Archive for the ‘Sustainability’ category

Oh, Deer – Managing the Public

December 17, 2014

In our previous post, we suggested that a rational planning approach for the deer management project had been abandoned in the course of the public engagement process*.

A hunter in a tree stand.  He'll use carefully delivered shots to take out a deer.

A hunter in a tree stand. He’ll use carefully delivered shots to take out a deer.

Why is public engagement so crucial in this particular case, though always important in any governmental plan?  Because the issue of deer and how to cope with them is highly charged emotionally, as we have noted.  The point is that urban residents who seldom encounter deer have some difficulty in contemplating the only (sorry, but true) means of population control, namely killing some of them. This is called “culling”.  Typically the carcass is immediately transported to a processing facility and made into steaks, chops, summer sausage, and a variety of other meat cuts.  Often they are donated to food pantries. But asking an urban population to adopt a culling program requires information and careful inquiries about acceptability of this method.

The city’s consultant, Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations, proposed the “public engagement strategy” as his major work product. There have been three stages thus far.  The first was out of view of the general public, consisting of one-on-one meetings with designated stakeholders.  The second was a survey made available on the city’s A2 Open City Hall site.  The third was a public meeting held on December 10.  The slide presentation by Fleetham and a video of the meeting are viewable on the city’s Deer Management Project webpage.  The Ann Arbor News published a brief account of the meeting.

The Stakeholders

The term “stakeholders” is becoming a buzz word in governmental circles, meaning the “people who have some investment in this issue”.  In this case, the starting point was “partners”; other governmental agencies who might assist or cooperate.  As the May 2014 Council resolution on the deer problem stated, city staff was asked to

“partner with the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Department and Commission, the University of Michigan, the Humane Society of Huron Valley and other interested parties to develop information and strategies needed for deer management, including conducting deer counts; researching damage caused by deer to wildlife, native vegetation, and forest regeneration; and obtaining assistance from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division”.

(Note that Washtenaw County took a lead on the issue with a Working Session on February 20, 2014, and discussion at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting before that. Subsequently, the County contracted with a naturalist to study the effects of deer on native vegetation.)

The slide from the presentation listing "stakeholders".

The slide from the presentation listing “stakeholders”.

The implication of “partners” is that a cooperative arrangement is formed in which expertise and tools from various sectors is applied to address a problem.  But in the hands of our consultant, these became “stakeholders” who were merely asked for some opinions. The names of the individuals who supplied these opinions are not given, though we can guess in most cases.  This might be important. Most are institutional entities, and the individuals who represented them may or may not be offering personal opinions, expert knowledge-based opinion, or merely be representing the interest of the institution. We are not given their actual responses or even very much about the actual questions asked. (The single slide and limited description of their comments from the December 10 presentation is shown below.  We recorded the presentation to verify quotes.)

  • Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance is evidently the stand-in for those who would like the city to address the problem (their website has many reasons and much information). This was evidently a group interview. But this small group of citizens is not the entire population who are affected.
  • The Humane Society of Huron Valley contracts with Washtenaw County for a variety of animal control services, including humane wildlife removal (deer are not one of the species included).  Its President and CEO, Tanya Hilgendorf, is one of the most vocal opponents of lethal approaches.
  • The Ann Arbor Police Chief is John Seto.  He would be able to comment on vehicle-deer crashes.  Presumably those were excluded from the reported comment that there are “no significant public safety issues”.  Apparently our police chief is cognizant that deer limit their home invasion and theft to gardens and have not yet committed any homicides.
  • The Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation Service Manager, Colin Smith, is presumably responsible for the comment, “There are a few complaints from park users.”  (Note the lack of information about actual damage to park vegetation.)
  • The Natural Area Preservation Program Manager, Dave Borneman, seems to have little to say here, though he presumably supplied a graph showing songbird counts (not shown here).
  • MDNR (the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) was presumably represented by Kristin Bissell, the wildlife biologist for our area.  She was also interviewed as part of the program.
  • The Washtenaw County Parks Director, Robert Tetens, does not appear to have contributed much to the published remarks.  Washtenaw County has been addressing the issue of deer in its own natural areas, but I would guess that Ann Arbor City would not be considered within their jurisdiction, so circumspection would be called for.
  • The University of Michigan spokesperson is not identified.  The UM is a large campus with many different units who could be differentially affected. If the Community Relations Director, Jim Kosteva, was interviewed, he likely demurred from having much of an opinion, since he would not have an institutional response at hand.

The results from these interviews are summarized in one slide, which is structured to indicate that opinions fall on a wide spectrum.  As Fleetham commented, “You can see the same wide dispersion, what we call in the business a polarity.”

This single slide from the December 10 presentation summarizes the stakeholder interviews.


All the expert time that was presumably invested in the interviews has resulted in what amounts to a quick survey of opinion.  Without identifying the particular observations of each person’s position, the only real takeaway is that there are many different responses.  The nuances and underlying special information that might have informed these responses are not indicated.  Also,  we don’t know how many interviewees are not represented here at all, or whether one or more had a disproportionate voice. Certainly, we have come a long way from “partnerships”.

The presentation of these points on a spectrum is rather strained.  Many fragments don’t necessarily belong on a spectrum, depending on their contexts.  “We are investing to protect our plants” is shown as a middle of the spectrum, yet it would be perfectly consistent with “we have an acute problem”.  “Adopt latest non-lethal biological techniques” should be no different in spectrum location from all the other non-lethal techniques mentioned – so most of that spectrum suggests non-lethal techniques in comparison to culling.  And “ban feeding”, together with “improve road safety” and “educate public…” would all be logical additions to complement a culling program, rather than representing a middle ground.  There appears to be an effort to make the point that there are a wide variety of responses (opinions), presumably all of equal weight.  One would instead have liked to see an evaluation of different approaches.

In addition to the Stakeholder interviews, the presentation also featured a scripted interview with the MDNR wildlife biologist and a review of survey results.  (The edited survey is available on A2 Open City Hall until January 2.)

In future posts, we’ll review the survey and some other information presented on December 10.

NOTE: Posts on this subject are now listed on our page, What Do We Do about the Deer?, along with some useful resources.

ADDENDUM: As our recent post on the city survey indicates, the greatest concern (regarding deer) among city residents is the incidence of deer-vehicle crashes.  The most recent data available via state agencies is for 2013.  According to a SEMCOG source, the 2014 data will not be available until April 2015.

One of the apparent efforts to downplay the problem at the December 10 public meeting was the use of deer-vehicle statistics.  Partial year information was presented in a misleading way.

The graph shown at the December 10 meeting. The Ann Arbor crash data are through November 4, 2014.

The graph shown at the December 10 meeting. The Ann Arbor crash data are through November 4, 2014.

