Ypsilanti has the third highest percentage of public transit commuters in southeast Michigan, but you wouldn't know that by looking at the condition of the Ypsilanti Transit Center. However, the Ann Arbor Area Transit Authority (AAATA
) is hoping to bring the downtown Ypsilanti facility up to snuff with a multi-million dollar expansion.
According to data from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments
(SEMCOG), 8.8% of Ypsilanti residents commute by transit. In southeast Michigan, only Highland Park and Ann Arbor have higher rates.
"Frankly, it's past time to have a look at the Ypsilanti Transit Center," says AAATA CEO Matt Carpenter. "Terminals are linchpins, especially in the spoke-and-hub system we use in Ypsilanti. Bus terminals that aren't big enough can become bottlenecks."
AAATA recently received $300,000 in federal funds to support planning activities for the remodeling project, and the total cost of the project is estimated to be between $16 million and $18 million. AAATA staff plan to totally demolish the current center and rebuild on the same site.
AAATA board member and Ypsilanti resident Jesse Miller says riders who participated in listening sessions before the COVID-19 pandemic "overwhelmingly" said they wanted the transit center to stay at the same location.
The AAATA Ypsilanti Transit Center.
"It's right in the center of downtown. You've got all your shopping and restaurants, City Hall, and the library. It's a really great location," Miller says.
The entire planning, demolition, and construction process will likely take around five years.
"These projects do not happen overnight," Carpenter says. "It'll take many years of planning, a lot of discussion with the community and neighborhoods nearby. We need to make sure this is the kind of infrastructure project that's done thoughtfully and in keeping with the community's expectations."
AAATA staff will also need to talk to the city's historic commission, complete an environmental study and an equity study, and apply for a federal grant before any construction begins. AAATA staff are also considering whether they might need to buy parcels from adjacent landowners to make the renovation practical.
"We're not 100% certain on that, but if we do, we want to make sure it's done equitably, fairly, and transparently," Carpenter says.
The new facility should accommodate more buses and provide a better experience for passengers as well. Carpenter says that in public feedback sessions, many residents asked for bathroom improvements, for instance.
Jesse Miller at the Ypsilanti Transit Center.
"We need to increase not just the footprint of the facility, though that needs to be done to increase the number of buses that can stop there at any time," Carpenter says. "But we need more bathrooms, a bigger passenger waiting area, and a break room space for staff. We could do better on all those."
Miller, who regularly rides the bus to work, says the smallness of the Ypsilanti Transit Center has always bothered him.
"The building itself is rather small, and the awning isn't very big," he says. "When it rains, there are a lot of people huddling in a small area. After COVID, it became not just an issue of comfort and personal space, but of health and safety. It's just not sufficient for the needs of Ypsilanti transit users."
Desirae Simmons, an Ypsilanti resident and co-director of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice
(ICPJ), used to ride the bus regularly before the pandemic. She has been following the AAATA's long-term planning project
, called TheRide 2045, both as a rider and as a community advocate. During the planning process for the transit center, she says she hopes AAATA staff will think of the transit center as "a place for public information and resources and community."
"[The current transit center] doesn't have a place for flyering or a person who knows what's going on in the community and where different resources are," she says, whether that's housing assistance, health care, or connecting with lawyers at Legal Services of South Central Michigan (LSSCM
"It should be a place where people can find information, a place for the public good," she says. "Right now, it doesn't look like a place you'd necessarily want to be. It's not really comfortable at all."
Having a staffed customer service counter is a major consideration for the new transit center. Carpenter says that if a transportation millage proposal
passes later this year, AAATA may be able to staff the current center by the end of the year or early in 2023, well before the new construction begins.
"I've been here since 2015, and in my time here it's never been staffed and wasn't staffed for many years before then," Carpenter says. "I never got a clear answer of why."
Miller says that's unfair to Ypsilanti riders, especially considering that Ann Arbor's Blake Transit Center is staffed.
"Not having a customer service agent at the Ypsilanti service center is a huge accessibility and equity issue," Miller says.
He notes that AAATA offers discounted fares for certain people with disabilities or low income, as well as bulk fares like week or month passes.
"Those are only available in Ann Arbor at the Blake Transit Center or the operations center on South Industrial," Miller says. "Anyone in Ypsilanti who wants to get any kind of discounted fare has to go to Ann Arbor to get it."
The AAATA Ypsilanti Transit Center.
The disparity in customer service reps between Ann Arbor and Ypsi isn't the only equity issue to be considered in the transit center project, however. Simmons says she and others at ICPJ encouraged AAATA staff to do a "racial equity screen" on the long-term plan.
AAATA follows federal guidance
around fare increases and other changes that require local transit authorities to "assess the proposed changes and identify any disparate impacts or disproportionate burdens" on racial minorities or low-income riders. But Simmons wants to ensure the AAATA board treats an equity screening process as more than an afterthought or a box to be checked.
"We wanted them to include this early on so that [equity considerations] could go into the actual planning," she says. "It would be great for it to happen up front and be transparent for the community."
One round of public engagement has already happened, but Carpenter says there will be future opportunities to engage with the planning process.
"It's really important for us that this is done with the community, because it's a piece of infrastructure that is going to be there for 40 years," he says. "And at $18 million, it may represent the largest single investment in downtown Ypsilanti in decades. It has the potential to trigger other spinoff development downtown. We want to make sure the community is on board and that we have a chance to hear what they want to see."
Interested residents can keep tabs on the planning and construction process, and future public input opportunities, by checking AAATA's webpage for the Ypsilanti Transit Center project.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.