Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Ann Arbor Detroit Transit Study releases "Detailed Alternatives" document

2. August 2006 • Murph
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It’s kind of wonky, but it’s a visible step: the Ann Arbor to Detroit Rapid Transit Study has posted the Detailed Definition of Alternatives segment of their alternatives analysis and draft environmental impact statement study.

The document is a refinement of the options presented for public comment last fall, including a reduction of the number of alternatives from 12 to 5 (a few were eliminated through a “fatal flaw analysis”; others just didn’t measure up), and the remaining alternatives have been fleshed out to the point of including route / station maps and scheduling details. All alternatives would apparently feature every-20-minutes peak hour operation; proposed operating hours appear to be 5am – 12am on weekdays / Saturdays; fares proposed at $1.50 within A2/Ypsi “zone”, $3.00 to the DTW zone, and $6.00 to the Detroit zone.

No word yet on the website of what the next step is, or when.



  1. Thanks to Rese for the tipoff – I’d given up on their schedule and stopped monitoring their website for a while.

    I’m liking what I see in this document. If the schedules and prices are anything like what this document assumes, I think any of these routes could find a strong market.

    See also: Hamtramck Star’s report on Amtrak commuting.


       —Murph.    Aug. 2 '06 - 10:32PM    #
  2. The Light Rail Transit they propose has a max speed of 50 mph. The DC Metro has a max speed of 85 mph (http://world.nycsubway.org/us/washdc/). If a car can safely navigate other traffic on a highway at 70 mph, why can’t the proposed rail option do so on a dedicated path?


       —Patrick    Aug. 4 '06 - 04:41PM    #
  3. I don’t think LRTs go that fast. From what I’ve read, they top out at 60 MPH. Plus, with 30 stations, there’s a fair amount of stopping and starting that’s going to limit the amount of locations where you can get up to speed. In DC, the trains are more akin to a heavy rail option than light rail that you typically see with LRTs.

    From the site you listed:

    “They are also very fast; they have a balancing speed of 79 MPH, which is above the maximum speeds of most other systems. Since many stations are separated by considerable distances, there are quite a few places where trains can reach 70 MPH or more.”


       —John Q.    Aug. 4 '06 - 05:45PM    #
  4. Thanks for posting this piece on Arbor Update.

    This study has been lumbering forward for many years; but, each time the options are narrowed, we get a little bit closer to putting the question to the voters: “Do we want to pay for public transit linking us to points eastward?”

    I’m excited about that.

    As this opportunity ripens, I think it is useful to keep pushing for a service that will best meet the need for transit along the I-94 corridor. In my opinion, the “Commuter Rail” options are the best.

    Specifically, I am a fan of CRT1A. That’s because the Woodward Corridor is obviously another logical candidate for high-level, fixed-route service. Eventually, that will come together; and if the Ann Arbor to Detroit link institutes a shuttle down Woodward from New Center, it can only contribute to the energy behind Woodward’s development. Still, CRT1E has it’s own advantages along Michigan Ave. and both would be great.

    The fact that commuter rail options include stations in Chelsea and Dexter is a huge advantage of CRT. For Washtenaw County, that connection is critical.

    Also, the infrastructure for the commuter rail is mostly in place. That makes it’s implementation much more financially feasible. The only drawback is of course that the frieght companies will still own the tracks and leasing arrangements will have to be successfully worked out.

    Of course, if this service is wildly successful like I hope; it could justify a higher-level service (and greater investment) in the future. At this point, a service like that contemplated here (CRT), would be similar to the Metra in Chicago (not the CTA).

    In any event, in order for this to all come together, the people of Wayne and Washenaw Counties have to agree on the best plan, including how to fund it and who will govern those funds.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 5 '06 - 01:14AM    #
  5. On a quick skim, I couldn’t figure out where they estimated how long any of these alternatives would take. Did anyone else?

    I also wish they’d address connections to Canada. It’s always been annoying that while there’s Amtrak trains to Detriot, and Via trains from Windsor, it’s not really obvious how you get between the Detroit and Windsor stations, and whether the schedules really match up. But I guess just having hourly or half-hourly service would solve most of those problems.


       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 5 '06 - 03:24PM    #
  6. Bruce – nope. Notice that Appendix A (“schedules”) is not included in this document. Sigh. I remember that, at the last round of presentations, they said the commuter rail would be fastest, because it would be the most separated from traffic (though all options include “signal preemption” in the feature matrix), and because it would have the fewest stops. I’d expect a commuter rail option to be a little slower than totally-uncongested-driving, but comparable with general traffic flow conditions, but I really want to see what these folks are modeling.

