Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Regional mass transit for the Motor City and surrounds?

18. September 2005 • MarkDilley
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> ealier ArborUpdate post

“Impossible!” you say.

But not so fast… This month the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) General Assembly is holding a series of public meetings on the possibility of an Ann Arbor-Detroit rapid transit system. The project is still in the planning stages, and support from the public is esssential.

The route is yet to be decided, but one thing that’s nearly certain is that it would have a stop at Metro airport (yay!) before going to Detroit. Just imagine—this could mean the end of the need for airport karma! It could also mean the possibility of going to a Tigers’ game or the Fox Theater without fighting traffic and circling for parking. It could save millions of gallons of gasoline consumed each year by commuters who have no other way of getting to work.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the line would provide a key opportunity for low-income Detroiters who have no way of getting out to potential jobs, which are mostly in the burbs. So, please consider attending one of the meetings planned for this month (see below) to show your support, ask questions, make suggestions, etc.

Check out AnnArborDetroitRapidTransitStudy.com for more info.

Meeting schedule:

•Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
4 p.m.–8 p.m. (presentations at 4:30 and 6:30)
Washtenaw Community College
Morris Lawrence Building, Room 103/123
4800 E. Huron River Drive

•Detroit
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
5 p.m.–8:30 p.m. (presentations at 5:30 and 6:30)
SEMCOG Offices, Buhl Building
Suite 300
535 Griswold Street

•Dearborn
Thursday, September 22, 2005
4 p.m.–8 p.m. (presentations at 4:30 and 6:30)
Ford Community Center
Studio A
15801 Michigan Avenue



  1. Man I wish i was still there to go to this. Im currently living in LA and attempt to ride the transit hear to go to work. It would be feasible if NIMBY homeowners didn’t spend their time blocking transit stops in the neighborhood that Im living in.

    This may not be apperent, but this is a golden opportunity to unite the vocal greenway supporters/Sierra Club and advocates of greater downtown desnity behind a vision that accomodates downtown development with greater transit options. A mantra that Cowherd repeated was that a parking structure subsidized commuters from outside. This would make it easier for downtown residents to live here with out the necessity of parking a car and for suburbanites to take a train in for weekend dining.

    The benefits to students are obviouse in the easy access to Detroit Metro Airport and the opportunity to take advantage of cheaper rental housing in Detroit and Ypsilanti by communitng in for classes. Is the Planners Network still meeting Murph?

    I wish I was there for this, but hell, if it becomes reality maybe Michigan will get me back.
       —Dave    Sep. 21 '05 - 02:46AM    #
  2. Dave –
    Planner’s Network has had one meeting so far (I was in class at the time, so don’t know how many showed) and we’re planning to revive the speaker series. Though, without the Three Site Plan to focus on, our speaker selection won’t be quite so obvious.

    One of the first-years is trying to set up a New Urbanist discussion group as well, though I also don’t know how that’s going.

    I’m, of course, trying to round up planners to go to Calthorpe-part-2, but half the class is going to be in Toronto for expanded horizons…
       —Murph.    Sep. 21 '05 - 09:17AM    #
  3. More on-topic –
    I get the feeling that these events are not four hours long, but the same 2-hour event repeated twice on each day? I haven’t quite been able to get a good answer from the consultants running them, though. It sounds like a presentation-questions-comments thing, rather than anything that would take up 4 hours.

    I do think that this is a critical piece of infrastructure for Michigan’s hope of a future, in allowing trips to be made without a car, creating access to jobs (though it does, as Detroiters have pointed out, have to be part of a broader network to do that well – Ann Arbor can’t be the only wealthy suburb tied to Detroit for that to happen!), and encouraging reinvestment around the stations.

