The proposed Ann Arbor Amtrak station — which has been long-delayed — came under fire for an alleged lack of transparency from City Council members at Monday evening’s meeting.
The rail station was originally proposed in 2009, and the city accepted a $2.8 million federal grant to explore options for a new facility in 2012. An alternatives analysis on potential locations of the new station was expected for public release in the summer of 2015 but has been delayed without explanation by city staff members.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Ann Arbor News in May found significant portions of the draft analysis and correspondence between city officials, the Michigan Department of Transportation and Federal Railway Administration to be heavily redacted.
Councilmembers Sumi Kailasapathy (D–Ward 1), Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4) and Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) introduced a resolution demanding the disclosure of the entire report and all relevant correspondence, arguing this would be in the public interest.
However, other councilmembers and Mayor Christopher Taylor expressed concern that a premature disclosure would have unintended consequences. The resolution for disclosure failed in a narrow 5-to-6 vote. All councilmembers acknowledged they themselves had not yet seen the report or the relevant correspondence, but those opposed to the resolution expressed faith in the city staff conducting the analyses.
In addition to Eaton, Kailasapathy and Lumm, councilmembers Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) and Chuck Warpehoski (D–Ward 5) voted in favor of disclosure. Voting against disclosure were Councilmembers Kirk Westphal (D–Ward 2), Julie Grand (D–Ward 3), Zachary Ackerman (D–Ward 3), Graydon Krapohl (D–Ward 4) and Chip Smith (D–Ward 5) — in addition to Mayor Taylor.
Eaton said the development of the rail station project cannot continue behind closed doors, arguing that early public input through a transparent process would prevent issues further down the project timeline, pointing to the backlash concerning the University of Michigan’s lack of transparency in its recent attempt to construct a maintenance facility near several Ann Arbor residential neighborhoods.
“They went about the entire decision making process without really engaging people,” Eaton said, referring to the University’s administration. “If we want to avoid that kind of public outcry when we release information, we need to engage the public and let them know what the state and federal agencies believe are the problems with our ideas of the potential sites.”
Eaton and Kailasapathy also said negative rumors were circulating among their constituents about the project, and a disclosure would dispel these concerns.
Taylor said the early release of the draft analysis could provide misleading and inaccurate information that would skew the public input process to the project. Taylor insisted that only a finalized report with approval from Michigan Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration should be released to the public to ensure there would be no misinformation during the community input phase.
“The harm of a premature release is that the city is releasing something when it’s not sure of its accuracy — the public would be commenting on something that may be false,” Taylor said. “I believe putting out a document that does not have its own stamp of internal confidence is a harm.”
Ackerman and Grand opposed the resolution by arguing that an early disclosure of the report would potentially undermine city staff as well as MDOT and the FRA.
“We need to dot our I’s and cross our T’s,” Ackerman said. “And after that, there will be a robust, there will be a long, there will be a lengthy public process.”