Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Rail a Reality?

29. October 2006 • Dale Winling
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The Ann Arbor News reports that the owner of the Great Lakes Central Railroad is in favor of a north-south commuter rail line, and in fact bought the railroad with the goal of implementing passenger service.

Hieftje said he wants to see rail tried before improvements to US-23. He compares the projected $500 million cost of adding a third lane in each direction to the highway between Ann Arbor and Brighton with the estimated $27 million for the rail project.

“Why would we spend $500 million expanding US-23 before we see what we can do for $27 million?’’ he asks.

Obstacles to implementation include money, time, and money.

In addition, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) will complete the report of a transit study for an Ann Arbor-Detroit transit system.

After delays due to technical problems with a computer model, the steering committee for the Ann Arbor-Detroit Rapid Transit Study will get data Nov. 8 on likely capital and operating costs and ridership for five possible ways to provide the service.

Those ways include:

  1. Two using rapid transit buses traveling on Michigan Avenue, I-94 and possibly Washtenaw Avenue.
  1. One using a light rail line to be built along Michigan Avenue, Washtenaw Avenue, Huron Street and Jackson Road.
  1. Two using heavier commuter trains, either on existing tracks used by Amtrak or on existing tracks between Detroit and Metro Airport, with bus connections to Ann Arbor and light rail or bus connections in Detroit.

Previous AU articles here, here and here.

  1. I should have known Dale would beat me to the transit stories…

    I’m impressed with Ferris – the article’s description of him makes me think of early 20th century robber barons, or Tolstoyesque Russian nobility:

    “There can be little doubt that Ferris is a can-do kind of guy. He lives on a 100-acre estate in Superior Township in a 20,000-square-foot house that could be mistaken for a Frank Lloyd Wright design. After starting out as a salesman, in 1974 he founded what grew over the years into Federated Financial Corp. of America. The company finances industrial, manufacturing and transportation equipment, buys large amounts of commercial debt at discounts and collects on it, installs technology in national-chain retail outlets and invests money in other businesses.

    “Ferris has helped finance, or has had an interest in, businesses as divergent and far-flung as a restaurant in Ann Arbor, cellular phone leasing and sales, and a company in Europe that rebuilds automatic transmissions. More recently, he bought what is now Bella Vino Marketplace on Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor, which he supplies with mutton, blueberries, vegetables and honey produced on his estate.

    “Ferris grew up near downtown Detroit. His father was a skilled tradesman at the General Motors Willow Run plant, his mother a homemaker. Early in life, he said, he wondered about the difference between those who drove large cars and wore suits to work, and everybody else.”

    And now he’s bought a railroad, so that he can set up passenger service. I love it.

       —Murph.    Oct. 29 '06 - 05:54PM    #
  2. What was interesting to me is how he has bought a number of businesses that create markets or add value to businesses he already owns (ie vertical integration). Of course the question is—how would breaking even on transit make him money? I’d wager he owns land right along his ROW, too.

       —Dale    Oct. 29 '06 - 06:12PM    #
  3. Can anyone estimate the traffic counts involved? About how many people per day/week/whatever would be transported on the proposed rail line? About how many people use US 23 by comparison?

       —David Cahill    Oct. 29 '06 - 11:51PM    #
  4. The numbers I have heard are that about 60,000 cars come to A2 each day. It seems reasonable to say that 10 to 15,000 cars use the 23 corridor to get to A2. They are of course caught in traffic with a lot of other cars going to connect with 94, to Milan, Toledo, etc. One of the arguments that has resonated with me is cutting the number of cars coming into the city could save millions in un-built parking structures for the UM and City. If just 1,000 commuters who would have driven, take the train instead, it would save $30 million? Seems like the UM would buy their staff a ticket to get out from under building more structures and the worker would not have to pay $700 per year to park and still have to hunt for a space. Reducing the number of cars coming to town would be dressing on the cake.

    If I lived north of town and was caught in the traffic every day and found out I could get on a train in Howell or at a park and ride lot, order a latte and have a bus pick me up and take me to the hospital or Central Campus. I would jump at the chance.

       —Dustin    Oct. 30 '06 - 03:40AM    #
  5. And it’s not just the cost of building the structures, it’s the cost of maintaining them, as well as the congestion upon entering and exiting during rush hours. I have heard that US 23 will have lane closures this coming spring for repair (not added lanes) and it’s already a parking lot. I don’t know the numbers, but experience going north is the morning has shown me the incredible congestion going south. Anyone know any data that is not anecdotal?

       —Leah    Oct. 30 '06 - 03:04PM    #
  6. WATS’ website has a traffic count search , e.g.

    US-23, S. of North Territorial: 83,000 vehicles daily, including 6,407 during 5pm peak hour.

    Figuring out who’s going where (such as, who’s getting off at a given exit) is not possible from the counts on the web, as they’re 24 hour summaries; WATS has the hour-by-hour counts for each segment, though, which could be used for this. e.g. southbound cars north of Plymouth Road between 8 and 9 am minus southbound cars south of Plymouth Road between 8 and 9 am is approximately the number of southbound travelers getting off 23 at Plymouth. (Actually, they might have counts for the ramps themselves, and also hourly average speed? I can’t remember how much MDOT provides.)

    I seem to recall that the raw number of vehicles on 23 is not all that much more than on 94, but 23’s traffic has much higher directional peaks – 94’s traffic is more spread out (and 94 has three lanes for the more heavily used part of its length east of Ann Arbor).

    (I say things like “I remember” because I used to intern for WATS, including the ever so fun task of compiling / processing traffic counts. But it’s been a while.)

    All in all, though, I think the cost/benefit here is very clear.