Note that the slope of both lines indicates an increase in deer-vehicle crashes through 2013.  But the additional information about Ann Arbor seems to indicate a decline in crashes.  Yet, it is well known that most deer-vehicle crashes occur in November and December (the mating season, and the hunting season).  It was very poor use of data to extend the blue line using a partial year’s data and thus to imply that the problem is diminished.

Here is the deer crash information given in the report from the City Administrator in August.

Data from the City Administrator's report, August 2014. Data for 2014 are as of July, 2014.

Data from the City Administrator’s report, August 2014.

In the graph shown at the December 10 meeting, it appears that about 22 crashes involving deer had already been recorded as of November 4.  That exceeds the number for the entire year in 2012.  If the increases are proportionate, we are likely to see totals of 38 to 40 deer-vehicle crashes for Ann Arbor in 2014.

UPDATE: A report posted by Dave Askins on LocalWiki indicates about 52 deer-vehicle crashes for 2014 in Ann Arbor. Note that the 2014 data is still preliminary.

* A little joke here: rational planning is contrasted to Project Innovations’ trademarked “Unrational Leadership”. From the proposal:

From the proposal. Click for bigger image.


Oh, Deer – Will Ann Arbor Find a Solution?

December 15, 2014

The air seems to have gone out of Ann Arbor’s effort to find a solution to the deer problem.  This was evident at the December 10 public meeting. A video of the meeting is published on the city’s Deer Management Project webpage.  The slide presentation is also provided there.

Some History

A young buck pauses in an Ann Arbor back yard.

A young buck pauses in an Ann Arbor back yard.

Deer have been invading back yards (at least, mine) in Ann Arbor for about 10 years.  They have also been making their mark on automobiles in the area.  A vocal response to this situation is relatively recent. A group called Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance formed early in 2014 (their website is rich in data and reports, and more is added almost daily) to express concern about the loss of natural diversity caused by the overpopulation of deer in Washtenaw County’s natural areas.  This account of their presentation to the Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation Commission lays out a number of the issues.  The WC4EB includes people from groups such as the Wild Ones who appreciate native plant communities and the other wildlife (birds, small mammals, butterflies) that they support.  They called upon the County to take action to protect the natural areas that have received strong support from County taxpayers.

Meanwhile, in certain neighborhoods of Ann Arbor, notably those of the Second Ward, deer have been causing expensive damage to landscapes.  CM Jane Lumm has been the lead on this issue and reported a large volume of correspondence from constituents about the problem. On May 5, 2014, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution on the deer problem that directed the City Administrator to look into the issue and provide a report.  Discussion at Council that night is reported here.  Accordingly, a report was issued by Sumedh Bahl on behalf on the Administrator, dated August 14, 2014.  On August 18, 2014, Council passed another resolution that authorized the hiring of a consultant to “develop a community endorsed deer management plan”  The resolution noted that “Development of a community-endorsed deer management plan will require substantial work, including public engagement and information collection.”  The city issued an “RFP for Consultation Services for Development of Deer Management Plan”.  Evidently the only bidder was the favorite consultant of city staff, Charlie Fleetham of Project Innovations.  Here is the proposal he submitted.  (A great deal of this is his usual proposal boilerplate; the actual proposal begins on page 12.)  A link to a survey was provided on the page about the project.

Solving a Problem

The approach that local government officials usually take to come up with a “plan” to solve a particular problem is familiar and fairly straightforward.  (Spoiler: it isn’t being done in this case.)

1. Frame the question.

This would customarily be done either by the leadership of a task force, board or commission, or by staff.  To some extent, this was done in the August report to Council, but not very concisely or usefully.  It might instead have been done like this:

Concern has been expressed about the increased population of deer in Ann Arbor and the effects, which may include vehicle accidents involving deer, damage to landscape plantings, and damage to vegetation in natural areas.  The City needs to determine the extent of problems. Possible solutions, their costs, and their public acceptance need to be examined.

2. Present a data overview.

Aerial counts are best done in the winter, when contrast is best and there are fewer leaves. Photo by Shawn Severance of Washtenaw County Parks Dept.

Staff or specially qualified consultants  would then assemble information for a background document.  In this case, useful information would include quantifiable data on local deer populations (from surveys) as available, a brief overview of deer biology and behavior, and data on vehicle accidents (from reports), damage to landscapes (this would be anecdotal but an effort could be made to collect information from complaints) and information about damage to native plants in public parks and natural areas (from surveys and data kept by the maintainers of those areas).  Where information is needed but not available, that should also be noted. The data overview could also include some generalizations based on data from elsewhere, where similar situations occur.  Regulatory information (laws and regulations, mostly from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources) should also be included.

It is clear that such information was anticipated in the original (May 2014) Council resolution.

From Council resolution of 5/5/14

From Council resolution of 5/5/14

To some extent, this was accomplished with the August report to the Council.  However, in many instances the data were not available or were simply elided.  (There is no information about vegetation damage, either in landscapes or in natural areas.)

3. List alternatives

Next is a list of the available options for addressing the problem, with limitations (legal, practical, or cost) noted.  Experience from other communities in similar situations should be summarized.

The August report did list some approaches taken by other communities, and offered a brief evaluation of methods.  However, there was little in-depth detail, data on effectiveness, or documentation.  It would be expected that such information would be part of a final plan.  Apparently the staff anticipated that this work would be done by the consultant.  From the RFP job description:

“Assist in drafting a community endorsed deer-management plan which includes specific objectives of the plan, delineation of deer management area, selected method(s), public communication and other necessary elements.”

4. Ask for public response

For most plan exercises, “public engagement” means presenting a draft plan to the public, with alternative solutions or with recommendations.  However, this is where the Ann Arbor deer management project has veered to a different target.  It appears that the objective has now become to manipulate or manage the public to a particular conclusion.  Meanwhile, analysis and data collection seem to have fallen off the back of the truck, as have any attempt to picture possible approaches.

NOTE:  Posts on Ann Arbor’s deer problem and some other information are now listed on our page, What Do We Do About the Deer?



Oh, Deer! Ann Arbor’s Herd Problem

December 3, 2014

In the end, the question of what to do about Ann Arbor’s excess deer is as much about values as about science.

deer watercolor B 1000x685

Slightly modified from a watercolor by Andrzej Kwiecinski, 1948-2009, Canadian artist

Deer are beautiful creatures.  To glimpse one peering out from a wood is like looking briefly into the absolute, in a way that few other animals evoke.  The perfect symmetry and wide-set eyes are arresting.  They are also beautiful in motion. Such grace.

Unfortunately, they have become noxious pests in the City of Ann Arbor.  And, incidentally,  in many other areas of the Northeast, especially in parks and areas that are intended to be devoted to wildlife and natural beauty. Locally, there has been plant damage at the Matthei Botanical Garden.  Aside from damage to vegetation, they are responsible for a notable number of auto collisions.  (View this neat animation by Dave Askins of the Ann Arbor Chronicle.)

