City leaders discussed plans for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority’s upcoming renovation of the Blake Transit Center at a press conference yesterday afternoon and lauded United States Congressman John Dingell (D-Mich.) for securing a $1 million federal grant for the project.

Several people involved in the project spoke about the potential benefits of the renovation like creating a station that will better serve Ann Arbor residents who use the city’s public transportation system and revitalizing the downtown area to better serve local businesses.

Located at 331 S. Fourth Ave., the Blake Transit Center is one of the main hubs of the city’s public transportation system, with 5,000 people using the center on a daily basis, according to Charles Griffith, secretary of the AATA Board of Directors.

Built in 1987, the building is due for an update, Griffith said. This, coupled with the need to accommodate an increased number of AATA riders, is the main reason behind the planned construction, he said.

At the start of the press conference, Griffith said the demand for public transportation in the city continues to grow, with a 40-percent increase in ridership of AATA’s fixed route bus service in the past five years. This represents an even greater increase than the statewide growth in public transportation usage, which was a 22-percent boost throughout the past six years, he said.

All of the speakers at the press conference, including CEO of AATA Michael Ford, thanked Dingell for making the city’s voice heard in Washington, D.C. At $1 million, the federal grant — which is a Federal Transit Administration State of Good Repair project — will cover part of the project’s cost, as the total expenditure is estimated at about $4 million, Ford said in an interview after the press conference. The remaining $3 million will be funded through “several different pots of money” the AATA has access to, including state dollars and “district grants,” he said.

The renovation is slated to begin in the spring of 2011 and conclude by the summer of 2012. The new transit center will have an added floor, which will increase the size of the current building from 2,000 square feet to about 6,000 square feet, Ford said during the press conference.

Ford thanked Dingell for his hands-on work in making sure the city gets the support it needs to continue to operate successfully.

“(Dingell’s) dedication to bringing federal funds back to our community is critical to the continued success and a major force in the Michigan economy,” Ford said.

Mayor John Hieftje also spoke at the event, thanking Dingell for his help in getting federal grants for the city.

Hieftje said the renovated transit center is going to be a “great addition” to the city, adding that it will encourage Ann Arbor residents to continue their high rate of public transportation usage.

“Ann Arbor is one of the highest-rated communities in the United States in the number of people that bike or use public transportation to get to their destination, and we certainly want to continue to move in that direction,” Hieftje said.

Dingell took the floor next and said that Ann Arbor’s public transportation system is “a great and enthusiastic public service” that contributes to a better “quality of life” for the city’s residents. He recognized Hieftje’s and other public officers’ hard work in spearheading various city projects, like the transit center renovation.

“…Understand that this is the result of hard work and real vigor and real mission because, as the Bible tells us, ‘Without a vision, people perish,’” Dingell said. “And now, let’s get on with the next task.”

Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, said better transportation in the city means more customers will come into the city and make it easier for employees of Ann Arbor businesses to commute.

“Here in downtown Ann Arbor, we know that the small, independent businesses and the new economy companies are the groups that are going to be generating the jobs of the future,” Pollay said. “And that means that we have to feed those businesses.”

Ford said that while there may be some changes to the AATA bus routes as a result of the construction, the authority is going to do everything it can to have as few “disruptions as possible.” He also said that while the new center is being built, the existing building will still be functional to minimize disturbances for customers.

There is also currently construction on Ann Arbor’s Downtown Library parking lot on South Fifth Avenue, one block over from the Blake Transit Center. And while several of the speakers at the press conference said the timeline of the two construction projects may overlap, Hieftje said he doesn’t foresee this being too problematic.

“We’re going to make accommodations so the people riding the bus, you know they’ll be somewhat inconvenienced, but not to any great extent,” Hieftje said.

The renovation of the Blake Transit Center is part of a greater countywide push to increase the accessibility and availability of public transportation in the area, Ford said.

As part of this plan, in the future AATA plans to work on introducing transportation from the Blake Transit Center to Detroit Metro Airport, he said.

“We’re in the middle of a countywide plan for the next 30 years,” Ford said.

Ypsilanti resident Jessica Gransden said she uses Ann Arbor’s public transportation system about 10 times a day, going to and from home, work and class at Washtenaw Community College. She said a renovated transit center would be a welcomed change, as the current building is often crowded with people waiting for buses in the winter.

“I think it would help,” Gransden said. “…It’s usually packed wall to wall.”

Ann Arbor resident Thomas Krawford, Jr., who uses the Ann Arbor’s buses to get to work at a local high school every day, said he’s open to the idea of a new transit center, though he’s concerned about the cost of the construction.

“I suppose on the one hand progress is a good thing but on the other hand nothing is totally perfect,” Krawford said. “There’s always some sort of drawback in the long run.”

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