    Choosing routes isn’t just dependant on what trips we want to take, but what trips we want to create demand for. (A stop in Ypsi, for example, to encourage/enable people working or studying in Ann Arbor to live in Ypsi rather than squabbling over scraps of land in A2…)
       —Murph.    Sep. 21 '05 - 09:32AM    #
  4. It’s surprising to me that this meeting announcement has been posted here on Arbor Update for 3 days with little discussion. I think sometimes we get so concerned about what’s happening in our own city (see Glen Ann discussion) that we forget that there’s a bigger world out there. This mass transit system is desperately needed. I’m worried that, once again, too many interest groups will start fighting and our common goals (jobs, environmental protection, affordable housing, historic preservation, etc …) will lose big as a result. And the radical idea that a person could live in A2 and get to Detroit without getting in a car will be nothing more than a pipe dream.
       —Jennifer Hall    Sep. 21 '05 - 03:32PM    #
  5. Jennifer,

    I think there is little discussion because everyone wants a mass transit system and we want it asap. As it gets farther along toward reality, we might debate the merits of bus, train, vs. light-rail, or the safety implications (perceived or real), or any number of other issues but for right now, I think everyone just wants it to happen.
       —Juliew    Sep. 21 '05 - 03:43PM    #
  6. It’s surprising to me that this meeting announcement has been posted here on Arbor Update for 3 days with little discussion.

    Aside from “please, please, please let this happen and nobody #^% it up,” my only thought is “please, please, please let it be a 24 hour train.”

    Aside the environmental advantages, commuter lines running from 7:00AM to 7:00PM don’t do much more than shuffle the rich and the poor. I imagine Detroit executives who live in AA keeping their BMW’s safe from winter salt, while Detroit natives ride for an hour to make minimum wage right here on Main St… Not much to change the status quo, and certainly no hope for students looking to commute to any of the universities along the line – your class ends at 7:30PM, and you’re out of luck.

    24 hour lines, on the other hand, could be very positive – and the only way one could have an evening at a Tigers’ game or the Fox Theater and still have a way out of the D. Entertainment/shopping being an easy train ride away could encourage actual economic growth in Detroit, or at least be a decent start.
       —FAA    Sep. 21 '05 - 05:51PM    #
  7. I went to the early session today (4:30 rather than 6:30) – along with 70-odd other people, who ranged from planning students to the chair of Macomb’s County Planning Commission; people from Livonia and Chelsea; snake-oil salesmen from Interstate Traveler; Wong, Schmerl, and Ralph; and so forth. (Rumor has it Mayor Hieftje was going to make some official pro-transit proclamation on behalf of A2 at the later session, but earlier worked for my schedule.)

    The current phase is exactly what you’re talking about, Juliew – they’ve got three “technology” choices (bus rapid transit, light rail transit, and commuter rail transit), and several “alignment” options. They’ve identified 5 candidate technology/alignment pairs for the “trunk line” (Ypsi to Detroit border), and are hoping to identify a preferred alternative for that section at the beginning of 2006, with in-Detroit and west-of-Ypsi options considered once the trunk line choice is somewhat set. (Too many combinations possible otherwise.)

    Right now, they’re eagerly taking public comment on those choices – check their webpage for info on the technology/alignment alternatives and contact info

    Roughly, the trunk choices (links are pdf) are:
    * BRT along Michigan Avenue (in dedicated lanes in the median where there’s space, using general traffic lanes where there’s not), spur to DTW.
    * BRT along I-94 and Michigan Ave (one route I94 all the way east, a second I94 to Merriman Rd. to Michigan Ave to downtown Detroit; I94 segments on HOV lanes, either new or converted from gen’l traffic lanes), catching both DTW and Dearborn on “main” lines.
    * LRT along Michigan Ave (like BRT, in the median where there’s space, in shared traffic lanes or alongside where there’s not), spur to DTW
    * CRT on Norfolk Southern’s Michigan Line , spur to DTW.
    * CRT Norfolk Southern Detroit Line, Detroit to DTW; BRT along I94, DTW to Ypsi (kind of a weird hybrid scheme – only exists because of desire to have direct-to-DTW routes?)

