SEMCOG’s Carmine Palumbo talks trains in Ypsi

I don’t have a lot of time tonight, but I attended this evening’s Ypsilanti Planning Commission meeting, which was largely about the east-west rail line, and I wanted to pass along my notes. So, here are the highlights, as I heard them. Make of them what you will. And feel free to add comments, questions, etc.

• Carmine Palumbo, the Director of Transportation Programs for SEMCOG, laid out the high-level vision for the proposed Ann Arbor – Detroit rail line, which would make use of the tracks currently running between Pontiac and Chicago. There would be five stops along the line. Ann Arbor and Detroit would be the ends of the line, with stops at Dearborn, Metro Airport and Ypsilanti in between.

• According to Palumbo, SEMCOG is presently in negotiations with the three companies that own segments of track along that route. They are (from west to east) Norfolk Southern, Conrad Shared Assets, and Canadian National. (Canadian National owns all the track between Dearborn and the New Center in Detroit, which would be the end of this line.)

• Amtrak currently runs three passenger trains a day on this route. (Our round trips between Ann Arbor and Detroit would be in addition to this.) Otherwise, these tracks are used only for freight. All three of the companies owning track along the line have been clear that they will not consider any plans which could negatively impact their freight traffic.

• SEMCOG has requested the three companies to project costs based on 4, 8 and 15 round-trip passenger runs a day. They now have those numbers from all but Canadian National. (Canadian National, according to Palumbo, has only agreed to 2 round trips a day so far, but he’s confident that they can find a way to accommodate more.)

• At this point, we have hard numbers for neither the capital costs required to build out the infrastructure (platforms, crossing gates, additional track, etc.) or the operating costs.

• In the words of Palumbo, “This will happen.” MDOT and the Governor, he says, have been clear that this is a priority. The Governor, he says, wants to be able to ride the train before her term ends. So, the target for full-service is October 2010.

• Right now, the plan is to begin with 4 round-trip runs during the week, and 3 on the weekends. (I’m unclear as to whether that’s 3 all weekend long, or 3 a day on Saturday and Sunday.) The idea would be to then build from there, continuing to invest in the corridor, and adding runs.

• He says it’s good timing, as the light rail project in Detroit is scheduled to begin soon. It, he mentions, will begin at New Center station, where the Ann Arbor – Detroit line is planned to terminate.

• Other communities want to be a part of this, and they may, one day in the future. Discussions are ongoing with Jackson, Pontiac, and Mt. Clemens, to name a few. And, he says, residents of Toledo would love to have a way to get to and from Metro Airport. As he points out, “We just need to get started.”

• The national stimulus program outlined by the Obama administration should cover all of the one-time capital costs involved. There’s $8 billion, Palumbo says, for high-speed rail coridors, of which this is one. And he believes our plans are far enough along to qualify.

• Operating costs, however, are a diferent issue. State and local communities will have to pick that up. Palumbo said the good news is, so far, no one has backed away. Companies and foundations, he says, have also expressed interest in participating when he’s mentioned the need to “pass the hat” and collect operating funds. “There isn’t a lot of push back,” he says, “but it’ll take work.”

• He says SEMCOG has contractors ready who have done this kind of work. He says that, if all goes according to plan, he’s confident that they can get the system running by October, 2010.

• Straw man schedules have been created… “Generally speaking,” Palumbo says, “we’re looking at 55 minutes to 1 hour for Ann Arbor to Detroit service.” The first run would start at 6:00 or 7:00 AM, and the second would begin approximately an hour later. The evening trains would also probably leave an hour apart… He would like to have a fifth, late night train too, if it’s possible, so that people can take advantage of entertainment opportunities, night classes at universities, and the like.

• We will start with a contract to Amtrak, who will provide the service. Eventually, however, there will have to be a local rail authority established to oversee the route. MDOT has agreed to manage the project until we have such an authority. (An authority would also require a dedicated source of funding.)

• When asked when we might see local activity on the ground in Ypsilanti, Palumbo said that construction of the platform, etc, would have to begin early next year. Their consultants, he says, are putting together the work plan right now.

• Before they can start working on the tracks, however, there are two big things that need to be addressed. We need to get the train cars, and we need to conclude negotiations with the companies that own the tracks. (We apparently have the money for the passenger cars, and have begun conversations with a provider.)

• SEMCOG will provide Ypsilanti with a 250′-long platform… And, in their opinion, it’s up to our community where it goes. Palumbo says there is no cost difference if it’s on one side of the track as opposed to the other. The City just needs to make a decision. “From the cost point of view,” Palumbo says, “it doesn’t make a difference.”

• SEMCOG would also potentially provide a couple of bus shelters as well, if necessary. Palumbo mentions, however, that the City might be able to find local businesses willing to provide a shelter.

• The AATA is looking at providing feeder service to the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti stations. “We need to feed this (rail) line with better service than exists now,” says Palumbo.

• Between Ann Arbor and Detroit there is some single track and some double track. The idea, in the long run, is to completely build out the second track, so that passenger rail can run without interference from freight traffic. In the meantime, however, we need to add cross-overs, switches and the like, so trains can pass one another using the second track, etc. It’s pointed out that safety and signal improvements need to happen concurrently with this. “We can’t do this on the cheap,” according to Palumbo. Fortunately, all of this kind of work should fall under capital costs, which would likely be covered under the federal stimulus plan.