    Jeff – having grown up near Chelsea, I can say that reasonable transit service to Ann Arbor would have been amazing. (I believe my dad wrote a letter to AATA every year for 20 years asking when they’d be providing a commuter link to Chelsea.) What I wonder about with Chelsea and Dexter links here is where to put the cars. A commuter rail link is going to need to operate some significant park-n-ride in those locations (because, honestly, neither town is large enough to support any kind of commuter transit without collecting people from the surrounding area). I can’t think of any place offhand along the tracks in Chelsea that’s both close enough to downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods to walk, and has any significant space available for parking.


       —Murph.    Aug. 5 '06 - 05:33PM    #
  7. What about at the Jiffy Mix site? Or the area just west of the cemetery either north or south of the tracks? The area north of the tracks is showing farmland but that’s from a 1998 aerial.


       —John Q.    Aug. 5 '06 - 05:43PM    #
  8. On page 45, the study contemplates a 553 space park and ride lot proposed in Chelsea at “Main St. and Norfolk Southern RR right of way.” There are a few options right there.

    As far as how “long” it will take – do you mean to ride from one end to the other? If so, this seems to be in Appendix A – Schedules and Timetables. I cannot seem to view this appendix and I’ll have to seek hard copy. In a previous study of this same mode connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit (from Depot St., Ann Arbor to New Center, Detroit), the running time was about an hour. Compared to the drive time, it was running about 5 minutes longer than driving. That is if my memory serves. Those numbers were from the Alternatives Analysis that CATA performed when the original idea was to link Lansing to Detroit, via Ann Arbor. (maybe 2001 numbers).


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 5 '06 - 07:54PM    #
  9. John Q –
    AFAIK, everything on the Jiffy Mix site proper is in active use by Chelsea Milling/Jiffy Mix. There is some blank space just north-west of Jiffy, and, actually, some of that is municipally-owned, I believe, so that could be an option. Just east of town, I think a lot of what appears to be blank land (farmland) in few-year-old aerials is either now houses, or in the process of becoming that way. Might be some cemetary expansion space that could be purchased.

    Right at Main & the tracks is the old Depot and a few small municipal(?) lots, including the one used for the farmers’ market. I expect those would be packed in the first week of operation, though – there aren’t more than 2 or 3 dozen spaces. The problem with restoring service to here is that the area around the Main/RR intersection was built up in response to the pre-auto RR service, so there’s not much blank space to work with. Right between the Depot and the old Sylvan Hotel, though, is the plating company building that’s been empty for as long as I can remember. Might be a reasonable candidate for a teardown. (Or, proximity to the rail line might make it reasonable to redevelop.) Just to the north of the tracks is the clock tower complex, which I believe McKinley is finishing up the rehab of. They could probably be convinced to help find some parking. (Especially since the site has a little more open space than it used to…)

    Actually, there’s a largish lot at the intersection of Wilkinson and W. Middle that backs up to the tracks that appears to be salt/sand/gravel storage for the Road Commission (or Chelsea’s DPW?). It’s a few blocks walk from downtown proper, but decently situated for connectivity – Wilkinson is a straight shot down to Old US-12, parallel to Main Street.


       —Murph.    Aug. 6 '06 - 03:52PM    #
  10. Jeff – just noticed the bit of your comment on number of spaces. Whomever put that in the original report may have never been to Chelsea. 553 spaces? That’s the size of Tally Hall, or about twice Fourth & Washington. Even if there were a site close to the Main/RR intersection in Chelsea with the same footprint, would an 8-story parking structure in downtown Chelsea be accepted? Nope. Not even by the most fervent pro-infill types around here. Chelsea currently has zero parking structures; I could see something perhaps three stories high to serve the rail stop, but not eight. I submit that 553 spaces is unrealistic, unless spread across several sites in a quarter mile radius.


       —Murph.    Aug. 6 '06 - 03:58PM    #
  11. Is there anybody reviewing this site who was more intimately involved with the consultants who modeled these alternatives?

    I’m very curious as to why alternatives were not offered that significantly restructured existing transit systems (such as AATA) to provide better feeder service and more seamless integration with the rapid transit corridors?

    Case in point: constructing dedicated bus/tram lanes between Ypsi and AA would allow AATA to restructure their route system to put some of their vehicles in those lanes as well. We could then restructure the entire system to resemble something more like Ottawa’s. Longer distance travel (in this case AA to Ypsi) could be handled by the rapid transit corridor, and AATA could use their service to create feeders, neighborhood circulators, crosstown routes, etc. OCTranspo (in Ottawa) even has peak hour bus routes that circulate in neighborhoods, hop on their busway, and go express to downtown – no transfers required.