These two circumstances, both true, have set us up for some terrific conflicts.  Our local officials are facing contradictory calls, both to take measures (which generally involve culling, or killing, part of the local herd) and to save the lives of these beautiful creatures.  Emotions are high on both sides of the issue.   Council and the City of Ann Arbor have now, through issuance of a report and the hiring of a consultant (Project Innovations, headed by Charles Fleetham), brought us to a place where there will be a public discussion in an effort to find an approach that will meet some sort of community consensus.  A meeting is scheduled for  December 10, 2014, in the Media Center Room at Huron High School, at 7 p.m.   Here is the page on the City website about the project.

We’ll just have to accept the following premise:  Some residents in Ann Arbor believe fervently that no matter what the cost to others, the local deer herd should not be harmed and if any means are employed to limit them, they should be non-lethal (this usually involves contraception).  This belief is not likely to be altered by any presentation of data.

Others, including policymakers, recognize that there is a rising chorus of voices expressing consternation at the growing deer herd and the damages it can cause.  They are looking for information about causes and solutions.  (Disclosure: I am in favor of a solution that will reduce the local deer herd, likely some approach to culling, or killing, deer in public lands.)

A local group, Washtenaw Citizens for Ecological Balance, have been making the case to Washtenaw County and City of Ann Arbor officials that some proactive control of the deer population is needed.  Here is a good report of their presentation at a county parks commission meeting, from the Ann Arbor Chronicle.  WC4EB’s website has many statistics and reports listed in their resource section.  As both that website, the Ann Arbor City report, and an excellent report on Washtenaw County deer populations explain, many communities in our immediate area have chosen to initiate some sort of culling either by sharpshooters, bow hunters, or opening selected areas to hunting.  Often the meat from the deer is then donated to food pantries.

It’s all about values

There are lots of data, studies, and reports that can elucidate the dynamics of deer populations and how they affect the rest of the world around them.  There will be opportunities to discuss and debate them.  But ultimately, the ground on which this (the question of whether to cull the local population) will be fought will be about values that individuals hold.  And those are hard to deal with on a rational basis.

  • Some people view venison as a legitimate and desirable part of our food supply, recognizing the historical role of deer as a food animal.
  • Others view the taking of deer, and in some cases, of any animal life (vegans in particular avoid even the consumption of animal products such as milk or eggs), as morally repugnant.
  • Some people place high value on their landscapes and garden plants and see the deer who make those part of their food supply as outright pests.
  • Others enjoy seeing deer in the vicinity of their homes, and even put out food or salt supplies to attract them for enjoyment.  They may not be gardeners, or not concerned about plants in their own properties.
  • Some people see deer as only one part of the natural environment, while other species such as wild plant communities, songbirds and other animals dependent on a diverse natural environment are equally important and worthy of protection in a “balanced” natural setting.
  • Others discount the damage to plant communities such as wildflowers, shrubs, and trees, as of less importance or a different order of importance than the lives of the deer.

In more rural areas, there are different issues, such as crop damage vs. easy availability during hunting season.  But those have less resonance with city dwellers.

So how do policymakers deal with these contradictory values?  They put out a survey and hold a public meeting.  After we all express our views, someone will have to make a decision.  We hope it won’t have to be too Solomonic.

Regardless of your view, here is your chance to express it.  Take the survey.    Note: the presentation is confusing.  You must hit the blue button to take the survey.  It won’t be submitted until you are finished.

UPDATE: The agenda for the December 10 public meeting has now been published.  The only interaction with the public is a public comment period.

SECOND UPDATE: Read a thoughtful overview on the subject by a well-respected local blogger who is also a graduate student in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. 

THIRD UPDATE: Here is the Ann Arbor News’ coverage of the December 10 meeting.

NOTE: All posts on the subject of Ann Arbor’s deer, together with some other information, are now listed on our page What Do We Do About the Deer?



The Value of Historic Preservation for Ann Arbor

June 12, 2012

One of the strengths of Ann Arbor as a community is its active historic preservation infrastructure.  Here is what the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance has to say about that (from a recently published brochure, attached here with permission).

Vibrant downtown streets and lively neighborhoods, laced with a rich diversity of 19th and 20th century historic buildings, provide the backdrop to the sense of place Ann Arborites love and the quality of life they enjoy.

Since 1975, when Ann Arbor’s city council declared historic preservation a “public purpose,” citizens have helped create historic districts and advocated for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures in commercial districts and residential neighborhoods.

The brochure outlines details of the Historic District Commission (HDC) process.  The city currently has 14 historic districts.

Ann Arbor Historic Districts, from the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance brochure. Click for a larger image.

In recent years, historic preservation has become controversial, as it has come up against development pressures.  While historic preservation does not prevent development, it institutes a review process and also makes demolition of structures in a district more difficult.

The importance of historic preservation to maintaining the integrity of areas with historic structures was never so apparent as recently, with the tragic chain of events leading to the destruction of seven historic houses in one of our city’s near-downtown neighborhoods.  The value of these Central Area neighborhoods to developers is a strong incentive.

As we outlined in detail in our previous post,  Heritage City Place Row, there are many community-wide reasons to maintain such structures.  One is, simply, economics.  There are more and more discussions of “placemaking” and the importance of “quality of life” to attracting “talent”, young professionals who will enrich us all by joining new start-up enterprises.   The tourism industry also recognizes the importance of historic areas in attracting visitors.  Here’s what we said about that in our previous post:

Perhaps most telling in these difficult times is the argument that all of Ann Arbor stands to lose economic benefit from the destruction of this attractive area.  Donovan Rypkema, who has spoken in Ann Arbor and many other places on the economic benefits of historic preservation, makes the point that over time the most successful urban areas (i.e. those that attract people who will lift the economic climate) are those that maintain historic and architecturally significant structures.  They are part of the “quality of life” indicators that attract innovators, young entrepreneurial and creative people who will help the region be successful.  Ask yourself: what do you see first in pictures of “lovely Ann Arbor” that seek to entice visitors and investors?  You’ll see pictures of our historic Main Street with maybe the Law Quad thrown in.

Unfortunately, the saga of City Place shows that sometimes the story just doesn’t end well.  The City Council failed on several attempts to establish a historic district for the area. The seven contiguous historic houses on South Fifth Avenue just south of William were demolished and two large apartment buildings that will probably house mostly students are now under construction.  Almost the entire block of that historic neighborhood has been replaced. (Photos of the seven demolished houses are on the previous post.)

This is now the uninspiring view along most of the first block of S. Fifth.

A view down S. Fifth showing the two remaining houses on the block.