    * People riding the train get to work faster, and can read the paper / work on their laptops / etc on the way, plus eliminate their chances of getting in an accident on the way to work.

    * Ann Arbor, UM, Pfizer, etc benefit by spending less money and land on parking lots and structures – plus, employees are more likely to be on time to work, and less stressed when they get there. It would be reasonable to discuss some operating subsidy from major employers, either as a general sum or in the form of letting employers buy reduced cost passes.

    * Getting people off the road and onto a train would reduce congestion for everybody else, and ease the need for MDOT to expand the road – I think this would be by far the clearest example we could find where people in their cars benefit from the transit service.

    If the costs really are $27 million for transit vs. $500 million merely for the expansion of US-23, this seems like something that makes good fiscal sense merely as an experiment, even if it ends up not working up to hopes.

       —Murph    Oct. 30 '06 - 03:45PM    #
  7. A few questions: what does the $27 million pay for? I’m assuming that it’s capital improvements to improve the ROW bundled in with some operating startup monies (actually, the article makes it sound as if no operating startups are included).

    Where are the operating monies going to come from?

    Where does this number of $27 million come from? I don’t ever remember seeing copies of the proposed capital/operational estimates on which these estimates are made. Could someone please post a link to those documents?

    Most importantly, does the $27 million include connecting service? If it doesn’t, I’m going to be most curious as to where the monies for that service are going to come from. It will be fine to ask UM and other people to pay for shuttles, but if those shuttles are available only to employees and we don’t provide connectors for other people who don’t work at those places we could end up effectively subsidizing private charter service.

       —kena    Oct. 30 '06 - 04:41PM    #
  8. I’ve lived in both Ann Arbor and the Chicago metro area, and, I gotta tell you, trains are wonderful things. I rode the train into work in downtown Chicago for two and a half years; I could work on my laptop, snooze, do the crossword puzzle, catch up on house plans…aside from the germ factor (lots of sick people in a small space coughing on each other all winter), it was bliss.

    Then I had over five years of driving from one Chicago suburb to another for work. Ran one car into the ground and started on another. Every month spent $50 a month in tolls, $85 in gas, and 60 hours of my life. And, sorry to admit, road rage is a very real thing…

    A train now in Ann Arbor would not only reduce traffic loads, emissions, parking structure construction/maintenance, and road costs, but also could offer a major improvement in lifestyle for those who choose to ride.

       —Mary Kathleen    Oct. 30 '06 - 04:58PM    #
  9. Thanks for the US 23 figures!

    So, how many people per day would use the proposed train?

    There must be some figures lying around for comparable routes.

       —David Cahill    Oct. 30 '06 - 08:06PM    #
  10. I found a report from the Transportation Research Board that covers potential capacity. Guessing how many people “would” ride is tricky…you know all the usual caveats: depends on demand, marketing, scheduling, train-car capacity, station location, blah blah blah…

    That said, if I’m reading the report correctly, a four-car commuter train can comforably handle 9,000 to 12,000 people per hour in each direction.

    As far as how many people would be interested in or able to use an Ann Arbor-Brighton line, I can’t find anything. MDOT’s report on the 23 corridor won’t be done until late 2007 or early 2008.

       —Mary Kathleen    Oct. 30 '06 - 09:08PM    #
  11. While I think rail is a great alternative, I’ve always been skeptical of any rail proposals because of the significant start-up costs, etc. But after reading the article, I think this might actually be doable. Why? Because Mr. Ferris has already invested in the passenger cars needed for this kind of service. You will still need to get the track into a condition suitable for rail passenger service as well as upgrading crossing, signals, adding station platforms, etc. But it’s the cars that are the real investment because they can’t be easily reused elsewhere. So it shows to me that he’s serious about his plans for rail service and that this might come together after all.

       —John Q.    Oct. 30 '06 - 11:51PM    #
  12. FYI, for people who are interested in expanding public transportation in southeastern Michigan, there’s a group, based in Detroit, called Transportation Riders United that’s devoted to this cause.

    Membership is $35; you can get on the mailing list without being a member.

    I’m helping to organize a TRU informational meetup in Ann Arbor on Dec. 4. When the details are final I’ll post them here.

    John Q.: It’s true, start-up costs are significant, but the long-term savings and benefits to everything from the economy and the environment to foreign policy more than justify those costs.


       —Mary Jean Babic    Nov. 2 '06 - 04:28AM    #
  13. Mary Jean,

    I didn’t mean to imply that the start-up costs outweight the benefits of rail. I agree that the long-term savings and benefits can more than justify the costs. But if a proposal isn’t backed up by the resources to cover those start-up costs, it’s not going to go anywhere. In this case, I think the fact that a significant chunk of the equipment is already purchased gets this proposal one giant step further than most other proposals.

       —John Q.    Nov. 2 '06 - 05:00AM    #
  14. There’s a piece in the Wayne State student newspaper on TRU and the Detroit-Ann Arbor rail study

    a quote from it

    Megan Owens, executive director of Transit Riders United (TRU), a non-profit organization that advocates for transit in the Detroit region, said that TRU wants to see a commuter train from Ann Arbor to the New Center area in Detroit to start. This could travel along existing Amtrak lines and perhaps use existing stations.

    Owens said it’s crucial that the speed of the system is comparable — or better — than car travel times for it be successful.

    “Then it’s important to connect to downtown Detroit,” she said. “Light rail through the midtown/cultural center to downtown … even if students never got on a train to Ann Arbor [they could get] on a quick streetcar to downtown.”

       —Edward Vielmetti    Nov. 2 '06 - 07:27AM    #
  15. Detroit transit study includes mention of Ann Arbor-Detroit study:

       —John Q.    Nov. 4 '06 - 06:08AM    #