    Commuter rail is going to serve regional travel (Chelsea to AA type trips) very nicely, but it isn’t going to take care of the many other types of trips which make up the bulk of transit trips in the AA area. Rapid transit such as BRT gives much more flexibility in accomplishing both types of trips.

    It looks as if the current study is focused primarily on getting the job done while incurring the absolute minimum amount of costs. Commuter rail will serve that purpose nicely too. However, we also need to be putting together a plan that uses commuter rail to build a base of support by reintroducing long distance transit back into the area, but then works to build up a rapid transit system that can serve more people than just intercity commuters.


       —kena    Aug. 6 '06 - 06:07PM    #
  12. Kena, there’s no way that I would get “intimately involved” with these consultants. They’ve pushed back their schedule to complete this study so many times . . . and I like punctuality.

    The ideas you mentioned are beyond the scope of this study. This is a proposal for a first big step forward; to “restructure the entire system to resemble something like Ottawa’s” would be a much more expansive undertaking. I believe that would be far beyond what taxpayers in Michigan would support.

    In all seriousness, I’ve been watching this study closely from the beginning. If we can succeed in pulling off a train from Chelsea to Detroit, we have accomplished something very meaningful for Washtenaw County and southeast Michigan. Maybe that something can lead to the sort of state-of-the-art investment that would mean dedicated right-of-ways for transit all along this corridor. I just don’t think we’re there yet.

    To further address your ideas, I have to say that AATA has been stepping up throughout this process. Chris White and Greg Cook both stand out for their support of this commuter rail generally. In addition, they have committed to restructure their routes to optimize service to the train corridor. (Incidentally, Phizer and Ford Motor (Dearborn) have indicated an interest at one time or another in “meeting” the trains with shuttles to their facilities).

    My opinion is that a commuter rail project is a perfect opportunity to marry support for a commuter train with additional revenue for AATA. Maybe a countywide ballot issue for 2008?

    So, the short answer is that people are working on the ideas you mentioned. However, I don’t think that they’re looking at BRT specifically.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 7 '06 - 05:07AM    #
  13. I noticed from the project schedule that patronage forcasting, financial planning, operations planning, and operations and maintenance costs should all be complete by now. I’m wondering why this information was not included in the most recent report and when cost will be considered as a factor in eliminating alternatives.

    While I appreciate that no one wants to rule out expensive options too early on, it would be nice to see how these alternatives differ in cost.

    I know that international transit supporters are baffled as to why municipalities (even in developing countries with limited funds) continue to choose rail over BRT when BRT is usually magnitudes cheaper to build and operate. It is generally explained as politically more impressive to implement rail projects and politically dangerous to create roads that drivers can’t access.

    I’m not promoting BRT here, but I am curious to see where in this process cost becomes a factor and how much weight it carries in the eventual mode choice.


       —Scott TenBrink    Aug. 7 '06 - 09:47AM    #
  14. Jeff…I don’t understand your defensiveness…we’re on the same side here! I wasn’t asking you to get intimately involved. I was simply asking if someone who has more in-depth information about this process who reads this site to comment.

    I do have to respectfully disagree with you though (but I am glad that we have people like you on the county commission working on these issues instead of road expansion). This is an alternatives analysis (and one that has a lot of holes in it…the placement of stops/P&R lots for the non-CRT options doesn’t reflect the reality of existing usage patterns). The scope of this analysis could’ve included whatever we wanted. The wonderful thing about studies is that they don’t commit you to anything, but they can be used to frame the debate for future actions.

    The general scope of this project was determined many years ago when GM first initiated the discussions of a commuter rail line from Lansing to Detroit, and the project has stayed fairly true to those initial concepts. My problem with this process is that projects like the Detroit to DTW rail project were rolled into this one, when that project (as it was originally proposed) had a very different purpose than this one.

    It appears that we’re now trying to serve several different purposes with this proposed rail line, and CRT offers the least amount of flexibility for doing so. If we’re trying to mostly serve intercity business and work commuters, then we should go with commuter rail. If we’re trying to serve more of a mixed purpose (such as providing intra-city trips in small regions) then BRT/CRT does a much better job.

    Right now we’re being told that we’ll be able to seamlessly have both long-distance and medium-distance travel in one CRT line. Those two purposes don’t really mesh easily. Think about this: To get from the Blake Transit Center to the Ypsilanti Transit Center, would you rather use a BRT or LRT for a direct trip or would you rather take one bus to the AA train station, ride the train to Ypsi, and take another bus from the Ypsi train station. We have problems getting people from the west side of Ann Arbor to ride into UM if they have to transfer once at the Blake!