One reason the developer was able to execute this so-called “by right” development was that he was able to assemble the seven contiguous lots into one lot for the purposes of producing a site plan.  Under provisions of the current R4C zoning, this development met most of the setback and other requirements.  (Actually, the neighborhood submitted an appeal [long text here] to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which for some reason failed even to consider it.)

Now we may be able to make changes in Ann Arbor’s zoning ordinance that would prevent a similar tragedy.  As reported by, the City Council has now received the report of the R4C/R2A Zoning District Advisory Committee.  (Download report here.)  We’ll have to hope that Council approves the changes in the zoning ordinance recommended by this citizen committee.    It is important to safeguard our Central Area neighborhoods, and the others where R4C zoning exists.

But if we are to continue protection of historic structures, and to obtain the benefits of historic preservation, citizens as well as council members must support the work of the Historic District Commission as well.  Their decisions have sometimes been controversial, only because the reasoning behind their guidelines is often not intuitive to some people.  (The recent kerfuffle over a rail fence on the Old West Side is an example.)  Their faithful monitoring of our historic districts has resulted in a better community for all of us.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Preservation Alliance, send an email to

Say What? The Mayor Speaks about Fuller Road Station

December 9, 2011

For many months, it has been hard to find out what is going on with the Fuller Road Station (FRS). One senses that behind the curtain, people are moving scenery around, but the play seems to be stalled between acts.  The University of Michigan was planning to have its Fuller Road parking structure ready for use by June 2012.  It is difficult to see how that can happen now, since construction has not begun (apart from the sewer and stormwater construction approved by the Council in June 2011).

Mayor John Hieftje added to the mystery with his open public letter last July.  That letter, as our post of the time describes, was more about the benefits of (rail) transit than about the proposed structure itself.  What has been planned to date is a parking structure for the University of Michigan, but the Mayor prefers to stress the eventual train station intended for the location.  This is most likely related to the difficulty in defending a structure built only to provide parking for the UM, as recent commentary at a PAC meeting indicated.

Mayor John Hieftje on CTN

Now the man behind the curtain has spoken again.  The mayor was interviewed recently (November 23, 2011) on “Conversations”, a program on Ann Arbor’s Channel 19 (CTN) conducted by interviewer Jim Blow (see recording here).    Just one minute of that interview dealt with Fuller Road Station.  Some parts are difficult to hear, but a transcript has been made.  (The interviewer’s questions were abbreviated slightly.)

Here are the relevant statements from the Mayor’s comments.

So what was that again?  The Mayor seems to be conflating the original Phase I (parking structure) plan for the site with the future train station when he talks of the match for the $40 million for the train station.  The Fuller Road parking structure has been reported by as estimated at $40 million.  A more accurate figure is likely $46,550,000, as approved by the UM Regents in 2010.  That figure does not include site preparation of approximately $3 million, which, as the UM memo notes, is borne by the City of Ann Arbor.  (Ed. note: Presumably this includes the sewer work now underway.)  Although concept drawings include a location for a future train station adjacent to the parking structure,  what is being discussed currently is a parking structure, as we detailed in our post, Fuller Road Station: It’s All About Parking.

The UM memo also notes that UM agrees to pay 78% of the costs of construction of the parking structure, with the city picking up 22%;  this is consistent with the original Council Memorandum of Understanding .  The UM memo authorizes only a total “not to exceed” amount of $36,309,000 and also notes that the City will pay for an environmental assessment.  That means that in order to pay for its share of the parking structure, the city would need to come up with $10,241,000 (in addition to the cost of site preparation and the environmental assessment).  But how does that reconcile with the Mayor’s statement that “the plan is that the city puts no money into this”?  No wonder that, as he says, “the conversation got a little convoluted”.

Additional hints that the process has been drifting askew were provided by comments at a recent Ann Arbor Public Art Commission meeting where, according to the Ann Arbor Chronicle, AAPAC commissioners were told that the public art for Fuller Road was being put on hold because the project was delayed by “as much as 6-12 months”.  But in an interview by, the Mayor said that “two to three months sounds more reasonable to me”.  The difficulty, according to that article, is that UM and the city attorneys are negotiating on a “construction, operations and maintenance agreement for the first phase” (i.e., the parking structure).

But it seems from here that there are two outstanding difficulties:

  • The continued assertion on the part of the Mayor that we can move right ahead on the train station.
  • A lack of understanding about where the city’s portion ($10+ million) of the construction costs is coming from.

Rumor and speculation hold that the city is trying to persuade the UM to make a loan of the city’s portion, to be paid for from parking revenues.  This idea was brought up by the Mayor in his letter of last summer,  but there has never been confirmation from the UM that this would be satisfactory.

Will Uncle Sam Really Make Us a Gift of a Train Station?

A puzzle all along has been that the Mayor has seemed to possess a blithe faith that somehow money will materialize to pay for the final train station realization of the  FRS. (The “$40 – some million of Federal money for the build-out of the train station” does not currently exist.)   And he continually assures us that this will not be at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers. But his assurance appears to be built on a poor understanding of current transportation funding.

Much of the belief in the possibility of a future Fuller Road train station seems to be based on an award received recently as part of a Federal grant to support Michigan high-speed rail between Dearborn and Kalamazoo (the line to Chicago).   As stated in Congressman Dingell’s announcement,  “The… funding will allow Ann Arbor to begin engineering and environmental documentation required to design and construct a new intercity and high-speed rail station, drop-off areas, rail platform and other work, including track, switches and signals.”  The crucial words here are “begin…documentation”.  In other words, this is only a grant for planning, especially to complete a NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) report, which is required for all projects seeking Federal funds.

In the announcement and description of the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR) grants, details are given about what source funds for each grant come from, and specifically what they are to pay for.     Here is what the money awarded for the Fuller Road Station (title: Individual Project – Preliminary Engineering / NEPA) is actually to pay for.

This project is for the completion of preliminary engineering and environmental documentation required to design and construct a new high-speed rail station in Ann Arbor, MI to serve the Chicago to Detroit high-speed rail line.

Apparently just the fact that a Federal grant was bestowed for this very limited purpose is taken as assurance that the entire amount will be forthcoming.  In an email, the city’s transportation program manager Eli Cooper said,

The fact the FRA has funded the preliminary engineering and environmental documentation is the strongest evidence we have to date regarding the federal commitment to the Ann Arbor Station project. …to apply for final design and construction funding we would need to have completed preliminary engineering to have the information required in the application….a long standing practice that once a federal investment is made in the preliminary phases of work, and the funded work is completed satisfactorily, future phase(s) are generally awarded funding when applications are submitted.

But that is an erroneous assumption, and a frighteningly naive one.  All Federal grants are not the same.  It’s the source that counts.

