Blog: Michael Benham

Michael Benham has more than 30 years of experience in project management, strategic planning, and performance analysis in the transportation and facilities industries. Michael joined the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority in 2009 as the project manager responsible for developing WALLY commuter rail service and has recently been appointed AATA's special assistant for strategic planning, with responsibility for developing the Transit Master Plan for Washtenaw County.

He began his career in Chicago as a city planner and moved on to serve as an environmental specialist with that city's Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) and later as assistant director of planning for Metra, the commuter rail operator in the Chicago area. At Metra, Michael led a wide range of projects including the planning of new rail lines, stations, and commuter parking. He then worked for Spectrum Strategies, a Michigan project management, consulting and strategic planning firm, where his clients included both public sector and private organizations.

He has a bachelor’s degree in economics and is a Certified Six-Sigma Greenbelt.

Michael Benham - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: What can the Transit Master Plan do for you?

In my first blog, I described some of the many conversations we had with people from all over Washtenaw County.  I heard hundreds of great ideas, stories of need, stories about transit in other cities and other countries.  In the blog that followed – my second – I provided a preview of the Washtenaw County Transit Master Plan, with its many proposals for service throughout the county.

Here, I'd like to review a few of the expected impacts if the plan were to become reality.  In particular, I'd like to highlight how transit benefits even people who do not use the system.

For starters, we believe the Plan can achieve a doubling of transit ridership in the urbanized areas of the region.  And in the rural areas of the county, it is forecast that transit ridership would increase 15-fold.  These new transit users gain more productive use of their time, as they can text, read, sleep, work on their computer, etc., none of which you can (or at least should) do in your car.

We have estimated that the Plan will take 5.4 million vehicle trips off of area roadways. This reduces congestion for those who continue to drive, and reduces wear on roadways, extending the life of the roadway and reducing maintenance costs. 

That reduction in auto trips in turn causes a reduction in automotive emissions such as carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen, and volatile organic compounds. The estimated 700 tons per year of reduction of these pollutants contributes to a decrease in illnesses such as asthma, and also helps reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate changes.

Reduced auto traffic means fewer vehicle crashes, which in turn means fewer deaths and injuries, and less expense associated with emergency response efforts.

Speaking of health benefits, the increased use of transit promotes health in another way, by encouraging walking and biking as part of daily travel.  Our work estimates that about $4.4 million in health benefits are generated annually as a result.

We have estimated that implementing the plan will stimulate employment, producing at least 1,800 new jobs. This estimate was challenged recently by the CEO of a large local firm, who told us "If improved transit brings just one good-sized company to the county, you can double or triple the number of jobs you have estimated".

An important category of benefits is those related to land use and development impacts.  Transit services, especially rail transit, can be used to focus new development in existing population and employment centers, creating compact nodes of development that are easy to serve by transit.  This same compact development is also easier to serve by water, sewer, roads, electricity and so forth, reducing the costs to provide ALL of the urban infrastructure.  This benefit is very hard to quantify, but is evident in many communities around the country with mature transit systems.

The rail proposals in the plan are believed likely to generate significant increased in property values, especially in the immediate vicinity of stations.  This benefit is especially welcome during these times of falling home values, and accrue to property owners in the county whether they ride transit or not.

These are just a few of the benefits of the Washtenaw County Transit Master Plan.  Please keep these in mind when you talk to friends and neighbors about the Plan.  EVERYBODY benefits, so everybody has a reason to support the Plan.  Please come to a public meeting and have your say!

The Ride has scheduled another round of public meetings to solicit public input on the plan. Find the complete schedule here.

Post 2: Sneak Preview – A Transit Vision for Washtenaw County

In my previous blog, I described the extensive public outreach program that TheRide (Ann Arbor Transportation Authority) used to publicize our planning process and to get people involved.  I described the many meetings and the hundreds of people we spoke with.  So what did we do with all that input?  You are about to find out.
TheRide is now putting the finishing touches on the Transit Master Plan designed to guide transit improvements throughout the county for the next thirty years. Here is a preview of what you will find in the plan.
Countywide Door-to-Door (D2D) Services:   Although the County currently has services that serve our seniors and people with disabilities, these services are very incomplete, with large areas of the county not covered, and  limited days and hours of service where there is service.  The Countywide D2D service would cover the entire county and would establish a consistent standard for service everywhere in the county, providing a transportation lifeline for the people who cannot or prefer not to drive.
Flex Ride:  This service would be available to ALL residents of Washtenaw County, providing a transit option for anyone who wants it.  Flex service would take you to and from the nearest fixed-route service (train or bus), or if no fixed route exists, Flex service would take you directly to your destination.