    We need to pick a purpose for this rail line and make sure that it does it WELL, and then put together a plan to develop service (for the future) that serves the other purpose well. I’m not against using CRT, but we need to be more truthful with people about the sacrifices for short and medium-distance travel it will involve.


       —kena    Aug. 7 '06 - 04:03PM    #
  15. kena,

    I wasn’t trying to be defensive, sorry if it came off that way. I was trying to get a chuckle, apparently I failed.

    Couple of thoughts: BRT is commonly considered to be cheaper than rail to implement. Unfortunately, estimates of the cost to build BRT often don’t include the investments in right-of-way and pavement. That’s because usually, BRT is done in existing right-of-way and on existing roadway. Roadway and right-of-way that costs a tremendous amount of public money should be included in the cost analysis. That will cause BRT to compete less favorably when considering capital costs. In addition, a BRT solution serving Ann Arbor to Detroit wouldn’t have a dedicated right-of-way for the whole journey and probably not even most of the way. I see that as a big problem when trying to compete with automobile travel.

    I see more problems with BRT. One is that BRT minimizes the amount of capital investment required to implement a service up front; but the long term costs for labor and maintenance are greater. That is because rail service scales up more efficiently. Every “carload” of riders on BRT requires a new bus and a new driver to service that demand. With rail, additional cars can be added during periods of high demand. The biggest long term cost to the public when implementing transit is labor. (Relatedly, federal dollars will probably fund between 50%-80% of capital costs, but no federal funds are available for operating funds). Furthermore, roadways need to be resurfaced every 25-30 years under the best of circumstances. A steel rail lasts 2 to 3 times longer and requires far less maintenance over the long run. Unfortunately, transit studies don’t require looking deep into the future (which is understandable but disappointing for rail buffs). Finally, I think that the permanence of rail is both a disadvantage (as you pointed out), but also an advantage. The advantage of an inflexible railway comes in development patterns and promotion of vibrant urban landscapes. This is probably more a function of the % of the line that is in a dedicated, transit right-of-way. However, I still believe there is some cache in rail over buses when attempting to attract choice riders. Even a dedicated, fancy, fast bus will have a harder time attracting these types of riders. When I think of intercity transit, I think of a high percentage of choice riders.

    As you can tell, I am not as interested in BRT as a solution here. I don’t think it really adds much value for the western side of the line because the buses are going to be in traffic most of the time anyway. As I said in a previous post, I am a fan of the CRT options; but there are many valid opinions in support of other ideas. Did you see the section where they eliminate from consideration the elevated, solar powered, monorail system that was proposed at some public meetings? This is a great idea; but it just doesn’t seem in reach.

    Everything you said about the challenges of mode changes is right on. That is probably my biggest problem with the CRT options and I’ve been wondering all along whether this can work with mode changes at the airport and at New Center. If Woodward had a high-capacity, rapid service, I wouldn’t be so worried.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts on this proposal for a first step in meeting the demands for long and medium range trips along the I-94 corridor.

    As far as the schedule . . . I wish it were moving faster too. Parsons Group: If you’re listening, please move this forward ASAP.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 7 '06 - 09:12PM    #
  16. Hey Jeff…no offense taken. The one feature that i really dislike about blogs is the lack of non-verbal communication. It makes discussions take all sorts of weird, unintended turns. Emoticons don’t cut it for me!

    Conan Smith mentioned a couple of weeks ago (at a Rebekah Warren function) that he wanted to revive the pro-transit coalition that tried to form a couple of years ago.

    I see such the coalition as being a great vehicle for advancement of the city’s proposed N-S commuter rail line, the E-W commuter line, and the expanded bus service millage. More importantly, it could give a place for the community to come together to develop a unified (and comprehensive) vision of where Washtenaw County’s transit system could head (especially since many of the projects currently being developed are operating in relative isolation to each other, and service components such as seamless door-to-door service for disabled people and seniors have almost completely fallen off the radar screen of many policy makers).

    Have you and Conan put any thought into when the attempt to restart the coalition would/could be made?


       —kena    Aug. 7 '06 - 09:51PM    #
  17. Yes. Conan and I have talked about it and he has some great ideas for engaging the community and restarting such a coalition. There are also a ton of other folks in Ann Arbor and throughout Washtenaw County who have been excited about this opportunity and whom I think could be activated to join some type of coalition.