Where the Money Came From

In President Obama’s stimulus program, formally named the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009  (ARRA), high-speed rail systems were given a special priority. As explained in this post from the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission,  the money made available for our Michigan high-speed rail enhancements were not originally designated for Michigan at all, but were part of a large pot of money ($2.4 billion) refused by the State of Florida.  Of this, Michigan received a lucky $400 million.  Most of Michigan’s windfall was prudently invested in improving our rail corridor between Detroit and Chicago (our important Detroit-Chicago Amtrak service).  There were rail improvements in the West Detroit area (signals, repairs), repairs to track along the corridor, and the state was able to buy a section of the track that had been owned by Norfolk Southern.  The freight company had not been maintaining the tracks for passenger service and there were many delays.  The “donation” from Florida helped Michigan to make many repairs and adjustments that will really help this important passenger rail route.  Several train stations were also renovated or, in the case of Dearborn, reconstructed.

Here is how the grant allocation breaks down:

There are several important points here.

  • This was a one-time opportunity.  The stimulus program is over.  The rejection of a grant by Florida meant a windfall for Michigan.
  • The money for the Ann Arbor station was only for completion of a NEPA assessment.  It was not for any aspect of actual station construction, unlike the other grants to communities along the Detroit-Chicago line.
  • As Congressman Dingell warned in his September announcement celebrating the grant award, the High-Speed Rail program (HSIPR) was facing “recission” in the House of Representatives at the time.  This has become reality.  The President proposed $1 billion; the Senate proposed $100 million; the House agreed to $0.00 (and the House’s version prevailed).  (Summary of transportation bill amounts here.)  There is no more money in the program.
  • Even if we were to get a Federal grant to build a full station, such grants generally require a 20% matching contribution by a local entity.  For most transportation projects, that 20% of the total has been paid by the State of Michigan.  (And the state has paid the matching amount for the $2.8 million planning grant.)  Here Hieftje seems to be saying that matching money for the train station would be provided by the UM.  Is he hoping to count the money that UM is spending on the parking structure as a “match”?  If so, what is the statute of limitations on that?  Can we use money that UM spends next year to match a grant for a train station sometime in the indefinite future?

It seems that now, as before, we have more questions than answers.

UPDATE: As suggested by the first commenter, I erred by saying the $2.8 million was only for the NEPA assessment.  It was also for some preliminary engineering and planning work.  (But not for any construction.)  We’re still talking documentation.

SECOND UPDATE: The impact of Troy’s rejection of its $8 million grant is unknown.  News reports say that the money will be “reallocated” (a Chamber of Commerce spokesman was quoted in the Free Press article  as saying it would go to other states).

Historical note:  See the January 2010 article in the Ann Arbor Observer where Mayor Hieftje suggested that the value of the land might be credited toward the city’s cost of the Fuller Road Station.  That idea has been dropped, evidently.

THIRD UPDATE:  A press release that is undated but was made public on February 10, 2012 announces that the University of Michigan is pulling out of the agreement to build parking at the site of the Fuller Road Station. 

“After months of fruitful discussions, we received new information from the Federal Rail Administration regarding the eligibility of monies for the local match. This information altered project timing such that we could no longer finalize a proposal under the current Memorandum of Understanding,” said John Hieftje, Mayor of Ann Arbor.

Note: Posts about Fuller Road Station and other transportation topics are listed on our Transportation Page.

Is Regionalism Really a Good Thing?

November 27, 2011

Regionalism has become the guiding force behind many initiatives – but is it good for Ann Arbor?

A group of happy people gathered last Monday (November 21, 2011) to hear an important announcement. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regional administrator Antonio Riley was there to announce a Sustainable Community grant award to Washtenaw County and there were a number of elected officials basking in the glow.  But the real star of the show was an idea, not a person.  It was Regionalism.

Many recent initiatives in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, and Michigan have been organized around regionalism, in which the role of traditional jurisdictions like cities, villages and townships is diminished in order to operate within much wider boundaries.

The idea has a lot of appeal on the face of it. The reasoning behind it has several arguments.

  • One is that certain functions, like transportation, naturally occur over larger geographical areas than the traditional political boundaries describe.
  • A major impetus is that it is “good for business” because of efficiency in organizing and delivering services and administering policies (and business does not have to deal with “a patchwork” of regulations and politics).
  • Perhaps the most persuasive to many is the opportunity to distribute benefits and services more evenly across boundaries, with less regard to the affluence of each locality.  It  is the basis of many of our Federal and state programs, where citizens are guaranteed certain benefits and protections whether in the poorest or most wealthy states or counties.

Tony Derezinski at a recent Ann Arbor council meeting. Courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle (photo has been cropped).

This last is a strong moral argument that speaks to “our better angels” and our sense of community when it is being broadly expressed.  It is an argument that lies behind some of the acceptance of the Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue project, which this grant is intended (even designed) to support.  The siren song of intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration speaks in part to our response in Ann Arbor to the knowledge that Ypsilanti (city and township) is our sister urban area that is not as wealthy as fortunate Ann Arbor.

One of the enthusiastic speakers at the announcement was Ann Arbor Councilmember Tony Derezinski, who has been the promoter of Reimagining Washtenaw Avenue since its inception.  CM Derezinski is also a committed supporter of the concept of regionalism.  As he said at the event, “We are a region, we are not just Ann Arbor”.  And then he misquoted (with apologies) poet John Donne in saying, “No municipality is an island unto itself”.  Here is the full quotation of the actual poem (really from a long essay).

In other words, are we not responsible for each other?  This is an easy emotional and empathetic argument which, unfortunately, runs into some practical and political brick walls on close examination.

If you examine the history of humankind even at a superficial level, you will note that it consists of waves of geographical consolidation, followed by periods of revolt in the name of self-determination.  The thing is that natural human communities are self-limiting.  Right now, Europe is trying to work out how much member states will take on in respect of each other. In the United States, we are still arguing the dynamic of federalism vs. states’ rights.

Michigan resolved this question constitutionally as Home Rule.  The  review of this principle by the Michigan Municipal League quotes the 1908 constitution as saying, “each municipality is the best judge of its local needs and the best able to provide for its local necessities.” As the review indicates, the principle of home rule for Michigan municipalities has been eroded in recent years by state law overriding the ability of local units (note that “municipalities” is a basket term for cities, villages, townships, and counties) to regulate a wide variety of issues.  Only this week, as reported by the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the Ann Arbor City Council was grappling with a proposed state law that would prevent Ann Arbor from extending anti-discrimination protection to people on the basis of sexual preference.  The ingrained belief in the home rule principle persists in the Michigan psyche, especially as it comes to taxes.  Some Washtenaw County townships still have a local tax limitation for local services of 1 mill, and they are proud of it.  (Charter townships may tax up to 5 mills.  Special ballot issues don’t count.)

So if we are to extend authority across established jurisdictional lines, two things happen.  One is that local control of just what services and options are offered is limited.  Another is that one jurisdiction may find itself paying, at least potentially, for services received by another.