• Amtrak service running between here and Chicago, someone points out, is often delayed. How can we ensure that these trains don’t experience the same delays, making them useless for commuting? Palumbo acknowledges this, but says most of the delays happen closer to Chicago. And, while some delays are caused because of the priority given to freight, he says, many of the delays are due to spare parts being so far away from the train when it breaks down. As our corridor is shorter, he says, that won’t be so much of a problem.

• Our contracts with the rail companies, according to Palumbo, have to guarantee us that a certain percentage of our runs will happen on-time. He acknowledges that it will be impossible to build a loyal community of commuters if they can’t promise predictable schedules.

• When asked to guess how much it would cost to run the system, Palumbo said between $7 million and $10 million a year. And, he said that we might be able to get lower that depending on our negotiations. He says, however, that he can’t even begin to estimate on capital costs until we hear back from Canadian National, though.

• Someone asks if it’s possible that some segments could have more runs (for instance between Ann Arbor and the airport) and he said yes. He said that they would poll the riders aggressively, and tweak the system accordingly.

• Palumbo said the the entire time this train is running, we need to be working on our own dedicated track. “When you get to 8 round trips a day,” he said, “you want your own dedicated track.”

• There may be a few manned stations, but in Ypsilanti it will likely be automated ticketing kiosks.

• The estimating cost of each ADA-compliant platform is approximately $500,000. City Planner Richard Murphy informs the Planning Commission that the City will need to give SEMCOG the space for the platform. Depot town, Murph says, is the clearest choice, as we have publicly controlled land on either side of the track. There’s also the fact that trains stopped there before. We would, however, have to change the zoning ordinance so that it would allow for the construction of a platform/station.

• Murphy stresses pedestrian and bike safety. We need to make sure, he says, that there’s an “at grade” rail crossing that would allow pople to cross the tracks and make their way between parking lots, etc. He also mentions the need for bike parking.

• The question of parking and traffic flow is brought up. Murphy mentions that, if necessary, the recycling center could be moved, opening up additional space.

• Murphy talks of spinoff investment potential. He says the rail stop could spur “transit oriencted development.” He believes it could drive the development of the Thompson block, the Freighthouse, etc. We might even be able to leverage it kick start priority development sites like Motor Wheel and Water Street.

• But, Murphy says, what if it’s not a good longterm fit for Depot Town? Depot Town, as he points out, already functions as a business district without the rail stop. Could the stop perhaps bring too much congestion to Depot Town? And, might the stimulus be best used elsewhere? When asked where else he would suggest, Murphy says the only other place that could work inside the City is Huron River Drive at LeForge. (I didn’t hear booing, but I think it was clear that people didn’t even want to consider the option.)

• Polumbo says he is hoping for 1,000 riders a day. Amtrak, it seems, did a study for them which included relatively conservative estimates.
He didn’t remember the exact estimates for our stop, but Murphy seemed to recall that it estimated 180 total boardings and deboardings from the Ypsi station each day. As Palumbo noted, however, it’s just a guess, as we haven’t had rail service here in 30 years, and have no idea how much a gallon of gas is going to cost when the line starts running in 2010.

• The Maple Ave lot, according to Murphy, has 62 parking spaces. He believes we can handle 60 to 90 commuter vehicles a day with existing spaces in Depot Town. He acknowledges the need, however, to deal with parking enforcement. He also notes that we would need to make some long-term and some short-term parking.

• We could measure traffic and parking, says Murphy, but it won’t be much use right now. We’d be better served to do a traffic study once there’s train service.

• Rod Johnson asks about Heritage Fest and how the train will work in instances when a great many people come to town.

• Someone asks if there are other similar communities that we can learn from. Palumbo said the closest model is probably in New Mexico. He said he would share that information with the Planning Commission.

• Bonnie Penet, speaking on behalf of the Friends of the Freighthouse, urged all in attendance to consider the Freighthouse as the logical stop for the new line. She said that the rehabilitated building could offer restrooms, protection from the elements, and refreshments. The stars are aligned, she says, and “the timing could not be better.”

• A fellow from the Township suggests that we look into a mechanism to capture a portion of the increased tax revenue in the area, as this stop will create a significant boost in development.

• A fellow from Ann Arbor, whose mother was killed at train crossing in L.A., stressed the need for safety. In Germany, he says, they have better standards for gates and lights.

• Mayor Schreiber says that the City has been in touch with the Dahlman family and they have indicated that they would be agreeable to selling the old Depot, or somehow codeveloping it with the City.

• A Washtenaw Community College student asks the big question – How much it’s likely to cost to ride? Palumbo says they’ve been thinking about $1.75 for trips between stations, and $6 to go from end to end.

• An environmental assessment needs to be done, and they’re in the process of looking into it, says Palumbo. As they’re using existing infrastructure, however, he doesn’t imagine that the impact will be too great.

If you were there, and think that I got anything wrong, please leave a comment.