    The Mayor is particularly excited about this study; and, as evidenced by his train tour, he is also interested in examining the north-south connection. Dick Shackson and Michael Benham have been shadowing this process from the outset and they are still invested. I already mentioned the folks at AATA and Phizer, but UofM and EMU have also shown positive interest. The Chambers of Commerce (Ypsi and Ann Arbor) have been very supportive. I could list many more groups and individuals who I think will be eager to rally around an investment in better transportation. The support here in Washtenaw County is, in my estimation, very strong. Still, winning a vote at the ballot box is always hard earned and it will be a challenge. (Just got home from some lit dropping).

    A bigger challenge perhaps is that folks in Wayne County also have to come together around a vision at the ballot box. That vision also has to be the same as our vision.

    To more directly not answer your question about timing, I had hoped back in 2002 that we might be able to get this on the ballot in 2006. That didn’t happen. The transportation planning process locally and through the federal channels moves – or is moving – very slowly. Schedules have been revised many times. Backwards.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 7 '06 - 11:49PM    #
  18. I’m looking for a study with “facts” or “solid analysis” that light rail provides more long-term value than buses for high traffic corridors. The Charlotte NC regional mayors are voting tomorrow night on light rail or busses for one of four major corridors (Already decided that two will have light rail, the other two still being debated). The “transit” folks are pushing for buses and the pro-rail folks need to make a powerful last ditch effort to, a minimum, postpone the decision and keep the debate open. Anything you have, especially in presentable format, will be most useful. Obviously, timing is of the essense. Many thanks.


       —Pat Bresina    Aug. 22 '06 - 04:27PM    #
  19. We can provide as many “facts” as you’d like! Plain unquoted facts are extra, though.


       —Bruce Fields    Aug. 22 '06 - 07:18PM    #
  20. “The support here in Washtenaw County is, in my estimation, very strong.”

    Electoral support is one thing, but what about long term? How many people commute from Ann Arbor/Dexter/Chelsea to Detroit on a daily basis? Is there really a demand for this sort of thing?


       —Daniel Adams    Aug. 22 '06 - 08:02PM    #
  21. I never understood it, but, growing up in Chelsea, I knew several people who commuted to Dearborn and Detroit. I’ve heard various people who live in Ann Arbor or Ypsi and work in Dearborn or Detroit wistfully wish for a transit link.

    Obviously, my anecdotal evidence does not market research make. I’ve heard that the reason the process is a little behind schedule at this moment is because they’ve basically thrown out the market research that was done when this was the Lansing to Detroit study and are developing new models – without any existing transit link whatsoever, it’s a little more difficult to gauge demand.


       —Murph    Aug. 22 '06 - 09:11PM    #
  22. Pat –
    Sounds like you’re in the pro-rail contingent?

    AFAIK, there’s not any hard-and-fast evidence that would prove light rail to be better. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) tends to be a lot cheaper than light rail, even if you’re building in a decent amount of grade separation (dedicated busways). When SEMCOG (the body that does large-scale studies / “coordination” of planning for the Detroit area) came out with a regional transit plan a few years back, they chose BRT over light rail within Detroit and the first few rings of suburbs, because they could build more routes (a better network) for the same investment.

    The one advantage that rail could have is that a light rail is a somewhat more obviously “anchored” infrastructure investment, and might serve to better catalyze investment around the stations. Note my strong use of the word “might”, though – this assumes that the route and station locations are picked well, and that the land use planning around the stations will allow a dense, pedestrian/transit-oriented built form. (Something I worry will handicap a regional transit system in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area…)


       —Murph    Aug. 22 '06 - 09:19PM    #
  23. I think the track record for development around commuter rail/light rail transit stops is pretty well-established IF Murph’s other qualifications are met (location, land use planning to allow dense ped/transit oriented development, etc.)


       —John Q.    Aug. 22 '06 - 09:48PM    #
  24. Right, I mean, it’s pretty obvious that transit stations can drive investment in property pretty well – check out, for example, Minneapolis’ experience with the Hiawatha line

    And I think this can happen with commuter rail, light rail, or BRT, though BRT systems are fewer and newer at this point, so there’s less evidence around them. The idea holds, though – my transportation planning courses certainly didn’t teach me that there was anything magical about light rail!


       —Murph.    Aug. 22 '06 - 11:29PM    #
  25. I imagine that it is difficult to gauge demand on something like this. But even assuming that there would be enough demand presently to make this sort of investment, I wonder if we could expect that demand to continue into the near future. I don’t have current numbers on this, but Detroit’s population is still falling and Wayne county is still bleeding jobs. Is connecting Ann Arbor to a struggling city the best use of resources?