With Reimagine Washtenaw, if it is fully fleshed out and enacted, four municipalities (Ann Arbor city, Pittsfield Township, Ypsilanti city, Ypsilanti Township) will surrender much of their sovereignty within the Washtenaw corridor to a new entity, a Corridor Improvement Authority. (For good reviews, see the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s report of a public meeting and coverage of a BOC working session.)

There are some other examples of regionalism that specifically affect the City of Ann Arbor:

The move to a countywide transit system.  We have a number of posts about this, including the most recent on “Where the Money Is” .  The decision was made a couple of years ago to emphasize commuter access to Ann Arbor rather than to optimize within-city service.  Now Ann Arbor taxes are being used to pay for express buses to Chelsea and Canton, as well as enhanced service to Ypsilanti.

The Governor’s transit plan. As we reported earlier, Governor Snyder has proposed a Regional Transit Authority that includes Washtenaw County.  If enacted fully, it would draw all Federal and state transportation funds to itself, contract local bus service to AATA and other local entities, but emphasize major routes for the movement of workforce toward the Detroit Metro area, probably by use of Bus Rapid Transit technology.  This would handicap the ability of local transit authorities like AATA to innovate and serve new needs locally.

The Urban County.   Ann Arbor was one of the first Block Grant communities in the state, and for many years was the only community in the county with Federal CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds to spend on human services and housiing.  Washtenaw County formed the Urban County to make CDBG-funded services available to other communities.  As described on the county website, the city’s Community Development department was merged with the county’s department and finally the City of Ann Arbor joined the Urban County.  One consequence was that Ann Arbor lost nearly $400,000 a year in human services money that had been grandfathered in.  As the memorandum provided to Council explains, this was to result in an increase across the Urban County of $100,000 in HUD-supplied funds.  But those funds would be directed toward other uses (not human services).  An increase to the county  of $100,000 in Emergency Shelter Grant funds was expected to offset this somewhat.

So while Ann Arbor formerly had human services money from a Federal grant and an independent Housing and Human Services Advisory Board to administer them, the City Council has been obliged to supplement human services from the Ann Arbor general fund in the last several budget years.  This has led to heart-rending presentations from non-profit organizations that serve the needy and their clients.  A search in the Ann Arbor Chronicle archives has many reports of such moments, including the one with paper cranes.  At the same time, general fund support for human services from Washtenaw County has also been cut severely in the wake of County budget problems.  In a triumph of bureaucracy, the County approved a Coordinated Funding model for distribution of services in 2010.  This funnels all funds, including those donated to the United Way, through a goals-and-objectives process that is supposed to be more efficient.  (An astonishing document prepared by Community Development touts the economic “return on investment” for nonprofit funding, quite a change in emphasis from human needs.)  One result was slashing the funds allocated to the Delonis homeless shelter from $160,000 to $25,000 (see the account by the Chronicle).  On an announcement that this would result in closing the “warming center” in which homeless individuals not in residence at the shelter can find protection on coldest nights,  both the County and the City of Ann Arbor found some stopgap funds, just for this year.

The A2 Success project and SPARK  This is regionalism on steroids.  The A2 Success project was begun approximately in early 2009 and has a number of economic development projects for the “Ann Arbor region” (which is essentially Washtenaw County with some incursions into Wayne County).  SPARK, which began as a merger of the former Washtenaw Development Corporation and the Smart Zone, now styles itself  “Ann Arbor, USA” and has been consuming ever more and more general fund support from both the City of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County.  Now a revived millage tax levied by the county will give SPARK over a quarter of a million dollars next year.

Regionalism Rules – but what about Localization?

Clearly the concept of regionalism has the support of most of our political leaders, and it has a powerful and persuasive voice.  But does it really benefit the community that we have within our City of Ann Arbor?  Or is it actually an effort to exploit the resources that we have, including our educated population,  our positive image countrywide,  our strong cultural environment, and most of all our tax base? In other words, is regionalism at the expense of Ann Arbor taxpayers supportable only for altruistic reasons?  Or does it bring our actual community actual benefits?

You wouldn’t expect a blog called Local in Ann Arbor to espouse regionalism, and you are right.  As we said in our first post, we support something of an opposite concept: localization.  In “What Does It Mean to be an Ann Arbor Townie“,  we tried to put forth the case that we have an unusually desirable place to live because of our special local character.  But it goes beyond that to a belief that a successful, resilient community is built on interdependence at a local level. To some extent, we must be an island  – and island economies are notably self-sufficient.

Localization is a world-view, a prescription for living, and a field of academic study.  I’m looking forward to the coming book on the subject,  The Localization Reader, by UM professors Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen.  You’ll hear more on this from us another day.

UPDATE:  This post is not the place for a full discussion of allocation of costs in AATA’s regional outreach.  However, the attached Report to the Treasurer from last year (it does not include the special service to Ypsilanti) shows the contribution of Ann Arbor taxpayers to the Commuter Express projects.  The University of Michigan does not contribute directly to this service (as stated in a comment below), but rather compensates employees for the cost of their fares.  The report indicates that 31% of this service (to Chelsea and Canton) is paid for by Ann Arbor taxes, and 26.4% by fares.  The remainder is picked up by State and Federal operating assistance.

NOTE: Readers of this post may also find discussions of governance in this post on regional transit plans and its sequel of interest.  The two posts discuss governance issues for regional authorities.

NOTE: We have now begun a new series on this subject, beginning with Regionalism Reconsidered.


Transition Exits Ann Arbor

October 3, 2011

A little more than two years after Transition (a worldwide movement) introduced itself to Ann Arbor,  the local group has announced (via its email listserv) that it is disbanding.

After much deliberation and collective soul searching, we are writing to let you know that the initiating team of Transition Ann Arbor is officially disbanding.   We believe it is important to announce this widely so that we can release the effort into the hands of others, should there be a future groundswell of committed individuals.  

Some challenges we faced were the usual ones, such as personal time constraints and life circumstances. But there were other challenges that we didn’t anticipate, such as the fact that the Transition model has proven difficult to implement in a city the size of Ann Arbor without staff or a strong ties to an existing 501c3 nonprofit.  

We are excited to see the growth of Transition-related efforts in the Ann Arbor community and region. We continue to believe that there is a role for an umbrella organization that strengthens these efforts and develops cohesive plans, action groups, programs, and messages that help our community prepare for the long emergency–the impacts of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability. Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary resources (or person-power) to make this happen. We have a wealth of accumulated knowledge and lessons learned from our efforts over the last 2 years, including the beginnings of an energy descent action plan. To improve future organizing, we would be happy to share our insights and resources with anyone interested in picking up similar work.