Enhanced Western Washtenaw Value Express (WWAVE) Services:  Under the Plan, the services provided by WAVE would be enhanced to provide greater frequency, longer hours and weekend service.  Residents of Chelsea and surrounding communities would enjoy greater mobility, and better connections into Ann Arbor.
Express Services:  Express bus service, similar to that already provided from Chelsea and Canton Township, would connect the major population centers to the heart of the urbanized area.  These commuter-oriented services would provide Manchester, Saline, Chelsea, Dexter, Whitmore Lake, and Livonia-area residents with a fast and economical alternative to driving
Community Circulators:  Modeled after the Chelsea Community Circulator, additional local circulators are proposed for Dexter and Saline, providing connections within those communities between residential areas and jobs, shopping and recreation.
Urban Bus Network Improvements:  The Plan will contain many proposals for improvements and  extensions to the existing urban bus network in and around Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.  Such improvements will include later hours, more frequent service, weekend services and so forth.
High Capacity Transit:  Two corridors have such heavy transit travel already that they are being proposed for introduction of high capacity service such as a bus or light rail line.  The Washtenaw Avenue corridor service would greatly increase connectivity between Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, while providing a stimulus for economic development of the entire corridor.

The Ann Arbor Connector would link together some of the highest density areas of the region – UM hospital, North Campus, Central Campus, downtown Ann Arbor and points south including Briarwood and Avis Farms.

Commuter Rail Connections:  Commuter rail would be introduced on existing railroad tracks.  One line would connect Ann Arbor to Detroit while the other would connect Ann Arbor to points in Livingston County, offering commuters options other than their cars for making longer distance trips to and from points outside the county
Airport Service:  The Plan also calls for initiation of an express bus service to Detroit Metro airport from points in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.  By connecting using the other services in the plan, virtually any resident could get to the airport by transit.
Park & Ride:  The Plan envisions a significant expansion of park and ride lots intended to intercept drivers before they enter the densest parts of the region, providing bus services into the core urban areas.
The Plan will offer additional transit services and also heavily emphasizes the importance of biking and pedestrian facilities.  All of the above are designed to work together to efficiently provide an extremely high level of transit access for the entire county.
Want to hear more?  Want to express your opinion?  Attend one of our public meetings in May when we will release the Plan for public review.  I think you will see that we've been listening.

Post 1: Mass transit isn't a horse of another color

As many of you know, the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has been working for the past nine months or so on a Transit Master Plan for Washtenaw County. Our goal is to develop a plan that responds to the transit needs of the county over the next thirty years, and to use transit to help shape the physical development of the county. We believe, and have research to back it up, that an expanded transit system can be a major contributor to the overall goals of the county's citizens, which have been summarized in our planning work as follows:

• Support economic growth
• Promote livability
• Improve access for all
• Facilitate a healthier community
• Protect the environment
• Improve safety and security
• Promote efficient land development patterns

Many of you are also aware of the extensive "public outreach" program that we have conducted throughout the county. Since we began work on the Plan in July 2010, we have attended a dozen community fairs, 50 formal community 'town hall' style meetings, and countless additional meetings and briefings with small groups and individuals. In fact, AATA has probably devoted as much time to public outreach as we have to the more traditional, technical aspects of the plan.

Why so much time on public outreach? As a local unit of government, AATA is committed to transparency and involvement of the people we serve, and that is a commitment we take very seriously. Especially considering the nature of this project – a Transit Master Plan covering the whole county and a 30-year period – it would be foolish to develop a plan without extensive involvement by the people of the county. Ultimately, it is the public – the voters and taxpayers of the county – that will decide whether the Plan's proposals are something they can support, and we think our odds of getting that support are exponentially increased if people can see their 'fingerprints on the plan'.

For me, there is another and very personal reason to spend a lot of time with the public as we develop the Plan. As a planner, it is easy to get caught up in the data analysis and maps and all the other trappings of our profession. But when I go to a public meeting, and hear the stories of unmet needs, or someone's great idea about a new service, that's when I am reminded of why I do what I do. It's about taking care of people's real everyday needs, getting to work or school or the doctor's office. You don't get a real feel for that without taking the process to the public, and spending a few hours in conversation. It is in those meetings where I hear from a mother who wants her disabled son to get to school independently, or the senior who fears losing his license and hence his ability to get around. It's in those meetings that a group of youth show up and explain that they'd like an improved system so their parents don't have to give them a ride everywhere. I had one person explain to me that they moved to another city in order to be able to use transit to get to work.

The stories are numerous. I have literally heard hundreds of them and it is these stories that keep me inspired and make me want do the best job I can do. So, people of Washtenaw County, keep the great thoughts coming! We really are listening and I hope you will see that reflected in our soon-to-be released Transit Master Plan.