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  1. EOS
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post Mark. This is the most information I’ve yet seen on the proposed trains. If this costs local governments $7 – 10 million dollars a year in operation costs then we will get the opportunity to vote on the increased milages that will be required. Lets consider the significant costs and potential ridership before we rubber stamp the idea.

    Who’s going to ride the trains? The estimate by Murph suggests 180 boardings and deboardings a day – 90 round trips? Maybe an autoworker living in the township who works at the Rouge factory in Dearborn will consider the option of commuting by train. This person would currently have an approx. 60 mile round trip each day by car, maybe an hour commute time, use about 2 gal of gas if they drive an economical vehicle, and if the price stays the same as it is today around $2 a gallon would pay about $80 dollars a month in commuting costs. This doesn’t include the cost of purchasing and maintaining their private vehicle, but a train stop in the city wouldn’t eliminate these fixed costs either.

    If they chose instead to use the train, they would spend about a 20 minutes to drive to the city, park the car, walk across the tracks to the platform, buy a ticket, and board the train. The train ride to Greenfield Village would be about 30 minutes. They would then hail a cab for the 8-10 mile drive to the factory, and after being dropped off at the gate they would either wait for a shuttle or walk the 1/2 mile or so to the building where they work. About an hour and 20 minutes for the commute each way, $1 for gas, $1.75 for the train fare, $10 for the cab fare. This adds up to about $480 dollars a month in commuting costs, plus whatever tax increases are necessary to subsidize this system. Plus it would add an additional hour and 40 minutes to their commute time each day – an extra 33 hours a month to commute. Then there is the inconvenience of exposure to the elements in all types of weather.

    So this hypothetical person would have an annual increase of $4,800.00 per year in addition to whatever tax increases are necessitated for everyone. Of course, if the price of gas goes up, the differences in commuting costs would be narrowed. The cost of gas would have to rise more than a hundred- fold before driving costs equal the costs of the train ride.

    Why do so many think trains are a good idea for today’s economy?

  2. Posted March 19, 2009 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    “Mayor Schreiber says that the City has been in touch with the Dahlman family and they have indicated that they would be agreeable to selling the old Depot, or somehow codeveloping it with the City.”

    Fingers crossed!

  3. BrianB
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Mark’s notes mentioned that the AATA would adjust routes stop at the train station, and I would assume the Detroit area DOT will adjust some bus routes to account for train commuters as well, so getting between the train stations and home and work wouldn’t neccessarilly be a $10 cab ride. I agree that it will take more time and be less convienent than driving, but I don’t think it is going to be more expensive, especially as gas prices go up. I am really looking forward to commuting by train to New Center and bus Downtown, myself. I’m tired of watching my odometer roll another 1500 miles a month just going to and from work, and I can only imagine how tired my car is getting. I hope it holds up until the train starts running.

  4. Glen S.
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    EOS: Comparing, dollar-for-dollar, the costs of private automobile commuting vs. public transit is highly misleading, and usually ignores many of the “hidden” costs of our auto-dependent culture: Traffic jams, pollution, the problems associated with maintaining the large paved expanses necessary to provide multiple parking spaces for each auto — and the fact that our car-culture contributes to adverse climate change and a national dependence on a diminishing resource (oil) that now comes mostly from unstable and/or hostile nations.

    You are probably right that — in the beginning — costs per rider will very high. However, like any new undertaking, I think the ultimate goal is to grow the commuter-rail network, and its ridership, to the point that it becomes a convenient and cost-effective travel alternative within the area(s) it serves.

    You suggest that commuter-rail service would be inefficient for many people who would have to drive and park, take taxis, etc … but again, I think you’re missing the point. One of the benefits of affordable, reliable public transit is that it attracts and fosters residential and commercial development in the areas it serves — and particularly around transit stops — which often become new nodes of development as people and businesses seek to cluster around them.

    In places like Europe, where the rail network is dense, and where commercial and residential development is clustered around it, trains provide an affordable and convenient way for people to commute, shop, and travel — including many young people, the elderly, and those without private automobiles. But the key is density — and land-use planning that encourages development in transit corridors while discouraging urban sprawl.

    One of the most important points I heard Mr. Palumbo make last night was the A2 – Detroit line not as an isolated project, but just the first step in a future network that might eventually stretch from Jackson to Port Huron, and eventually connect with Toledo, Lansing, etc.

    Over time, I think we have an opportunity to build a viable, regional transit network … but we have to start somewhere, right? If so, I hope we do everything possible to make sure that the Ypsilanti area gets in on the “ground floor.”

    I’m very excited that this project looks like it is actually, finally going to happen– and absolutely thrilled that Ypsilanti is likely to be among the first communities to have a stop.

  5. amused1
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’m trying to picture a Rouge plant worker giving up his or her F-450 extended cab in order to ride public transit. Nope, can’t see it.