       —Daniel Adams    Aug. 23 '06 - 01:26PM    #
  26. Daniel –
    I’d say so. Check the previous half dozen comments about transit spurring investment in its vicinity. With commuter transit attracting investment towards the stations, such transit would, in my opinion, be an essential step towards stopping the rot of Detroit and therefore of Michigan. (You might not see the one contributing to the other, but then, you might not have ever introduced yourself as a Michigander to anybody out of state.)

    I see fast, commuter-oriented rail as a big piece of the fight against urban sprawl – link downtown Ypsi to downtown Ann Arbor with a transit connection faster and less stressful than driving from A to B, and the math becomes a lot more favorable for buying a home or starting a business in Ypsi, helping to take some strain off of downtown Ann Arbor, helping to draw some Township development inward, and helping to rejuvenate Ypsi.

    At an Ann Arbor Democrats meeting last spring, I heard somebody say, “Why does development have to go in Ann Arbor? Why can’t it go to Ypsi, or to Detroit?” I admired the sentiment then, and now, but I doubt the speaker had a firm grasp of the economics involved; definitely there’s no way that Ann Arbor policymakers can, from a land use point of view, determine what goes into Ypsi. They can only welcome it or push it out, and if they just push, it’ll go into the Townships. Getting on board with a fast transit system, though, would be one way that Ann Arbor could help guide development towards other communities, and not just outwards, into farmland.

    And, Daniel, if you’re going to protest on ground of the investment in mass transit being “too much”, you should consider the investment in new roads, new sewer, new water treatment, etc. that is required if development continues to drain out of built-up areas. Just ask Ypsi Township: policing a rapidly growing population ain’t free.


       —Murph    Aug. 23 '06 - 04:06PM    #
  27. Murph:

    I’m a Democrat and, as a current resident of Atlanta, frequently introduce myself as a Michigander and Ann Arborite. I don’t have a background in urban planning, so I can’t say that I’m in a position to evaluate whether this rail link will spur investment. But the logic of building a rail with the hope that the people will come in to use it seems backwards to me. Is this an “essential step” towards getting Detroit back on its feet? Expensive investments in infrastructure designed to stop the bleeding in Detroit have failed (think people mover) to generate satisfactory demand among current residents and to bring in new demand in the form of new jobs.

    I’m not saying that this is “too much.” I’m saying “Why this?” Has current traffic along the I-94 corridor outstripped capacity? Has anyone does a recent study which, taking into account expected population/economic level, predicts that there is/will be demand for such a project?

    Granted: Some forward looking infrastructure plans are worthy of consideration and implementation. But I drive along that stretch of road frequently, and beyond the recent rash of construction and periods of rush hour congestion, I’ve never thought, “You know, we need a train here.”

    I suspect that, if anything, sprawl is a reason why this proposal won’t work. Economic interests and population are just too spread out across Southeastern Michigan for there to be a great enough demand for rail at any one station. As you suggest, ridership might improve over time after the rail is built, as people and jobs relocate to be closer to the stations. Or it might not. We don’t know. I do know that there are other ways we could invest this money which would have an immediate and measurable impact. Example: Many Detroit schools are failing and there still are wide gaps in the resources available to schools across the state.

    In short: With no clear sense of the current demand and no clear sense of future demand, investing scarce resources into light rail seems terribly irresponsible.


       —Daniel Adams    Aug. 23 '06 - 04:57PM    #
  28. Daniel – I think you’re wrong that, “there are other ways we could invest this money which would have an immediate and measurable impact.”

    Something like 90%(?) of capital costs would be paid by the federal government out of transportation dollars. These can’t be used on, for example, Detroit’s schools. There’s money out there that can only be used for transit systems. Either we use it for transit, or somebody else does – we can’t get it for schools. Or police. Or whatever.

    Operating costs would most likely be paid in part by a regional millage, in part by fares, and in part by federal government transportation funding. I suppose it might technically be possible for Washtenaw County to pass a regional millage to improve the Detroit schools, but I don’t think that would happen. On the other hand, Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb Counties just renewed their SMART millages by overwhelming margins. A year ago, according to the Michigan Land Use Institute, 17 out of 18 county-level transit ballot initiatives were passed by voters in the State of Michigan.

    So, sure, given an abstract pool of funding that could be used for anything, this might not be the best investment. But public money is not, in fact, a completely fungible resource – it comes with strict limitations and formulas on how it can be used. At best, we have a choice on the money at hand of, “transit, roads, or bike lanes”; at worst, “transit or lose it.”


