state says detroit / ann arbor rail will happen by october 25, 2010

According to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, there will be light rail running between Ann Arbor and Detroit in less than 23 months. A report by the Michigan Messenger today says that Carmine Palombo, the director of transportation at South East Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), while not officially having approved the project yet, supports it, and believes that it can be accomplished by the Governor’s deadline.

As I understand it, most of the major, non-budgetary hurdles have been cleared. The big problem at this point just appears to be money. According to Palombo and others, the line will most likely qualify for federal funds, but those funds would not be available until the route has been active for three years, carrying over 1,000 people per day. The question is, how do we pay for it now.

Hopefully, someone out there can explain this to me… As I recall, Congresswoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, during her recent campaign, took credit for acquiring $100 million in federal grants to establish an east-west passenger rail line connecting Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Metro Airport, Dearborn and Detroit. Has that money already been spent? And, if so, how much more are we talking about? Is it millions, tens of millions, or hundreds of millions?

Another question I have involves a comment made by John B O’Reilley, the Mayor of Dearborn, during a recent presentation about the line. O’Reilley stated that, at the outset, the train may only run four times a day. First off, I’m not sure if that’s four one-way trips, or four round trips. Second, either way, it seems to me that it would be near impossible to get 1,000 commuters hooked with such a limited schedule. Would a thousand people take the train to work knowing that, later in the day, there would only be one or two trains headed back home? Would people take the train knowing that if they missed that train back, for whatever reason, they’d be sleeping at the Detroit train station? That seems like a deal killer to me. And, unless some folks like arriving at the airport four hours prior to their flight, I can’t really see it working for people flying out of Metro Airport… But maybe I’m missing something… Here’s the video.

[note: We’ve discussed the Detroit / Ann Arbor line here before.]

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  1. amanda
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    yay! oct 25 is my birthday. i’d love to have this rail to celebrate…. as long as it stops in ypsi, of course…

  2. amanda
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    and re: frequency, i would sure hope it could run hourly during peak times at least, and be sure to have a late night train– something that runs later than the aata. i’d love to be able to take the bus to a2 in the evenings to go out and about, but too much limitation that the last bus comes back really early…

  3. egpenet
    Posted November 27, 2008 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    As I understand the project, the Feds will not get involved in a start-up. It’s up to the communities involved working with the State and the railroads to get the project going. Once the ridership appears to have reached a critical mass, the Feds will accept proposals for expansion/enhancements/etc.

    Looking at railroad maps of southeaster lower Michigan, there appears to be a spur that could connect the current Michigan avenue line with thee old Wabash line along I-94 … which would run right into Metro Airport. Doing this would mean rebuilding the old spur and demolishing a few McMansions just outside of Rawsonwville. This could eventually solve the Westland bus bottleneck.

    Four roundtrips is not ideal. Eight roundtrips is the initial goal, ultimately doubling, once the CN signs on and we have a two track system in place from Detroit to Chicago. (A two track layout all the way would enable high speed service between Kalamazoo and Chicago … up to 150 mph.)

    Even as few as 8 roundtrips (seven days a week) would allow for commuting to ballgames and the opera in Detroit! 16 roundtrips would be even more fabulous.

    OK Ypsi … the BEST idea yet involves making the Freighthouse the terminus … meaning seven day operation for the Cafe! Folks going East or West would drive/park, walk, bike, bus, or cab it to the Freighthouse. Internet ticketing for regular commuters or an automated dispenser for individual ticketing would be available on site. The cafe would be open for departing passengers, a covered platform would be available outdoors. There is plenty of parking on either side of the tracks.

    The Friends have had frank discussions with SEMCOG leadership and have expressed not openly serious interest, but have pledged that the cafe portion of the Freighthouse WILL be open and ready for business by the spring of 2010.

    Service to the Freighthouse will require rehab of the second set of rails that are currently alongside the main rails … plus rebuilding and reconnecting the rail south of Cross Street and reinstalling a new switch. This is the simplest plan.

    The BEST plan, which is the two rail plan, would involve a whole new siding along the Freighthouse, which allows either eastbound or westbound trains to switch and pull alongside the Freighthouse.

    If SEMCOG can launch with eight round trips … we are sure to expand to 16 with Federal help not long after. And with the new President-elect’s commitment to infrastructure, I am personally excited about the reality of these plans.

    More to come ….

  4. Posted November 27, 2008 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    IIRC, the $100m federal grant is on hold until we (as a region) can show the demand for the service. One of the major stumbling blocks for federal funding is that we don’t have any existing service of any sort on this corridor (with the exception of 3x/day Amtrak serving half the proposed stops). With no existing service to use as a base for studies, we can’t produce the ridership estimates needed to tap the federal bucks, and so the current project SEMCOG is working on is a pilot project to help generate the ridership estimates to get the federal money to put something permanent in place.

    Similarly, the implementation option being considered right now – Amtrak running commuter trains on existing rails – is a short-term, low-cost option meant to help build the case for a permanent system. It would be great to say, “We can get 1,000 round-trip riders a day with only 4 round-trip trains a day,” but that’s not necessarily the goal. What the system would be aiming for at first is a little more modest – say, “We can get 500 riders a day with only 4 round-trips daily, and survey data of riders, occasional riders, and non-riders allows us to forecast that adding 2 more round-trips a day will get us up to 1,000 riders per day, etc, etc,” at which point the Feds are willing to say, “Well, okay – here’s some money.”

    Even the mode choice isn’t necessarily permanent – if they decide that the long term system would attract more ridership more cheaply with bus rapid transit (BRT – think light rail with tires), which would allow them to run down I-94 or Michigan Ave or Washtenaw for parts of the trip, rather than being limited to the existing rail corridor. (I think light rail itself is a lower choice at this point, considering the infrastructure costs relative to either BRT or heavy rail on existing tracks.)

    The moral of the story is that, while many people will jump to conclusions and think that, “Oh, it’s been running for a week and it’s not perfect,” is damning of the concept as a whole, we should try to keep in mind that this will be nothing more than a pilot project in the first few years – an experiment intended to gather data for a “real”, full-fledged implementation. (Of course, I do have some fear that we’ll end up hanging onto the pilot for the next 20 years, rather than making the transition, but I’ll be fighting for the real deal…)

    Okay, enough transit geeking from me…

  5. kerri
    Posted November 29, 2008 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Like Amanda, that is my birthday as well! What a random day to pick. That would be a helluva birthday present.

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