    I can more easily see Ann Arbor commuters taking advantage of this. They cut their parking costs (where applicable), apply for the $115/mo Federal public transit incentive, check out their auto insurance company for potential discounts for not using their vehicle for commuting, avoid snow clogged driving conditions in winter, decrease wear and tear on their vehicles, enjoy the health benefits of increased exercise through walking (as long as they don’t melt when they have to walk from the station or shuttle to their workplace when it’s raining), potentially increase their spending in local stores and restaurants as they are walking through town (which increases the tax base), decreased auto emissions which improves air quality and lowers respiratory problems in vulnerable populations, and decreases in the cost of road maintenance since there are fewer cars tearing them up. Yeah, it’s “soft” math and maybe not as immediately compelling as EOS’s posting. That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to improving public transit.

    My experience with many folks born and raised in SE Michigan is that they see driving as their God given right. Makes sense given the proximity to the major US auto manufacturers. It’s what they are used to and it’s how our local communities developed. Need some eggs? Hop in the car and go to the store because your local corner store focuses on selling liquor and lotto and the eggs they do have may have been around since the Dodos laid them. Want to visit a neighbor 4 blocks away? Hop in the car and drive over because there are no sidewalks or street lights in that neighborhood. That’s not the way things have to be.

    I openly admit, the public transit services that currently exist here aren’t the most convenient. I moved here from an community that had pretty good public transit. I tried to continue my public transit habits when I moved here, and managed to do so for about 5 years. Heck, I didn’t even have a car during that time.

    Changes in my life made it impossible for me to continue. Basically, buses didn’t run near my new workplace and there were no sidewalks and very few street lights within a mile of it, so walking was dangerous. I tried it for a while but the day I experienced a driver purposely moving onto the shoulder, in a sort of one-sided game of chicken, forcing me to jump into a ditch to avoid being hit by her, I gave up. And no, it was no accidental thing. I can still see her grinning evilly and laughing with her friend as she swerved over to make me jump. Sorry, I digress.

    The best way to improve public transit is to use it regularly. Regular ridership helps pay the operating costs. Increased demand and usage improves routing, trip frequency and may allow for discounted rates on pre-payed multi-fare token packs or cards. It cuts down on other infrastructure costs and can improve neighborhood resources such as retail and entertainment venues.

    The transition to using public transit takes time, some changes in habits, and can be frustrating. But the more you use it, the easier it becomes. You learn to combine tasks and pace yourself differently. And as routing and trip frequency improves so does your commuting experience.

    Just my .02

  6. amused1
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Oh, something else that occurred to me, I grew up in a school system that used public transit rather than school operated buses. We showed our school ID as we got on the bus and that was that. Our ridership was “free” between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. This made it possible for us to ride the bus to and from extracurricular activities that fell outside the standard school day. Outside of those hours we had discounted fares. Maybe because of this early exposure, the idea of using public transit was no big deal to my friends and me. I wonder what studies are out there to show the cost effectiveness of schools adopting public transit systems rather than maintaining district based systems?

  7. 'Ff'lo
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Much appreciate the notes.

    Seems like the longer the Amtrak ride (except in the Northeast corridor, where it has priority), the greater the delays due to freight. Once the passenger train’s late on one leg, it’s like it has to take what it can get in the gaps for the rest of the journey; you’re quite likely to sit still for the better part of an hour outside every city from then on.

    This issue of what’s most important on shared tracks is a potentially huge stumbling block in the broad spread of people choosing to ride the rails—if you can pretty much count on the train being irregular, and often very late, the appeal of taking it really suffers.

  8. Laura
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    When I was in AZ last month, we got to ride the new light-rail system that just opened a few months back. It was clean, well-lit, inexpensive ($1.25 for the entire route) and convenient to pedestrians, commuters, and bicyclists. Here’s a clip(

    “In December 2008 the first 20-mile starter line of the METRO light rail system for Phoenix started accepting passengers. The METRO light rail system uses state-of-the art light rail vehicles with a modern, streamlined design.

    METRO light rail vehicles are manufactured by Kinkisharyo International in Japan. More than 50 percent of the parts on the vehicles are American made. Final assembly of the vehicles occurred in Arizona.”

    I would love a local system like this! I live in the township and despite the distance of it only being a few miles into town, we can’t even get a bus. But I wonder why we don’t consider putting something like this just outside the city – where there’s room. I see parking and space as real issues. Why design something in an area already heavily occupied?

    Aside from that, there are other pro’s to using a public system including less wear on your vehicle, and the bigger picture of the environment. I am SO excited to hear this news!

  9. Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    All I can say is that I am VERY excited about this train. I figure that with the train, my commute to Ann Arbor will be around the same 30 minutes it takes me by car (assuming that the AATA bus is synced up right) but I wont have to worry about traffic, snow, potholes, parking, etc. Plus I love riding trains. The very thought of getting to ride on a train *every* day is really great.

  10. Ol E Cross
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations for coming up with one of the most absurd scenarios of ridership possible. I’m surprised you didn’t put your hypothetical worker in a limo picking up high priced hookers on the way to work and ruining his $1000 loafers trudging through slush.

    Kind of makes you wonder why anyone in the rest of the world would ever take transit … but they do. And our region’s lack of it is a documented reason many people prefer to live, work and invest elsewhere.

    But maybe that’s your plan? Drive as many people out of Michigan as you can so you can remain at the edge of isolation.

