Fatal crash highlights concerns over pedestrian safety funding in Ann Arbor

Thursday, October 27, 2016 - 8:50pm

Following a fatal car crash Tuesday near Huron High School that resulted in one death, some Ann Arbor residents have raised questions about whether City Council has deferred funding for pedestrian safety in favor of downtown projects — putting off slated crosswalk improvements for areas including the location of the crash.

Ann Arbor Community High School student Qi-Xuan “Justin” Tang was struck by a car and killed around 7:20 a.m. on Tuesday morning while crossing Fuller Road, according to Ann Arbor Police and Ann Arbor Public Schools.

There is no definitive link between the crosswalk and this accident, and the AAPD has not yet released its accident report on Tuesday's incident. However, local residents, like Kathy Griswold, a former Ann Arbor School Board member, noted there is no lighting for the crosswalk to Huron High School on Fuller Road —which she said creates  unsafe conditions — even though complaints had been raised by residents since at least early 2015.

Griswold — while not singling out any individual or organization as responsible for Tuesday’s accident — said in an interview she thought City Council has systematically failed to ensure adequate pedestrian safety.

“We underfunded pedestrian infrastructure for the time that John Hieftje was mayor and Roger Fraser was city administrator, and Taylor continued that,” Griswold said, adding that she wishes Taylor would resign. “We’ve underfunded infrastructure and at the same time we’ve spent money on consultants who are not professional engineers, and we’ve spent money on crosswalks that do not meet minimum standards.”

Specifically, Griswold drew issue with a failed proposal to divert $320,000 from a joint city of Ann Arbor-DDA Kerrytown streetlight replacement project to be spent on crosswalk improvements instead — including on the Fuller Road crosswalk — that was introduced to the council in the lead-up to its budget finalization in May.

Sponsors of the proposal, including Councilmember Jack Eaton (D–Ward 4), argued during a May meeting that the DDA should have fully funded the Kerrytown project as its revenue was greater than expected and other sections of the city not covered by the DDA were in need of new infrastructure, which could have been funded by the diverted money.

“The DDA this particular year was flush with money, and the city itself had some significant needs,” Eaton said in a Thursday interview. “We could (have) put that $320,000 to better use if we didn’t contribute to the Kerrytown project.”

The DDA, which has independent taxing authority over downtown to undertake infrastructure projects and attract businesses, often splits costs with the city on infrastructure and maintenance projects on a case-by-case basis. From 2010 to 2016, the DDA’s annual income has increased 43 percent to $26.7 million.

While independent of each other, City Council has compelled the DDA to pay the full cost of joint projects in the past — such as with a 2013 replacement of corroding Main Street light posts — and often requests the DDA to pay other costs upfront.

However, the proposed amendment failed by a 5-6 vote. A second proposal to fund the crosswalk improvements from the city’s general fund reserve subsequently failed by a 3-8 vote.

Those who opposed redirecting DDA-earmarked funds to crosswalk improvements have argued that it was outside the city’s power to compel additional financial contributions from the DDA when the cost share of the project had already been agreed upon.

City Councilmember Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said in an interview Thursday she voted against the original proposal because she didn’t believe the DDA would be willing to fill the funding gap, noting the Kerrytown streetlight project was also intended to improve public safety.

“I voted against (the amendment) because it was taking money from a safety project to put money in another safety project,” Briere said. “And the whole premise of that budget was the DDA would fill the gap, and I did not believe the DDA would fill the gap.”

Though opposed to the original budget amendment, Briere proposed an alternative that would have drawn funding for crosswalk improvements from the city’s reserve fund, which also failed.

She noted City Council allocated $200,000 for streetlight improvements to boost pedestrian safety in its Oct. 17 meeting, with the Huron High School crosswalk slated as a “second-tier” priority. She also added that even if the $320,000 crosswalk improvement project had been approved in May, work on the Fuller Road crosswalk wouldn’t have begun until the next year.

Eaton disagreed with Briere’s assessment over whether it was proper for City Council to compel additional expenses from the DDA, arguing there is a precedent for these sorts of adjustments to cost sharing.

“While there was some discussion between staff and the DDA, it’s really City Council that sets policy,” Eaton said. “And we were trying to say that we thought the needs of the rest of the city were the higher priority than following through on what staff had agreed to.”

However, both council members agreed that it would be premature to attribute Tuesday’s accident to this specific budget allocation, noting there is a systematic deficiency in the city’s pedestrian safety infrastructure.

“Almost every neighborhood has a location where school kids cross on a regular basis that are poorly marked and poorly lit,” Eaton said. “I’m not going to say that this tragic incident is anybody’s fault in particular or that it could’ve been prevented with street lighting, but I do say our failure to address these needs makes it more likely we’ll have this kind of tragedy again in the future.”