Blog: Michael Benham

Lots of hands have been raised in the talks about where our feet will go around the Washtenaw County of the future. After 50 town hall meetings, the Transit Master Plan is coming soon. Michael Benham, AATA's special assistant for strategic planning, talks about public input on the plan and the shape of transportation to come.

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.