  11. Ol E Cross
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to direct the above comment to EOS…

  12. Dan
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Everyone left the meeting after the public comment period ended (including Mark) but that was not the end of the planning commission discussion. Issues of zoning, parking, traffic, and where the platform would be were discussed by the commission and Mr. Palumbo for another 20 minutes.

    This topic will be coming up again next month at the planning commission.

  13. Joanne
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:06 am | Permalink

    We need to make sure we are funding the system so that it can support itself. Why is an Amtrak ticket $28 round trip from A2 to Dearborn and the passenger rail system would only be $12 round trip? Are they sure we can fund a system with such a low cost even though we can’t take the Amtrak that already exists due to their ticket price for the same route? Also, I’ve taken Amtrak in winter and it is slow during the winter because the doors freeze shut and it takes a very long time to get the doors open. Hopefully, they can prevent frozen doors on the passenger rail.

  14. Posted March 20, 2009 at 6:00 am | Permalink


    I hadn’t eaten in about 10 hours by the time I left and I couldn’t stay any longer. I’m sorry to hear I missed good stuff… If you, or anyone else that was able to stay, remembers what was said after the point I stopped taking notes, I’d love to have a comment here in this thread about it.

    And thank you, everyone else, for your comments. As always, they’re appreciated.


  15. amused1
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 7:16 am | Permalink

    Ff”lo makes a good point. Generally speaking, freight rolls on a schedule. If I recall correctly, the east bound morning stock train runs through Ypsi between 8 and 8:20. I would guess that the east bound morning commuter train would have already left Ypsi for points east before that. Also, in my experience, most delays on the Detroit to Chicago run happen west of Jackson. I think those rails are controlled by yet another freight rail company.

    OTOH, avoiding delays due to freight ROW is even more incentive to support the commuter line so they can build a dedicated line even faster.

    Joanne has a good point as well. I think one of the differences to keep in mind is that Amtrak has legacy costs, just like the auto industry, that require additional revenues. For one thing, rail road workers have a unique retirement system that takes the place of Social Security.

    All that aside, we might want to keep in mind that pretty much every form of transit receives some sort of Govt. subsidy, from airlines to highways. So I guess we could ask why not make them self-sufficient? We could add tolls to I-94, 75, 275, 23, 96, 696, etc. and everyone can be assigned a “fast pass” medallion as part of their registration. An automated system could be put in place so we don’t have to hire toll takers and everyone would receive a monthly bill. If you’re bill isn’t paid you can’t register your car the following year. Yeah, and that Rouge employee is going to take the commuter train to work. ;^)

  16. EOS
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    OEC – you starting to sound very “Dude-like”.

    Sorry you don’t like my first scenario. Let’s look at a more “reasonable” one. We’re proposing a train route between Ann Arbor and Detroit, but expecting the majority of passengers to be using it to commute between Ann Arbor and Ypsi. (Maybe?) Lynne’s comments suggest that she would like to use the train to commute between Ypsi and Ann Arbor to avoid the drive, the traffic, and the potholes. We currently have a heavily subsidized bus system that has buses leaving every 15 minutes during commute times, that allows flexibility along the route for boarding and deboarding. The train, at least at the initial operating expense of $7 – 10 million dollars a year, would have 2 departure times from Ypsi to Ann Ann Arbor each morning, with an hour between each. If you miss the first train by a minute, you’ll wait an hour for the next. You’ll get on the train in Depot town and debark at the Amtrak station in Ann Arbor.

    Here it comes – this is the part I really like. Unless your destination is the train station, the plan is to add AATA buses to pick up train passengers and take them to their final destinations. Probably a “shuttle” to the Blake Transit Center downtown and a transfer to the route that will take you to your final destination. For some reason Lynne assumes that her commute by train will take about the same time as a drive. The option already exists for her to take a bus rather than drive. She could ride the bus to Ann Arbor by paying one fare. Or, we could heavily subsidize a train and she could pay a train fare to get to Ann Arbor and then pay a bus fare to get to her final destination. So it will cost her more, it will cost taxpayers significantly more, and it will take considerably more time and the time options for travel will be significantly reduced. Not a good scenario either, is it OEC? (My apologies Lynne for being used for illustrative purposes)

    Maybe a better scenario would be that the train will provide public transportation to Detroit Metro? With 4 round trips of the train each day, scheduled to coincide with commute times, you could ride the train in the morning to Westland, debark and take a bus to the airport, hang out there until you plane leaves. Just be sure your returning flight arrives early morning or mid-afternoon so that you can use the train to get back home. If your flight is delayed for a few hours for weather or other reasons, and you get back to the airport after the last train has left for the day, you can always spend the night in the comfortable seats, and catch the first train in the morning. Or, you might just consider asking a friend with a car to drive the 15 minute route to the airport and pick you up or drop you off. But that would cost the equivalent of a gallon of gas and add the exhaust of one personal vehicle as opposed to $7 – 10 million dollars of taxpayer money and the pollution of a locomotive engine.

    As you notice OEC, none of these scenarios involve limo’s or hookers. What is the best case scenario in your view?

