Arbor Update

Ann Arbor Area Community News

Wally Plans Moving Forward

1. July 2008 • Nancy Shore
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As gas prices continue to increase, more and more people in Washtenaw County are looking for alternative ways to get to work.

One possible (though not immediate) alternative is Commuter Rail.

There are currently two proposed rail projects connecting Ann Arbor to outlining areas.

One project that continues to move forward is the Washtenaw Livingston Line, or WALLY.

Today the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study gave a presentation on the WALLY. This presentation is a summary of reports compiled by R.L. Banks and Associates, the consultant that has been hired to judge the feasibility of the project.

Here is a summary of the major conclusions from the reports:

  • The Commuter service is feasible.
  • The service could be up and running in as little as 16 months.
  • The total capital costs for created a 60 Mile Per Hour Service (which is the consultants recommended speed for the trains) is $32.5 M.
  • The service should have a 30% farebox recovery ratio, which is considered a good rate.
  • The operating costs for the service could be between $6.3 and $7 M depending on the number of staff hired to run the service.
  • The estimated ridership is 1,300 a day (but the consultants suggest doing more throughout ridership surveys to get a better sense of the ridership).
  • More parking will probably be needed in the form of structures to accommodate all of the people who might want to use the service.
  • There will need to be bus service connecting in rail line to other areas in Ann Arbor at a minimum, but also preferably in Livingston County.

There is lots more in the reports online. You can read all of the reports here.

  1. Sorry, but the hugely increased price tag means that this project is probably out of reach in the near term.

       —David Cahill    Jul. 2 '08 - 01:39AM    #
  2. I didn’t reach the same conclusion at all. In fact, the mood at the presentation referenced in this article, was upbeat across the board. I believe that this project still has great momentum and that the report from RL Banks is good news.

    David Cahill is right to point out that the consultants recommend spending more on the project than we had originally anticipated; but, we knew our estimates were based on the absolute minimal infrastructure investment. What the consultants pointed out is that we have a route that, if properly upgraded, can compete with travel times of automobiles. That’s huge. That drives up ridership and drives down the spread between revenues and expenditures in the operating budget.

    Federal and state resources can be leveraged to invest in infrastructure. Gathering outside funds to cover the operating budget is much harder. In addition, capital costs are a one-time shot. Making the annual budget work is what makes or breaks these types of endeavors. Also, we’re talking about investments in transportation infrastructure. Yes, the numbers are big, but they need to be considered in the proper context. For instance, if you look at the current Transportation Improvement Program for SE Michigan you could compare the costs for commuter rail to other transportation improvements already programmed. If you scroll down to Washtenaw County projects, you can see that resurfacing 10 miles of M 52 costs about 9 million dollars.

    Most of the increased up-front costs reduce travel time by increasing the speed of the train. The biggest single chunk of that, from my memory, was enhanced signalization for safety at the intersections. Other expenditures that the consultants recommended increasing included lengthening the platforms to allow for easier ingress and egress and increased parking.

    What I saw was that this report answered many of the lingering questions about the plan heretofore. The one big question which remains is: what kind of transportation network do we want to buy? Rail is a big investment, but I think it pays off. When you put it together with an east-west train line, the benefits multiply.

       —Jeff Irwin    Jul. 2 '08 - 05:24AM    #
  3. At $143 a barrel, the new found interest in Rail means there are funding opportunities coming at both state and federal levels…Wally is well-positioned with a strong collition that can show results quickly. Booming ridership and development along the way can be the first stake in the ground in a county wide land use plan that will save energy, reduce CO2, encourage local food production…now that’s a cool city.

       —W.A.P. John    Jul. 2 '08 - 06:51AM    #
  4. I agree that $30M is small potatoes for a project in the transportation world, but i do have one question:

    Why aren’t there any equipment refurbishment costs included in the capital start up?

    I saw these cars during an earlier demo run, and they’re not in great shape for running continuous service over any significant period of time (not to mention that the interior layouts and seating leave a lot to be desired).

    The cars were purchased from another agency that was retiring them commuter service, and nothing has really been done to them since.

    These cars are oldies, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I would still like to know why refurb costs weren’t part of the report (not even ADA compliance upgrades)?

       —Ken A.    Jul. 2 '08 - 07:32AM    #
  5. So, I confess to reading the documents and getting even more optimistic than was written. If you look at the maps (I love maps! :-) ), it looks like it would be a straightforward extension to add a second line from Chelsea, to Dexter, to Plymouth Road station, for the cost of 2 additional stations. Then, you could add a third line continuing south from wherever the downtown station ends up to Toledo. That could even solve the tying into Amtrack in Toledo issue discussed on earlier threads.