As might be understood from this statement, Transition was founded to support the worldview of those, such as former Environmental Commission chair and mayoral candidate Steve Bean, that we in Ann Arbor (the country, the world) are facing a future singularity in which conditions of life will change drastically.  (The reference to the “long emergency” is a direct reference to the dystopian classic, The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler.)  Transition Ann Arbor has been especially notable for its “reskilling festivals” in which such skills as sock darning, keeping bees, and other domestic crafts are taught.  According to the announcement, these will continue under the guidance of their organizer, Laura Smith (

A core concept that Transition and similar efforts are based on is “peak oil”, a belief that the world economy and our very way of life will shift dramatically once the cost of energy increases because of dwindling oil supplies.  The data for peak oil are fairly unambiguous and (discounting the possible effect of shale oil) it appear that the point at which oil supplies begin to dwindle is in the next decade (by 2020).   Lester Brown and the Earth Policy Institute have been promulgating news of this and related impending disasters (most having to do with resource depletion of various kinds) for years.  Yet there are doubters and deniers like Michael Lynch (though these arguments are rebuttable).  Problem is, a worldview in which a collapse is imminent definitely undercuts the current growth paradigm and interferes with business as usual.  We’d really rather not be bothered as long as it looks as though things will go along much as they have since most of us can remember.

We all got a bit of a wake-up call with the economic cataclysms of 2008 and 2009. Though Kunstler has not changed his views or his predictions,  what seemed so imminent during the few months following the crash of 2008 now seems to have retreated a bit over the horizon.  It’s a little hard to get excited over darning your own socks when socks made in East Asia are still available at discount stores at pretty decent prices.  Admittedly, lots of people are out of a job, but gas prices seem to have stabilized.  And though food prices have gone up a little, we can still get most of everything we want and the expensive restaurants in downtown Ann Arbor seem to be doing a booming business. This means that choosing “local food” and making your own still appears to be just that—a choice.

Since one of my own interests and concerns is community food security, I was glad to see that Transition Ann Arbor is passing along its modest treasury to Growing Hope.  But otherwise we are left with pale washed-out “sustainability” efforts like the Ecology Center’s 350.0rg  and the UM’s “M Planet Blue“, which basically tinker around the edges with time-honored environmental fixes (all good).  It’ll perhaps be a little while longer before we have a group in Ann Arbor that really sounds a singular alarm.  If that is going to be you, you are invited to contact Jeannine Palms (, one of the organizers and a longtime community activist.

Fuller Road Station and the Mayor’s Letter

July 28, 2011

The story first broke on the night before, but by mid-morning on July 28 many Ann Arbor citizens had received a letter from Ann Arbor’s Mayor, John Hieftje.  The letter begins,

As you may have heard, the City of Ann Arbor is considering whether to invest with the University of Michigan and the Federal Government in a multi-modal transportation facility on Fuller Road—the Fuller Road Station (FRS). I write today to give you some important background information.

The news report has attracted a number of comments.  They help to make one point clear: Fuller Road Station is not just one issue.  It is a complex of issues, with separate histories, policy implications, visions of the future, suppositions, and mass of facts and details behind each one.

It is also emerging as a strong political theme in Ann Arbor.  Thus its future, and the justification for our city embarking on this adventure, have become enmeshed with the politics of the August primary, in which three candidates (two incumbents) question the venture and three support it.  The Mayor has favored the candidates who support the FRS and the timing of his letter just before the primary election (next Tuesday, folks) seems curious.

Our mayor very rarely writes us directly, and his letter deserves careful study and scrutiny.  But first, let’s consider the different issues.  (Listed in no particular order.)

1. Ann Arbor’s finances.  What is the likely effect of embarking on the long-term project of a “multimodal” station?  Will it prove to be neutral, more or less, a plus because of economic activity and other indirect effects, or a fiscal morass?

2. Parking and traffic issues.  Much of the immediate project is for a parking structure that will largely serve the UM Health Care complex.  Is this a good thing, from the viewpoint of transportation planning, and also for the city?

3. Ann Arbor parks and ordinances regarding use of parkland.  A ballot issue forbade the sale of parkland without a public vote, but this project skirts that by a long-term lease.  Should this be permitted, and further, is this a dangerous precedent for disposing of parkland by other means than a direct sale?

4. The future of commuter rail from Ann Arbor (the station would become part of the AATA’s Transit Master Plan that presumes commuter rail will connect Ann Arbor both to Howell and to Detroit).   To the extent that this idea justifies construction of the Fuller Road Station, is it likely to happen?

5. On a related note, what about “high-speed rail”  in Michigan?  Is that going to happen and to what extent does construction of the Fuller Road Station depend on Ann Arbor being part of such a system?

6. And while we are on that question, what is the position of Amtrak in all this? The current service to Chicago is popular and there is an existing station.

7. What are our hopes and dreams of a future transportation system?  As we have already noted,  trains have a powerful emotional pull.  (See Train of Dreams and Train of Dreams II.)  Our mental picture of what the future should hold for transportation that frees us from the automobile is a powerful driver in these decisions.

8. Our relationship with the University of Michigan.  We are very nearly a company town.  To what extent does “it’s good for the UM” also translate to “it’s good for Ann Arbor”?  Are there times when our interests diverge?

9. What is the appropriate public process for this decision and has it been followed?  (See What, Exactly, is a Robust Public Process. It isn’t about the FRS but addresses some of the points.)

The Mayor’s letter touches on many of these themes.  In the next post we will go through his letter point by point and attempt some analysis.

UPDATE: The post was edited to add the last point after publication.


The Library Lot, the DDA, and the Ann Arbor RFP Process II

July 13, 2011

The history of plans to develop Ann Arbor’s Library Lot goes back literally decades (see the 1991 Luckenbach study).  But most recently, as documented in our long blog series listed on the Library Lot Conference Center page, the effort to develop the lot hinged around RFP 743.  The first post of this series described the making of the RFP (released on August 14, 2009).  At the end, it all came apart, as mostly described in the last post of the blog series on the conference center.  On April 4, 2011, the Ann Arbor City Council passed a resolution that terminated the RFP and the sole remaining proposal from Valiant Partners was conclusively rejected.

But at the same meeting, Council established a new process for the downtown surface lots.  In a not-so-tacit recognition that the city-directed RFP process had undergone a fairly spectacular failure, the Council asked the DDA to take it on.  But the area assigned to the DDA was not the entire city, but rather the city-owned lots in the area south of Liberty.

City-owned parcels assigned to DDA for RFP process - click for larger image

The DDA’s Partnership Committee cheerfully took this on (even before the final resolution was passed) and began scheduling regular discussions at their monthly meetings, featuring different city officials and others, reviewing different aspects of planning.  (See our post, Ann Arbor’s Suburban Brain Problem, and the Ann Arbor Chronicle’s excellent summary of the June 2011 meeting.)