  17. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 9:34 am | Permalink


    “Dude-like”? Ouch. If I still worked in downtown Detroit, I’d walk to the station with my laptop. In the 45 minute trip, I’d be using the wireless on the train to read From New Center, I’d take a 15 minute light rail downtown to the stop in front of my office. My total commuting costs would be $15 a day, total time around 1 hour. However, my old employer would have reimbursed me for much of these costs in order to save them the expense of renting me a space in the neighboring parking structure.

    When I drove that route, a good commute day was 45 minutes (including winding up the floors of a parking garage). When construction, accidents, events or weather hit, my commute would double. In one storm, it took me four hours to drive home. There are unexpected delays in every commuting scenario.

    In any commuting cost comparison, you have to include the cost of car ownership. Since I stared working more locally my family has been able to survive easily with one car. Conservatively, we save $4000 annually. Vehicles are the number two cost for most households, taking up around 16-20 percent of household income. If this rail line was running when I was working downtown, I wouldn’t have bought a second car and would have easily saved over $300 a month.

    My best case scenario is this pilot project demonstrates ridership so we can access federal funds to develop a regional system so everyone has the option of reducing their vehicle ownership costs by thousands annually.

  18. galan
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    I am excited about the possibilities the commuter rail presents us as a community. Glen S. you make a good case and echo much of what I would have said. Add to this the excitement of the community around an idea which brings us together and there is a benefit that can’t be put into dollar terms. Also add a benefit from having the community look ahead with a future vision for the whole city that has some common elements and recognize that there is a dollar value for that which cannot be calculated either. That is how things get done (in my opinion anyway.) For instance, everyone thought the governor was crazy to give tax breaks to movie production companies, but I saw Hillary Swank in town yesterday.

    Oh yes, one more thing. The discussion at planning commission included circulator busses or “trolleys” to move people around….to and from the commuter trains and other places. This can be federally funded and provide us a tourist-friendly look as well as connect the various parts of the city in a way that AATA cannot presently do. Students and others can move around the city potentially for free. This is great for young folks and older folks as well, whether they use the trains or not.

  19. Posted March 20, 2009 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    EOS, there already is a bus that runs from the Amtrak station to the transit center downtown. As it happens, I am very familiar with the buses that run between Ypsi and Ann Arbor as I am frequent rider. I have a GoPass so I dont pay any bus fare. I pay $40/month for parking downtown but that is temporary. If I had to pay the regular rates, it would be more like $115/mo. IF the train fare was $2 each way, the train fare would cost me less than parking would costs me if I had to pay the regular rate.

    My assumption that it would take me about the same time as it does to drive is based on traffic mostly. The afternoon buses all get stuck in traffic so the usual 45 minute A2 to Ypsi trip can sometimes take an hour or even longer where there has been snow. On a good day, I can make it home in 25 minutes when I drive but sometimes my commute from downtown Ann Arbor to Ypsi takes 45 minutes or longer because of traffic. The train would not have to deal with rush hour traffic jams.

  20. EOS
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    O.K. – Both OEC and Lynne have provided substantially better scenarios than any of mine. It can work as a good alternative for some.

  21. Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I put up a Google Earth model, an attempt to show it on the east side by the depot. If you have Google Earth it loaded you can fly around and see what it could be like.

  22. Posted March 20, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, mark, for this rundown and thanks, Glen, for highlighting all the absurdities of our current car culture. People in SE Michigan may believe it’s their god-given right to drive, but that belief won’t survive the peak of oil production and the resulting continual rise in costs. Some will be enthusiastic early adopters, as someone above said, and embrace the much saner option of public transportation, and some will fight the inevitable. Just like in everything…

  23. Kripen
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I think it sounds dreamy. My spouse commutes from Ypsi to Metro Airport everyday so this train would be ideal for us. We could go down to one car like OEC!

  24. Ol E Cross
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    Thanks EOS. I hope this works for the region and all types of commuters. As we’ve shown, it won’t be for all but may be for some. If the train eases congestion on roadways, even a bit, it could be a minor win for both auto aficionados and rail lovers. It’s worth a try.

  25. EOS
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    I’ve used mass transit in D.C., Boston, and New York. It worked well. I didn’t have my car during my travels. They had stops every 1/2 mile or so, and an existing population base that utilized all the stops and made the transit system substantially more cost effective than the one proposed here in SE Michigan. All the subways/trains ran on very frequent schedules and 24/7 or very nearly so. It was both a cost and time-saving operation for the majority of individuals, didn’t severely reduce the choices of time of travel or potential destinations, and as a result was a form of transportation freely chosen by individuals.

    However, we don’t have the population base here in S.E. Michigan to sustain such a mass transit system and won’t have that population density in my lifetime. I’m not fighting the inevitable. If and when the population density or lack of gasoline makes mass transit an economically viable option for the majority of persons, it will be embraced by everyone.

    I believe the substantial costs of this train are far greater than the benefits that would be accessible to a small minority. I believe the economic/financial realities of the majority of families in S.E. Michigan are in such a negative state at this time that we should carefully consider increases to their tax burdens. I believe it’s the wrong time for this costly, unneeded project and would campaign against any increased millage to pay for such a burden.

    As far as a God-given right to drive a car? You betcha – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. You’ll have to pry the steering wheel from my cold, dead hand – that is, the hand that doesn’t already have a death grip on my assault rifle.