    Each of these is loosely rated by the population served (within 1/2 mile of stations), employment served (within 1/2 mile of stations), speed of service, capital costs, and operational costs. Many of the assumptions made in those are challengeable, but I’ll leave that for a later post. :)

    Everybody there seemed to support transit; challenges to one alternative or another seemed to be along the lines of “I disagree with that choice because I want to see this work, and I don’t think that one has a good chance!” Mostly people just wanted to know when it would happen and how much it would cost. (Which is as could be predicted – people who don’t care or don’t want transit will just stay home, and not voice their opinion for another few years.)

    When asked about timeline, the consultants (Parsons-Brinkerhoff working under SEMCOG) said that the fastest (though not necessarily best) option would be running Bus Rapid Transit on I-94, and converting existing lanes to HOV/Bus lanes – things could be running in 2 years. Other options go up from there, but that was the only even rough number given.
       —Murph.    Sep. 21 '05 - 08:52PM    #
  8. (I’d, of course, encourage everybody to submit comments on this stage – perhaps after taking time to think it over out loud around here…)
       —Murph.    Sep. 21 '05 - 08:57PM    #
  9. Two questions, Murph—any discussion of getting communities to buy in with local improvements or land use alterations? Also, is economic development a consideration anywhere down the line? That is, when they rate “employment,” are they realizing that they might be creating jobs?

    For my piece, I cannot think of a worse possible investment than BRT on I-94. Cheap and quick to start, sure, but I think anything that more or less buys into our current transportation system and land use is a waste of money. Let’s provide a real alternative, I say.
       —Dale    Sep. 21 '05 - 10:26PM    #
  10. I went to the second session, although I could have stayed home and read Murph’s thorough description instead (do you take speed shorthand or something??) The only news from the second session was that Mayor Hieftje did make some excellent remarks, articulating the economic and environmental benefits of bringing regional transit to Ann Arbor. His comments seemed to indicate a preference for commuter rail (CRT) for several reasons:

    -using buses would require lane closures on Washtenaw and/or Huron;
    -rail would utilize Ann Arbor’s train station, which is within walking distance of thousands of jobs;
    -light rail would come with tremendous costs and could be a decade away;
    -commuter rail is the best foundation for growing a more comprehensive regional transit system.

    I commute from Ann Arbor to downtown Detroit, so I’m obviously in the “I want transit now” camp. Buses (Bus Rapid Transit – BRT) may be the quickest and cheapest option, but my concern is that they do not provide a permanent enough transportation option to change land use patterns. Businesses will locate around a train station; neighborhoods will see a train station as a major asset. Bus stops don’t create the same incentives and reliance. Besides, buses don’t do much better than cars in bad weather.

    Light rail is certainly appealing to transit advocates (I include myself in that category). But it requires huge amounts of $$$, unified regional politics, and some existing transit options. Southeast Michigan has none of the above. And Ann Arbor to Detroit is a very long trip for light rail, which is really a modern version of trolleys and streetcars.
       —Noah Hall    Sep. 21 '05 - 10:29PM    #
  11. Noah – part of it is figuring out where to look things up when I get home to make sure my notes are right, so that I don’t have to write so much down.

    Dale – Peter Allen asked one of the first questions of the presenters, on just that topic. They rated the BRT options “good” for population/employment served, since more frequent stations means more people within walking distance of the stations, while the all-CRT option rated “very poor” – few stations, fewer people served. Peter asked whether they shouldn’t take into account induced land use patterns – transit-oriented development – when considering the audience served. I also think there’s a role for local feeder systems – the larger population served can either spend extra time on the bus while it stops frequently, or can spend extra time on the feeder getting to the train. (All-CRT was rated “Very Good” on speed; nothing else was.)