As the Chronicle details, the June meeting appeared to set the Partnership Committee up for a vigorous, proactive approach to a broad downtown planning exercise.  Doug Kelbaugh (a UM professor familiar to many long-timers as instrumental in putting together the Calthorpe process) and his colleague Kit McCullough submitted a brief proposal involving some brief but substantial public participation.  Peter Allen did one of his typically scintillating presentations (Allen sometimes seems to be several places at once when speaking to his elaborate schemes), based in part on his talks with many community leaders.  He emphasized the many community connections that he would draw upon and stated that he would like to see a 20-story building, to be the definitive Ann Arbor skyline object, on the Library Lot.  It seemed that Allen and Kelbaugh were competing to some extent for the job of the “consultant”.  Meanwhile, at the June meeting there was also some substantive discussion by Albert Berriz and others at the table (described by the Chronicle).  Susan Pollay stated that the July committee meeting would be an intense retreat-style meeting at which the group would make real decisions about setting the course for the process.

Today’s Partnership Committee played to a full house.  Not only were there many citizens in the audience, but McCullough’s UM class, Josie Parker of the AADL, Peter Allen, Kelbaugh and McCullough, and someone making a video tape.

The result was anticlimax.  The expectant audience waited for several minutes before a diminished committee took their seats.  The meeting was chaired by John Mouat  in the absence of both the co-chairs (Russ Collins and Sandi Smith).  No experts were called to speak and Allen, Kelbaugh and McCullough were never mentioned.   Committee members spoke in generalities and the entire meeting seemed conducted under water, so slow and vague each step was.  Mouat spoke admiringly of a couple of other recent plans (the Urban Forest plan and the AATA’s Transit Master Plan) as examples – and meditated aloud on how a community can reach consensus. He expressed a dislike of the very word “development” and said that he didn’t want the development community to be too closely linked to the process.

Some reference was made to RFP 743 (the sad example that put the current process in place).  Susan Pollay astonishingly characterized it as “an abbreviated council RFP process that never got very far”.  She also made a point that the city needs to indicate to developers what incentives will be available.  The Valiant Partners, she said, came in with lots of ideas of what the city could do for them “only to have the community recoil”.  Ably put, that.  Joan Lowenstein also brought out a very cogent point, which is that the city has tried to achieve every possible goal in past RFPs and that this is not realistic.

But in general, there was no instrumental discussion at all.  The group seemed literally to be trying to last out the clock.  They did succeed in instructing staff (Pollay and Amber Miller) to put together a timeline for a process of about a year.  The subject will also be added on to a working session that the DDA has already scheduled with Council for October (principally about parking).

What happened?  Clearly something has interrupted the headlong progress toward a comprehensive downtown planning process.  Audience members gathered in small groups afterwards to ask each other the meaning of it all.  We didn’t have answers.

UPDATE:  See the Chronicle’s more complete coverage of this meeting.

AATA Yesterday and Tomorrow

June 17, 2011

Last night (June 16, 2011), the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board took the first step toward implementing its Transit Master Plan (TMP) for a countywide or regional transportation authority.  Links to pdf files of Volumes 1 and 2 of the TMP are available in the short notice on the Ann Arbor Chronicle. Volume 1 is a very large file; it is titled “A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County” but contains many full-page and full-color photographs from unnamed cities that are not located in Washtenaw County.  Volume 2, “Transit Master Plan Implementation Strategy”,  is thin on actual procedural steps and strong on sweeping statements about land use planning.

If fully implemented, the TMP will result in a new (yet unnamed) county-wide or regional transportation authority and the current AATA board will be translated magically intact into a new board, currently known only as the Act 196 board.  As we detailed in a previous post, AATA’s Uncertain Future, the objective is to incorporate under a different state law, Act 196.  Currently, AATA is incorporated under Act 55, which is for a local municipal authority.  They are able to offer service outside the city limits (and do) under Purchase Of Service Agreements (POSAs), by contract.  As an Act 196 authority, they can also offer service outside the county lines – as in commuter rail.

So what will happen to the old AATA?  Will it simply be left behind as a lifeless husk once the brilliant butterfly has emerged?  And most importantly, what will happen to the perpetual millage that Ann Arbor citizens currently pay?

It is worthwhile to recall how AATA began and what its legal basis is, in considering that question.  As we spell out in detail on our Transportation Page,  AATA was incorporated in 1968.  It purchased buses with the help of Federal money, helped out by a donation from the city Sewer Fund.  (Don’t ask me to explain that.)  Then, a citizen initiative, led by (of course!) the League of Women Voters, successfully ran a ballot initiative in 1973 that placed a 2.5 mill tax on Ann Arbor property in perpetuity to support the public transportation system.

But, as usually happens when money is involved, trouble was on the horizon.  According to the history recounted in a citizen’s lawsuit against the City of Ann Arbor, the acting city administrator sent AATA a bill requesting repayment of the city’s subsidy in past years. Further, he informed the authority that it would be levied a “municipal service charge” amounting to nearly 10% of the revenue from the millage. (Ah, how little things have changed.)

The enraged citizens who had supported the millage brought suit against the City in January 1974 and won.  The righteousness of their cause fairly drips from the brief.  Here is how the lead plaintiff described herself:

Sally Vinter, 603 Sunset Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan, is and has for several years…been a resident and a taxpayer of local property taxes and of state income, sales, and motor vehicle taxes.  She has been the chairman of a committee designated “Citizens for a Better Transportation System”, which successfully promoted the 1973 referendum to provide a annual 2 1/2 mill tax levy for mass transportation, as set forth hereinbelow.

In a series of partial judgments (January 10, 1975  ; January 29, 1975; July 24, 1975), Judge Patrick J. Conlin found for the plaintiffs. In a final partial judgment, he indicated that the parties had come to a settlement (we aren’t told the terms) and that no further action on the suit would be taken.

The AATA has been an independent authority ever since then, and the City Council and Mayor have been very little involved, except to appoint board members (who were often long-serving).  But in recent years, Mayor John Hieftje has taken a strong interest in transportation.  He laid this out in a remarkable document, the Mayor’s Model for Mobility, in 2006. As we described in an earlier article, it included a strong focus on two commuter trains, one to Howell and one to Detroit.

Hieftje has molded the AATA board to match his vision.  In a conversation some years ago, he specifically stated to me that he had appointed David Nacht (a Scio Township resident) to the AATA Board in order to promote regional transportation.  Under Nacht’s leadership as the then chair, the board took a straw vote in May 2008 to become a regional authority.  The TMP, if achieved, would complete that ambition, and fulfill many aspects of Hieftje’s vision of a complex transit system, with two commuter trains, in-city routes utilizing light rail or bus rapid transit, and major new infrastructure, including a new train station.

But there are many unanswered questions about the fate of the AATA as a city bus service, and about how that hard-won perpetual millage will be used.  They’ll be in future posts.