    Now, arguably, this misses the piece you’d most like to have … a line tying Ypsi and AA tightly together, but even just those 3 lines (North, West, and South) would make a nifty regional rail infrastructure that could really reshape the settlement pattern of Washtenaw and Livingston Counties.

    All pie-in-the-sky, of course, and probably missing a healthy dose of facts, but hey, it’s fun to dream.

       —Eric    Jul. 2 '08 - 08:05AM    #
  6. Eric –

    The biggest thing missing from any of those other lines is rail ownership. For the north-from-A2 line, there’s a willing (even enthusiastic?) owner. Any other direction from A2 involves much more exclusively freight-minded ownership. So those projects are underway, with a best-case eastern line to Detroit in 2010, but very little is “straightforward” when you’re working with railroads.

       —Murph    Jul. 2 '08 - 03:38PM    #
  7. The railroad owner, Lou Ferris, has visions of a rail link up to Traverse city…stay tuned…

       —W.A.P. John    Jul. 2 '08 - 04:47PM    #
  8. So, I haven’t seen any change to the WALLY site in the last month or two. It also doesn’t include anything suggesting “next steps”. Any ideas who has the ball and what they are planning to do next?

       —Eric    Aug. 14 '08 - 09:50PM    #
  9. This isn’t exactly what you are seeking but some more details on the next steps.

       —John Q.    Aug. 15 '08 - 12:28AM    #
  10. So, I read this post and I was encouraged:

    I read this post and I was discouraged:

    Anyone knowledgeable enough to interpret the current status and likelihood of progress?


       —Eric    Sep. 10 '08 - 11:28PM    #
  11. I won’t claim insider knowledge but I don’t think Livingston County’s refusal to join the authority is a big hurdle. Their financial contribution was going to be minimal and their participation would likely have been more political headache than help. I would expect Howell to be a partner and it can tap DDA money to participate. There’s been some recent national news articles talking about the potential for more federal funding for transit. That might help boost WALLY’s chances of getting running.

       —John Q.    Sep. 11 '08 - 02:34AM    #
  12. Hey folks, John Q. is right. It’s not a huge deal that Livingston isn’t putting money into the ring.

    For more thoughts, check out the comments I made to Eric’s comment on the getDowntown blog.

       —Nancy Shore    Sep. 12 '08 - 08:11PM    #
  13. This seems to reinforce Nancy’s optimism:

       —Eric    Sep. 12 '08 - 08:17PM    #
  14. This project needs to have a demonstration moment – I’d suggest running a football special train would be ideal.

       —Edward Vielmetti    Sep. 15 '08 - 08:13PM    #
  15. My biggest concern with using the AATA to fund WALLY,is that this raiding of the AATA primarily benefits communters from Livingston County and, thus far, they seem content to let Washtenaw County pay the bill.

    If Livingston County commuters now find it inconvenient, dangerous or expensive to commute and park in Ann Arbor, they need to press the issue with their representatives in the county and at the state and federal levels. Choo-choos are good. Public transportation is good, but this does not mean that Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County should be pulling funds away from improvement and expansion of service within this county, for county residents. This project sounds good until we examine the details and the funding. It is way too early for us to spend AATA money on development and staffing of an authority (WALLY) to nowhere. Cui bono? This is my question. I’ve heard the argument that “we” must (just love those imperatives from nowhere) sacrifice “our comforts” (whose comforts?) to rid the county of its dependence on the Auto. I share the desire to declare independence from the auto—a technology that can never be clean—but we are asking the wrong people to pay for it: the dishwashers from Ann Arbor working in Ypsilanti or EMU grad assistants trying to get home to Dexter. The patterns of infrastructure investment are largely responsible for where businesses and emerging industries locate. Since the development of the interstate highway system, government policies have encouraged businesses to concentrate in certain urban/metro areas. Ann Arbor may feel it is the right and proper place for future economic concentration, but how does this presumption of entitlement sit with Dexter,Ypsilanti, Saline? Are they willing to become simply dormatories or dumping sites for the mighty A2’s unwanted? Looking at the county as a whole, how do we proceed? AATA still has a long way to go in helping Washtenaw county lose its car addiction. But it cannot serve two masters—two agendas—at the same time. For the present, the AATA has more than enough work to do in providing the services mandated by its charter. If we want commuter trains, we need to carefully examine where county commuters are going. Lets ask Washtenaw County residents where they are headed in the morning. My guess is that they are going east. Why then, are we staring at that road north? Rail transit is an infrastructure project that can only be done at the state and federal levels. Those asking sacrifices of the bus commuters need to examine the reality vs. the romance of the rail transit. Washtenaw County cannot do it alone, nor should it. If a city or county pol says we’ve got the money, that’s not good enough. Healthy skepticism is demanded of us. Which pocket is getting emptied? Cui perdo? Lou
       —Lou Glorie    Sep. 19 '08 - 07:53PM    #
  16. I’m not sure I follow your objections. 70% of AATA’s funding comes from city taxpayers and state funding. Where are all of these funds from the county that could potentially be diverted to WALLY? More importantly, I think you’re missing the point about WALLY. Its goal isn’t to minimize the inconvenience of parking for Livingston County commuters. It’s a way to ensure that the city, which provides the largest source of funding for AATA, can continue to attract and retain employers whose employees are coming from outside of Ann Arbor. It’s also a way for the city to continue to grow without having to continue to find parking for everyone coming to work in the city. Fewer commuter cars coming into the city primarily benefits city residents.