  26. Jeff Irwin
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 12:53 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for the post. I especially appreciate the synopsis because this meeting coincided with our county BOC meeting, preventing me from attending.

    In any event, I wanted to add a couple of my thoughts:
    1) This is a tremendous idea on its own, but the value of this investment increases greatly with every other transit improvement in the region. Once this transit opportunity is combined with service along Woodward from the river to Pontiac, then another world of possibilities is opened for travelers. In other words, this investment would be much more attractive if the region had its act together. However, something has to go down first and the I-94 corridor – because of the airport – is the most logical first move. Because this rail line will provide access to Metro airport, this can work out quite nicely for Washtenaw County residents. Consider a Washtenaw County resident who travels out of DTW twice a year for a weekend. *If* they park in the cheaper lots and enjoy the additional time and expense of shuttling to the terminals from these lower cost parking lots, then one could reasonably expect to spend $50 for a weekend of parking (increase that to $100 if they park right next to the McNamara terminal). If we compare those numbers to the amount of taxes that would be required to cover our communities’ share of the $7-10M in operating costs, then we can see quite easily that for residents that use the airport, a rail line would provide tangible savings immediately. ($200,000 SEV, $100,000 taxable value: 0.5 mills would generate $50 in taxes and would raise roughly 8M countywide – way more than our fair share of the est. $7-10M in operating costs.) Also, that “back-of-the-napkin” analysis looks ONLY at parking and doesn’t include the costs of driving to the airport, etc., etc.

    2) Right of way is so critical. Ideally, the public should be investing for the long term and without our own ROW we’re going to be held hostage by the freight companies that will use their special rights to hold us over the barrel financially. I am totally supportive of the work that Palombo and SEMCOG are doing on this line because I see that we are so behind in this region. We need to bite off a small piece initially to get the ball rolling and ROW is very expensive. Still, we have to keep this in the backs of our minds. Controlling our own destiny is important in terms of controlling our long term costs and in terms of assuring availability, keeping schedules and remaining flexible enough to seize future economic development opportunities.

    Thanks again Mark.

  27. Jeff Irwin
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    OK, one more thing:

    I hear often from nay-sayers that we don’t have the necessary density to support transit. This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem: transit increases density due to the spurning of transit-oriented developments much like our highway interchanges seem to cause little “exit-ramp-communities.”

    Leaving that chicken/egg problem aside, I have to argue a different tact – specifically that we *do* have the density to support transit. The problem here as I see it is that when people think of mass-transit they invariably bring up images of Washington DC (9,639.0/sq mi), San Francisco (17,323/sq mi) and New York City (27,147/sq mi). Of course we don’t have that kind of density. That’s one reason why we’re not talking about that kind of super-intensive transit investments. These are huge cities with subways, buses, regional rail, streetcars and more.

    A more reasonable comparison is to look at cities that compare with our Metro area. Detroit (6,856/sq mi) and Ann Arbor (4,221.1/sq mi) have far more density than other regions that are aggressively investing in and reaping the benefits of transit. Take for example Salt Lake City (1,666.1/sq mi) or Pheonix (2,937.8/sq mi). These cities are installing light-rail systems that cost 100’s of millions of dollars. We’re having a hard time driving the first spike on a system that costs a fraction of that. (my numbers are from Wikipedia).

  28. EOS
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 8:22 pm | Permalink


    Your post is very revealing. “Transit increases density.” Is that your goal? To create a high density urban environment out of Washtenaw County? Do you think residents live in Washtenaw County because they prefer high density urban environments?

    High-speed light rail would be more expensive. But it would also offer the advantages that many proponents assume we will get by sharing the freight tracks, i.e. faster commutes between Ann Arbor and Ypsi.

    If the Federal Government is unwilling to invest transit funds on this proposed system because we cannot justify the cost based on ridership projections, why does the county feel justified in this large expenditure? Do we currently have excess funding at the County level to fund such a project? What are the projected costs to local government units? county government? state government? When will those cost projections be shared with the taxpayers? How do you think the $7 – 10 Million dollar operating costs should be shared?

  29. Posted March 22, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Jeff. It’s cool to see another County Commissioner leaving comments here. (Now I’ll go and read what it is you had to say…)

  30. Brackinald Achery
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

    I assume the transit improvements are intended to lure productive private industry, yes? Because without productive industry, the transit is damn near pointless, and financially unsustainable.

    To put it bluntly, since no one was taking my Socratic bait earlier regarding China outproducing us, I think we also need lower taxes and cheaper labor here to really lure productive private industry. Flame away, but that’s something employers tend to look for, or else the illegal immigration thing and outsourcing to China wouldn’t be a problem. Prove me wrong, please, I am no stranger to being dirt poor and working shit jobs, nor am I intending to be a dick.

  31. amused1
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Brackinald does bring up an interesting point about labor costs. I struggle to reconcile the idea of a 20 year plant worker getting paid 2x the maximum salary that can be paid to a 20 year teacher. Seriously, a 6 figure income for working the line seems a bit extreme to me. I don’t want to see a return to sweatshops, but I think a reality check is overdue.