    I definitely agree with the Mayor (and Dale and Noah, sounds like) – if an agreement can be worked out with Norfolk Southern, CRT’s probably the way to go. Especially because that option, it sounds like, would be super-cheap in this case, as CRT goes, and what capital costs are involved would be things like adding stretches of double lane to allow more passing opportunities, which would also (bonus) help Amtrak out.
       —Murph.    Sep. 21 '05 - 11:50PM    #
  12. “what capital costs are involved would be things like adding stretches of double lane to allow more passing opportunities”

    Lanes are for cars and trucks, tracks are for trains, even of the commuter variety. (Sorry – as a rail fan, I couldn’t let that go.)

    Adding a second track (double track) or long passing sidings (a stretch of double track on a line that is generally single track where a train can wait while a faster or opposing train passes) would likely be necessary to ensure smooth and ontime operations. Amtrak often runs into problems on lines that it has to share with regular freight railroad trains as those trains often operate at slower speed and can bottleneck the operation when there’s only a single track.
       —John Q    Sep. 22 '05 - 10:36AM    #
  13. I agree that BRT is the least attractive alternative to me. Even with the special lanes, the busses are still subject to traffic conditions and weather, it doesn’t change the land-use patterns, and I think there is still the perception that a bus is a low-end transportation option. I think light-rail or commuter rail would be more widely accepted.

    The advantage of the commuter rail is that it makes use of existing facilities and I imagine could fairly easily be expanded to include Dexter and Chelsea, which would help reduce the car trips from the west toward Ann Arbor in addition to the trips east toward Detroit. My concern is that it would not run very often because of sharing the tracks with Amtrak and freight. The light-rail systems I have been on run every 10-20 minutes. Also, there would be a need for far more parking at the Amtrak station because not everyone will take a bus there, especially if they are going to the airport.

    Were there any discussions of pricing? The light-rail in Minnesota is $1.50-$2.00/trip and each ticket is good for 2 1/2 hours and includes all busses and rail during that time. I see that Denver’s light-rail system is a similar price—up to $2.75/trip. Monthly passes are usually cheaper. Boston’s commuter rail goes up to $6.00, but that is for quite a long distance.

    I definitely agree with FAA that any option needs to be as close to 24 hour service as possible. Southeastern Michigan is not a 9-5 area. Even though Ann Arbor doesn’t have quite the shift system Detroit does, a very large percentage of employees work non-traditional hours and right now they really don’t have many transportation options. All the custodians at the University start work before the AATA busses begin running. The hospital staff works in shifts. The restaurant employees work until after the busses stop running. Sporting events would cause unusual peaks and flows on weekends and late nights. So AATA and all the bus systems that connect to the rail stations would need to increase their schedules if this is really going to do well.
       —Juliew    Sep. 22 '05 - 11:17AM    #
  14. “I imagine could fairly easily be expanded to include Dexter and Chelsea, which would help reduce the car trips from the west toward Ann Arbor”

    In an ideal world, this scenario would allow Dexter and Chelsea to become extensions of Ann Arbor, allowing them to absorb growth that would otherwise spill out into the surrounding townships while still contributing to the health of the city. They sort of play that role now but much of the growth around their established core is strictly suburban and all of the commuting traffic on I-94 is an environmental and traffic nightmare.

    The challenge would be getting those communities to accept the change in land-use patterns that would be necessary to accomodate the growth, especially in proximity to the station locations (and seeing what is realistically developable around the stations in those communities). Then you would want to see land preservation take place in between to ensure that we don’t have unmitigated sprawl following the freeway and transit lines (See various Calthorpe plans for examples)
       —John Q    Sep. 22 '05 - 11:50AM    #
  15. John Q – Doh. Commenting too late at night. You knew what I meant (obviously).

    There was concern voiced over freight/Amtrak/CRT prioritization; the presenters said that they would definitely not be recommending a CRT alternative unless and until they had done a lot of work with the railroad to ensure that a CRT system could be run with reasonable frequency and with good on-time performance. The additional double-tracking would be part of this (I don’t know how much of the line is currently double or single tracked?)

