By Taylor Wizner, Daily Staff Reporter
Published November 9, 2012
After delaying this week’s meeting due to the election, the Ann Arbor City Council reconvened Thursday night and voted unanimously to end the city’s involvement in a countywide transit agreement established by the Ann Arbor Transit Authority.
The transit authority will return to the previous Act 55 model, which calls for a city-oriented public transit model.
The meeting will be the organization’s last before the newly elected councilmembers replace outgoing members. On Tuesday, Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje was elected for his seventh consecutive term as the city’s mayor. Councilmember-elect Chuck Warpehoski will replace outgoing councilmember Carsten Hohnke (D–Ward 5) at next week’s meeting after winning the race to represent Ward 5.
All councilmembers, except Sandi Smith (D–Ward 1), were present for the meeting. The council members heard public commentary and then immediately went into closed session to discuss collective bargaining rights, where they remained for about 50 minutes.
At the end of the evening, the Council discussed a resolution to withdraw from the new public transit authority, sponsored by councilmembers Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Chris Taylor (D–Ward 3), Marcia Higgins (D–Ward 4), Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) and Hieftje (D).
The four-party agreement between the city, the Ann Arbor Transit Authority, Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County would have provided additional transit services throughout the county and surrounding areas.
The Council put the resolution on the agenda after several communities in the four-party agreement backed out of the countywide transit system during the 30-day period the communities had to decide if they wanted to join. Councilmembers Briere, Taylor, Higgins, Kunselman and Hieftje sponsored the resolution to back away from the plan.
Council members expressed their frustration that other communities rejected the project after ongoing efforts to push it forward to fruition.
“This whole effort basically spent a lot of money to basically bring us back to the beginning, and that’s unfortunate,” Kunselman said. “I’m glad that we are doing this tonight because it’s important that the Council that created this effort is also going to close it. The good news is that we will be able to start fresh.”
Councilmember Hoenke said he was upset that the other municipalities rejected the authority, which he thought would have been a benefit to the communities.
“I’m a little disappointed in the townships,” Hoenke said. “I think a countywide transit authority would have added a lot to our community … I think this going outside of what we hope.”
Lumm retorted, claiming that communities need to make decisions that are in their best interest.
“You have to trust them to do what is important to the residents,” Lumm said.
Councilmember Briere said the dissolution of the current transit authority would leave board members from other communities without a position since the citywide authority does not allow for members that are not residents. She said the Council should decide whether to include non-residents or not.
“It has to be one or the other,” Briere said. “Either we want the members of the AATA board to be residents of Ann Arbor or we want to open it up to other jurisdictions too.”
Mayor Hieftje said this conversation wouldn’t be the last on public transit.
“This is not so much the end of this discussion of expanded transit but a restart and a reboot of this discussion including the local partners,” Hiefje said.
During public commentary before the vote, two members of the Washtenaw Transit Authority — a commission of Washtenaw county residents advocating for increased transit — asked the Council to continue support for the transit program.
Carolyn Lusch, a member of the Washtenaw Partners for Transit, said though she agreed that the plan should be well planned, the county is in desperate need of immediate and effective transit options.
“We need to keep moving forward deliberately,” Lusch said. “The strong support for the concept of transit is a first step. But you can’t ride a concept home from your shift … We need buses run frequently, efficiently and to all the places we need them to go.”
AATA CEO Michael Ford said in an AATA press release that the authority will continue to discuss means of countywide transit in the future.
“Efforts to extend the benefits of transit to a greater number of Washtenaw County residents will continue,” Ford said in the release. “This issue is a high priority for our region’s economic vitality and growth.”
Ford added that the authority will continue to work with surrounding communities including Ann Arbor, Saline, Ypsilanti, Pittsfield Township, Scio Township, Superior Township and Dexter.
AATA will also review existing services and costs to ensure its history of strong fiscal stewardship is not disrupted, according to Ford. The review will determine the feasibility of continuing to provide the services implemented as part of AATA’s initial investment under its Five-Year Transit Program.
Ford said some new services that may not be feasible without funding from Council include the doubled frequency of weekday service on the #4 Washtenaw route, AirRide, a bus that runs between Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro Airport, ExpressRide routes connecting Ann Arbor with Canton and Chelsea and Expanded NightRide service area eastward to Ypsilanti.
“We understand these services enjoy widespread popularity with AATA passengers,” said Ford. “We hope to avoid any reduction or elimination of AATA operations.”