economic collapse, many normalization mechanisms were called into effect.  Even now, eight years later, things aren’t great for a lot of people.  There was a lot of damage.  But one thing that did work is that most governmental functions continued on along a fairly predictable course.  President Obama’s stimulus program was short-lived, but even through years of budget crises and sequestration alarms, cuts have been mostly at an incremental level.  This has meant that state and local governments and their planners and bureaucrats could continue to issue budgets expecting that various Federal subsidies and programs would be there, long enough in most cases to forecast several years into the future.  You need that to make plans.  Contracts have to be signed, projects initiated.  Costs of operation need to be anticipated.  And many lives depend on the continued smooth operation of these mechanisms.

Our expectations of our political system have been pinned on this smoothness of operation.  Yes, some programs get cancelled or cut, but on the whole things continue on and most things work out.  How could it be otherwise?  With the likely ascension of Hillary Clinton to the Presidency, this seemed even more obvious.  She ran as the maintainer of the status quo, with improvements.  All the polls said she would win, and President Obama was talking about his legacy.

The Trump Effect

Now we have our new Black Swan.  Who could have predicted that the American public would elect this man to the greatest station in the land?  (Clinton based her whole campaign on the bet that we wouldn’t.)  But here he is.

And then – there were the hopes that wise heads would counsel our new leader and changes would be at least well rationalized.   But he is showing some signs that he will be a wild card indeed.  He doesn’t accept known fact and makes his own up when it suits him.  He is prone to personal offense at criticism.  And he has been appointing mostly people who seem most interested in bringing down the established order.  Clearly he will not hesitate to take an egg-beater to government as we know it.   So he is likely to have an “extreme impact”.

Andy LaBarre, Chair of the BOC, 2017

Andy LaBarre, Chair of the BOC, 2017

In a recent interview on MLive, Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Chair Andy LaBarre put it succinctly: “Who the hell knows what Trump’s going to do on any number of things.”

You said it, Andy.  We are now facing an unprecedented level of uncertainty.  But we know that change is coming. Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and indeed the entire State of Michigan will have many adjustments to make in both programs and expectations as the full array of changes in Federal policy take place over the coming months.  I expect that the final resolution will be that we will have to rely more on local resources for essentials, and this in turn will mean a new evaluation of our own programs and priorities.

Timelines

Change will probably come very rapidly in some cases.  But for many programs, it will probably fall along budget schedules. One point to know is that different governments have different budget schedules.  The Fiscal Year that each level uses is a crucial piece of information in understanding when all the pieces will fall into place.  The next Fiscal Year will be FY 2018.

fy-datesAssuming that the Federal Government really does pass a budget on time this year, both the State of Michigan and Washtenaw County will have at least some ability to anticipate needed changes to their budget.  It may be trickier for the City of Ann Arbor.  The City Council actually approves that budget in May.

We do have a few tealeaves to read.  There are already some proposals for deep budget cuts being floated.  In the next post, I hope to highlight a few of those and their likely effects on local programs.