       —Murph.    Aug. 23 '06 - 09:44PM    #
  29. Murph:

    Apologies. I forgot about federal dollars.

    -Dan


       —Daniel Adams    Aug. 24 '06 - 01:41AM    #
  30. Capital costs for transit in Michigan have traditionally been split 80/20 between federal/state funding.
    This has been changing in recent years in the Ann Arbor area to something closer to 80/13/7 – with the former 20% from the state now being split between state and local funding sources.

    Operating costs for transit in the AA area in the long term largely come from local sources (operating millages, etc.), followed closely by state funding, distantly followed by farebox revenues, and even more distantly followed by federal revenues. The feds can’t really be counted on for transit operating funds inside of urbanized areas sized over 200,000 people (startup and demonstration grants excluded).


       —kena    Aug. 24 '06 - 02:13AM    #
  31. There have been numerous market studies of this corridor and the potential for ridership. The most recent is located at: http://www.annarbordetroitrapidtransitstudy.com.

    A conclusion that there is no sense of the current demand is probably not on target. Transit ridership forecasts are not 100% accurate, but they are the best that we have in terms of hard numbers.

    Of course you can also use your instincts to judge demand. My instincts tell me that Metro airport and three major universities drive alot of trips. Downtown Detroit has many entertainment venues including some big ones like pro sports, cobo and casinos. Of course, in Dearborn you have museums and Ford Motor HQ. I’m leaving out many trip generators, but add in commuters and I think this idea is a great one.

    In my opinion, when you look at the numbers of people who could use this, it more than justifies the investment.

    Part of the reason that I reach this conclusion is that the investment is not so large. Certainly the amount of money spent on this will not fill any significant gaps in school funding, even if the funds could be used that way. Just as a comparison, Oakland County has been pushing for widening I-75 from 8-Mile up through Troy. This stretch of road is about 7 miles long. The price tag was 1.2 BILLION. That was a couple years ago when I sat on SEMCOG’s Executive Committee, the price tag now is certainly a couple 100 million higher. This commuter line could cost less than 100 million.

    Granted, I-75 through there is pretty hairy during certain stretches of the day. Adding over 1 billion dollars worth of pavement will improve commute times by 90 seconds – until it clogs up again.

    So, for less than 10% of the $$ required to widen 7 miles of freeway by a lane, we could have a rail line with stations in Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, DTW, Dearborn and Detroit.

    I’m not saying that transit is the silver bullet for livable communities, sustainability and revitalization; but, in my opinion, you have to have a balanced system with multiple transportation options. If you over-emphasize automobile transport, nearly to the exclusion of all else, then you end up with a failing system. That’s where we are now.

    That makes taking that first step even harder.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 24 '06 - 03:55PM    #
  32. Jeff, I don’t know how many times in the past several decades I have seen plans/concepts/ideas for a rail line including AA and Detroit.

    Nothing ever seems to happen.

    What is your personal estimate, in percentage terms, that something like this project will actually be built? 10%? 50%? 90%?


       —David Cahill    Aug. 24 '06 - 05:11PM    #
  33. “Of course you can also use your instincts to judge demand. My instincts tell me that Metro airport and three major universities drive alot of trips. Downtown Detroit has many entertainment venues including some big ones like pro sports, cobo and casinos. Of course, in Dearborn you have museums and Ford Motor HQ. I’m leaving out many trip generators, but add in commuters and I think this idea is a great one.”

    Thanks for posting the link.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but light rail doesn’t rate particularly well in most of the variables studied. “The majority of the LRT alternatives recieved the low rankings due to the higher costs and longer travel times associated with having LRT serve such a long corridor.”

    Beyond that, this study is hardly a slam dunk in terms of demonstrating a need for this sort of investment – be it bus, commuter train or light rail.


       —Daniel Adams    Aug. 24 '06 - 09:23PM    #
  34. David,

    I’m not going to try and handicap this one. I just don’t know how the political environment will unfold. Millages are very unpredictable and if an organized group pops up to oppose a tax, that tax is doomed. Also, the success of such a service depends on our neighbors to the east in Wayne County. Whether they support such a system is far beyond my predictive powers.

    I can say that however frustrated you may be that this study has dragged on for at least seven years, I am more frustrated.

    I’m ready for a vote.


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 25 '06 - 10:13PM    #
  35. Daniel, you’re definitely right on the light rail. In this situation, I think that light rail is not the right method to go. Building off the answer I gave our visitor from Charlotte, above, there’s not anything magical about light rail. What I want to see developed is the service of speedy, quality transit in the Ann Arbor Detroit corridor. Whatever way that can be best developed, cool.