    They did talk about options like arranging joint schedules so that freight runs at off-hours – which means we ought to write and say that we don’t want any “off-hours”. Low-traffic hours, okay; off-hours – not so much. (Though I’ll note that even NJ TRANSIT into Penn Station has a gap – if you don’t make the 2-something am outbound train, you can’t get back to Jersey (oh, horror!) until the 6-something am train…)

    Juliew, they didn’t get to talking about prices; I think that’ll be part of the later discussion. Again drawing from my NJ TRANSIT (stupid all-caps transit names…) experience, a 50-mile trip there was about $8 one-way peak; $13 off-peak round-trip. ($5 extra for the spur to EWR.)

    That was in the NYC market, so I don’t think that we can go quite as high and pack the trains, but I do think that, say, $10 for fast A2-DTW sevice is reasonable – I’ve given plenty of rides to friends and family who felt $20 was a fair price for gas money, and that involves worrying about coordinating schedules with somebody who owns a car.
       —Murph.    Sep. 22 '05 - 11:52AM    #
  16. And you hopped another comment in there. I’ve spent some time walking around Chelsea with a freshly trained planner’s perspective (since I maintain that Chelsea’s rotten planning of the ‘80s and ‘90s was part of what drove me into planning); while a City Council member there stated a year or so ago that (paraphrased) “Chelsea doesn’t need to worry about what future growth inside the city will look like; there’s nowhere for future growth to happen!”, I think there’s an amazing amount of space in the town. And I’m not talking high-rises, or even mid-rises. Chelsea’s zoning code has this incredible schizophrenia, where the downtown area is strictly zoned into a historic preservationist or New Urbanist’s fantasyland, but everything outside of a few block radius is equally strictly zoned into generic sprawl.

    If I had the capital to work with, I think I could put several dozen new townhomes within sight of the Main Street RR crossing (where a station would likely be?) and reinforce, rather than degrade, the character that Chelsea values. Given more capital (and the will of Chelsea to reverse current trends of turning buildings into surface parking, even downtown), I could add a dozen more storefronts and a bunch of lofts, again, within character.

    My ultimate fantasy, though, is to wipe clean the City of Chelsea between Old US-12 and I-94, and turn that area into a second downtown. What a ridiculous waste of space it is right now.

    (Dear Chelsea Officials: have I mentioned that I’ll be looking for a job in January?)
       —Murph.    Sep. 22 '05 - 12:19PM    #
  17. Hi all,

    The reason why Chelsea and Dexter are included in the CRT proposals is that there are no rail existing facilities (or places to turn the train around) near Ann Arbor.

    The original Lansing-Ann Arbor-Detroit CRT study placed those facilities out by Chelsea because of the available space.

    On a very different note:
    I am very concerned by the high level of attention that is being given to choice transit riders by community members who showed up at the hearings and by our local officials (most notably the mayor). Almost no discussion has taken place about providing better options for transit-dependant people.

    CRT is HEAVILY focused on providing service to people who already have transportion options.
    BRT could give us the chance to provide a regional link while serving local neighborhoods as well.

    BRT could give the Ann Arbor area an opportunity to create a busway from AA to Ypsi on either Washtenaw or by using the NS rail right-of-way along Gallop Park.

    If we had a busway between AA and Ypsi, the AATA system could be reconfigured to feed and operate in that corridor. Regular (local) buses can share the busway with BRT vehicles. AATA routes could act as local/neighborhood circulators, some of which could hop onto the busway for a direct commute into downtown (Ottawa is one of the best examples in thw world of this type of system).

    Express BRT buses could be run between AA, Metro Airport, and Detroit for choice riders who have long commutes. But having the busway would give us the chance to provide a more flexible connection between AA and Ypsi (and beyond).

    I would urge everyone to contact city council to ask them to pass a resolution that asks for equal study of CRT and BRT (including the supporting system options i just mentioned).

    The mayor’s speech was almost entirely focused on choice commuters…we need to have a more socioeconomically balanced discussion of what rapid transit could be used for in this area.
       —KAnd    Sep. 22 '05 - 12:23PM    #
  18. Well, I’m not opposed to improved mass transit along the Ann Arbor-Detroit corridor, but I’m not all that excited either—I think we need to be realistic about the impact on overall SE Mich transportation and land use—which I think will be minimal at best.