  32. Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Yes, thanks for the post, Mark! (Yeah I know I’m late responding.)

    I was at the meeting and was impressed by the number of twenty- and thirty-somethings who contributed to the SRO conditions in fusty old Ypsi City Hall.

    EOS, congratulations on maintaining an almost one-man fight, and (in spite of the assault rifle) keeping it civil. You’re right about one thing: commuter rail doesn’t work for everyone. One thing we all have to bear in mind though. Yes, the train will have to be subsidized, but not nearly as much as the roads. Remember, the Highway Trust Fund is running out of money, and contrary to popular perception roads are *not* financed exclusively by user fees, they’re subsidized by general funds too.

    The commuter rail is the first step in bringing transportation *options* to SE Michigan. Nobody is going to pry your hands off the wheel, but you seem determined to block other people from boarding the train. And you may end up surprised at how convenient rail transit is for you.

    Utah is one of the regions that brought in rail transit 10-15 years ago, and if you know anything about Utah and its low-density wide open spaces, you know they *love* their cars. Your mention of prying your “cold, dead fingers” off the steering wheel immediately brought to mind this quote from Rocky Anderson, Mayor of Salt Lake City: “Building light rail was not easy. The road toward construction of the first light rail line – a fourteen mile north-south line – was extremely contentious. The forces opposed to light rail were very vocal. They were adamant that Utahns, unused to using transit, would not ride light-rail. They have been proved wrong. Ridership is far greater than even the most optimistic projections. And, in a rather karmic moment, one of the most vocal opponents of light rail – who said she would only ride light-rail when her cold, dead fingers were pried from her car’s steering wheel – was cited a year after light rail was in operation for riding without a ticket. Because of the light rail successes, the very conservative voters in our region have voted for sales tax increases for transit and are now clamoring for light-rail spurs to be built in their communities.” (from

    So EOS, when you decide to ride, buy a ticket or you may end up as negative publicity for your own cause. ;-) — PS And please leave that assault rife home, OK?

  33. Technojunkie
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Things I like:
    1) People on trains means fewer people on roads, so even if you never use the train you’ll have a slightly less aggravating drive on the corresponding highways.

    2) Starting small and ignoring the inefficiencies in order to gain experience before going all-out and rail networking the rest of the state makes some sense. Otherwise, buses would be a lot cheaper.

    1) Starting small means that if you miss your train you’re in for a long wait or an expensive cab ride. Pouring some of that magic stimulus money that President Obama is conjuring out of thin air into a dedicated commuter track from the start would make the trains more useful. I was going to say that the new track could be leased to the freight carriers if the plan fails but light rail track wouldn’t be of much use to heavy rail freight. When FedEx started they went all-out and bet that customers would respond. Anything less wouldn’t have worked.

    2) A competently run commuter train would encourage high-density development along the track… if Michigan were growing instead of depopulating. I’m cool with development, I just don’t see demand for it unless we do something radical like pass the plan.

  34. Technojunkie
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    On second thought, if you’re going to build new track you might as well build two parallel tracks, one for eastbound trains and one for west, and now we’re getting really expensive. Nice if the feds are dumb enough to give us the money but otherwise, yes, starting with the relatively inexpensive kludge approach is probably the only option. I’m just worried that it won’t be enough to work well and it’ll kill commuter rail in Michigan. I like to overengineer things though.

    Has anyone looked at the Dallas metro light rail network? It looks like it’s done everything that rail proponents say such systems should, including economic growth. It helps that Dallas-Fort Worth is not Detroit though and Texas’ economy is in far better shape than Michigan’s.

  35. EOS
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    Wake Up –
    The trains will need to be subsidized IN ADDITION TO THE ROADS. If the highway trust fund is already running out of money, how can you justify an additional 10 million dollars a year operating costs for 4 trains a day? Amtrak is already running a passenger train on the very same tracks at a huge expense to taxpayers. There’s years of experience to provide evidence of very little demand for passenger trains. No one is blocking persons from choosing Amtrak.

    I’m starting to think the whole train idea has been cooked up by the Friends of the Freighthouse to get some of Obama’s free money giveaway to restore the Saturday morning meeting place for coffee and donuts. We can fund passenger trains on freight tracks for a few years to confirm previously established results and $100 million dollars later we’ll have a nice warm room for donuts for the next twenty years or so.

  36. Sirsi
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Just wondering if there has been any discussion about having Royal Oak as a stop for this proposed commuter train. I got a wonderful job in AA recently but as many others, cannot sell my house to move closer. I commute with several others in the area and we would love to take the rail to work instead. From what it sounds like now, my closest point to pick up the train would be to drive to downtown Detroit where parking is just as bad as AA (unless they have adequate and secure parking built). Lots of good discussion. I love the light rail idea as well which I use when visiting family in Utah. Thanks.

  37. E. G. Penet
    Posted April 8, 2009 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    If they extend the Woodward light rail up to Pontiac … you may get your wish.

5 Trackbacks

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  5. […] the East – West commuter rail line that’s supposed to connect Ann Arbor and Detroit, with stops in Ypsi and Dearborn? Remember how the Governor said that it will happen before October […]

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