    I happen to favor the commuter rail (aka “heavy rail”) scenarios for this one. Not only will capital investment be as low as possible for heavy rail, due to the utilization of an existing rail corridor, but any capital investment that does happen will provide benefit to freight and long-distance passenger rail (Amtrak) on the corridor.

    I’m more optimistic about funding than Jeff seems to be, too. As I mentioned previously, the vast majority of transit millages placed on the ballot last year passed; 3 passed in SE Michigan by handy margins just this month, and four more in the Grand Traverse region. According to a report by the Center for Transportation Excellence , nationwide from 2000-20005, ballot initiatives for creating and/or funding transit authorities passed at more than twice the rate of ballot initiatives in general. (~80% success for transit vs. ~35% success generally.)

    This is, of course, in no means encouragement for those of us who support transit to slack off – passing a ballot initiative is not an easy task in any circumstances! But it’s evidence (to me, at least) that people value (demand?) transit.


       —Murph.    Aug. 25 '06 - 10:36PM    #
  36. Here is an article updating this study from today’s AA News.

    I’m discouraged. It looks like nothing will be put into actual operation until years from now.

    Does anyone know how long the $100 million which was appropriated will stay available for the project? My fear is that it will lapse in a relatively short time.


       —David Cahill    Aug. 29 '06 - 03:40PM    #
  37. David,

    My understanding is that the 100 million dollar earmark won by Senator Stabenow will ride through the duration of the most recently authorized federal transportation bill. I’m not sure exactly how long that is, but they usually run for about five years at a time. In addition, I have been reassured that as long as we are making real progress, the earmark will be protected.

    At this time, the $100 million is an “earmark.” In order for it to blossom into an “appropriation,” we have to ge over a few hurdles:
    1) we have to agree with Wayne Co and Detroit on a plan.
    2)we have to agree on a way to pay for it and have those funding commitments in the pipeline (millage passed, state appropriation, etc.). The construction cost is not the issue. We will likely only have to pay 20-50% of the construction because of these federal matching funds and there are gas tax dollars that can be used to build the system. The issue is operating costs.
    3. we have to devise a way to govern the service and the funds raised to pay for the service.

    Unfortuntely, we’re still on step one.

    When I looked at this set of challenges about a year ago, I thought, given the studies and forecasts already performed on this corridor, that we could settle on the first step pretty quickly. So, I am hesitant to make any more rosy predictions about how fast we can pull together a plan that, on its face, seems like a easy winner.

    Nonetheless, I feel as though we can make this happen and I think we will. It’s just going to require more patience and planning than is my preference.

    One last thought for today. I travel through Metro airport a couple times per year. Each time, I pay enormous sums for parking. Oftentimes, for a long weekend of parking I might pay 40 dollars or more. I don’t think that my situation is unusual.

    If I were to pay a property tax millage of, for instance 1/2 a mill, and I continue to travel through Metro an average of twice per year, then installing train service will be a net gain (in real dollars spent).


       —Jeff Irwin    Aug. 29 '06 - 06:01PM    #
  38. Part of the lethargy problem may be because this project was started largely at the behest of a corporation, and has since been passed from one governmental organization to another with little concurrent visible grassroots support. (I am not belittling the efforts of the governmental leaders involved, however.)

    Dick Shackson is quoted as saying that there isn’t a sense of urgency behind this project yet. I would argue that this lack of urgency is due (in part) to the lack of an organized citizens’ movement in support of this issue – which has been a catalyst for rail projects in many other areas of the country.

    With little/no pressure from the outside, government will proceed at a very leisurely pace on large projects such as these. A good case in point was the MRide (student/faculty bus pass) program at UM. That idea for a UM-provided bus pass for faculty/students had a tossed around by AATA and UM (and various people within the AA city gov’t) for the better part of a decade. Nothing really happened for years (other than talk) until the students began to organize themselves (however loosely) and began to speak out to the UM administration about the issue.

    Everybody on both sides (UM and AATA) thought the pass was a good idea (at least that’s what they each said in public), but the energy to actually make it happen (by finding a source of funding to help support the pass) didn’t come about until people from the outside organized and brought the issue to the attention of the larger public in a more sustained manner.


       —kena    Aug. 30 '06 - 02:12AM    #
  39. Thanks, Jeff! It’s good to know that the funding won’t disappear any time soon.


       —David Cahill    Aug. 30 '06 - 05:33PM    #