    What percent of SE Michigan residents live close enough to this line AND commute to someplace else close enough to this line that it would be a convenient way to commute? And of those (already a pretty small fraction of the pop of SE Mich), how many will switch from private to mass transit? A small target market and only a fraction of those would be regular customers, I would guess—does anybody have reason to believe otherwise?

    Nor do I think many people are going to change their land-use patterns based on the availability of this kind of mass-transit. They’ll buy more fuel-efficient cars first. They’ll car-pool first. They’ll move closer to work (or find a job closer to home) first. And, face it, there are good reasons for that – cars leave from your house on your schedule and go right where you need to go. Turning a non-stop auto trip into a multi-segment mass-transit trip with transfers and ‘layovers’ in the middle (and where you have to stand around waiting and schlep your junk and listen to other people’s cell-phone conversations) won’t be seen as an improvement by most. Commuter rail is very attractive when commuting, say, from Conn to NY City because the pop of Conn is concentrated in a strip along the LI sound and if you drive to NY, parking is a big problem. But parking is just NOT a big problem in most of SE Mich—it was built for cars and that includes parking.

    I think things like HOV lanes and smart tolls would be much more appropriate to SE Michigan and, for that reason, would have a much greater impact (and bang for the buck) than rail projects.
       —mw    Sep. 22 '05 - 12:38PM    #
  19. mw –
    Can’t say I think that those things are bad ideas. Let’s do those too.
       —Murph.    Sep. 22 '05 - 12:44PM    #
  20. Pittsburgh also has several major busways, built alongside rail lines, and run in pretty much the exact same way KAnd mentions.
       —[libcat]    Sep. 22 '05 - 10:45PM    #
  21. Ann Arbor News article

    Another point worth mentioning is that at this stage, the parameters in terms of destinations are Detroit, Metro Airport and Ann Arbor. BRT for getting to the airport from either city would be great, despite the slightly increasing (but hardly “affordable”) number of airport taxis. As demand for that service increases the BRT could be replaced by LRT in time.

    I was glad to see the conflicts with freight rail brought to attention, and that a viable CRT would not only have to secure better access, but could also benefit Amtrak. There are at least 3 long sections of singletrack on the N/S route, and a painful 225-degree turn at Junction. Some doubletrack or (even triple in some spots) could benefit commuters/tourists, long-distance travelers and freight.

    The importance of connecting networks at the destinations seems another make-or-break factor. (A gentlemen pointed out that AATA doesn’t even go to the train station—although the #2, which runs every 15 minutes, comes close and I usually take.) More Express bus routes supplementing Local routes to the proposed station hubs would help immensely.

    Some cool Detroit depot photos here
       —Chris F    Sep. 23 '05 - 03:26PM    #
  22. “The reason why Chelsea and Dexter are included in the CRT proposals is that there are no rail existing facilities (or places to turn the train around) near Ann Arbor.”

    That seems odd to me – most commuter trains, heck, even the Amtrak to Chicago – run in push/pull fashion with at least one engine, sometimes two, either pushing or pulling the train, depending upon the direction its headed. I haven’t heard of many trains that are actually turned anymore.

    One point I didn’t think about when mentioning Dexter and Chelsea – how would you accomodate parking for commuters coming in from outside walking distance of the station? As you noted, parking sucks up a lot of space that should otherwise be utilized if the stations are located “downtown” in either community.

    BTW – I think KAnd and mw both make good points. As much as I’m an advocate for commuter rail and I think it has a number of advantages over buses, from a big picture view, it can only really impact a small amount of traffic (although I think if done right in the Chelsea and Dexter areas, it could have a much larger impact) and it doesn’t really address the needs of people who are transit-dependent versus those would might use transit but are not dependent on it.
       —John Q    Sep. 23 '05 - 04:16PM    #