       —John Q.    Sep. 20 '08 - 09:00AM    #
  17. The reason why WALLY is ‘ahead’ of the Detroit-Ann Arbor rail project is that the two projects face different challenges:

    -The east-west rail project has broader governmental support (on several different levels), but the railroads aren’t fully on board yet (so the project doesn’t have trackage rights fully worked out yet).

    -The north-south rail project has an railroad operator that’s ready to go, but governmental support (meaning funding, etc.) is lagging behind (in comparison to the east-west project).

    Concerning funding: The AATA was specifically chartered to provide service to disadvantaged groups first. So whatever is done concerning WALLY and AATA will need to address these needs. The AATA serves both transit-dependent riders and commuters currently using relatively limited funds, and the result is a system of compromises between geographic coverage vs. directness, etc).

    The city charter allows the city to collect a millage for public transportation (meaning that money could potentially be diverted to other projects), but court cases in the past have limited what that millage can be spent on by citing the charter requirements.

    If the city decides to divert AATA money to commuter services, i see a rather large fight ensuing. The most logical services to strip out of the AATA portfolio first are the Senior Taxi and the same-day A-Ride service (ADA only requires 24-hour advance reservation service for paratransit). These services are required by the ADA and are very cost-intensive (much more so than than fixed-route service).

    After those service are removed, we would have to decide which neighborhoods in AA don’t need bus service (or would get much less frequent service). Low productivity routes would go on the chopping block, but as we found out with the #13, people don’t like paying millages for service they don’t have proper access to.

    If the WALLY is going to operate, additional funding will have to be procured. Some of the money for the WALLY will have to come from Livingston County (either from Howell, the county, or wherever). Washtenaw area officials (county, city, AATA, WATS, etc) have been working hard on these issues in a thoughtful and balanced way, but money isn’t easy to come by in this economy.

       —keaz    Sep. 20 '08 - 06:33PM    #
  18. The budget, available from the Washtenaw County website (see the link to “you can read…” in the original post), calls for Washtenaw County to put in $150,00 for each of three years, the DDA to put in $250,000 for each of three years, and AATA to put in $50,000 for each year (this was prior to the suggestion that AATA should be the responsible authority, which will be more expensive). UM puts in $25,000 and the Northfield DDA $10,000.

    The budget calls for MEDC to put in $260,000 in the second year of the plan. Apparently we are expecting that the federal government will pick up the remainder of the tab. I’d make comments about this in light of all the current bank bailouts but their scale has gone off my meter.

    It is worth noting, though, that the Feds apparently declined to help with the Ann Arbor-Detroit rail after many years of study and are asking local governments to pick up early costs.

    All the early money will probably go almost exclusively to consultants. So it is a jobs program of sorts.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 20 '08 - 08:46PM    #
  19. Vivienne –

    It’s my understanding that the failure of the Feds to fund the A2-Detroit line was based on the ridership model being too poor – because there is no current similar service to base demand estimates on. The current funding is therefore not about local governments picking up “early costs”, but about local governments picking up “costs – period”, for a 3-year pilot in hopes of showing ridership sufficient to win Federal dollars. So, pessimistically, it’s possible that the 3 year pilot fails to demonstrate enough demand to win/justify funding it further. (But, personally, I’m very confident the demand will appear – but I’ll be one of the folks padding the numbers by riding back and forth for fun.)

    But that means that the early money wouldn’t be a “jobs program of sorts” for consultants – it would be for actually running an inter-city commuter rail system for 3 years. And Amtrak is more a contractor than consultant.

       —Murph    Sep. 23 '08 - 05:10AM    #
  20. Thanks for this clarification, Murph.

    I meant the early money for WALLY, not the Ann Arbor-Detroit line.

       —Vivienne Armentrout    Sep. 24 '08 - 01:40AM    #